by Tom Van Dyke
I'm continually stunned by those who flatly assert Benjamin Franklin was a Deist. After all, he says in his autobiography
"...I soon became a thorough Deist."
Just google "Franklin" and "deist." The number one entry---the one that's most often read---is from "infidels.org," whatever that is.
Chock full of convincing quotes, and convincing-looking documentation, it repeats Franklin's statement [ibid., p. 66] that
"...I soon became a thorough Deist."
And there are plenty more websites that do the same. The question is, why don't they read the rest of the paragraph?
"...I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but each of these having wronged me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful."
Why do they leave this part out?
I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful.
Does that sound like a deist [or Deist] to you? Read it for yourself. And revisit Franklin's observation of his own behavior under the sway of deism. He's not only disappointed with his deist friends Collins, Ralph and Keith, but with himself:
"and my own [conduct] towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble..."
Deism isn't quite working for Franklin toward fashioning a moral and admirable life.
Franklin next says that his musings on metaphysics were also unsatisfying, per an Alexander Pope quote he misattributes to Dryden. But next, the most stunning revelation of all:
Franklin rediscovers the Bible.
"Revelation had indeed no weight with me..."
is a quote you'll find at infidels.org [ibid., p. 67!], but not the rest of its paragraph either. Hmmmm. Let's read the whole thing, then:
"Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such, but I entertained an opinion, that, though certain actions might not be bad, because they were forbidden by it, or good, because it commanded them; yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered."
[The italics on "because" are Franklin's own.]
What Franklin is wondering here is whether perhaps the Bible forbids or recommends certain things because they are good for man, not simply because God commands them. This is a natural law interpretation of the Bible, the reconciliation of revelation and reason, that the Bible is given to man for his own good, not for God's.
Divine Command Theory is the idea that man must accept patent nonsense just because it's in the Bible or is said to come from God. DCT, they call it---and Plato's Euthyphro---nailed it some 2500 years ago.
But what does Franklin get from revisiting the Bible? [We're almost done here---hang on!] Let's give Ben the floor:
"And this persuasion [that the Bible is good for you---TVD], with the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favourable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me through this dangerous time of youth, and the hazardous situations I was sometimes in among strangers, remote from the eye and advice of my father, free from any wilful immorality or injustice, that might have been expected from my want of religion. I say wilful, because the instances I have mentioned had something of necessity in them, from my youth, inexperience, and the knavery of others. I had therefore a tolerable character to begin the world with; I valued it properly, and determined to preserve it."
Now, Franklin doesn't say for certain that the Bible came from God, or that Divine Providence or a guardian angel sent it to him. Perhaps the Good Book is just a good book, and chance and circumstance sent it his way.
But mebbe it wasn't just chance. Or mebbe God did give the Bible to man. Franklin doesn't know, but doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth either.
There are some stray points: Franklin writes elsewhere that the question of whether Jesus was God is something he gave no careful study or thought to, and that he'll find out soon enough after he's dead.
He's against the theological idea of "original sin," and is also troubled by certain passages in the Old Testament like Judges 4: Jael welcomes the evil Sisera into her tent, where she gives him some nice warm milk and he falls asleep. Then she hammers a tent peg through his head, all for the victory and glory of Israel and its God. Struck Franklin as more devilish than divine, and it certainly seems so at a face reading.
But what we have here in Ben Franklin is certainly not a simple man, but a relatively uncomplicated one, who has no time for doctrines and dogmas and the fights that follow. Is following the Bible a good way to live, in harmony with the natural law? Franklin seems to say possibly yes, even probably, like many or even most of us do.
Jesus himself hints at this, when the legalistic Pharisees hassle him for the disciples gathering grain to eat on the Sabbath, an apparent violation of the inflexible Law. Jesus replies, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath [Mark 2:27]." God commands man to take a day off every week because it's good for man, not because it's good for God. Franklin's re-embrace of the Bible after a flirtation with deism is in that spirit. All he believes for sure is that's it's good for him.
Was Franklin a Christian? Hard to say. What is a Christian? Enough with the terms and definitions and pigeonholes. He liked the Bible and tried to live it. What that means is hard to put into scholarly terms, but it means something.
Ben Franklin was, you know, Christian-y.