Benjamin Franklin and Religion: In His Own Words

There is often debate on what Benjamin Franklin’s religious views were. Let’s find out what he believed by examining his own words in his letters, treatises, and books below.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1706, and baptized at Old South Meeting House. Early in life, Benjamin Franklin questioned his Protestant upbringing. He wrote in his autobiography,

“My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns several points as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of the Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of the sermons which had been preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them. For the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to be much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.” [1]

Deists hold that there is a supreme being or God, which is evident through reason in the natural world, and that organized religion is not needed to discover God. Deistic belief in a natural God could be distinguished from the Christian messiah God. Deists at the time used names like “Supreme Judge” or “Father of the Gods”, while Christians often cited, “Lord and Savior”, or explicitly mentioned Jesus. Many deists rejected a supernatural worldview. This also included ideas such as salvation, hell, the divinity of Jesus, and most religious dogma. Benjamin Franklin indeed, doubted these things. Some deists also held that the Supreme Being guided all events without suspension of the natural order or laws of the universe.

Franklin’s 1725 work, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, expounded on some of his early beliefs. One of Franklin’s concerns was on the the problem of evil. Like earlier philosophers such as Epicurus and later ones such as David Hume, Franklin noted that the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God appeared to contain contradictions. Franklin wrote in his essay,

“1. It is suppos’d that God the Maker and Governour of the Universe, is infinitely wise, good, and powerful.
2. In consequence of His infinite Wisdom and Goodness, it is asserted, that whatever He doth must be infinitely wise and good;
3. Unless He be interrupted, and His Measures broken by some other Being, which is impossible because He is Almighty.
4. In consequence of His infinite Power, it is asserted, that nothing can exist or be done in the Universe which is not agreeable to His Will, and therefore good.
5. Evil is hereby excluded, with all Merit and Demerit; and likewise all preference in the Esteem of God, of one Part of the Creation to another.” [2]

Benjamin Franklin reconciled the problem of evil by postulating that all happenings were in accordance with the goodness of God, and that there was no room for evil. His dissertation continues,

“It will be said, perhaps, that God permits evil Actions to be done, for wise Ends and Purposes. But this Objection destroys itself; for whatever an infinitely good God hath wise Ends in suffering to be, must be good, is thereby made good, and cannot be otherwise.” [2]

Franklin reasoned that God necessitated that, all things are as they are meant to be, and that morality was indistinguishable to man,

“and which from the attributes of God, his infinite wisdom, goodness, and power, concluded that nothing could possibly be wrong in the world and that vice and virtue were empty distinctions”. [1]

Franklin later came to be embarrassed by his resolution that, “vice and virtue were empty distinctions”, believing that he had led himself and his friends astray with the idea. He wrote, “I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful.” Franklin’s later works would incorporate more advocacy for being ethical through Puritan values.

In 1728 Benjamin Franklin authored Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion, in which he wrote,

“I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being, Author and Father of the Gods themselves. For I believe that Man is not the most perfect Being but One, rather that as there are many Degrees of Beings his Inferiors, so there are many Degrees of Beings superior to him. Also, when I stretch my Imagination thro’ and beyond our System of Planets, beyond the visible fix’d Stars themselves, into that Space that is every Way infinite, and conceive it fill’d with Suns like ours, each with a Chorus of Worlds for ever moving round him, then this little Ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow Imagination, to be almost Nothing, and my self less than nothing, and of no sort of Consequence. When I think thus, I imagine it great Vanity in me to suppose, that the Supremely Perfect, does in the least regard such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man. More especially, since it is impossible for me to have any positive clear Idea of that which is infinite and incomprehensible, I cannot conceive otherwise, than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no Worship or Praise from us, but that he is even INFINITELY ABOVE IT. But since there is in all Men something like a natural Principle which enclines them to DEVOTION or the Worship of some unseen Power; And since Men are endued with Reason superior to all other Animals that we are in our World acquainted with; Therefore I think it seems required of me, and my Duty, as a Man, to pay Divine Regards to SOMETHING. I CONCEIVE then, that the INFINITE has created many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to Man, who can better conceive his Perfections than we, and return him a more rational and glorious Praise. As among Men, the Praise of the Ignorant or of Children, is not regarded by the ingenious Painter or Architect, who is rather honour’d and pleas’d with the Approbation of Wise men and Artists…

It is that particular wise and good God, who is the Author and Owner of our System, that I propose for the Object of my Praise and Adoration. For I conceive that he has in himself some of those Passions he has planted in us, and that, since he has given us Reason whereby we are capable of observing his Wisdom in the Creation, he is not above caring for us, being pleas’d with our Praise, and offended when we slight Him, or neglect his Glory.” [6]

