Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), the Calvinist president of Yale College, was curious about Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and his faith. In 1790, he asked the nation’s senior statesman if he would commit his religious beliefs to paper. Franklin agreed. He was nearing the end of his life – he died six weeks later – and possibly believed this was as good a time as any to summarize the religious creed by which he lived.
“Here is my Creed,” Franklin wrote to Stiles. “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 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 … As for Jesus of Nazareth … I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw … but I have … some Doubts to his Divinity; though’ it is a Question I do not dogmatism upon, having never studied it, and think it is needless to busy myself with it now, where I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”
The narrative was classic Franklin, witty and to the point. Religion was worthless unless it promoted virtuous behavior. Jesus was the greatest moral teacher who ever lived, but he was not God.
In our current political climate, where pundits and cultural warriors attempt to use the religion of the founding fathers to promote their causes, let us reflect briefly on how Pennsylvania’s favorite son understood his own faith.
Franklin, of course, was a transplanted Pennsylvanian. Born in Boston, he was raised in a devout Puritan home. His father, Josiah, was a member of Boston’s Old South Church who raised his son on the teachings of New England Calvinism. God was sovereign. Human beings were separated from God because of their sin. God, in his divine mercy, however, chose to offer salvation to humankind through the death and resurrection of his only son, Jesus Christ. Men and women were required to perform good works in the world, but any attempt in doing them without the aid of the Holy Spirit would be useless in the eyes of God.
Josiah Franklin saw spiritual potential in his youngest son, and set him on a course toward the Congregational ministry. When he could no longer afford the cost of Benjamin’s schooling, the senior Franklin was forced to apprentice him to his older brother James, a Boston printer and the publisher of the New England Courant. Franklin would never escape the faith of his youth. The work ethic he espoused was similar to the so-called Puritan work ethic that he had learned growing up in New England, and he never seemed to have fully relinquished a belief in the sovereignty of God over the world and its inhabitants.
At the age of fifteen, Franklin read a series of lectures, published by the estate of British scientist Robert Boyle (1627–1691), designed to counter the influence of Deism in English religious life. Deism was the belief that God created the world and allowed it to operate according to natural laws. Deists believed God did not intervene in the lives of his human creation. He did not perform miracles, answer prayer, or sustain the world by his providence. Religious belief was based on reason rather than divine revelation. In his Autobiography, Franklin wrote that these lectures “wrought an Effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them: For the Arguments of the Deists which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much Stronger than the Refutation.” He claimed he had become a “thorough Deist.”
Franklin’s early commitments to Deism did not last long. His flirtation with this world view was little more than a form of youthful rebellion against the Calvinism of his Puritan upbringing. Although he never returned to the Calvinism of his childhood, the religion of his parents leavened much of his adult thinking. Franklin believed in a Creator – God who possessed great wisdom, goodness, and power. This God not only created the world, but sustained it. Franklin was amazed, for example, at the way God created the stars and the planets, but was even more amazed that God continued “to govern them in their greatest Velocity as they shall not flie off out of their appointed Bounds nor dash one against another, to their mutual Destruction.”
Franklin put his faith in an active God who watched over his natural creation and could, on occasion, intervene in the lives of his human creation as well. Thirty-six years after he claimed to embrace Deism, Franklin sounded like anything but an adherent to this religious system. “Without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides, and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection,” he wrote. This was also a God who answered prayer. Franklin wrote prayers for his own personal use and took time to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer so that it was more suitable to contemporary readers. In July 1787, during the meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Franklin called for prayer to bring reconciliation to the political differences of the body.
Yet for all of his talk of God and his providence, Franklin’s religious creed falls far short of orthodox Christianity. His beliefs were less about Christian doctrine and more about virtue – moral behavior that serves the public good. He labored to instill character in his life, going so far as to attempt “moral perfection” through the daily cultivation of thirteen different virtues. He had little tolerance for theological squabbles often associated with organized Christianity and thought debates over the meaning of Christian orthodoxy prevented clergy from preaching the true spirit of Christianity, namely, loving one’s neighbor.
This kind of morality made for a better, more humane society. Civil life could not function without virtue. Franklin believed it was vital to sustaining a moral republic. Not everyone needed religion to be virtuous. There were some, Franklin wrote, who could “live a virtuous life without the assistance afforded by Religion.” Most of the world, he believed, was made up of “weak and ignorant Men and Women” who needed religion to “restrain them from Vice, and to retain them in the practice of it [virtue] till it becomes habitual.” He was horrified by the thought of a world without religion. “If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion,” Franklin wrote, “what would they be if without it.”
Franklin’s religious beliefs were quintessentially American and, in many ways, quintessentially Pennsylvanian. It did not matter what one believed about God, as long as one’s religion contributed to a more benevolent society and made the world, one neighborhood at a time, a more enlightened and civilized place.
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Volume XXXVII, Number 4 – Fall 2011