Saturday, October 25, 2008

Franklin: A Jesus-Centered Deist

In light of the recent discussion on the religious creed of Benjamin Franklin, and the recent book reviews by guest blogger Robert Cornwall, I thought I would add my 10 cents to the discussion by creating this post. As Jon Rowe has already mentioned in his previous post, Franklin, for the most part, considered himself to be a "rational Christian." Yet, throughout the course of his life, Franklin was repeatedly labeled as a "heretic," "Deist," "agnostic," etc.

Certainly the impact of Enlightenment philosophy led Franklin down diverse paths in the development of his own personal religions creed. Yet the impact of Enlightenment philosophy only tells part of the story when it comes to Franklin’s religious beliefs. After all, Franklin was raised in a very religious family, where his father, Josiah, – upon immigrating to the British colonies in America – rose to the status of a “watchman” within the Puritan community of Boston, where he enforced the strict rules of morality and piety of the colony. Josiah even planned to have Benjamin enrolled in the Boston Latin School, where he hoped his son would begin his preparations for the Congregationalist ministry (Founding Faith, 53). Benjamin, however, had different plans. As Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson points out, “Franklin’s ‘skeptical, punkish and irreverent’ behavior made him a terrible fit for the clergy” (Benjamin Franklin, 19). Later during his teenage years – while pretending to be a widowed woman named Silence Dogood – Franklin would expound upon his “rebellious” sentiments towards religion. In Silence Dogood #9, Franklin states:
'Tis not inconsistent with Charity to distrust a Religious Man in Power, tho' he may be a good Man; he has many Temptations "to propagate publick Destruction for Personal Advantages and Security": And if his Natural Temper be covetous, and his Actions often contradict his pious Discourse, we may with great Reason conclude, that he has some other Design in his Religion besides barely getting to Heaven. But the most dangerous Hypocrite in a Common-Wealth, is one who <>A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his Religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law: And here the Clergy are in great Danger of being deceiv'd, and the People of being deceiv'd by the Clergy, until the Monster arrives to such Power and Wealth, that he is out of the reach of both, and can oppress the People without their own blind Assistance. And it is a sad Observation, that when the People too late see their Error, yet the Clergy still persist in their Encomiums on the Hypocrite; and when he happens to die for the Good of his Country, without leaving behind him the Memory of one good Action, he shall be sure to have his Funeral Sermon stuff'd with Pious Expressions which he dropt at such a Time, and at such a Place, and on such an Occasion; than which nothing can be more prejudicial to the Interest of Religion, nor indeed to the Memory of the Person deceas'd. The Reason of this Blindness in the Clergy is, because they are honourably supported (as they ought to be) by their People, and see nor feel nothing of the Oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else.
Upon revealing the true identity of Silence Dogood, Franklin was quickly branded a dangerous and rebellious heretic. Those within Boston’s religious community – including Franklin’s friend, Cotton Mather – distanced themselves from the young man who dared to question the religious status quo. As Franklin put it, “My indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist” (Franklin, Autobiography, 71).
After moving away from Boston and establishing himself as a successful printer in Philadelphia, Franklin continued his attack on pious religious leaders, who used their faith to control their flock. As Franklin states in one edition of his popular series, Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful…Nor is duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.” In another edition Franklin wrote, "Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought easier service and therefore is more generally chosen."

With such an early assortment of controversial statements on religion, it is understandable why some people have considered Franklin to be an agnostic or even possibly an atheist. Such a conclusion, however, obscures much of Franklin’s passionate belief in virtue and divinity. For example, though Franklin questioned the authority of the pious ministers of his day, he never doubted the importance of living a virtuous life. Instead of devoting himself to a particular brand of orthodoxy, Franklin chose to invoke the “laws of nature” – a typical Deist principle of his day – which became the backbone of his views on divinity. Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues are a perfect example of how Franklin merged Christian principles with his Deistic philosophy:
1. Temperance. Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ'd in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extreams. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Cloaths or Habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
In addition to this personal code of conduct, Franklin sought to “amend” a number of Christian creeds and beliefs. His version of the Lord’s Prayer is an excellent example of how Franklin stripped the miracles of Christianity from his personal liturgy.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of Franklin’s personal beliefs comes from his infamous letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790. In the letter, Franklin states:

You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, 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; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble [my emphasis].
Franklin's Deistic leanings are augmented when we consider the fact that he not only questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ – as evidenced by the Ezra Stiles letter – but that he also questioned the infallibility of the Bible. The fact that he also rejected the ordinances of communion and confirmation, combined with his lack of regular church attendance serve as ample evidence that Franklin was far from an orthodox Christian. Franklin’s own admission that he was “a thorough Deist” virtually ends the dispute over his religious leanings (Franklin, Autobiography, 114).

Such an admission, however, does not suggest that Franklin was a pure Deist. After all, Franklin did believe that God regularly intervened in the affairs of mankind (Holmes, Founding Faith, 55). Franklin also maintained an appreciation for the teachings of Christianity, though he detested how it was being practiced:

I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen. I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers...[Jesus] preferred the doers of the word, to the mere hearers...Serving God is doing good to man...Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means" (Quoted in Waldman, Founding Faith, 20-21).
So where should we classify Franklin? From the evidence noted, it is clear that he does not fall anywhere near orthodox Christianity, yet he also falls short of embracing pure Deism. Clearly Franklin is closer to Deism than he is Christianity, so it would be fair to categorize his religious beliefs as being those of a "liberal Deist," or as I choose to define him, a "Jesus-centered Deist."


