Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father by Thomas S. Kidd

Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father

Renowned as a printer, scientist, and diplomat, Benjamin Franklin also published more works on religious topics than any other eighteenth-century American layperson. Born to Boston Puritans, by his teenage years Franklin had abandoned the exclusive Christian faith of his family and embraced deism. But Franklin, as a man of faith, was far more complex than the “thorough dei...

Title:Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father
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ISBN:0300217498
Number of Pages:256 pages

Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father Reviews

  • George Paul

    In 1787, the Constitutional Convention found itself bogged down over the issue of representation. Small states wanted equal representation in the national legislature. Large states wanted proportional representation. The dispute seemed irresolvable, and if it could not be resolved, the young American nation itself might not survive.

    Benjamin Franklin — America’s gray eminence, Pennsylvania’s delegate — proposed to solve the impasse by means of daily prayer, reasoning this way:

    In 1787, the Constitutional Convention found itself bogged down over the issue of representation. Small states wanted equal representation in the national legislature. Large states wanted proportional representation. The dispute seemed irresolvable, and if it could not be resolved, the young American nation itself might not survive.

    Benjamin Franklin — America’s gray eminence, Pennsylvania’s delegate — proposed to solve the impasse by means of daily prayer, reasoning this way:

    Franklin’s proposal was defeated handily. “The Convention,” Franklin wrote, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

    This episode, from near the end of Franklin’s life, reveals several things about Franklin’s mature religious beliefs, not to mention the influence of religion on the American founding. Like other Founding Fathers — George Washington especially comes to mind — Franklin believed that God providentially ordered world events, particularly the formation of the United States of America. His public rhetoric was shot through with biblical imagery. And he believed in the social usefulness of religion for republican government; hence, the call to prayer.

    And yet, these mature religious beliefs, though sincere, were neither orthodox nor evangelical, a fact demonstrated in depth by Thomas S. Kidd in his recently published

    . Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston to devout Puritans who raised him and his siblings in the doctrines of evangelical Calvinism. In his teenage years, under the influence of skeptical writings by Lord Shaftesbury and Anthony Collins, he left that faith and became, in his own words, “a thorough deist.”

    Unfortunately, the word

    conjures up the image of a clockmaker god who winds up the universe then leaves it alone. That does not accurately describe Franklin’s mature belief, however. Deists of that stripe, to point out the obvious, do not issue the kind of plea for prayers Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention.

    “The key to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent religion,” Kidd writes, “is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint of his childhood Calvinism.” To be sure, Franklin was skeptical of orthodox Christology (i.e., the Incarnation) and evangelical soteriology (i.e., justification by faith). He was consistent on these points throughout his adult life, though he expressed the scope and intensity of his skepticism at different times and in various ways. What mattered to him more than what one

    was how one

    .

    This moralism was not atheism, however. Five weeks before he died, in a letter dated March 9, 1790, Franklin described his creed to Yale’s Ezra Stiles, an evangelical Christian, this way:

    Not nothing, religiously speaking, but not fully Christian either.

    Franklin’s Calvinist rearing no doubt influenced his religious beliefs. Most obviously, it gave him a biblical idiom in which to express himself. Less obviously, warm relationships with evangelical Christians such as his sister Jane Mecom, evangelist George Whitefield, and others moderated his skeptical tone and made him appreciative of evangelicals’ good works. Throughout his life, these evangelicals pleaded with him to put his faith in Jesus, but at the end, all he would say is this: “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.” Again, not nothing, but not Christianity.

    Franklin’s ambivalent religion points to an important truth about the role of religion in America’s founding. Many evangelical Christians think of America as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. This is not a new belief, and it is not entirely wrong. From the start of the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay and all the way to the present day, America has been a nation of self-professed Christians. Protestant political theology exercised tremendous influence on the American colonists; the Bible suffused their public rhetoric, and established churches shaped their public piety. In the 19th century, due to waves of revival, evangelical Christianity became the

    established religion of the new nation.

    And yet, alongside this Christianity sits something less than Christian. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, we might call it non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism. It is a peculiarly American faith. Shaped by Christianity, but not Christian. Sounding like the Bible, but not biblical. This was Franklin’s faith, and the faith of other Founders too, such as Thomas Jefferson. When we query the role of religion in the American founding, we must take this non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism into account, for it was present and it was influential. This was the reason why, for example, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson described God in generic terms — “Nature’s God”— rather than specifically biblical ones.

