The Unique Religion of Benjamin Franklin
Some have said that he was not a Christian and others have claimed that he was an atheist, occultist or mystic. However, a careful reading of Franklin’s writings leads us to conclude that he simply did not believe that the organized religions of his time fully represented the omnipotent power, majesty or wisdom of the great Creator. There is no doubt that Franklin was a religious man. His religion just didn’t conform to the orthodox views of his day. He did not participate in public worship services but endorsed and promoted the churches around him with his influence. In many ways, his religion was unique to him, formulated early in his life and refined with age and experience. His emphasis on seeking moral perfection, developing virtues and in doing good to all men constitute the heart and soul of his very practical religion. Clearly, based on the results of his life, he had a great understanding of how religion should work for a man.
One of the best sources to help us understand the religious views of Benjamin Franklin is his own autobiography, mostly written when he was 65 and added to some 13 years later. He wrote that he “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” (McQuade et al 215). That’s quite the creed. Just one month before his death in 1790, he wrote to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale University, and offered a similar creed. “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this” (Franklin Papers v46 p400).
It is obvious that Benjamin Franklin had a strong faith in God as the source of morality and goodness of man. He constantly acknowledged the hand of God in the affairs of men and gave God credit for his happiness and success in life (McQuade et al 185). He was a strong advocate of prayer to God, invoking the blessings of heaven upon his efforts to seek moral perfection. “And conceiving God to be the Fountain of Wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his Assistance for obtaining it; to this End I form’d the following little Prayer … for daily Use (McQuade et al 219). He then recited the prayer for us. In addition, it is well known that Franklin requested that prayer be a part of the proceedings during a critical impasse of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. “I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” (Franklin Papers v45 p77) However, his motion for prayer did not carry.
While it is certain that Franklin was no dogmatist, it is just as clear that a driving force in his life was the pursuit of virtue. He wrote extensively about it in his autobiography. In a sense, this search for moral perfection was his religion, and one that he readily admitted was elusive. He considered it a “bold and arduous Project” to develop these virtues which he first enumerated when he was still young. He obviously still felt that it was a worthy enterprise as it wrote about it glowingly in part two of his autobiography, written at age 78. At one time he had hoped to expand his extensive comments about the “Means and Manner of obtaining virtue” into a book. He proposed to call it the Art of Virtue, but his intentions were never fulfilled. However, he left enough thoughts on the subject in his autobiography that many others have used his ideas to better their own lives and some have even written their own books and formulated improvement programs based on his writing. Almost all of Part Two of his autobiography was dedicated to the explanation of how he pursued virtue, the difficulties he encountered in attempting to dedicate these virtues to habit and his satisfaction of seeing his faults diminish.
As he wrote, “But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell short of it, yet I was by the Endevour a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it …” (McQuade et al 220). He shared his list of virtues with his son and encouraged him to also follow their pursuit. The story he relates of how he added the thirteenth virtue of humility to his list has been endearing to readers through the years. “I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it …” (McQuade et al 222). Although it has been over 200 years since he wrote these words, we get a sense that Franklin was much more humble than he led us to believe. It was this character trait that allowed him to be so persuasive in uniting others around him to his causes. He was not a threat to men and wanted only to unite them in the cause of doing good.
At the end of the Constitutional Convention, after the reading of his impassioned speech in which he used his persuasive powers to urge the delegates to sign the document, he watched in disappointment as some delegates still refused to sign. While the majority was signing it, he watched and commented that it was always difficult for painters to show the difference between the rising sun and the setting sun. He said that during the convention he had often looked at the painted sun on the back of the President’s chair and wondered "...whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun" (Madison 763). A lady, identified as a Mrs. Powel, asked Dr. Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” — ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it’” (McHenry 618). Franklin emphasized that the new republic could survive only if the people were virtuous. He is also reported to have said on that occasion that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
The word virtue to Franklin signified so much more than we may ascribe to it today. He worked his whole life to acquire virtue, as he defined it for us in his autobiography (McQuade et al 216). He described his list of virtues in terms that could be applicable to an individual of any religion or no religious beliefs at all. He did, however, in adding the thirteenth virtue, suggest the path to obtain humility was to imitate Jesus and Socrates. Much is made in modern times of Franklin’s stated opinion of Jesus. From this quote most people draw the conclusion that he was not a Christian: “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” (Franklin Papers v46 p400). As he wrote this one month before he died, he said that he would soon find out for himself as to the validity of the claims of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.
