Continuing with this series on the religious beliefs of some of the more debated Founders, we continue with Benjamin Franklin with this portion from my new book, “Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders”:
Benjamin Franklin also spoke highly of Christianity while making clear that he did not always agree with some of the doctrines of particular denominations (though he rarely specified which ones). He encouraged his daughter, “Be a good girl, and don’t forget your Catechise. Go constantly to meeting – or church … and live like a Christian.”Because he was not part of a particular denomination, some doubted whether he was a Christian or even if he believed in God. Franklin was quick to correct them:
I am so far from thinking that God is not to be worshipped, that I have composed and wrote a whole book of devotions for my own use; and I imagine there are few if any in the world so weak as to imagine that the little good we can do here can merit so vast a reward hereafter. There are some things in your New England doctrine and worship, which I do not agree with; but I do not therefore condemn them, or desire to shake your belief or practice of them.
The young Franklin summed up his religious beliefs in nearly the exact same way he did as an old man many years later:
That there is one God, Father of the Universe. That he is infinitely good, powerful, and wise. That he is omnipresent. That he ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving both in public and private. That he loves such of his creatures as love and do good to others: and will reward them either in this world or hereafter. That men’s minds do not die with their bodies, but are made more happy or miserable after this life according to their actions. That virtuous men ought to league together to strengthen the interest of virtue in the world: and so strengthen themselves in virtue. That knowledge and learning is to be cultivated and ignorance dissipated. That none but the virtuous are wise. That man’s perfection is in virtue.
In his “Autobiography,” he not only affirmed his belief in a non-deistic God, but in the essential connection between religion and morality, as well as his distaste for divisive religion:
I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity, that he made the world and governed 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 esteemed the essentials of every religion, and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respect them all, though with different degrees of respect as I found them more or less mixed with other articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, served principally to divide us and make unfriendly to one another.
He once lamented, “How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few His precepts! O tis easier to keep holidays than commandments!” Like Adams and Jefferson, Franklin had no use for religion that only argued about doctrines and carried out rituals but didn’t produce some good in the world, which he believed was the essential point of Christ’s message:
The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it: 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 filled with flatteries and compliments despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. The worship of God is a duty, the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth leaves, though it never produced any fruit.
Franklin believed that Jesus had more regard “for the heretical but charitable Samaritan” than for “the uncharitable though orthodox priest and sanctified Levite” (see Luke 10:25–37), and “thought much less of these outward appearances and professions than many of his modern disciples. He preferred the doers of the Word to the mere hearers” (see James 1:22). In response to some of his family members who were concerned about the state of his soul, Franklin responded not by appealing to secular arguments, but like many of the other Founders, to the Bible, which he called “that excellent book.” “I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue; and the Scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined for what we thought, but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said Lord! Lord! but that we did good to our fellow creatures. See Matthew 25.”
Rather than feeling any sense of disgust for Christianity, Franklin was in fact very much appreciative of Christianity and its influence in society. His writings throughout his life were, like the rest of the Founders’, full of biblical allusions, appeals to the example of Christ, and citations of the Bible in support of morality and virtue. For example, in the 1730s he wrote an article in the local newspaper encouraging people to visit the sick during a plague in Philadelphia:
The great Author of our Faith, whose life should be the constant object of our imitation, as far as it is not inimitable, always showed the greatest compassion and regard for the sick. … This branch of Christian charity seems essential to the true spirit of Christianity, and it should be extended to all in general, whether deserving or undeserving, as far as our power reaches. … [we] have opportunity enough of exercising that humane and Christian virtue which teaches a tender regard for the afflicted.
At the end of his life, when asked by the president of Yale what his beliefs about Jesus and Christianity in general were, Franklin summed them up this way:
As to Jesus of Nazareth … 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 … I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed … All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my goodwill in assisting them with subscriptions for building their new places of worship. And, as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.
In other words, Franklin, like several of the most prominent Founders, could not easily be put into a box – he was both an enthusiastic admirer of Jesus and a devout supporter of religion, and Christianity in general (with money and time, not just words). At the same time, he was not particularly concerned about what he saw as abstract Christian doctrines that had little effect on the practice of virtue in society, and about which he harbored doubts as to their accurate transmission through the ages.
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