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New Light on Benjamin Franklin’s Religious Views

23 Feb 2016, Posted by Founding Franklin in The Franklin You Thought You Knew

New Light on Benjamin Franklin’s Religious Views

I am often asked, while in the person of Benjamin Franklin, what Franklin’s religious views were. I have written on this topic briefly in a previous blog, but a new assessment of those views by a scholar has recently come to my attention. Dr. Joseph Waligore, of the University of Wisconsin, has a most interesting article in the January, 2016 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. In that article, Waligore identifies Franklin with a group who called themselves Christian Deists, a predominately English group. While Franklin did not call himself by that name, he did publish and endorse the writings of some of those men.

Franklin has long been termed a Deist by scholars, mostly based on ideas he espoused while in his late teens and early twenties, in which he called himself a Deist. At that time, he stated that God was too far removed to be concerned with mortal man. Of course, if we were all judged by things we said and believed as teens, many of us would be unemployable and possibly under constant surveillance by government authorities. It would seem as ridiculous for scholars to judge a man’s theology based on such early views. In the article “The Christian Deist Writings of Benjamin Franklin,” Waligore shows a Benjamin Franklin as a much more mature thinker. In fact, he goes on to demonstrate that the core of Franklin’s beliefs throughout the rest of his life is consistent with what he wrote in 1735, at the age of 29. In these writings, Franklin was defending a Reverend Hemphill, a Presbyterian minister, who was being tried for heresy. Let’s look at what this article says about the Christian Deist theology.

First, and foremost, these Christian Deists rejected a complex theological system. They espoused a natural religion, saying that man was capable of knowing right from wrong, and that this is the true basis of the teachings of Jesus. Morality and piety are the hallmarks of true Christianity, they say, and such teachings as predestination, salvation by faith and sacraments are corruptions by clergy over the centuries. They do not reject intervention by God in human affairs, nor the miracles of Jesus, nor did Franklin. This rejection of doctrine and sacrament was, of course, still considered heresy by both Catholic and Protestant churches in the eighteenth century. My summation of this system is not complete, but Franklin did not swallow it whole either; but his theology can be summed up, according to what he wrote, as reason, innate understanding of morality (possibly instilled in us by the creator) and a non-judgmental treatment of religious seekers.

When Franklin made the case to the Brillon family in Paris for his grandson Temple as a husband for the Brillons’ daughter, they objected on the basis of religion. They were Catholic, he was Protestant. Franklin spoke in terms of a simile. He said true religion was like a parcel, wrapped in colorful paper, and tied with colorful string. That parcel, good religion, consisted of just a few elements: first, there existed a Creator of the world; second, this was a benevolent Creator, who cared for His creation; third, He ought to be worshipped and served; fourth, our best way of serving God was to serve our fellow man; and lastly, virtue would be rewarded and vice punished, in this life or the next. This is the parcel, all the rest is the paper and the string.

Franklin spoke again about religion while in Paris, and used an allegory of a dream.

He described a man, Montour, on his deathbed. A priest came, and instructed him to prepare his soul for death. Montour stated that he was ready. He described a dream that he had had the previous night. He was at the gate of Heaven, waiting in line for St. Peter. Peter would ask each person what his religion was. The first said, “I am Catholic”. “Come in, sit with the Catholics.” The next said, “I am Presbyterian”. “Come, sit with the Presbyterians.” Another said, “I am a Hebrew”. “Come, sit with the Hebrews”. When Montour was asked “What is your religion?”, he replied, “Alas, I have none.” “Very well”, replied Peter, “You may sit anywhere you like.”

These writings of Franklin are the best expressions of his religious beliefs. We can speculate all we want, but a man must be judged by his own words. Benjamin Franklin’s theology was a product of a devoutly religious upbringing, and later of the Enlightenment. Most of all, it was a product of one of the most impressive minds of the age.

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