A “Thorough Deist?” The Religious Life of Benjamin Franklin

By Thomas S. Kidd

Benjamin Franklin was arguably the greatest exemplar of America’s Enlightenment. The child of a modest Puritan family in Boston, Franklin had virtually no formal education yet became a pioneer in publishing, science, and diplomacy. He was the preeminent American figure in the transatlantic “republic of letters” before the American Revolution. At first glance, Franklin’s religion would seem to fit a mold of Enlightenment secularism, too. By his mid-teens, Franklin’s exposure to writings by skeptical critics of Christianity helped him become a “thorough deist,” as he tells us in his Autobiography. But throughout his adult life, Franklin displayed signs of the enduring influence of his parents’ faith. Although he would never embrace all the doctrines of traditional Christian faith, the frameworks, rhetoric, and even habits of that faith exercised a powerful pull on him.

It would be difficult to overstate what a formative imprint the piety of his Puritan youth, and especially the King James Bible, made on Franklin’s mind. He claimed to have read the whole Bible by the time he was five years old, and he presumably sat through thousands of heavily doctrinal Puritan sermons before he became a “thorough deist.” Franklin’s first literary love was the Puritan titan John Bunyan, including not just the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, but also Bunyan’s autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

This dense exposure to Puritan biblicism and the Bible itself helps to explain why its words and images pop up frequently in the vast corpus of Franklin’s writings. Those of us who haven’t quite mastered the text of Scripture might easily miss some of the references, if we’re not reading carefully. When you put two children of Massachusetts Congregationalists together, like Franklin and John Adams, the Bible almost seemed to give them a supplemental language in which to speak. During their diplomatic errand in Paris during the Revolution, Franklin once told Adams that he still had “two of the Christian graces, faith and hope: But my faith is only that of which the Apostle speaks, the evidence of things not seen [Hebrews 11:1].” Those “things not seen” were additional French livres. Although the French loaned America tens of millions, it never sufficiently covered the war’s expenses. In an even more obscure reference (to Joshua 9), Franklin moaned to Adams that he was “quite sick of my Gibeonite office, that of drawing water for the whole congregation of Israel.” (The Gibeonites had made a treaty with Israel, agreeing to become “hewers of wood and drawers of water” if the Israelites let them live.)

Some references to the Bible, or to the religious culture of colonial America, are prominent within Franklin’s key writings, but we may have to dig to understand what they mean. For example, we know that Poor Richard became a fabulously successful almanac for Franklin, hastening him toward an early retirement as a printer. But standing on the first line of Poor Richard’s first calendar—January 1, 1733—was the peculiar, solitary word “Circumcision.” This was a reference to the Church of England’s liturgical calendar, as January 1 was traditionally the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. (Jesus was understood to have been circumcised eight days after his birth on Christmas.) Scanning through other parts of the almanacs, similar references to the church calendar appear frequently: “Epiphany,” “Septuagesima,” “Ash Wednesday,” and others. Although the Congregationalist-hued New England almanacs traditionally would not have included such references to the Anglican church calendar, those references were not unusual features in other English and colonial almanacs. That similarity is the point: the “deist” Franklin was still immersed in, and was catering to, a pervasively religious Anglo-American culture, one in which faith shaped time.

The pull of traditional faith grew stronger in the last decades of his long life. One reason for this was relational. His closest sibling, Jane (Franklin) Mecom, was an evangelical Christian who occasionally jousted with Franklin on topics such as salvation by God’s grace alone. He also became close friends with George Whitefield, the premier evangelist of the Great Awakening of the mid-1700s. In fact, his relationship with Whitefield had started as a business association, because Franklin printed (and profited enormously from) Whitefield’s writings and sermons. But over time, their relationship became closer, even though Whitefield reserved the right to question Franklin about the state of his soul. Franklin once even proposed to Whitefield that they should found a colony together in the Ohio territory, one that would be committed to Christian ethics, especially in its treatment of Native Americans. The weight of these relationships kept Franklin from going too far with espousing radical deism – he knew he would have to answer to Jane and George if he did.

The experience of the American Revolution also moved Franklin back toward his parents’ faith. Franklin was a moderate Patriot for a long time. But once he became convinced that the British authorities had given the colonists no choice, he became a morally indignant radical, blaming King George III personally for the war. He also came to believe that, far from playing the role of the distant “watchmaker” of radical deism, God was actually working by Providence in the course of American history. For the new national seal, he and Thomas Jefferson (who was becoming an even harder-edged skeptic than Franklin) originally proposed a scene from God’s Exodus deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Somehow, even to Franklin and Jefferson, the experience of America was hearkening back to the salvation of God’s chosen nation in the Bible.

This trend back toward traditional faith helps to explain, finally, why the deist Franklin proposed that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 open its sessions with prayer. (Strikingly, few delegates supported his proposal, which was tabled.) Although Franklin still could not bring himself to believe in doctrines like the divinity of Christ, he was confident that God was guiding the affairs of the new nation. It would behoove the delegates, he thought, to humble themselves before God in prayer. The faith-ward trajectory of the “deist” Franklin is one of the best reasons for us to doubt the old historical story of how the “Enlightenment” necessarily meant secularization.

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author most recently of Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017).

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