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Benjamin Franklin

In 2016 I published an article in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography proving that Benjamin Franklin shared all the most important beliefs of the Christian deists.  (I have posted the full article at Academia.edu.)   I particularly analyzed Franklin’s longest religious writings, the ones he wrote in 1735 in defense of the Reverend Samuel Hemphill.  Hemphill was a minister who preached liberal Protestant theology that was much more akin to Franklin’s deism than was the usual preaching at Presbyterian churches.   Franklin defended Hemphill in four tracts he wrote in 1735.  I explain all this in much more detail in the article, but here I have posted the parts of the article that are focused solely on Franklin’s religious beliefs.

 

 

Understanding Franklin’s Christian deism starts by realizing that he considered himself a Christian. He wrote, “I am conscious I believe in Christ, and exert my best Endeavours to understand his Will aright, and strictly to follow it.” Furthermore, Franklin saw himself as part of the Christian community. He referred to “us Christians,” and “My Brethren of the Laity.” Moreover, he talked of “our common King Jesus,” and he considered the Protestant Reformation as “our happy Reformation from Popery and religious Slavery.”[1]

                  Franklin agreed with other Christian deists that it was in the nature of ministers and priests to desire power and authority and to teach doctrines that perverted true Christianity. Franklin contended that the clergy make “exorbitant Claims to Power & Authority” and that “the Generality of the Clergy were always too fond of Power to quit their Pretensions to it.”[2] Franklin was full of vitriol in attacking the ministers who were judging Hemphill. He called these clergy “Rev. Asses,” full of “contemptible Stupidity” who “propagate Doctrines tending to promote Enthusiasm, Demonism, & Immorality in the World.”[3]

                  Because priests and ministers wanted power, lay people, Franklin believed, could not trust their priests or ministers’ interpretations of Christianity. Like other Christian deists, Franklin emphasized that individuals had to use their faculties of reason to examine traditional religious beliefs. Franklin thought religious prejudices formed by education and custom were deeply ingrained, and he praised people who could interrogate their religious convictions. In a tract solely concerned with the need to question religious training, he wrote, “how glorious a Conquest they make, when they shake off all manner of Prejudice, and bring themselves to think freely, fairly, and honestly. This is to think and act like Men.”[4]

Franklin emphasized reason, although it is not clear if he agreed with the other Christian deists that humans had innate ideas of morality. He did not mention inherent ideas in the Hemphill writings. In an essay written in 1732, however, he said that simplicity was “innate and original” to human nature, and in the essay he either identified or came very close to identifying simplicity with honesty, virtue, and goodness.[5] Moreover, in another essay written in 1732, he accepted or seemed close to accepting that humans have a moral sense implanted in them by God.[6] Finally, at the height of the Hemphill controversy, Franklin reprinted the James Pitt essay “A Philosophical Enquiry int the Summum Bonum , or Chief Good of Man” that defended [RM1] the idea that God implanted natural moral standards in humans.[7] This essay declared that people could as easily distinguish good from evil as light from dark or a cube from a square. [cl2] It also argued that following these natural, God-given ideas of right and wrong was the same as being taught by God. Therefore, Franklin, at least in 1735, most likely agreed with Pitt and the other Christians deists that humans had a moral standard implanted in them by God.[cl3] 

Franklin, similar to other Christian deists, thought human reason had not been perverted in the Fall. Franklin also believed God sent Jesus to help humanity, but, like did not think it was important to specify Jesus’s exact nature. While he rejected many other traditional Christian doctrines, Franklin wrote nothing in the Hemphill tracts about the doctrine of the Trinity. These tracts do, however, imply he saw Jesus as divine. Franklin stated that “God sent his son into the world,” suggesting an otherworldly origin. In a similar, but complicated passage, Franklin asserted that Jesus “came from Heaven,” again implying Jesus was in heaven before he was born.[8]

                  Franklin believed that Jesus taught everything Christians needed to believe and that these teachings were natural religion. Franklin contended, unlike the more orthodox Christians who also emphasized Paul’s epistles, that “Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Mankind, elsewhere gives us a full and comprehensive View of the Whole of our Religion, and of the main End and Design of the Christian scheme. ”[9] Franklin agreed that Jesus taught only piety and virtue. He insisted that Jesus taught a

 full and comprehensive View of the Whole of our Religion, and of the main End and Design of the Christian scheme, when he says, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy Soul, and with all thy Mind, and thy Neighbour, as thy self. and [sic] he plainly tells us, that these are the most necessary and essential parts of God’s Law, when he adds, on these two Commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.[10]

Franklin believed Jesus’s commands to his followers to love God and their neighbors was “a full and comprehensive View” of Christianity and that doing this was enough to be rewarded in the next life. Franklin declared that Jesus came into the world “to promote the Practice of Piety, Goodness, Virtue, and Universal Righteousness . . . and by these Means to make us happy here and hereafter.”[11]

