Benjamin Franklin’s Faith

I’ve just picked up Moral Minority by Brooke Allen (2006), a book with a simple thesis: The United States, insists Allen, “was not founded on Christian principles.” The bulk of this fairly brief, well-written book is devoted to an examination of the religious views of six of the principle leaders creating the US Constitution: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton.

I’ve read only the chapter on Franklin, so I cannot yet write a review or assess the author’s success in making her point. Having read the chapter on Franklin, however, I just can’t wait to put some of my response to words.

She accurately states that Benjamin Franklin was an adherent of no particular religion, noting especially that he claimed to have doubts about the divinity of Jesus Christ and had no interest in making a decision about the matter. So we can easily agree with her that Franklin was not a Christian.

On the other hand, as Allen notes, Franklin wrote, “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. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all. . .” Allen fails to note that for Franklin, the phrase “every religion” meant, as he often says elsewhere, every “sect” or, as we would say today, every denomination. There is no clue whatsoever that he was thinking of any religion other than or in addition to Christianity.

Allen includes a delightful parable Franklin told in speaking positively of the Dunkers openness to learning, growing, even adapting its doctrines in evolving circumstances. “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 a much in the fog as any of them.” Franklin is commending religious humility, something quite rare in his day.

Late in his life he wrote a private letter to answer a question put to him by a friend. He writes of his basic beliefs in a way quite like what he had written earlier.  “Here is my creed,” he said. “I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped [sic]. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. that the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treat3d with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them. As for Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his 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; though it is a question that I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

Allen also does us a good service in noting that Franklin’s parents had left England because of religious persecution. The were dissenters in a time when that took great courage because many like them were persecuted, jailed, sometimes even killed. It must have been a family of great faith.

A weakness in this chapter is that the author asserts Franklin’s unity with European Enlightenment thinkers while giving us scant information to back up her claim that “Franklin, like Washington and Jefferson, really owed more of his ethical and moral code to the classical writers, and in particular to the Stoics and Epicureans, than he did to the tenets of Christianity.”

Instead she offers a great many quotes to suggest that Franklin was greatly dissatisfied with all the religion he saw around him. She probably wouldn’t care much for my response as an Evangelical Christian: I sincerely hope that I, a follower of Jesus Christ, would have felt exactly and precisely the same way Franklin did about the various expressions of faith that surrounded him. He was right!

And she might not appreciate that my conclusion, based on prior knowledge and reinforced by this chapter, is that Franklin is very clear and very honest about the fact that his fundamental values were learned not just from the Stoics, not just from the Enlightenment, but mostly from Christianity. His criticisms of the churches he saw were that they seemed not to be very. . ., well, I think we have to say, not to be very Christian.

Or do we think he learned from atheists that there is one God, creator of the universe, governing by his providence, worthy of worship, and holding us accountable for loving one another?

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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