In leafing through the book, I noted a great quotation of Franklin's on Priestley, one I had seen before but forgotten. It was to Benjamin Vaughan, October 24, 1788, the relevant part of which reads:
Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, 'tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic. ...
Franklin admired men honest enough in theology to come to terms with their heresy.
Surprisingly, Priestley (probably mistakenly) concluded Franklin was a strict Deist or atheist (quotation forthcoming). Yet, in his letter to Ezra Stiles shortly before his death, Franklin expressed belief in a kind of "Christianity" that almost perfectly mirrored Priestley's:
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: ...
"Corrupting changes" of course, refers to a term Priestley coined -- "the corruptions of Christianity." And it had specific meaning: 1) original sin, 2) trinity, 3) incarnation, 4) atonement, and 5) infallibility of the Bible. "The present Dissenters in England," of whom Franklin, following Priestley, considered himself like minded, "[d]oubt[ed] Jesus' [d]ivinity," and accordingly, rejected those "corruptions of Christianity," those five points, which to the orthodox formed the heart of "Christianity."
In the end, I think Priestley would be satisfied with the kind of "Christianity" Franklin, at his death, embraced.
Congradulations, Jon! And thanks for the article.
Thanks. And my pleasure. I hope to make the article good (if not, perhaps they'll sit on the article).
I wonder a few things:
1.) Where did these views come from? Were they all natural extensions of Enlightenment rationalism, and so they all kind of just popped up as people started questioning Christianity?
It seems like this was a way of saying "well we're still attached to the old system and we're not quite ready to ditch it yet, so let's see if it's even worth keeping after we cut out the parts we can't rationalize."
2.) If these are corruptions, then it seems like they are pointing a finger at the Apostle Paul (in the case of incarnation and atonement anyway) and not the church. I think this is an interesting position they have taken, because in most cases when the Apostle Paul is questioned, all of Christianity gets dumped. Because they didn't do this, I speculate that they were probably deists who realized the value of keeping as much of the religious tradition as possible along with its personalized conception of God.
Reading, and rereading, Franklin's comment:
>>> all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, 'tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic. ...
How true this is! Stay in the mainstream and the bad faith of your enemies is an unavoidable nuisance. Stake out new territory and it can destroy you. And yet it is often the honest and sincere truth seeker, not just the troublemaker, who finds himself in this dangerous position. This is a good admonition to have an open mind toward opinion with which we disagree.
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