19 July 2011

More on Ben Franklin's Religion

My last post discussed Benjamin Franklin's religion in relation to that of George Washington.  This post will discuss Franklin's actual belief in more detail.  As mentioned in my last post, Franklin considered himself a Deist, although he did concede that his "God," Providence, acted in his behalf at times.

Franklin found some ministers interesting, and even befriended the Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield.  His Autobiography speaks highly of Whitefield, and on one occasion, Franklin gave all that was in his pocket to the cause of an orphanage that the evangelist planned to build in Georgia.  Franklin wrote of being somewhat turned off by a minister who plagiarized his sermons, even though he had previously supported him as the best Presbyterian minister Philadelphia had had.

However, Franklin's religion held more in common with a general set of morals than with orthodox Protestantism.  In fact, in his Autobiography, he mentioned that he rarely went to church and found that polemics against Deism actually tended to draw him to the (somewhat) newfangled belief system.  Franklin described his religious views thus in the Autobiography: "I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter."

While he may have considered himself religious, his own words testify against his being a Christian, except perhaps a cultural Christian.  While the idea of doing good to man is a great aspiration, according to Christian doctrine, it does not lead to salvation.  There is no discussion of Jesus Christ in this statement of religious belief, only a generic trust that a God controls the universe and that this Deity watches what humans do in order to mete out justice (with a non-Christian understanding of God's justice).  A more striking contrast to the faith of John Witherspoon would be difficult to find, except for the rare eighteenth-century atheist.

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