Franklin Defines His God

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

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Franklin went on to outline how he viewed and worshipped his own personal God. This involved offering suitable prayers, and Franklin produced a whole liturgy that he had composed. It also required acting virtuously, and Franklin engaged in a moral calculus that was very pragmatic and even somewhat utilitarian: "I believe He is pleased and delights in the happiness of those He has created; and since without virtue man can have no happiness in this world, I firmly believe He delights to see me virtuous."

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."

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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.

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