Franklin Defines His God

The pragmatic founding father defies deism and comes up with his own conception of the Creator.

BY: Walter Isaacson


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In a paper he subsequently read to his friends, Franklin elaborated his religious beliefs by exploring the issue of "divine providence," the extent to which God gets involved in worldly matters. The Puritans believed in a detailed and intimate involvement, called "special providence," and regularly prayed to God for very specific intercessions. As Calvin himself put it, "Supposing that He remains tranquilly in heaven without caring for the world outrageously deprives God of all effective power." Most deists, on the other hand, believed in a "general providence," in which God expresses his will through the laws of nature he set in motion instead of micromanaging our daily lives.

As was typical, Franklin sought a pragmatic resolution in his talk, which he called, "On the Providence of God in the Government of the World." He began by apologizing to "my intimate pot companions" for being rather "unqualified" to speak on spiritual matters. His study of nature, he said, convinced him that God created the universe and was infinitely wise, good, and powerful. He then explored four possibilities: (1) God predetermined and predestined everything that happens, eliminating all possibility of free will; (2) He left things to proceed along natural laws and the free will of His creatures, and never interferes; (3) He predestined some things and left some things to free will, but still never interferes; (4) "He sometimes interferes by His particular providence and sets aside the effects which would otherwise have been produced by any of the above causes."

Franklin ended up settling on the fourth option, but not because he could prove it; instead, it resulted from a process of elimination and a sense of which belief would be most useful for people to hold. Any of the first three options would mean God is not infinitely powerful or good or wise. "We are then necessarily driven into a fourth supposition," he wrote. He admitted that many find it contradictory to believe both that God is infinitely powerful and that men have free will (it was the conundrum that stymied him in the London dissertation he wrote and then renounced). But if God is indeed all powerful, Franklin reasoned, he surely is able to find a way to give the creatures he made in his image some of his free will.

Franklin's conclusion had, as might be expected, practical consequences: people should love God and "pray to Him for his favor and protection." He did not, however, stray too far from deism; he placed little faith in the use of prayers for specific personal requests or miracles. In an irreverent letter he later wrote to his brother John, he calculated that 45 million prayers were offered in all of New England seeking victory over a fortified French garrison in Canada. "If you do not succeed I fear I shall have an indifferent opinion of Presbyterian prayers in such cases as long as I live. Indeed, in attacking strong towns I should have more dependence on


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Above all, Franklin's beliefs were driven by pragmatism. The final sentence of his talk stressed that it was socially useful for people to believe in the version of divine providence and free will that he proposed: "This religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquillity within our own minds, and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others."

Not all of Franklin's religious musings were this earnest. Around the time of this paper, he wrote for his newspaper a tale called "A Witch Trial at Mount Holly," which was a delightful parody of Puritan mystical beliefs clashing with scientific experimentation. The accused witches were to be subjected to two tests: weighed on a scale against the Bible, and tossed into the river with hands and feet bound to see if they floated. They agree to submit to these tests--on the condition that two of the accusers take the same test. With colorful details of all the ridiculous pomp, Franklin described the process. The accused and the accusers all succeed in outweighing the Bible. But both of the accused and one of the accused fail to sink in the river, thus indicating that they are witches. The more intelligent spectators conclude from this that people naturally float. The others are not so sure, and they resolve to wait until summer when the experiment could be tried with the subjects unclothed.

Franklin's freethinking unnerved his family. When his parents wrote of their concern over his "erroneous opinions," Franklin replied with a letter that spelled out a religious philosophy, based on tolerance and utility, that would last his life. It would be vain, he wrote, for any person to insist that "all the doctrines he holds are true and all he rejects are false." The same could be said of the opinions of different religions as well. . They should be evaluated, the young pragmatist said, by their utility: "I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me." He had little use for the doctrinal distinctions his mother worried about. "I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. And the Scripture assures me that at the last day we shall not be examined by what we thought, but what we did... that we did good to our fellow creatures. See Matthew 26." His parents, a bit more versed in the Scripture, probably caught that he meant Matthew 25. They did, nonetheless, eventually stop worrying about his heresies.

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