Although in his Autobiography Benjamin Franklin claims that at a young age he “became a thorough Deist” (1359), Franklin saw God as much more than a blind watchmaker. Among his frequent references to practicality, reason, and the value of experimental science, Franklin’s metaphysical beliefs easily get lost, especially as he distances himself theologically from colonial Christian doctrines. It becomes convenient but incorrect to let Franklin’s “virtue” stand apart from his religious beliefs. Franklin maintained a firm belief, however, in “a Being of infinite Wisdom, Goodness and Power” , a God who by “providence” acts frequently in the world, a power who could and would suspend deterministic natural laws at will. Deism, “tho’ it might be true, was not very useful” to the young Franklin (1359). Specifically, a purely deterministic view of a God-created universe was absurd and useless precisely because it would require God to blind himself (“On the Providence of God in the Government of the World,” Franklin’s God is useful first because he chooses “to help and favour us” via divine intervention .
Franklin’s God is useful, second, because he inspires us to perform our own good actions. Primarily these good actions arise out of thanksgiving to God. While Franklin believes that these good actions procure God’s favor in that God loves those of us who “do good to others” , Franklin recognizes that most of his countrymen would not agree with this formulation of theology, a kind of streamlined, doctrine-free Christianity in which the question of Christ’s divinity makes no difference. As a result, in his writings Franklin tends to stress the usefulness of virtue and virtuous deeds apart from any mention of theology. He elevates to the level of doctrine “That Virtuous Men ought to league together to strengthen the Interest of Virtue, in the World” , thus placing virtue in the context of a human community which both encourages it and exercises it.
Indeed Franklin’s theology claims God’s favor not for those with right beliefs, but for those with right actions. He asserts that God prefers “Doers of the Word to the meer Hearers” . His proof-text is Matthew 7:16-27, especially verse 26: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” . In a letter to his parents, he paraphrases “that at the last Day, we shall not be examin’d by what we thought, but what we did; namely GOOD to our Fellow Creatures” . In fact he goes so far as to suggest that “A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian.”
How Many Observe Christ’s Birth-day
Just as Franklin is able to incorporate Christ without colonial Christianity into his religion, he is able to incorporate Scripture without commandment. Again, from the perspective of his Autobiography, he notes that while he had not followed God’s laws merely because they were rules (and possibly arbitrary ones), he nevertheless found the laws to accord with reason. Whether an act is forbidden or expected by God comes naturally out of the act’s inherent badness or goodness for man . Franklin uses this idea also in Poor Richard 1739, adding the terms “sin” and “duty.” Franklin’s religion is comfortable with both the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, one informing the other, and reason informing both.
It is to this concordance of faith and reason with which I conclude, by focusing on a self-described turning point in Franklin’s religious and moral life: his adoption of his own “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion” in 1728 (a kind of liturgy, 83 ff.). In his Autobiography, he writes of his disgust with the preaching of doctrine rather than virtue, his abandonment of Presbyterianism, and the cessation of his church attendance. To replace these, Franklin simultaneously, or within a short span of time—it is nearly a continuous thought in Part Two of the Autobiography, and collapsed into one sentence in Part Three—adopted both the “Articles of Belief” and a plan for “moral Perfection”. Even in his book of virtues, he includes prayers to God and verses on God’s goodness . Franklin seems to have used the same liturgy throughout his life (e.g., he refers to it in a letter in 1743, p. 427); he remembers it twice at age 78 and 82 in the Autobiography, at the very end of his life. What we remember is the moral perfectionism, the book of virtues with its careful system, but we wrongly neglect its twin, the new religion that Franklin carved out for himself.
- Benjamin Franklin, Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay (New York: Library of America, 1987), Poor Richard’s Almanack 1740, p. 1218. Further references to Lemay’s volume appear within parentheses.
- For example, “That Men’s Minds do not die with their Bodies, but [persist] after this Life, “Doctrine to be Preached,” 179.
- He repeats this trio of attributes as late as 1771 in his Autobiography, not to dispute them but to dispute his earlier conclusion that they showed that God had created a perfect world (1359, where he claims that recognizing a human ability to choose virtue over vice, had propelled him toward moral perfectionism).
- “Providence” for Franklin means neither a supernatural provision of what goods man ought to provide for himself (cf. the letter to John Franklin, pp. 428-29: if it comes to sacking a town, better to depend on works than faith), nor that very human providence by which we provide for ourselves (and to which Franklin very frequently exhorts us), but simply any act of God in the world. God acts separately from the “universal Chain of Causes”; this is providence (Poor Richard 1734, p. 1189). When an event seems like mere fortune, Franklin pronounces it providence. See, tellingly, Franklin’s changing of “Fortune” to “Providence” at one point in his Autobiography (Lemay’s note at p. 1558). At the beginning of the Autobiography, however, Franklin also uses “providence” in the more standard sense of God’s giving of good things, for which he thanks God (1308).
- Hence Franklin writes as doctrine that God may reward us in this very world (“Doctrine to be Preached,” 179).
