Ben Franklins Religion



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 [2] 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" (165) [3], a God who by "providence" [4] 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," 166). Franklin\'s God is useful first because he chooses "to help and favour us" via divine intervention (168). [5]

Franklin\'s God is useful, second, because he inspires us to perform our own good actions. [6] Primarily these good actions arise out of thanksgiving to God. [7] While Franklin believes that these good actions procure God\'s favor (168) in that God loves those of us who "do good to others" (179), [8] 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. [9] 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" (179), thus placing virtue in the context of a human community which both encourages it and exercises it. [10]

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" (476). [11] His proof-text is Matthew 7:16-27, especially verse 26: [12] "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" (NIV). 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" (426). [13] In fact he goes so far as to suggest that "A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian." [14]

Well done is better than well said.

How many observe Christ\'s Birth-day!
How few, his Precepts! [15]

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 (1359-60). Franklin uses this idea also in Poor Richard 1739 (1213), 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, [16] 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 (1382, 1383). 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" (1383). Even in his book of virtues,