    This truth about the role of religion in America’s founding generates two points of application for evangelical Christians, in my opinion. First, we must recognize that the American experiment is a joint venture, not a sole proprietorship. Yes, orthodox and evangelical Christians played an important role in the establishment of America. They did not play the only role, however.  Alongside them and sometimes in conflict with them, theists of a non-Christian variety exercised influence on the development of our nation. Benjamin Franklin is proof of that

    (In fairness, the same reminder needs to be issued to skeptical Americans today who deny Christians a role in the Founding. Not only were they present and influential, but atheists played no role. Even the radically skeptical Thomas Paine argued for the necessity of belief in God, after all.)

    Second, given the foregoing point, it behooves orthodox and evangelical Christians to be more mindful of political rhetoric. Invocations of God — whether in American history or at the present time — are not necessarily invocations of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Too often, we read our Christian convictions

    the theological pronouncements of the Founders, which means we

    read them. By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

     

    Thomas S. Kidd,

    (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

    P.S. I wrote this review for

    . It appears here by permission.

    P.P.S. If you found my review helpful,

    .

  • Tom

    Here we have another masterful work from Thomas Kidd. While Franklin was grounded in New England Puritanism and his friendship with evangelist George Whitefield, in the end Franklin believed virtue and doing good where what pleased God, a rejection of his Calvinist roots. In the end, Kidd make his point that Franklin was a believer in "doctrineless, moralized Christianity."

    One Amazon reviewer seemed to want to pick a fight with Kidd about Franklin's involvement with the Masons, doing a lot of se

    Here we have another masterful work from Thomas Kidd. While Franklin was grounded in New England Puritanism and his friendship with evangelist George Whitefield, in the end Franklin believed virtue and doing good where what pleased God, a rejection of his Calvinist roots. In the end, Kidd make his point that Franklin was a believer in "doctrineless, moralized Christianity."

    One Amazon reviewer seemed to want to pick a fight with Kidd about Franklin's involvement with the Masons, doing a lot of self righteous chest thumping about it. Fooey!

    A work worthy of your consideration.

  • Sean Nemecek

    This book is thoroughly reasearched and skilfully written. The author is careful to let the writings of Franklin speak for themselves. He does insert some comment for clarity or to remind the reader of earlier ideas, but he doesn't insert himself into the narrative. I look forward to reading more books by Thomas S. Kidd.

    Franklin's spiritual beliefs are not easily categorized. His Calvinistic Christian upbringing is always in the background as Franklin sometimes embraces it and other times reacts

    This book is thoroughly reasearched and skilfully written. The author is careful to let the writings of Franklin speak for themselves. He does insert some comment for clarity or to remind the reader of earlier ideas, but he doesn't insert himself into the narrative. I look forward to reading more books by Thomas S. Kidd.

    Franklin's spiritual beliefs are not easily categorized. His Calvinistic Christian upbringing is always in the background as Franklin sometimes embraces it and other times reacts against it. He prefers to trusr his own rational abilities over claims of revelation from God. This leads Franklin to reject some of the most basic teachings of Christianity like the deity of Christ and most of the miracles. His reasoning on the problem of evil drives much of what believes about God and how humans relate to him. Unfortunately, this reasoning doesn't match the Bible, causing him to reject the Christian view of salvation. In the end this quasi-deist trusts his own good works to save him believing that God would never punish a good man. He completely misses the holiness of God and the gravity of sin. This theology is the driving force behind Franklin's legendary work ethic.

    Franklin's uses his rationality to explain away his lustful passions. His infadelity to his wife and his pursuit of women half his age, are creepy to say the least.

    The interactions between evangelist George Whitfield and Franklin are intriguing. I am amazed that he could hold Whitfield in such high esteem yet reject the love of Christ which was at the core of Whitfield's very existence.

    I gained a deep appreciation for Frainklin the scientist and diplomat but lost a lot of respect for him as a philosopher and as a man.

    It's a sad story of Franklin's religious life but it worth reading.

  • Noah

    Lots of fun. Kidd seems to have found the happy (and scholarly) medium between the those who want to claim Franklin as an evangelical and those who want to claim him as a New-Atheist-before-it-was-cool.

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