2017-07-12
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Soon after the death of his child Francis, Benjamin Franklin was moved to set down his religious beliefs in an address he gave to a group of philosophically inclined friends known as "the Junto." Though he committed these ideas to paper more than 60 years before his death, they would serve as the basis for his understanding of the divine to the end of his life. In this description of Franklin's beliefs from Walter Isaacson's new book, "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," we can see the seeds of skepticism, attachment to virtue and above all tolerance that would be Franklin's legacy to the nation.

In London [in 1725], Franklin had written his ill-conceived "Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity," which attacked the idea of free will and much of Calvinist theology, and then he had repudiated the pamphlet as an embarrassing "erratum." That left him in a religious quandary. He no longer believed in the received dogmas of his Puritan upbringing, which taught that man could achieve salvation only through God's grace rather than through good works. But he was uncomfortable embracing a simple and unenhanced version of deism, the Enlightenment-era creed that reason and the study of nature (instead of divine revelation) tell us all we can know about our Creator. The deists he knew, including his younger self, had turned out to be squirrelly in their morals.

On his return to Philadelphia, Franklin showed little interest in organized religion and even less in attending Sunday services. Still, he continued to hold some basic religious beliefs, among them "the existence of the Deity" and that "the most acceptable service of God was doing good to man." He was tolerant of all sects, particularly those that worked to make the world a better place, and he made sure "to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion." Because he believed that churches were useful to the community, he paid his annual subscription to support the town's Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Jedediah Andrews.

One day, Andrews prevailed on him to sample his Sunday sermons, which Franklin did for five weeks. Unfortunately, he found them "uninteresting and unedifying since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced, their aim seeming to be rather to make us good Presbyterians than good citizens." On his final visit, the reading from the Scripture (Phillipians 4:8) related to virtue. It was a topic dear to Franklin's heart, and he hoped that Andrews would expound on the concept in his sermon. Instead, the minister focused only on dogma and doctrine, without offering any practical thoughts about virtue. Franklin was "disgusted," and he reverted to spending his Sundays reading and writing on his own.

Franklin began to clarify his religious beliefs through a series of essays and letters. In them, he adopted a creed that would last the rest of his life: a virtuous, morally fortified, and pragmatic version of deism. Unlike most pure deists, he concluded that it was useful (and thus probably correct) to believe that a faith in God should inform our daily actions; but like other deists, his faith was devoid of sectarian dogma, burning spirituality, deep soul-searching, or a personal relationship to Christ.

The first of these religious essays was a paper "for my own private use," written in November 1728, entitled "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion." Unlike his London dissertation, which was clogged with convoluted imitations of analytic philosophy, it was elegant and sparse. He began with a simple affirmation: "I believe there is one Supreme most perfect being."

It was an important statement, because some mushier deists shied even from going that far. As Diderot once quipped, a deist is someone who has not lived long enough to become an atheist. Franklin lived very long, and despite the suspicions of John Adams and others that he was closet atheist, he repeatedly and indeed increasingly asserted his belief in a supreme God.

In the deist tradition, Franklin's Supreme Being was somewhat distant and uninvolved in our daily travails. "I imagine it great vanity in me to suppose that the Supremely Perfect does in the least regard such an inconsiderable nothing as a man," he wrote. He added his belief that this "Infinite Father" was far above wanting our praise or prayers.

There is in all humans, however, a desire and a deeply felt duty to worship a more intimate God, Franklin surmised. Therefore, he wrote, the Supreme Being causes there to be lesser and more personal gods for men to worship. Franklin thus has it both ways: combining the deist concept of god as a distant First Cause with the belief of other religions that worship a God who is directly involved in people's lives. The result is a Supreme Being that can be manifest in various ways, depending on the needs of difference worshipers.

Some commentators, most notably A. Owen Aldridge, read this literally as Franklin's embracing some sort of polytheism, with a bevy of lesser gods overseeing various realms and planets. Occasionally throughout his life, Franklin would refer to "the gods," but these later references are quite casual and colloquial, and Franklin seems to be speaking more figuratively than literally in his 1728 paper. As Kerry Walters writes in "Benjamin Franklin and His Gods," "It is an error to presume the point to a literal polytheism. Such a conclusion is as philosophically bizarre as it is textually unwarranted." (Given the difficulties Franklin sometimes seems to have believing in one God, it seems unlikely he could find himself believing in many.)

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."

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 works than on faith.

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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