Benjamin Franklin and Deism

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Introduction

The question of whether or not Benjamin Franklin was a deist has preoccupied minor historians and political commentators. A brief search reveals the facts, that for a brief period in his childhood Franklin did ascribe to the deist philosophy. However, he found that he did not desire to live in a world where the creator was disinterested and unavailable. Franklin found the belief that he could appeal to God’s aid and submit to his wisdom comforting in the relative uncertainty of the foundational forming of the United States of America. Franklin saw himself as a spiritual/philosophical caregiver for the young nation, and would not rest in his personal searching and sharing. Thus, for the majority of his life Franklin was a passionate Christian with a devoted relationship with an interactive God.

The Question of Engagement

As opposed to Christianity, a Deist is someone who believes the philosophy that after God created the world they desired nothing more to do with it-no intervention, no observation, and no relationship with the creation. There has been some minor confusion as to the position of Benjamin Franklin in relationship to Christianity, the founding of America, and the complications of deism. However, the confusion has only been caused by people calling down Franklin on their own side of the debate without verifying his position. Thankfully, Franklin shared his experience in his autobiography so there is no need to speculate. 

According to his autobiography, Franklin was raised Christian, but around his teenage years he began to search for answers to life’s big questions outside of the single source of the Bible. Reading many books, philosophical tracts, and pursuing his own doubts at the age of fifteen Franklin chose to renounce his Christian ties and become a deist. However, soon after this choice he began to have doubts. This may be due to the cold nature of the doctrine, the lack of verifiable proof, or simply due to the intense amount of social pressure to be a part of Christianity. Soon after this momentary conversion, Franklin reported, “I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful” (Fortenberry). It remains true to this day it is most efficient to profess being a Christian to get ahead in America (Christian Worldview).

At the age of seventeen Franklin still called himself a deist and moved to London. During his stay, Franklin published a pamphlet which proclaimed; ‘Whatever is, is right.’ It was during this time, that Franklin really began to doubt the truth of deism, and he recorded in his autobiography that he ‘doubted whether some error had not insinuated itself unperceived into my argument.’ He then said that he ‘grew convinced that truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life.’  It was about his conclusions of this time that Franklin wrote, ‘Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such;’ and he concluded that it was ‘the kind hand of Providence’ which preserved him during this ‘dangerous time of youth.’ (Fortenberry)

Revelation may have had no weight with Franklin because he was a young philosopher and did not simply want to swallow what his parents believed. After returning from abroad after two years Franklin wrote his “Articles of Belief.” Keeping with his age, “The wording of this document is consistent with the time period after his rejection of deism but before his acceptance of the Bible as revelation from God (Kershaw). This transitional phase appears to have continued through 1731” (Fortenberry). The “Articles of Belief” provided an outline for the continuing emergence of his thought, and; In this outline, Franklin completely abandoned his earlier concept of God as merely the God of our solar system with other God's above Him and instead fully embraced a single God whom he identified as the ‘Father of the Universe.’ Franklin's ‘Doctrine to be Preached’ described God as ‘infinitely good, Powerful and wise’ as well as ‘omnipresent.’ (Fortenberry)

At this time Franklin began to renegotiate his understanding of the afterlife. He came to see that people “are made more happy or miserable after this Life according to their Actions” (Fortenberry). By Franklin’s 1732 article “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World” he has completely stepped away from deism, and presents the belief that God intervenes directly in the lives of the creation. Franklin saw himself as a guiding light for the growing nation, and desired to engage in the philosophical discussion of the nature of the world. Leaving nothing to chance, “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World” he addresses the three assertions of the philosophy of how God relates with creation. The path he takes his readers through is the same path which he must have taken himself understanding his own beliefs. The three aspects of this question for him are; 1. Either he unchangeably decreed and appointed everything that comes to pass, and left nothing to the course of nature, nor allowed any creature free agency. 2. Without decreeing anything, he left all to general nature and the events of free agency in his creatures, which he never alters or interrupts; or, 3. He decreed some things and left others to general nature and the events of free agency, which also he never alters or interrupts. (Creative Revolution)

Franklin proposes a fourth possibility which he believed was true. He wrote, “He sometimes interferes by his particular providence, and sets aside the effects which would otherwise have been produced by any of the above causes” (Creative Revolution). His article “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World” seeks to prove this assertion on the basis that “the first three suppositions to be inconsistent with the common light of reason, and that the fourth is most agreeable to it, and therefore most probably true” (Creative Revolution). Ultimately, this reveals he simply chose to belief in Christianity and the relatability of God because that was the type of world he desired to live in (Adherents). After all, there is no real way to prove anything about the Christian god. 

