By Dr. Rick Chromey
Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s most influential scientists, patriots, politicians, diplomats…and deists. So said Franklin himself, who wrote as an adolescent how his skepticism of Christianity made him “a thorough Deist.”
Since deists reject the divinity of Jesus, miracles and biblical revelation, many historians conclude Franklin was agnostic. Still others argue Franklin’s religion was eclectic, self-styled and personal…his deism mostly a youthful fancy.
What’s the truth?
First, Benjamin Franklin was more religious than most Americans today. Raised Presbyterian, he struggled with denominationalism and his church’s rigid traditions. He found sermons boring and lacking moral principles. Consequently, he avoided church services and reserved Sundays for personal Bible study. Franklin later connected with Freemasonry – a fraternal organization that blends good works and God.
Nevertheless, Franklin remained marked by Christianity. He gleaned much of his pithy wisdom from the Bible. His popular series Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732-1757) was packed with proverbs. In 1747, as governor, Franklin proposed a fast and prayer day. He reminded Pennsylvanians of their “duty…to acknowledge their dependence on…Almighty God.” Franklin preached “…there is just reason to fear that unless we humble ourselves before the Lord [and] amend our Ways, we may be chastised with yet heavier Judgments.”
He penned a mid-1750s recruitment pamphlet for Europeans intending to send their kids to America. Franklin boasted that our Christian colonial culture had no adolescent misbehavior. He noted America was so Christianized that it was possible to grow old and never personally meet “either an Atheist or an Infidel.” Franklin extolled how America’s Christian culture produced “mutual forbearance and kindness” and a “remarkable prosperity” that brought “favor” to the nation.
In 1778, Franklin wrote to the French that there’s “a Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district…the principal support of [America’s] virtue, morality and civil liberty.” Another time Ben remarked, “Whosoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”
Essentially, Franklin saw America as a place where religion was prevalent, thoughtful, respected, and productive.
Whatever his youthful deist views regarding Jesus’ divinity, Franklin eventually concluded, “As to Jesus of Nazareth…I think the system of morals and His religion, as He left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.”. In his 1789 autobiography, the elder Franklin cited 13 virtues that guided his life – including frugality, silence, temperance and cleanliness. His top virtue? Humility… which he noted needed to “imitate Jesus…”
Franklin pursued various Christian disciplines like prayer, charity, and service. He prayed daily, petitioning for Divine strength, wisdom and blessing upon his work. He declared he “was never without religious principles…never doubted…the existence of the Deity; that [God] made the world, and governed it by his Providence.” Franklin noted the importance of “doing good to man” and belief in both a final judgment and eternal life.
He even gravitated back to church attendance. Historian Carl Van Doren detailed Franklin’s latter church experiences and recorded how Franklin’s family owned a pew at the famed Christ Church (Episcopal) in Philadelphia, Penn. It’s where Ben Franklin attended Sunday services with his family and watched his two youngest children get baptized. Both his parents, his wife and Franklin himself are buried at Christ Church. He financed clergy salaries, supported building programs, and helped with church accounting.
Franklin described in his own Autobiography a friendship with famed revivalist George Whitefield. Franklin faithfully attended Whitefield’s crusades and printed his sermons and journals. In fact, Franklin was so impressed by Whitefield he financed an auditorium solely for his revivals…then donated the space to launch the University of Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Franklin’s religion found flight during a fiery debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Initially, he implored how prayer was critical to the Convention’s success, then moved for Congress to hire chaplains to lead prayer and Bible study. Later, Franklin observed how “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in 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 aid?”
None of this sounds like the rhetoric of an irreligious deist or agnostic secularist.
Benjamin Franklin was never a faithless man. He believed in God and, despite any deist and Masonic dispositions, maintained deep appreciation for Christianity. Yes, he struggled with religious divisiveness, pomposity, and hypocrisy, but Franklin still valued how Christianity framed American culture. In elderhood Ben Franklin attended, to what degree we cannot say, a Christian church in Philadelphia and was eventually buried in that same church’s graveyard.
Maybe that’s why Benjamin Franklin’s faith is hard to define – particularly 231 years after his passing. Perhaps spiritual ambiguity is exactly what Franklin preferred.
Regardless, like a lightning strike on a kite string, Franklin’s faith proved just as unpredictable, unique and, to a degree, shocking. For this Founding Father, Christianity was a faithful friend to guide and guard his life, summarized in his famous proverb: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Dr. Rick Chromey is an author, historian and theologian who speaks and writes on matters of religion, culture, history, technology and leadership. He’s the founder and president of MANNA! Educational Services International. Rick and his wife Linda live in Star, ID. www.mannasolutions.org.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren
Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania (accessed on Google Books)
The Works of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (accessed on Google Books)
History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent by George Bancroft
Works of Benjamin Franklin [John Bigelow, editor]
The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 by Max Farrand