The Religion of Benjamin Franklin

Lost month I read Walter Isaacson’s amazing biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  I enjoyed that book so much that I went out and bought a copy Franklin’s own Autobiography, which is even better.  In addition to reading about Franklin’s life in his own words, the Autobiography provides fascinating insights into Franklin’s religion.  Today, many people would have you believe that the Founders were a group of super-powered politicians-slash-evangelical-Christians, but Franklin’s own words prove that false, like this statement: “My indiscrete disputations about religion began to make me pointed at with horror by good people as an infidel or atheist.”  Just imagine a modern politician saying that!

Franklin discusses not only his early religious education, but also his evolving views on the truth and utility of religion.  His beliefs were pretty simple, as you can read below, though they were still more complex than either freethinkers or Christians would have you believe.

For example, Franklin wrote that, like most children, he hated Sundays. “I contrived to be in the printing-house alone, evading as much as I could the common attendance on public worship which my father used to exact of me.”  And, again like most children, Franklin experienced his first doubts as a teen. “My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way.  But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. . . I soon became a thorough Deist . . . [but] I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho’ it might be true, was  not very useful.”

But he developed that doubt into a surprisingly practical system of belief. He rejected the dogmas of all religions, but he did believe that, although untrue, religion could be useful if it could promote good citizenship and behavior.

“Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; but I entertain’d an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably those actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.”

“I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and thou’ some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of god, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles.  I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion . . . I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another . . . Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted . . . I was now and then prevail’d on to [attend Sunday sermons] . . .I might have continued . . . but [the pastor’s] discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.”

We can then summarize Franklin’s beliefs with a single statement that he repeats throughout his Autobiography: “The most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.

Franklin then proposed his own articles of belief, as well as a book of secular wisdom that he argued would promote good behavior better than any religion. “I should have called my book The Art of Virtue, because it would have shown the means and manner of obtaining virtue, which would have distinguished it from the mere exhortation to be good, that does not instruct and indicate the means, but is like the apostle’s man of verbal charity, who only without showing to the naked and hungry how or where they might get clothes or victuals, exhorted them to be fed and clothed. — James 2:15-16.”

Thus, Franklin believed that religion, like science, should have a practical use.  And if there’s still any doubt that he was the super-hero Evangelical Christian the Religious Right would have you believe, there’s this statement.  When Franklin offered his house to a visiting preacher and friend, the man “reply’d, that if I made that kind offer for Christ’s sake, I should not miss of a reward.  And I returned, ‘Don’t let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.'”

And perhaps the best line:  After learning that a member of a new religious sect, the Dunkers, would not publish the tenants of his new faith because he admitted that those tenants were still evolving, Franklin wrote:

“This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man traveling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them.”

Lets hear Obama or Romney say that!


One thought on “The Religion of Benjamin Franklin

  1. Pingback: From Franklin to . . . Bachmann. Sigh. | darwinbookcats

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