Benjamin Franklin was a complicated man with complicated religious views. Franklin never became a Christian (as far as we know). But what can we learn from his confusing religious life?
In a recent talk at Southeastern Seminary, Dr. Thomas Kidd, author of Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, spoke about Franklin’s life and faith. You can read an excerpt of his talk and watch the video of the lecture here.
In this brief piece, I want to highlight a couple of lessons I learned from Dr. Kidd’s lecture on Franklin’s life.
1. We need a doctrine-rich Christianity.
We live in an increasingly secular, skeptical age, yet many individuals still are either cultural Christians or adhere to some sort of religious pluralism. Many just call themselves religious or spiritual. They and God have “got their own thing going on” (to paraphrase an old Tom T. Hall song).
Franklin’s time was remarkably similar. There was a growing population of skeptics, and many deists of his day, like Franklin, felt that Christianity was a good system of moral teachings, but could not come to terms with the idea of a personal relationship with God. We often tend to romanticize the faith of the founding fathers and portray them all as evangelical Christians, but not all of them were — Franklin included.
Kidd opened his lecture with a story about Franklin desiring to open the Constitutional Convention with prayer, yet Franklin faced fierce opposition. Franklin got amazingly close to Christianity at times, and he waded deep in sinful lifestyles at many times (especially during his time as a young man in London). Ultimately, Franklin liked the idea of Christianity and sought to create a form of Christianity that was not bogged down in doctrine but was still based on the Bible’s moral teachings. He believed that Christianity was a source of benevolence and charity, but he grew frustrated with Christians of his day arguing about theological minutiae.
That sentiment is all too common today. Many Christians would like to ignore theology and focus on the moral teachings they prefer. But we need Christians who have doctrinal conviction and who are strong in those convictions.
The account of the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:14–22 shows a church that nauseated God because they were lukewarm Christians not bearing fruit. God needs Christians who are either hot or cold. The cold water at Laodicea was useful because it was refreshing, and the hot water was useful because it was healing. The lukewarm water was tepid and stale, and not useful for anything.
Cultural or doctrineless Christianity is like the lukewarm water because it is not useful for advancing God’s kingdom. Doctrineless Christianity only provides a moral system for man to advance his kingdom, and lukewarm cultural Christianity clouds the witnesses of Christians who are either healing or refreshing.
As Christians, if we know those who are either lukewarm Christians, or have concocted some form of doctrineless Christianity, or even those who would say they “believe in God” but do not confess Christ as savior, we should be bold enough to share their true spiritual condition with them — so that they might know the comfort of salvation only provided by faith in King Jesus.
2. Never give up on a person’s salvation.
It is important to remember that we do not save people—God does. It is our responsibility as Christians to share the gospel. We plant seeds, if you will, and then pray for fruit. Franklin had Christians who were close to him throughout his life. His parents were pious Calvinists. He had a warm relationship with his sister, Jane Mecom, and he had a close friendship with the noted evangelist George Whitefield. Neither Mecom nor Whitefield ever gave up on Franklin’s soul. In fact, Franklin tried his best to convince them both that all was well with his soul. Dr. Kidd pointed out that Franklin may have done a better job of convincing Jane than Whitefield. But neither of them gave up on his soul.
All of us have lost people around us, and many of us have close relationships with lost people. We should never give them up as lost causes. We should treat them like Jane Mecom and George Whitefield treated Franklin — continually sharing the gospel with them and praying for their souls.
Franklin was a complicated man with a complicated faith. But when we look at his life, we can learn important lessons. Doctrine does matter, despite what Franklin himself believed, and we should never give up on the Franklins in our lives.