Phil Johnson said...

In your article, you quote Franklin as having written, "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, 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; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity:"
I think what I have emphasized shows a point that has been put aside so often by the popular Christian Mullahs that it's almost impossible to have an open discussion on this point. Not to accept what the Christian Mullahs teach from their perches is to be automatically marginalized as a heretic or, at best, an unorthodox Christian.

Jonathan Rowe said...

In my opinion the term "corrupting changes" is a Rosetta Stone. "Dissenters in England" who doubted Jesus divinity is also part of it. Joseph Priestley, one of the most notable of those "dissenters" coined the term "corruptions of Christianity" and they referred to original sin, the trinity, incarnation, and atonement. Putting it all together I conclude Franklin did more than "doubt" Jesus' divinity, but disbelieved in it. Finally that Franklin referred to him (or Him) as "Jesus of Nazareth" as opposed to "Jesus Christ" likewise stresses Jesus' humanity.

Jonathan Rowe said...

But on the other hand, I don't think the context of Franklin's claim to be a Deist at one point in his life settles the issue of his identification. If anything from what I have seen Franklin is slightly to the right of John Adams in his personal creed, though not in his politics. That Adams could be so mainstream, traditional and conservative, plus the fact that the Federalist Clergy painted him as a true blue Christian against the "infidel" Jefferson, are reasons why folks Adams' personal creed tilted towards the Christian side. Well Franklin (from what I have so far seen) never bitterly mocked the Trinity and orthodox doctrines as Adams did.

Phil Johnson said...

"But on the other hand..."
To me, I see the point as being about what it is that qualifies one to be entitled to claim they have a relationship with the "true God".
Of course, there's a lot more to it than just that one simple question as this or that mullah can go on and on and on about various requirements of the many sectarian denominations of the Christian, Judeo, or Islamic religious traditions.
Allen Guezlo teaches that Benjamin Franklin was dedicated by his father as a tithe to God to be educated at the Boston Latin School as a precursor to a life of Christian service; but, after one year the elder Franklin couldn't continue to pay the tuition fee. So, young Benjamin was apprenticed out to an older brother in his print shop.
Was Benjamin the tenth son in the Franklin household?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

On the issue of corruptions, it might be useful to point out that not long after the founding of the republic, there were a number of movements that emerged from the freedoms given religion and the second great awakening. My own movement is one of those -- The Stone Campbell movement included both Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians.

The key was restoring New Testament Christianity, uncorrupted by the years of interpretation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Mullah" is a pejorative term, Phil. Since we are a pluralistic, tolerant, inclusive, ecumenical---dare I say PC---blog, I feel obliged to be offended by your attack on the Shi'a religion and can confidently speak on behalf of my blogbrothers and blogsisters and say, for shame, for shame.

But you do open the door on Islam, Phil, which is damned interesting---truth claims aside about Mohammed's claim to direct revelation---Islam as a "controlled experiment" on the nature of organized religion.

All "mullahs" see themselves as reformers, to wit, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, or other "restorationists," or in the case of the "orthodox"---all of them see themselves as possessors of the core truth, the trunk of the tree. Sunnis, the most popular branch of Islam, see mullahs as getting in between man and God, which is antithetical to the Muslim religion, a sentiment I admire, and one that Ben Franklin shared as does Freemasonry.

Still, Sunnis have ayatollahs too, learned men who know the Qur'an, and clear up disputes about the text. But even though the Qur'an is far more straightforward than the subtle and literary Bible, ayatollahs unavoidably find themselves put in the position of interpreting it. [See: Ayatollah Sistani: Sunni, Iraq.]

Although I favor seeking the lowest common denominator in our "civil religion," these days it appears we have no common denominator. Religions can find themselves in a similar---and worse---pickle in their attempt at political solutions to theological problems, valuing agreement over clarity or dare we say, faith.

I do value agreement over clarity or faith when it comes to politics, no question. LCD, civil religion. I favor political solutions to theological problems more than the other way around. But politics is politics, and faith is faith. [A religious reading of Adam Smith, and James Madison following him here.]

The mullahs of dogmatic pluralisms---religious leaders, not politicians, mind you---can therefore find themselves merely presiding over anarchy, which cannot by definition be presided over. Which makes us wonder why such mullahs are in place in the first place. Perhaps to make sure the bills get paid and the lights aren't turned out. That's cool. Perhaps the desire to preside over something, anything, not so cool.

Phil Johnson said...

Regarding the "corrupting changes" in the Benjamin Franklin quote, I think he was referring to things like requirements for salvation and what it takes to be a "real" Christian..
These are the things that are pushed aside as being totally outside any real concern; but which are "corrupting changes" in what Jesus taught.

Phil Johnson said...

Tom chides me with, "...I feel obliged to be offended by your attack on the Shi'a religion and can confidently speak on behalf of my blogbrothers and blogsisters and say, for shame, for shame."
Oh, geez. I guess I'll have to say a few extra "Hail Marys".

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad, I think your assessment of Ben Franklin is largely accurate. He had serious misgivings about Jesus' divinity (which has always been central to Christian orthodoxy), but was still very friendly toward Christianity. He was, after all, a strong admirer (and friend of) George Whitefield.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aw, Phil, I was kidding---"feel obliged to be offended." The only thing I'm actually offended by is opinion without the facts to back it.