The Almighty and Ben Franklin

Editor’s note: This book was slated to be reviewed by Leslie G. Rubin (1954-2017). I took over the assignment and dedicate this review to her memory. Leslie’s book, America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class, will be published in March.  

What was the state of Benjamin Franklin’s soul? Thomas S. Kidd attempts to address this question.

Franklin was the most performative of the Founders, so the Baylor University historian has his work cut out for him. A title such as Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father could suggest a famous skeptic turning out to be a more fervent believer than we thought. That isn’t really Kidd’s bottom line, though. This round-up of everything the great journalist, politician, benefactor, diplomat, constitutional delegate, scientist, and inventor ever said about the Almighty leaves us with as complicated and elusive a Franklin as we had before. But it does put into sharp relief that this man of affairs, the pragmatist par excellence, paid constant attention to the spiritual and moral aspects of life.

As discussed previously in this space, being a practical idealist may seem paradoxical but it is uniquely American. One of the earliest, most striking, and most important examples of the combination is Benjamin Franklin—which explains how he could be styled “the first American” in H.W. Brands’s bestselling biography of a few years ago. Franklin was fascinated throughout his life with “applied Christianity,” to use Kidd’s phrase. The best Christian, by Franklin’s lights, was one who found ways to do good for others.

As an editor and printer, Franklin loved controversy and got involved in many theological disputes. But the various personae through which he delivered his musings about God and faith (among them Silence Dogood, Poor Richard, Philoclerus, even the Franklin who narrates the Autobiography) leave many ambiguities. The “Letter of the Drum,” for example, was published anonymously in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1730. Kidd says that it “satirized people’s gullibility about the supernatural,” and that it is attributed to Franklin—who also wrote a pseudonymous letter in response to the original letter. The Gazette was his newspaper, after all, and he was in charge of boosting its readership with compelling content centered on the issues of the day.

Kidd caps the episode with this parenthetical comment: “(It is difficult to follow the logic because Franklin is the author of both letters, one satire, and the other a criticism of satire. Neither is written in Franklin’s own voice. What position, we wonder, does Franklin actually take?)”

In other places in the book, he is more definitive. “Franklin’s Christianity was the religion of the enlightened individual,” he writes. He also says Franklin reacted against the stern orthodoxy of his Calvinist parents, which turned him toward deism, though not as radical a version as that embraced by his revolutionary ally Thomas Paine.

Kidd also happens to have written a life of George Whitefield, the wildly popular English evangelist who visited the colonies frequently, and who was instrumental in the Great Awakening. The friendship between Whitefield and Franklin is brought up a lot, and is said to have “tempered Franklin’s outspokenness against traditional faith.” There was “something about Whitefield’s preaching” that “helped Franklin stay tethered to the faith of his youth, even if he resisted embracing all of Whitefield’s doctrines.”

Franklin was one of Whitefield’s major promoters on this side of the Atlantic. “The new evangelical movement, to which Franklin was one of the prime suppliers of books,” helped him become the colonial version of a media mogul. Indeed Kidd does not shy from acknowledging the personal advantages to Franklin from forming an alliance with a revivalist with whom he disagreed about the main point of being a Christian. Evangelicals and reformers like Whitefield criticized “works-righteousness” as detracting from the importance of salvation through faith, whereas Franklin—the unrelenting author of works of various kinds that benefitted, and continue to benefit, humanity—tended to downplay the divinity of Christ and the infallibility of revelation. The two men did agree in being wary of organized religion as potentially breeding corruption, but that was about it.

Not just Whitefield but one of Franklin’s siblings, his evangelical sister Jane Mecom, his protégé in electrical experimentation, the Unitarian pastor Joseph Priestley, and Richard Price, a dissenting minister whom Franklin met in London while serving as the colonial agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly—all four worried about the fact that Franklin was not saved, and showed few signs of wanting to be. Price wished that Franklin shared with him “the animating hopes of a resurrection” to a life everlasting.

In short, this was a pragmatist who used religion pragmatically, as when, in the late 1740s, he wrote what Kidd calls a “Puritanesque” warning to his fellow Pennsylvanians. He was trying to persuade them to set aside Quaker pacifism and form a militia to fend off the aggressions of the French and their Indian allies. Kidd objects to Franklin’s “playing on colonists’ religious and racial trepidations.” (The campaign to recruit the militia was, however, a smashing success.)

Throughout the book, the facts are reported in a way that suggests self-interest on Franklin’s part, and I mean the quintessentially American kind, which is to say self-interest rightly understood. Kidd seems averse to tackling this subject head on but it is implicit in the narrative, as when he observes: “Franklin did not support Christ Church’s steeple merely to enhance the church’s visibility. It would make the church one of the highest structures in the city [of Philadelphia]—and a promising site for more electrical experiments.”

What the author seems to want to do, at least at certain points, is argue for an ever-more-religiously-convinced Franklin, one who showed a “growing openness to God’s active Providence” as his life went on. Excerpts from Franklin’s correspondence during the Revolutionary War suggest a desire to at least entertain the possibility of heaven and hell, with condign punishment for those who committed cruel acts of violence during that conflict. There are just too many stumbling blocks, however, to fully establishing this idea. Kidd refrains from pushing too hard on it. Late in the book he continues to describe Franklin as a deist.

To be sure, Franklin was arguably the most morally earnest deist ever, with his checklist of 13 virtues—the “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection” that he was unable to complete, but that he summarized in the Autobiography. What Kidd calls his “continuing desire for an action-oriented, up-to-date version of Christianity” led Franklin to propose his own version of the Bible. He hoped it might calm the sectarian conflicts of his time and encourage good behavior in all who read it. The well-meaning quality of Franklinian Christianity comes through clearly even if this Founding Father’s religious life, in the spiritual sense, is only notionally sketched out.