What about Franklin?

Benjamin Franklin's proposed this depiction for the national seal in 1776.

Benjamin Franklin’s proposed this depiction for the national seal in 1776.

Scholars regularly assert that America’s Founders were deists who desired the strict separation of church and state.

Frank Lambert, for example, writes that “the significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” Similarly, his fellow historian Richard Hughes claims “most of the American founders embraced some form of Deism, not historically orthodox Christianity.” Although many more examples could be given, I’ll close by quoting law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, who contends that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic . . . . [The] founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.”[1]

These claims are strong and sweeping, but there is virtually no evidence to support them. Each of these authors, like other writers who make assertions of this nature, consider the views of only a handful of Founders—usually some combination of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine, plus one or two others. All were great men, but their religious views are not representative of the Founding generation. And in many cases, authors hoping to find a rational and secular Founding distort their religious convictions.

For an undistorted view of Washington, for example, see the fourth post in this Law and Liberty series on participants in the Founding-era debates over religious liberty and church-state relations. There’s little reason to believe that he, or that Madison or Hamilton, rejected a single important tenet of orthodox Christianity, much less that any of these men embraced deism. What about Franklin, then? This fifth instalment examines the views of the man who is considered to be one of the most skeptical Founders.

Benjamin Franklin, born into a Calvinist family in Boston in 1706, rejected his parents’ beliefs at an early age. Indeed, in his first British sojourn he seems to have abandoned Christianity altogether, as evidenced by his pamphlet A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity (1725). In it, he argued, among other things, that “vice and virtue were empty distinctions.” Yet almost immediately he regretted penning the work, and he later called it an “erratum.”

Franklin noted in his autobiography that as a young man he became a “thorough deist.” But after he penned these words, he recorded his regret that the arguments he had made in favor of deism “perverted” some of his friends. He then reflected that “the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me thro’ this dangerous time of youth.”

Alan Wolfe has written that deists believe that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs.”[2] According to this common definition, Franklin would seem not to be a deist, as he recognized the possibility that the “kind hand of Providence” protected him. If this were his only reference to the Almighty’s intervention in human affairs, we might simply ignore it. But as Thomas S. Kidd demonstrates in Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, Franklin never quite “escaped” his parents’ belief that “God governs the affairs of men.”[3]

Franklin’s most famous reference to God’s providence occurred at the Constitutional Convention, when he attempted to convince his colleagues that they should invite ministers to open the proceedings in prayer. Franklin was the oldest member of that body, so it is noteworthy that he observed that

the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probably that an empire can rise without his notice. We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it.” (Emphasis in original.)

It is always possible that Franklin was not being serious when he referred to God’s providence, but he did so regularly, in settings both public and private. At a minimum, there are very good reasons for concluding that he was not a deist—at least as the term is usually defined. Of course this does not mean he was an orthodox Christian. Again, quoting from his famous autobiography, he delineated his core religious convictions this way:

That there is one God, who made all things.

That He governs the world by his providence.

That He ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving.

But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.

That the soul is immortal.

And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.

Noticeably missing from this list is any mention of distinctive Christian doctrines concerning, for example, the trinity, incarnation, or atonement. After his youthful dalliance with radical religious ideas, Franklin seems to have adopted a “reasonable” version of Christianity wherein the Creator rewards virtue, punishes vice, and intervenes in human affairs. He questioned or rejected parts of the Bible that he found unreasonable, but he knew it well and used it to great effect in his polemical writings.

Here are two examples. When, in 1747, Franklin launched a campaign to encourage Pennsylvania’s leaders to fund the militia, he reminded his readers that God provided us with the Bible “for our reproof, instruction and warning” and that His word clearly requires rulers to defend their subjects—by military force, if necessary. Similarly, when he wrote an appeal to fund a hospital in 1751, he could think of no better place to start than Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 25:36 that “I was sick and ye visited me.”

Franklin was not an orthodox Christian, but those who did not know him well could be excused if they missed this fact. After 1730, he kept his skeptical views from the general public, rented a pew at Philadelphia’s Christ Church, utilized Scripture in his public rhetoric, and was friends with the evangelist George Whitefield. These actions may tell us more about American political culture in the 18th century than about Franklin’s inner convictions, and they suggest that it is a mistake to generalize from his private views to those of the Founding.

What about Franklin’s views on religious liberty and church state relations? Like virtually all of the Founders, he embraced a robust understanding of religious liberty. Unlike some of them, he believed religious freedom precluded religious tests for public office. And he objected to religious establishments because he thought they corrupted the church.

