Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Benjamin Franklin: A Jesus-centered Deist

In light of the recent discussion on the religious creed of Benjamin Franklin, and the recent book reviews by guest blogger Robert Cornwall, I thought I would add my 10 cents to the discussion by creating this post. As Jon Rowe has already mentioned in his previous post, Franklin, for the most part, considered himself to be a "rational Christian." Yet, throughout the course of his life, Franklin was repeatedly labeled as a "heretic," "Deist," "agnostic," etc.

Certainly the impact of Enlightenment philosophy led Franklin down diverse paths in the development of his own personal religions creed. Yet the impact of Enlightenment philosophy only tells part of the story when it comes to Franklin’s religious beliefs. After all, Franklin was raised in a very religious family, where his father, Josiah, – upon immigrating to the British colonies in America – rose to the status of a “watchman” within the Puritan community of Boston, where he enforced the strict rules of morality and piety of the colony. Josiah even planned to have Benjamin enrolled in the Boston Latin School, where he hoped his son would begin his preparations for the Congregationalist ministry (Founding Faith, 53). Benjamin, however, had different plans. As Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson points out, “Franklin’s ‘skeptical, punkish and irreverent’ behavior made him a terrible fit for the clergy” (Benjamin Franklin, 19). Later during his teenage years – while pretending to be a widowed woman named Silence Dogood – Franklin would expound upon his “rebellious” sentiments towards religion. In Silence Dogood #9, Franklin states:
'Tis not inconsistent with Charity to distrust a Religious Man in Power, tho' he may be a good Man; he has many Temptations "to propagate publick Destruction for Personal Advantages and Security": And if his Natural Temper be covetous, and his Actions often contradict his pious Discourse, we may with great Reason conclude, that he has some other Design in his Religion besides barely getting to Heaven. But the most dangerous Hypocrite in a Common-Wealth, is one who <>A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his Religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law: And here the Clergy are in great Danger of being deceiv'd, and the People of being deceiv'd by the Clergy, until the Monster arrives to such Power and Wealth, that he is out of the reach of both, and can oppress the People without their own blind Assistance. And it is a sad Observation, that when the People too late see their Error, yet the Clergy still persist in their Encomiums on the Hypocrite; and when he happens to die for the Good of his Country, without leaving behind him the Memory of one good Action, he shall be sure to have his Funeral Sermon stuff'd with Pious Expressions which he dropt at such a Time, and at such a Place, and on such an Occasion; than which nothing can be more prejudicial to the Interest of Religion, nor indeed to the Memory of the Person deceas'd. The Reason of this Blindness in the Clergy is, because they are honourably supported (as they ought to be) by their People, and see nor feel nothing of the Oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else.
Upon revealing the true identity of Silence Dogood, Franklin was quickly branded a dangerous and rebellious heretic. Those within Boston’s religious community – including Franklin’s friend, Cotton Mather – distanced themselves from the young man who dared to question the religious status quo. As Franklin put it, “My indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist” (Franklin, Autobiography, 71).
After moving away from Boston and establishing himself as a successful printer in Philadelphia, Franklin continued his attack on pious religious leaders, who used their faith to control their flock. As Franklin states in one edition of his popular series, Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful…Nor is duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.” In another edition Franklin wrote, "Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought easier service and therefore is more generally chosen."

With such an early assortment of controversial statements on religion, it is understandable why some people have considered Franklin to be an agnostic or even possibly an atheist. Such a conclusion, however, obscures much of Franklin’s passionate belief in virtue and divinity. For example, though Franklin questioned the authority of the pious ministers of his day, he never doubted the importance of living a virtuous life. Instead of devoting himself to a particular brand of orthodoxy, Franklin chose to invoke the “laws of nature” – a typical Deist principle of his day – which became the backbone of his views on divinity. Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues are a perfect example of how Franklin merged Christian principles with his Deistic philosophy:
1. Temperance. Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ'd in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extreams. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Cloaths or Habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
In addition to this personal code of conduct, Franklin sought to “amend” a number of Christian creeds and beliefs. His version of the Lord’s Prayer is an excellent example of how Franklin stripped the miracles of Christianity from his personal liturgy.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of Franklin’s personal beliefs comes from his infamous letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790. In the letter, Franklin states:

You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. 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; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble [my emphasis].
Franklin's Deistic leanings are augmented when we consider the fact that he not only questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ – as evidenced by the Ezra Stiles letter – but that he also questioned the infallibility of the Bible. The fact that he also rejected the ordinances of communion and confirmation, combined with his lack of regular church attendance serve as ample evidence that Franklin was far from an orthodox Christian. Franklin’s own admission that he was “a thorough Deist” virtually ends the dispute over his religious leanings (Franklin, Autobiography, 114).

Such an admission, however, does not suggest that Franklin was a pure Deist. After all, Franklin did believe that God regularly intervened in the affairs of mankind (Holmes, Founding Faith, 55). Franklin also maintained an appreciation for the teachings of Christianity, though he detested how it was being practiced:

I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen. I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers...[Jesus] preferred the doers of the word, to the mere hearers...Serving God is doing good to man...Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means" (Quoted in Waldman, Founding Faith, 20-21).
So where should we classify Franklin? From the evidence noted, it is clear that he does not fall anywhere near orthodox Christianity, yet he also falls short of embracing pure Deism. Clearly Franklin is closer to Deism than he is Christianity, so it would be fair to categorize his religious beliefs as being those of a "liberal Deist," or as I choose to define him, a "Jesus-centered Deist."


bpabbott said...

Brad: "Franklin, for the most part, considered himself to be a "rational Christian." Yet, throughout the course of his life, Franklin was repeatedly labeled as a "heretic," "Deist," "agnostic," etc."

Today many would label Franklin as an "elitist" ... as if being ignorant and deficient was preferred to being informed and intelligent.

Ed Hird said...

Benjamin Franklin was a very complicated individual who defies easy categories: http://bit.ly/GlT9z

Ed Hird+ said...

Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable impact in so many ways, including his views on faith. A Benjamin Franklin article just received the ‘Top 100 Electricity Blogs’ Award http://bit.ly/z8Ckp