Benjamin Franklin wrote to Joseph Huey in 1753. In his letter he suggested that to be virtuous one must practice charitable acts rather just keep religious customs,

“The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world; I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavour to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it: I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and publick spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries or compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the deity. The worship of God is a duty, the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth leaves, though it never produced any fruit.” [10]

In 1757 Franklin set sail to Falmouth. After being chased, and outrunning several other ships, Franklin still had yet to endure the worst of the trip. On the last night before reaching the port of Falmouth, the watchman on the ship, who Franklin said “perhaps had his eyes shut, and was half asleep”, did not see the lighthouse approaching. Only by the accidental yaw of the ship, did the crew notice that they were, “running fast on the rocks on which the light was erected”. With great alarm in the middle of the night, the captain woke, jumped on deck, and ordered the ship to turn full round, which saw them narrowly avoiding a disastrous ship wreck. The next morning they were able to dock safely in Falmouth.

Franklin wrote a letter to his wife in which he told her of the near ship wreck and added,

“The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received, were I a Roman Catholic perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not if I were to vow at all it should be to build a light house.”

This is often misquoted as “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

Franklin did not attend church often, but believed “weak and ignorant men and women” could become virtuous through religion. He wrote a letter in 1757 to an unknown author (sometimes cited as Thomas Paine),

“You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself.” [3]

The letter goes on to suggest that the author’s book (possibly The Age of Reason) would incite ire in contemporary authors. Franklin advises him,

“…not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it.” [3]

In a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Richard Price, Franklin criticized the Massachusetts Constitution for allowing religious tests for public office, and advocated for an early version of the separation of church and state,

“When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.” [5]

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 Franklin asked the members to conduct daily prayer while America was at war with Great Britain,

“I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — 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?” [8]

However, the motion was not warmly welcomed and Franklin afterwards wrote that, “the Convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary”. [9]

In 1790 near the end of his life, Franklin wrote a private letter to Ezra Stiles,

“I confide that you will not expose me to criticism and censure by publishing any part of this communication to you.”

Sorry, Franklin.

The letter goes on,

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals, and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure.”

While not an atheist, Franklin defended them here in his private communication. The letter goes on,

“I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd. All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my good will in assisting them with subscriptions for building their new places of worship; and as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.” [7]

Benjamin Franklin’s religious views can be at times complex, but hopefully these quotations have provided a clearer picture for the reader. Thank you for reading.

Bibliography

[1] “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.” USGenNet. The First and Only Nonprofit Historical-Genealogical Web Hosting Service on the Internet! History, Historical, Family History, Genealogy, Genealogical. Family Values. History and Genealogy. Genealogy and History. ISP. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.usgennet.org/usa/topic/preservation/bios/franklin/chpt4.htm>.

[2] Franklin, Benjamin. “The Writings of Benjamin Franklin: Boston and London, 1722 – 1726 — A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain.” The History Carper — Primary Source Documents, Histories, and Stories. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf1/m7.htm>.

[3] “WallBuilders – Historical Writings – Benjamin Franklin’s Letter to Thomas Paine.” WallBuilders | Presenting America’s Forgotten History and Heroes, with an Emphasis on Our Moral, Religious, and Constitutional Heritage. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=58>.

[4] Isaacson, 2003, p.486

[5] “Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Richard Price.” Inspiration, Spirituality, Faith, Religion.- Beliefnet.com. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/40/Letter_from_Benjamin_Franklin_to_Richard_Price_1.html>.

[6] Franklin, Benjamin. “The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume II: Philadelphia, 1726 – 1757 — Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion.” The History Carper — Primary Source Documents, Histories, and Stories. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf2/articles.htm>.

[7] “Franklin to Stiles.” Constitution Society Home Page. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/franklin-stiles.html>.

[8] “Online Speech Bank: Benjamin Franklin’s Prayer Speech at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” American Rhetoric: The Power of Oratory in the United States. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/benfranklin.htm>.

[9] “Standing the Founding Fathers on Their Heads.” Religion Online. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1682>.

[10] “Benjamin Franklin on Religion.” Bhaktivedanta Memorial Library. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://bvml.org/GCIAH/franklin.html>.

2 thoughts on “Benjamin Franklin and Religion: In His Own Words

  1. Excellent summary.

    Housekeeping: the link for the Benjamin Stiles letter citation [7] points to a different page than the text indicates.

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