Franklin Engages with God and Man

Continuing to engage with the philosophic contemporaries interested I this question, Franklin became close friends and pen pals with famous colonial preacher George Whitefield. They shared the same beliefs about the creator, and Franklin believed that he was a servant of the people much like the preacher. He wrote to Whitefield in 1733; I have received much kindness from men, to whom I shall never have opportunity of making the least direct return; and numberless mercies from God, who is infinitely above being by our services. Those kindnesses from men, I can therefore only return on their fellow men, and} I can only show my gratitude for these mercies from God, by a readiness to help His other children and my brethren. (Creative Revolution)

Thus, Franklin projected his own sense of community and its moral responsibility onto his ideation of God. If he could not forget his duty to his fellow man, than surely the creator could not as well. In his writings, Franklin reveals that far from being a deist, he believed that God had a plan for him, one that he trusted. He wrote to Whitefield, that he content myself in submitting to the will and disposal of that God who made me, who has hitherto preserved and blessed me, and in whose fatherly goodness I may well confide, that he will never make me miserable; and that even the afflictions I may at any time suffer shall tend to my benefit. (Creative Revolution)

It was this faith and passion which enabled Franklin to speak for the nation during the formation of the constitution. The Constitutional Convention met in 1787, but was beset with problems; the convention had been meeting for about six weeks and could not agree on anything.  The larger states wanted more power and rights while the smaller states wanted equal power and say in the government.  The northern states were also at odds with the southern states.  The convention was rife with conflict and disagreement and was on the verge of disbanding without coming to agreement on a document. (Creative Revolution)

Participating in this pivotal convention, Franklin took to the floor to inspire and guide his countrymen to the formation of the constitution. He acknowledged that they may disagree on every item under debate but he saw that as “methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own wont of political wisdom” (Creative Revolution). Franklin moved that they should allow the wisdom of the creator to inform their choices (Van Dyke). 

At this speech Franklin reminded the council that they had called down God’s aid enough when they were fighting, and asked why not now? In this speech he reaffirms his Christian views as “that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” (Creative Revolution). Franklin believed that if they did not consult scripture and allow the spirit of community to move them they would fail in their efforts to lay the foundation of a just nation (Fea). 

It is interesting that in a way his belief appears correct. The current course of America’s culture and spending rings of the warning he gave President Washington about the folly of acting without God’s guidance, “We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age” (Creative Revolution). America would do well to consider the wisdom in this. 

Conclusion

Benjamin Franklin was not a deist but believed that God interacted with creation directly. Franklin saw God’s passion for justice in the early formation of the United States of America, and in many places he looked. The Christian belief system was the filter through which he saw all things, and through which he related with his fellow man. Franklin’s own personal morality he ascribed to God, and to those around them. While this was inspiring it was also erroneous and without foundation, but it was enough to help Franklin ascribe the meaning to life he desired.

Works Cited

Adherents. “The Religious Affiliation of Founding Father: Benjamin Franklin.” Adherents.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.adherents.com/people/pf/Benjamin_Franklin.html

Christian Worldview. “Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?” Christianworldviewpress.com, 7 Aug. 2013. Retrieved from: http://christianworldviewpress.com/was-benjamin-franklin-a-christian/

Creation Revolution. “Was Benjamin Franklin a Deist?” creationrevoluiton.com, 20 July 2011. Retrieved from: http://creationrevolution.com/was-benjamin-franklin-a-deist/

Fea, John. “Religion And Early Politics: Benjamin Franklin and His Religious Beliefs.” Pennsylvania Heritage, Volume XXXVII, Number 4 (Fall 2011). Retrieved from: http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/pa-heritage/religion-early-politics-benjamin-franklin.html

Fortenberry, Bill. “The Conversion of Benjamin Franklin.” Increasing Learning, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.increasinglearning.com/franklin-conversion.html

Kershaw, Tom. “The religion and political views of Benjamin Franklin.” The Hollowverse, 2016. Retrieved from: http://hollowverse.com/benjamin-franklin/

Van Dyke, Tom. “Ben Franklin and the Bible.” American Creation, 2 Jan. 2009. Retrieved from: http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/11/ben-franklin-was-not-deist-ok.html