Ben Franklin is a monumental figure in American history. But what should we make of his faith? The Center for Faith and Culture recently hosted Thomas Kidd, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, for an evening lecture on “The Enigma of Ben Franklin’s Faith.”
Watch the lecture above, or read an excerpt below.
What did Franklin believe?
“Who was this Franklin of Philadelphia, and what did he believe? In our minds’ eye, the man seems ingenious, mischievous and enigmatic. His journalistic, scientific and political achievements are clear. But what of Ben Franklin’s religion? Was Franklin defined by his youthful embrace of deism? His longtime friendship with George Whitfield, the most influential evangelist of the 18th century? His work with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and its invocations to the creator and to nature and nature’s God? Or his solitary insistence on prayer at the [Constitutional] Convention?
“When you add Franklin’s propensity for joking about serious matters, he becomes even more difficult to pin down. Regarding Franklin’s chameleon-like religion, John Adams remarked that
The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic, the church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the friends believed him a wet Quaker. [Which is a Quaker who drinks.]
“The key, I think, to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent faith is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint his childhood Calvinism. The intense piety of his parents acted as a tether, restraining Franklin’s skepticism. As a teenager, yes, he abandoned his parents’ Puritan beliefs. But that same traditional faith kept him from getting too far away. He would stretch his moral and doctrinal tether to a breaking point by the end of a youthful sojourn he made to London. But when he returned to Philadelphia in 1776, he resolved to conform more closely to his parents’ ethical code. He steered away from extreme deism.”
“Could he craft a Christianity centered on virtue rather than traditional doctrine and avoid alienating his parents at the same time? More importantly, could he convince the Evangelical figures in his life — his sister Jane Mecom and the revivalist George Whitfield — that all was well with his soul? He would in time have more success convincing his sister than convincing George Whitfield. When he ran away from Boston as a teenager, Franklin also ran away from the city’s Calvinism. But many factors — his Puritan tether, the pressure of relationships with Christian friends and family, disappointments with his own integrity, repeated illnesses and the growing weight of political responsibility all kept him from going too deep into the dark woods of radical skepticism.”
On common interpretations of Franklin’s faith.
“Franklin explored a number of religious opinions, and even at the end of his life he remained non-committal about all but a few points of belief. This elusiveness has made Franklin susceptible to many religious interpretations. Some devout Christians, beginning with the celebrated 19th century biographer Parson Mason Weems have found ways to mold Franklin into a faithful believer. Weems opined that ‘Franklin’s extraordinary benevolence and useful life were imbibed even unconsciously from the gospel.’ And there’s something to this notion of Christianity’s unconscious effect on Franklin. But Weems had to employ indirection because of Franklin’s repeated insistence that he doubted key points of Christian doctrine.
“Other Christian writers could not overlook those skeptical statements. The English Baptist minister John Foster wrote in 1818 that ‘love of the useful was the cornerstone of Franklin’s thought’ and that Franklin ‘substantially rejected Christianity.’
“One of the most influential interpretations of Franklin’s religion occurred in Max Weber’s classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). For Weber, Franklin was a near perfect example of how Protestantism, drained of his doctrinal particularity, fostered modern capitalism. Franklin’s The Way to Wealth (1758) which distilled his best thoughts on frugality and industry illustrated the spirit of capitalism “in near classical purity,” Weber wrote. And simultaneously offers the advantage of being detached from all direct connection to religious belief. For Weber, Franklin’s virtues were no longer a matter of just obeying God. Virtue was useful and profitable. Franklin, admonished by his ‘strict Calvinist Father about diligence and one’s calling’ presented moneymaking and success as products of ‘competence and proficiency in a vocation.’ Weber’s Franklin grew up in an intense Calvinistic setting, but redirected that zeal toward virtuous labor in a profession, namely printing. There’s a lot to recommend in Weber’s portrait. As an adult, Franklin touted ethical responsibility, industriousness and benevolence even as he jettisoned Christian orthodoxy.”