Saturday, April 14, 2012

Let's Not Get Lazy on Franklin's Creed

Franklin is one that both the secular left and religious right likely concede as "Deist." Though some on the religious right accurately note Franklin's speech at the Constitutional Convention where he professes theism.

Still, the religious right tends towards the narrative that Franklin and Jefferson were somewhat "Deists," the rest Christian. Franklin actually gives fewer smoking gun quotations of a belief in militant unitarianism than does John Adams. If "right" = Christian and "left" = Deism, Adams was arguably (at least in his personal theology) to the left of Franklin.

Franklin never for instance bitterly and militantly mocked the Trinity and Incarnation as Adams did. Franklin did "doubt" Jesus' divinity in his letter to Ezra Stiles which could be read as a polite way of denying Jesus' divinity to an orthodox gentlemen.

This is the passage in context:

[B]ut 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.

What I put in bold arguably supports the not just "doubt" but "deny" thesis. Those "dissenters" in England were self described unitarians who denied Jesus' divinity. And "corrupting changes" no doubt refers to Unitarian Joseph Priestley's "Corruptions of Christianity" text which denies Original Sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and plenary inspiration of the Bible as false "corruptions" of Christianity.

I'm looking for evidence of Franklin calling himself a unitarian. In this letter to unitarian of the Arian bent Richard Price, Franklin intimates that they both believe in the same "rational Christianity."

And I found this interesting link, Sermon: “Dear Mr. Isaacson, Ben Franklin was Unitarian,” A Sermon by Charles Blustein Ortman, September 19, 2003.

Much of what it reproduces I already know and have blogged about. The sermon tries to connect Franklin to the unitarian label. This is new information about which I hadn't known:

These associations [with unitarian friends] are hardly coincidental. Still they don’t meet the test of placing Benjamin Franklin within a Unitarian congregation. That information can be found though, in the records of Essex Street Chapel in London. Earl Morse Wilbur, renowned Unitarian historian, reports that not only was Franklin in attendance at the first Unitarian service held in England on April 17, 1774, but that he had a long standing friendship with the minister there, Theopholis Lindsey, and that, “he continued to worship here as long as he remained in England.” (Wilbur)

Update: Let's not forget Franklin's classic letter to John Calder where he asserts "the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration,..."

There he also writes: "By the way how goes on the Unitarian Church in Essex Street? and the honest Minister of it, is he comfortably supported?" I think it's safe to conclude Franklin was self consciously "unitarian."

Update II: The "honest minister" is none other than the Rev. Lindsey.


Tom Van Dyke said...

There's no evidence Franklin was even a unitarian, that he believed the Bible is Divine Writ and not just the work of men.

"Deist" doesn't exactly fit either: "deism" is more a God of the philosophers, whereas Franklin seems more a theistic personalist*.

The "Not a sparrow falls" line he quotes from the Bible is theistic personalism, that God is immanent, not a God who created and left, or an occasional visitor who returns to act via Providence.

I have lived, Sir, a long time and 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? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that "except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel...

Unfortunately, our historians don't know much about theology, and so miss the clues. Hell, the neon signs!

See also

*According to Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy, 1942, theistic personalism is "the theory most generally held by Personalists that God is the ground of all being, immanent in and transcendent over the whole world of reality. It is pan-psychic but avoids pantheism by asserting the complementary nature of immanence and transcendence which come together in and are in some degree essential to all personality. The term used for the modern form of theism. Immanence and transcendence are the contrapletes of personality."

This is Franklin to a "T." See also his letter to Whitefield about heaven, 1751

You will see in this my notion of good works, that I am far from expecting to merit heaven by them. By heaven we understand a state of happiness, infinite in degree, and eternal in duration. I can do nothing to deserve such rewards. He that, for giving a draft of water to a thirsty person, should expect to be paid with a good plantation, would be modest in his demands, compared with those who think they deserve heaven for the little good they do on earth. Even the mixed, imperfect pleasures we enjoy in this world, are rather from God's goodness than our merit; how much more such happiness of heaven!

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree BF was a theistic personalist. But you don't think based on what I reproduced above, that's enough to lump him in with the "unitarians."

Re Franklin's comments to Whitefield, putting them together with his thoughts in Dialog between Presbyterians, it seems BF believed salvation came through some combination of works and grace. It still seems he's "unorthodox" from the reformed/evangelical perspective (salvation trough grace alone); he's closer to the Roman Catholic view.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm saying that where the unitarians were a variety of Christianity, I can't place Franklin under the Christian umbrella atall, since he accords no special cosmic role to Jesus, or believes for sure [see my linked essay on his autobio] that the Bible is the Word of God.

My own sociological definition of "Christianity" requires that as a minimum, Jesus as a unique being [Messiah, Savior of some sort], and the Bible being the "revelation" of God's will.