But he did not advocate a strict separation between church and state. For instance, in 1747, he drafted a fast day proclamation for the Pennsylvania governors’ council. Later, when he was serving in the Second Continental Congress, he proposed that the nation adopt as its seal the image of “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh.” And he suggested that the country’s motto be “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

Contrary to some scholars, it is actually quite easy to overstate the “significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it.” This is true even for the handful of elite Founders regularly referenced by such writers, and if one expands the constellation of Founders to include men and women such as Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, Charles Carroll, John Jay, Patrick Henry, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Elias Boudinot, John Dickinson, William Paterson, and Samuel Adams, it becomes impossible to maintain this fiction.

[1] Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton University Press, 2003), 161; Richard Hughes, Myths America Lives By (University of Illinois Press, 2003), 50; and Geoffrey R. Stone, “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?” University of California Law Review 56 (October 2008), 7-8. I provide more examples of such claims, and examine the evidence for them in greater detail, in Mark David Hall, “Were Any of the Founders Deists?” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Politics in the U.S., edited by Barbara A. McGraw (Wiley Blackwell Publishing, 2016), 51-63.

[2] Alan Wolfe, review of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes, New York Times Review of Books, May 7, 2006.

[3] My review of Kidd’s book on Franklin, from which several paragraphs of this post were drawn, will be published in Education and Culture: A Critical Review.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 31, 2017 at 09:18:18 am

Even when discussing Washington's Letter to the Touro Synagogue, one must consider that he was only promising that the Federal Government would not get involved in restricting their rights. This was appropriate because the State of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations was founded by Roger Williams on the basis of Freedom of Religion; the letter might have been worded differently if that Synagogue had been in Massachussetts, and it was being besieged by the local authorities.

However, Washington was not necessarily promising that that right would be incorporated, Do keep in mind, however, that if we were to revert to the previous, pre-incorporation practice in some states of Establishment at the State level, nothing would stop California, for instance, from establishing Atheism or Agnosticism as the State Religion, and thus extinguishing any claims to freedom of conscience based on appeals to any Deity.

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on May 31, 2017 at 12:49:24 pm

Regarding the non-Christian AND non-deist beliefs of the so-called "elite" founders, I like Gregg Frazer's "The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders."

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Image of John Schmeeckle
John Schmeeckle
on May 31, 2017 at 19:50:55 pm

As the author suggests, the opinions of the revolutionary generation derived more from the English experience between 1628-60 than the Enlightenment.

The sort of Calvinist religious unorthodoxy exhibited by Paine, Franklin, Adams and Jefferson was quite common amongst 17th English radical republican revolutionaries like John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas and William Rainborowe (John Winthrop's brothers-in-law at the end of life) and many, many others. It is someting of truism that rationalist and biblical literalist Calvinists often become Unitarians or Deists.

The Puritan Revolution also invites us to notice the similarity between the present day administrative law and the Stuart perogative and eccleastical courts that operated independent of the common law. Ending those courts was one of the early acts of the Long Parliament.

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Image of EK
on June 01, 2017 at 15:04:25 pm

The claim that deism rejected divine intervention is really stretching things a bit. There were (and still are) many deists who did not (and do not) reject the involvement in the Divine Hand in human affairs. More generally deists believe in a single God but reject the idea of living dieties (such as Jesus) and reject the idea that some folks have a direct line to God.

The rise of deism by many of the Founders was probably a natural consequence of rejecting the divine authority of the English King. Good Christians were more likely to be submissive to a christian King.

Deism also struck a political chord because it limited the interpretation of christian doctrine to a simpler discussion of God and some kind of vague divine presence. This approach to religion no doubt smoothed over some social differences that revolved around different interpretations of christian doctrine, and thereby helped bind the people through a common minimalist faith while at the same time minimizing the friction found in specificity of interpretations.

Just as the deist Lincoln studied and used biblical and religious knowledge to support his political agenda, I'm sure a Franklin and company did likewise.

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Scott Amorian
on June 01, 2017 at 16:07:54 pm

Just one more quick note and then back to work for me ...

I prefer Jefferson's standard of deism. He writes to Dr Rush of Jesus and the Jews in 1803:

"Their system was Deism; that is, the belief of one only God. But their ideas of him & of his attributes were degrading & injurious."

He adds later:

"He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government."

This was, of course, in the context of reducing Jesus to a moral philosopher, not a living deity. To Jefferson, deism was more akin to monotheism.

I prefer Jefferson's broader understanding of deism to that of Alan Wolfe's limited one, so Unitarians--such as John Adams--would also fall under the umbrella of deism.

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Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian

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