Benjamin Franklin’s religious convictions have been a source of confusion for students of the American founding; and for good reason. Consider: In his autobiography, Franklin noted that as a young man he became a “thorough deist.” Immediately after he penned these words, he recorded his regret that his arguments in favor of deism “perverted” some of his friends. A few paragraphs later he wrote that “the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me thro’ this dangerous time of youth.”
In a 1728 work, Franklin seemed to embrace polytheism. Yet at the Constitutional Convention, he could have easily been mistaken for a Calvinist when he remarked that “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs 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 notice? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it.’ ”
It is not uncommon for scholars and popular authors alike to latch on to isolated statements made by Franklin and then contend that he was a deist, theist, polytheist, atheist, or Christian. These writers routinely fail to consider the possibility that Franklin’s views changed over time, or that some of his more provocative statements should not be taken literally.
Baylor history professor Thomas S. Kidd, that rare academic who is both a judicious scholar and a good writer, avoids the pitfalls into which so many academics who write about Franklin fall. Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father provides an excellent account of the evolution of this famous founder’s religious convictions. Like all of his biographers, Kidd notes that Franklin was born into a serious Calvinist family. Unlike many of them, Kidd recognizes that Franklin never quite “escaped” his parents’ belief that “God governs the affairs of men.”
As a young man, Franklin tired of the doctrinal squabbling to which Calvinists are wont. Indeed, in his first English sojourn he seems to have repudiated Christianity altogether, as evidenced by A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity (1725). In this work he argued, among other things, that “vice and virtue were empty distinctions” and that “evil doth not exist.” Yet he almost immediately regretted penning this pamphlet, which he later called an “erratum,” and claimed to have burned most copies of the essay.
Similarly, in 1728 he wrote a private devotional guide wherein he mentioned the “ ‘one supreme most perfect Being,’ who is the ‘Author and Father of the Gods themselves.’ ” On its face, this work suggests that Franklin embraced polytheism. Kidd is open to the possibility, but, based both on the corpus of Franklin’s writings and on biblical references to “gods,” such as those in Psalm 82 and John 10, he concludes that it is a mistake to read too much into this particular passage.
Franklin may well have adopted radical religious ideas as a youth. But by the early 1730s he seems to have moved toward a “reasonable” version of Christianity that emphasized the necessity of living virtuously and that did not insist on doctrinal specifics. He delineated his core religious convictions in his autobiography:
That there is one God who created the universe, and who governs it by his Providence.
That He ought to be worshiped and served.
That the best service to God is doing good to men.
That the soul of man is immortal, and
That in a future life, if not in the present one, vice will be punished and virtue rewarded.
From a traditional Christian perspective, the problem with this list is not so much the tenets themselves (although some would quibble with the third point) but what is left out. At best, Franklin was uninterested in pondering doctrines such as the trinity, incarnation, or atonement. For example, in a 1790 letter to Yale president Ezra Stiles, Franklin admitted to having “some doubts as to [Christ’s] divinity: though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it.” He concluded that it is “needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.”
Like Thomas Jefferson, Franklin thought that the Bible contained good moral advice even as he rejected the traditional Protestant doctrine that it is the “only rule for faith and practice.” Nevertheless, he knew it “backward and forward,” and was able to use it to great effect in his polemical writings. When he launched a campaign to encourage Pennsylvania’s government to fund a militia in 1747, he reminded his readers that God provided us with the Bible “for our reproof, instruction and warning” and that his Word clearly requires rulers to defend their subjects—by military force if necessary.
Similarly, in 1751 Franklin wrote an appeal to fund a charity hospital which he began by referencing Jesus’ remark in Matthew 25:36 that “I was sick and ye visited me.” In this work, which Kidd calls his most “overtly Christian essay,” Franklin utilized numerous biblical passages to encourage his fellow citizens to give generously to the hospital.
It is not a major theme of Kidd’s book, but it is worth noting that scholars and jurists regularly appeal to America’s founders to help them interpret the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Franklin did not help write the First Amendment, but those who appeal to history to shine light on this text routinely consider founders who were not immediately involved in the drafting or ratification processes, so it would seem to be reasonable to include Franklin’s views in these discussions.
Like virtually all of the founders, Franklin embraced a robust understanding of religious liberty. Unlike some of his peers, he opposed religious tests for state and national offices. He also objected to state-funded churches because he thought such support corrupted clergy. Yet Franklin did not desire to strictly separate church and state. For instance, in 1747 he drafted a fast day proclamation for the Pennsylvania governor’s council. Later, when he was serving in the serving in the Second Continental Congress, Franklin proposed that the nation adopt as its seal the image of “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh.” And he suggested that the country’s motto should be “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father makes it clear that Franklin was not an orthodox Christian, yet it is noteworthy that the main reason we know this is from private, anonymous, or posthumously published texts. Between 1730 and his death in 1790, an unwary observer could be excused for mistaking him for a traditional believer. After 1730, Franklin kept his skeptical views from the general public, rented a pew at Philadelphia’s Christ Church, utilized Scripture in his public rhetoric, and was friends with the evangelist George Whitefield. These actions may tell us more about American political culture in the 18th century—and Franklin’s native shrewdness—than about his deepest religious convictions, but they suggest that it is a mistake to generalize from his private views to those of the founding generation. I’m pleased to report that Kidd does not make this all-too-common error.
Professor Kidd has written yet another smart, thorough, and nuanced book. Barring the discovery of new texts by Franklin, or the attribution of anonymously published pamphlets to him, this volume will be the definitive treatment of Franklin’s religious views for years to come.