As noted, Franklin considered himself a Deist, although not in the same vein as Thomas Paine who openly mocked Christianity. Franklin made it clear that he did not believe the true Church of Jesus Christ was to be found on the earth at that time. He noted the hypocrisy that he found among some who claimed to be religionists as a major reason for his decision to not attend public worship services. He clearly taught us that true religion means doing good to all men. Indeed, he retired from his business pursuits at age 42 and devoted the second half of his life to that very purpose. While he rejected much of the Puritan dogma of salvation and hell, he very much demonstrated the Puritan faith in God as the wellspring of morality and goodness in men. He believed that part of his purpose in life was to improve himself by hard work, diligence and his own efforts. In other words, he believed that it was up to him to make something of his own life. By almost all accounts, he did so admirably. Benjamin Franklin was by far one of the most admired men at the time of his death as evidenced by the 20,000 people who attended his funeral and all the ministers of the city of Philadelphia who walked arm in arm to his graveside.
By no means should we assume that Franklin perfected his moral character in his mortal life. It is clear that he was unable to adhere to the list of virtues he espoused by his own efforts. At one time he advised us to wary of wine, women, food and the cloth (fine clothes), and yet he was known to indulge in all of them. He drank too much, ate too much (and had gout), flirted and dressed well. Yet, he gave so much to the founding of this nation and was a statesman extraordinaire. Without his efforts, this nation might have been a very different place. He became the powerful and so very influential man that he was not so much by the practice of religious behaviors or religiosity but by the practical application of the virtues that he defined early in his life. His religion served him well and made him the man that he was. He was a reasonable man. He thought things out and let his reasoning powers guide his actions, unhampered by the prevailing religious dogma.
Franklin rejected dogma and much of the religious doctrine of his day. His was a God of ethics, morality and civic virtue. Because of his persuasive skills in helping to craft compromise, he was on occasion known as the prophet of tolerance. His political influence was an extension of his religion, with the intention to do good works and help others to do so. Later in his life he returned to a belief that organized religion could help to meet those aims of doing good. His pragmatic view was that without such organized communities, men will not be motivated to do good things on their own (Isaacson 46). His pragmatic ways also exhibited themselves when he said that he would soon know for himself concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ as he very much believed in an afterlife. In other words, he expected to be able to ask him directly. For a man who was not hobbled by the hand-clasping and soul-searching anxiety of some within the Puritan community, it did not seem to me that he rejected Jesus Christ as some have claimed. He was just waiting for someone to introduce him properly.
It is my view that Franklin’s life was well spent in the service of his fellow man, something that was appreciated during his lifetime and that ensured him a great legacy that lives on today. He did not worry himself about religious arguments that led to fruitless bickering among those who simply did not know how to live their lives in a manner that Jesus taught – to go about doing good things for others. I think Franklin was a wise man in his religious views. He did not offend and encouraged all with his generous contributions to the building of their churches and helping to publish their sermons. I suspect that Franklin was amply rewarded when he entered the afterlife. He was certain that God wanted him to be moral and virtuous. He pursued that life and exhibited it by his actions. It’s too bad that some today are insistent on proclaiming that our founding fathers were not religious men. It is obvious to anyone who studies his life that Franklin was very religious, and in a very real way. We would do well to follow his example and live our religions that way he lived his in service.
McQuade, Donald, et al, eds. The Harper Single Volume American Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 1999
Franklin Papers. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, digital edition, Yale University.
14 April 2010 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp
Madison, James. Journal of the Federal Convention, ed. E. H. Scott, p. 763, 1893. Notes at the closing of the Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 17, 1787.
McHenry, Dr. James. The American Historical Review, vol. 11. New York: 1906.
Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin - An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.