Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ben Franklin's Religious Humanism

Here at American Creation Tom Van Dyke has a good post demonstrating why Ben Franklin was not a "deist" as many believe. The problem is he wasn't an orthodox Christian either. So we need a new term. Van Dyke doesn't think "theistic rationalist" is sufficient. I think "theistic humanist" also aptly describes this creed. Barry Shain has termed it "Christian humanism." I stress the word "humanist" in this post because as we will see, it's a much more "man centered" creed than traditional orthodox Christianity. This is a quotation Van Dyke offers from Franklin's biography:

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.

And Van Dyke's analysis:

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.

One quibble: Franklin is more than merely "troubled" by that passage in the Old Testament. He signals it out as evidence that the Bible is a partially inspired book, using terms that are quite harsh, AND further did so in the context of arguing why religious tests that demanded belief in the infallibility of the Bible had to go. Pennsylvania had one. And Franklin as acting governor helped see it removed. From the original, to John Calder, Augt. 21. 1784:

I agreed with you in Sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the Clause in our Constitution, which required the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it was given by divine Inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed the Clause but being overpower’d by Numbers, and fearing might in future times be grafted on [it, I Pre]vailed to have the additional Clause that no [further or more ex]tended Profession of Faith should ever [be exacted. I ob]serv’d to you, too, that the Evil of it was [the less, as no In]habitant, nor any Officer of Government except the Members of Assembly, were oblig’d to make that Declaration. So much for that Letter. To which I may now add, that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib’d to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole.

Franklin's view of "Christianity" or "religion" (and he believed non-Christian religions could do the trick, though not as well as Christianity) was that it improves man's morals or virtue. He believed in an explicitly works based salvation scheme:

“Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one….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.”

– “Dialogue between Two Presbyterians,” April 10, 1735.

That quotation was done in the context of the prosecution of a minister named Samuel Hemphill for preaching "heterodoxy." The very heterodoxy with which the orthodox had charged Hemphill Franklin defended and would later be embraced by America's key Founders, the "theistic rationalists," "Christian-Humanists," "Christian-Deists," "unitarians" or whatever term you prefer.

From the above linked article by Bryan LeBeau:

According to Franklin...Hemphill was labeled a "New Light Man, a Deist, one who preached nothing but morality, [and] a missionary sent from Ireland to corrupt the faith once delivered by the saints," but, in fact, as already noted, the Synod of Philadelphia did not reject him.


In this his first defense of Samuel Hemphill, Franklin chose not to refute the specific charges brought against Hemphill by the synod. Instead, Franklin represented him as "a lover of virtue who considered particular orthodoxies and religious enthusiasm irrelevant and potentially inimical to sound religion and human happiness."

Personally I have no problem with the generic moralizing religion of Hemphill and Franklin. However, I understand why orthodox Calvinists who were committed to the Westminster Confession would try to root him out. The two theological systems were incompatible.

This also sheds light on another dynamic well detailed by Dr. Gregg Frazer: Ministers in orthodox Churches themselves who were supposed to be committed to particular creeds and confessions disbelieved in those very creeds and instead adhered to heterodox unitarian doctrines.

In his defense of Hemphill, Franklin notes they both believed:

That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.

That is parts of the Bible complement the discoveries of man's reason that "God made to us by the Light of Nature." James Wilson in his Works argues something strikingly similar. That reason and revelation complement one another, were meant to work together and should not be separated. But that the "light of nature" discoverable by reason was the first revelation God gave to man, revelation came second. And the role of revelation was to assist, support and improve the findings of reason, not the other way around:

Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance.


These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense. The information with regard to our duties and obligations, drawn from these different sources, ought not to run in unconnected and diminished channels: it should flow in one united stream, which, by its combined force and just direction, will impel us uniformly and effectually towards our greatest good.

Wilson made these remarks publicly towards the end of the 18th Century. Franklin's Hemphill controversy was in 1735. What got a minister put on trial for heresy by orthodox Calvinists in 1735 was publicly respectable during the end of the 18th Century.


Tom Van Dyke said...

[Franklin] believed in an explicitly works based salvation scheme...

This does not seem to be accurate, re

"You will see in this my notion of good works, that I am far from expecting to merit heaven by them."---Franklin to George Whitefield, 1740

However, I have no problem with the bulk of your post; his distaste for the story of Jael does indicate that he did not believe the Bible infallible. Which would be no surprise, since he hadn't even arrived at a certainty that it was even given by God.

I do not agree with your reading of James Wilson based on this single quote and the word "supercede," which I take here to mean "requires one to put his reason and moral sense aside." Since Wilson believes that reason and revelation [the natural law and the Bible] come from the same source, they cannot be in conflict.

Is he saying here that scripture does not trump reason? In that light, yes, he certainly does. But based on reading much of his work, neither does he say anywhere that reason is entitled to go its own way contra the Bible.

[Although I may have missed something in my readings of him. If so, I'm sure someone will disabuse me of the above notion.]

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think Franklin DID believe in works based salvation, but, thought he personally did not meet that standard.

I think he probably elevated works over grace but thought grace played some kind of role in helping pass imperfect sinners along to Heaven.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I meself would make no claim on Franklin's view of grace atall.

The rest of the quote indicates to me that no amount of good works could earn the wonders of heaven ["I can do nothing to deserve such rewards."], a grain of sand on one side of the scale and infinity on the other, if I may be so bold as to plant my own allusion. Still, I can see it being read differently, that Franklin himself finds himself short of the mark.

"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!

For my part I have not the vanity to think I deserve it, the folly to expect it, nor the ambition to desire it; but content myself in submitting to the will and disposal of that God who made me, who has hitherto preserved and blessed me, and in whose fatherly goodness I may well confide, that he will never make me miserable, and that even the afflictions I may at any time suffer shall tend to my benefit."

But there's no question that Franklin devalues faith, which reflects his lifetime of almost total disinterest in dogma and doctrine.

"The faith you mention has certainly its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works, than I have generally seen it; 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, filled with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. The worship of God is a duty; the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth leaves, though it never produced any fruit."

tonyon said...

Humanism (wheat)...religion (darnel)

Al DeFilippo said...

Thank you for the post. For more on George Whitefield, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland. The book also richly brings to life the life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of deliverance from addiction to gin and illiteracy. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement's effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is Again, thank you, for the post.