Franklin privileged natural religion’s emphasis on fairness and benevolence, and thus reinterpreted or rejected any passages in the Bible that were not consistent with natural religion. Franklin reinterpreted passages of the Bible dealing with faith in much the same way other Christian deists did.[12] He was more forthright than some, however, in rejecting outright some biblical passages, such as those that supported the doctrine of original sin. The doctrine of original sin could not be true, Franklin insisted, because it was “arbitrary, unjust and cruel.” This meant it was “contrary to Reason and to the Nature and Perfections of the Almighty God.” It was also “contrary to a thousand other Declarations of the same holy Scriptures.” Franklin even proclaimed the doctrine of original sin was the “teaching of Demonism” and that any scriptural passage advocating the doctrine of original sin could not be genuine. Even “if there was such a Text of Scripture” that advocated original sin, he elaborated, “for my own Part, I should not in the least hesitate to say, that it could not be genuine, being so evidently contrary to Reason and the Nature of Things.”[13] Franklin also rejected the doctrine that only Christians were saved because the idea God would damn people to hell who had never heard of Christianity was “utterly impossible to reconcile . . . with the Idea of a good and just God; and is a most dreadful and shocking Reflection upon the Almighty.” He finally advised the judges of Hemphill, who were preaching traditional Presbyterian doctrines, “to take the utmost Care of saying any thing, or interpreting Scripture after a Manner injurious to the infinite Justice, Goodness and Mercy of God, and contradictory to Reason.”[14]

Franklin focused his 1735 tracts on defending Hemphill from the judges’ charges and so had no reason to discuss miracles in these tracts. In an essay written a few years earlier, however, Franklin said he believed in miracles. In this essay, entitled “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World,” Franklin maintained that God “sometimes interferes by his particular Providence” and performed miracles. Furthermore, he assumed a deity who did not perform miracles was not worthy of the name. He pronounced a deity who “never alters or interrupts” the course of nature “has nothing to do; he can cause us neither Good nor Harm; he is no more to be regarded than a lifeless Image.”[15]

In his 1735 tracts, Franklin declared that God was responsible for other supernatural activities besides miracles. He believed that some people were blessed with the gifts of the Holy Ghost in apostolic times, asserting “the Apostles, or to those Pastors who in the Apostolical Times were endued [sic] with the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.”[16] Franklin also believed the New Testament was the Christian revelation. In one place he stressed that “the surest way to find out the End and Design of the Christian Revelation, or what View the Author of it had in coming into the World, is, to consult the Revelation itself.” In another passage, Franklin pronounced that the principles of loving God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself were “Revelations the Almighty has made to Mankind.”[17]

Franklin agreed with other Christian deists that humans had a duty to worship God and promote the goodness of others. He affirmed that natural Religion “oblige[s] us to the highest Degrees of Love to God, and in consequence of this Love to our almighty Maker, to pay him all the Homage, Worship and Adoration we are capable of.” Because of this love of God, Franklin thought, people should “do good Offices to, and promote the general Welfare and Happiness of our Fellow-creatures.”[18]

                  In his 1735 writings defending the Reverend Hemphill, Franklin emphasized reason and morality like other deists.  He also claimed to be a Christian and passionately advocated for his view of Christianity.  These are the hallmarks of Christian deism and show that Franklin was a Christian deist at this time.[RM4] 

 

Franklin’s Later Religious Beliefs

Shortly before he died, Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles describing his religious views. At this time, Franklin reaffirmed his agreement with the most important Christian deist beliefs he advocated in 1735.[19]

Franklin still had a special place for Jesus in his religious outlook. He professed, “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see.” Franklin still did not concern himself with Jesus’s exact nature, merely commenting that he had “some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it.”

Unlike in 1735, Franklin did not viciously attack priests and ministers for having corrupted Christianity. Instead, he moderated his critique, just claiming it had “received various corrupting Changes.”

Franklin also continued to emphasize that one’s moral conduct determined one’s status in the next life. He maintained, “the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.” He believed that people were not saved by faith or by being part of the Christian church or by performing any ritual but were rewarded due to their conduct in life.

Further, Franklin maintained humankind’s obligation to worship God. He stressed that God existed and that “he ought to be worshipped.” As before, he argued that the best service a person could do for God was to help other people, noting that “the most acceptable Service we can render to him [God], is doing Good to his other Children.”

Finally, Franklin showed that he did not care about traditional Christian doctrines. He first mentioned his creed contained a few basic doctrines of natural religion such as God existed and we ought to worship him.  Then Franklin proclaimed, “These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion.”  He did not include in his creed any exclusively Christian doctrines.

While Franklin did not mention miracles in his letter to Stiles, in a letter written in 1784, he was sure God did miracles to help the Americans win the Revolutionary War.[20]

 

[1] Franklin, Letter to a Friend, 22, 23, iv, 14, 12.

[2] Franklin, Letter to a Friend, 7, iv.

[3] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 31, 41, 18.

[4] Franklin, Letter to a Friend, iii.

[5] Franklin, “Dialogue between Two Presbyterians,” Pennsylvania Gazette, Apr. 6–13, 1732.

[6] Franklin, “To the Printer of the Gazette,” Pennsylvania Gazette, Nov. 23–30, 1732.

[7] Franklin,  “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Summum Bonum, or Chief Good of Man,” Pennsylvania Gazette, July 17–24, 1735.

[8] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 36, 37.

[9] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 19–20.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 20.

[12] Franklin, “Dialogue between Two Presbyterians,” Pennsylvania Gazette, Apr. 3–10, 1735, 3, col. 1.

[13] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 32–33.

[14] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 39, 38, 33, 40.

[15] Franklin, “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World,” [1732], in PBF, 2:264–69, http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp?vol=1&page=264a.

[16] Franklin, Letter to a Friend, 20.

[17] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 19, 20.

[18] Franklin, Defence of Hemphill’s Observations, 20–21.

[19] Benjamin Franklin, letter to Ezra Stiles, Mar. 9, 1790, unpublished, available at http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp.

[20] Benjamin Franklin, letter to William Strahan, Aug. 19, 1784, unpublished, available at http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp.


 [RM1]Name the essay

 [cl2]Repetitive—you said this above.

 [cl3]Weak sentence—can you rephrase this more actively?

 [RM4]Somewhat abrupt summary.

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