- This is the more familiar aspect of Franklin’s God, on which the value of the virtues rests. Cf. John 15:9-17.
- The connection is made clear in Franklin’s book of virtues (quoted in the Autobiography, p. 1388): “O Powerful Goodness! . . . Accept my kind Offices to thy other Children, as the only Return in my Power for thy continual Favours to me.” (To the establishment of this little book I return below.) It is again made clear much later, in a letter to Joseph Huey in 1753: in response to “numberless Mercies from God . . . I can only show my Gratitude . . . by a Readiness to help his other Children” (475). Cf. also “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania,” p. 342, n. 3: “Doing Good to Men is the only Service of God in our Power; and to imitate his Beneficence is to glorify him,” and Poor Richard 1747, “What is Serving God? ‘Tis doing Good to Man,” p. 1241. Elsewhere, Franklin further counsels adoration and prayer in addition to thanksgiving, as other acts of worship (“Doctrine to be Preached,” 179).
- At the same time, in Franklin’s theology these actions cannot merit Heaven itself (he describes Heaven as an infinite, eternal happiness), which is infinitely beyond our ability to merit (letter to Joseph Huey in 1753, p. 475; he makes the same point in a letter to his sister in 1743, p. 427).
- Franklin goes so far as to claim salvation (i.e., Heaven; see above) for those who have followed Christ’s example “tho’ they never heard of his Name” (476; my emphasis). Further, Franklin downplays doctrine and all “metaphysical Reasonings,” including his own, as subject to error via a host of human weaknesses, including youth, custom, and education. Thus great humility in one’s theological opinions, which counsels very wide religious toleration, is eminently reasonable and practical (Autobiography 1359; a letter in 1738, p. 425; a letter to Thomas Hopkinson(?) in 1746, p. 435; Poor Richard 1757, p. 1291). For an example of the kind of theologizing that Franklin is discrediting, see his own “Letter from Theophilus, Relating to the Divine Prescience,” pp. 290-91. “Many a long dispute among Divines may be thus abridg’d, It is so: It is not so. It is so; It is not so,” Poor Richard 1743 (1230).
- A third usefulness of Franklin’s God is that he is outlined broadly enough, in a theology general enough, that Franklin can claim him as the basis for all true religion, one which always puts a premium on virtue (e.g., Autobiography, p. 1382).
- In this same letter to Huey, Franklin goes on to give examples from Scripture of Christ’s actions and parables in this regard. Franklin comes out here as a proponent of faith, though he laments that its exercise does not often enough result in good works: “I mean real good Works, Works of Kindness, Charity, Mercy, and Publick Spirit; not Holiday-keeping, Sermon-Reading or Hearing, performing Church Ceremonies, or making long Prayers, fill’d with Flatteries and Compliments, [and not so] capable of pleasing the Deity. The Worship of God is a Duty, the hearing and reading of Sermons may be useful; but if Men [do also no good deeds], it is as if a Tree should value itself on being water’d and putting forth Leaves, tho’ it never produc’d any Fruit.” He says just about the same in a letter to his sister, p. 427, in which he again quotes Mt. 7:16, etc., that one judges someone’s goodness by his good fruits; again in “Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians” pp. 256-57 and likewise on p. 258; and in “Compassion and Regard for the Sick,” pp. 169-70, where charity is proposed to be the true spirit of Christianity.
- Not Matthew 26, as Franklin incorrectly writes to his parents (426; Lemay does not note the error). See also Luke 6:43-49. The letter also quotes a couple of words from Matthew 7:22.
- See footnote 9. Cf. Matthew 7:16-23; Luke 6:43-46; John 15:9-17: those who live fruitfully will be saved, while those who merely use God’s name in vain and do no good works, will be rejected.
- This is suggested by “S,” the more Socratic Presbyterian who seems to speak Franklin’s mind, in “Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians,” p. 261. Suggested as proof is a verse such as Matthew 9:13, that some people are righteous and in no need of Christ (though this is contrary to the usual Christian exegesis of the verse, in which Christ’s coming is precisely to counter Franklin’s and S’s kind of pride!). Franklin uses the same verse with the same purpose in his letter to Joseph Huey, p. 476.
- Poor Richard 1737, p. 1205; Poor Richard 1743, p. 1230.
- Several important aspects of or nuances about Franklin’s religion to 1757 have been left out due to space constraints: “Silence Dogood” on hypocrites and putting the Law above the Gospel, p. 27 (cf. acting in fear of the law rather than for the love of God, “Timothy Wagstaff,” p. 54); Franklin’s struggles with pride (cf. his visit to the old woman who confessed her vain thoughts every day, p. 1350); argument by design; the necessity of a public religion and a religious character among citizens—especially Christianity—but apart from superstition, and its relation to education, pp. 336-37 (and cf. also Poor Richard 1757 p. 1294 and his remark on Boyle, p. 1250); and religious toleration in the Junto, p. 207 (cf. Franklin’s support of all manner of religious construction projects, and his support for Whitefield).