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by Aaron Sharp

Americans today are very familiar with the image of Franklin and his importance to the founding of the United States. As an author, publisher, thinker, politician, inventor and statesman, Franklin’s contributions to American life, culture and thinking are all but impossible to calculate.

Despite the fact that Franklin’s parents had, in his words, “brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way,” he would also recall that, “I was scarce 15, 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.”

By the time that George Whitefield stepped foot in America in the late 1730s, Franklin had an illegitimate son, a common-law marriage to a woman named Deborah Reed, and was beginning to develop a reputation as a womanizer.

By the time Whitefield made his second trip to America in 1739, the Anglican preacher was a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet Whitefield’s childhood had done little to predict a famous religious celebrity – his father passed away when he was two, and he described himself as a child as, “so brutish as to hate instruction and used purposely to shun all opportunities of receiving it. I soon gave pregnant proofs of an impudent temper. Lying, filthy talking and foolish jesting, I was much addicted to, even when very young. Sometimes I used to curse, if not swear. Stealing from my mother I thought no theft at all, and used to make no scruple of taking money out of her pockets before she was up. I have frequently betrayed my trust, and have more than once spent money I took in the house in buying fruit, tarts, &c., to satisfy my sensual appetite. Numbers of Sabbaths have I broken, and generally used to behave myself very irreverently in God’s sanctuary. Much money have I spent in plays, and in the common amusements of the age. Cards and reading romances were my heart’s delight.”

Yet Whitefield had grown up to help found the Methodist movement and had been largely responsible for beginning the movement that would become known as the First Great Awakening.

Whitefield’s trip to America in 1739 was heralded by the press of the American colonies, not the least of which was the Pennsylvania Gazette, owned and operated by Benjamin Franklin.

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George Whitefield

Whitefield, a young, blue-eyed evangelist, just shy of 25 years of age, had scarcely set foot in the colonies before he went to work on one of his first projects in the new world – an orphanage for the colony of Georgia. In fact, the same November an issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette that heralded the coming of the famous preacher also contained an advertisement of a sale that would be held at Whitefield’s house of “Goods: Being the Benefactions of Charitable People In England, towards Building an Orphan-House In Georgia.”

Franklin described his opinion of the problems in this most southern of British colonies, “The settlement of that province had lately been begun, but, instead of being made with hardy, industrious husbandmen, accustomed to labor, the only people fit for such an enterprise, it was with families of broken shop-keepers and other insolvent debtors, many of indolent and idle habits, taken out of the jails, who, being set down in the woods, unqualified for clearing land, and unable to endure the hardships of a new settlement, perished in numbers, leaving many helpless children unprovided for.”

These two giants of the 18th century agreed on the need to do something about the orphans of Georgia, but they disagreed about the solution.

Whitefield wrote to Harman Verelst, accountant for the Georgia Trustees, in 1740 explaining his plan, “The building of this Orphan House I find will be of great service to the colony in general. It prevents many leaving the place and I believe will be an encouragement for others to come over.”

The trustees of Georgia might have been pleased with the reverend’s designs, but Franklin was not. In his autobiography, written near the end of his life, Franklin recalled his feelings on the matter, “I did not disapprove of the design, but, as Georgia was then destitute of materials and workmen, and it was proposed to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here, and brought the children to it.”

Franklin advised Whitefield of his thoughts on the orphanage, but Whitefield, for his own reasons, ignored Franklin’s judgment and went ahead as planned. His wisdom spurned, Franklin attended an open-air sermon for which Whitefield was so famous, resolute in his determination not to donate any funds towards the project when a collection was taken.

Soon, however, his fortitude weakened, “I silently resolved he should get nothing from me, I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”

The man who grew up a Puritan and became a Deist, and the ruffian who became a staunch Calvinist were both interested in putting the written sermons of Whitefield down on paper. Whitefield saw in publishing another avenue by which he might continue to promote the gospel, and Franklin saw an opportunity to sell more subscriptions and so he was only too happy to oblige.

As one historian put it, the net result of the joint publishing venture was that, “Franklin made money, Whitefield gained souls, and the two men became friends.”

There’s much, much more to this fascinating story, which you’ll find here.

Aaron Sharp is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and is a freelance writer from Little Elm, Texas.

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