A RELIGIOUS INTELLECTUAL
Benjamin Franklin, one of our most influential founders, is often thought of as a researcher and inventor. Much of his long life was consumed in a patient effort to bring peace and order to the colonies in spite of British oppression.
There are copious books and articles about Franklin. Many emphasize his Deism. In reading through his autobiography I was struck by his consistent faith and commitment to God.
First, a little about his early life and later his religion:
He was one of seventeen children sired by Josiah Franklin, a tradesman who emigrated from England in 1682. Josiah was a studious worker and managed to earn enough money in the candle business to raise his large family. He was a religious man and had a small library of theological books. He was also musically gifted; he played the violin, could carry a tune, and had a good singing voice. Known for being wise and level headed he was often sought after for advice and direction.
From the time of his earliest memories Benjamin liked books, he taught himself to read, and spent any money he earned buying more books. While still very young he read and was impressed by John Bunyan’s “Pilgrims Progress”. Later in life he could not remember when he could not read. His love of books continued into his adult life and he formed several groups of book lovers who met regularly to discuss their reading adventures. He was interested in poetry and counted several aspiring poets as his friends.
Benjamin’s brother, James, had a printing business in Boston. He was 12 years old when Josiah Franklin sent him to work for his brother; an Indenture was signed binding him to the job until he reached the age of 21, it provided no salary until the final year.
During the early 1720s James began publishing a newspaper, the “New England Currant”. It was the second newspaper to be published in America. The paper was a forum for the opinions of many of James’s friends. When Benjamin read these articles he thought he could do as well but being yet a boy was reluctant to approach his brother. Instead he disguised his handwriting, wrote an article, and put it under the door of the printing house. It was considered acceptable and as a result Benjamin wrote several more, watching and listening as they were published and discussed.
A piece written by one of James’s friends published in the New England Current upset the Assembly. James was summoned, censured, jailed for a month, and forbidden to continue publishing. He and his friends convened and decided the best course would be to publish the paper under Benjamin Franklin’s name. This brought up the question of the indenture which was voided and replaced by a new contract naming Benjamin as the new proprietor.
The new arrangement went on for a time but Benjamin became more and more disgusted with playing second fiddle to his brother who treated him like a servant and occasionally even beat him.
John Collins, one of Benjamin’s book reading buddies, arranged a clandestine passage to New York allowing Benjamin to escape without a trace. He arrived in New York with limited funds, knowing no one. However, he had a trade and was able to find a printer where he applied for work. The printer did not have an opening but directed Benjamin to Philadelphia where he said his son had lost an employee and might hire him.
The trip to Philadelphia was a disaster involving ships that ran aground, a fifty mile walk, and several delays. When Benjamin finally got to Philadelphia, the printer’s father had already arrived on horseback. His son had hired a replacement. They took him to another print shop owned by Mr. Samuel Keimer where he found employment. He was 17 years old.
Benjamin Franklin was special and his father wanted him to be educated as a clergyman. However funds were limited and it was impossible to pay for his schooling. Sending him to work in his brother’s print shop was his father’s way of promoting his love of reading.
In Philadelphia, a letter being carried by his brother-in-law, Robert Holmes, a ship Captain, was shown to the Governor, Sir William Keith, who was so impressed with the letter written by a man so young that he visited Benjamin at his job, took him out for lunch, promised to help him set up his own printing business and wrote a letter of recommendation to his father urging him to help his son financially.
Later, while in New York on the way back to Pennsylvania, the Governor of New York, William Burnet heard from the Captain of the ship that one of his passengers was shipping a large quantity of books. He invited Benjamin to his home, showed him his library, and they had an interesting discussion about books and authors.
When Benjamin returned to Boston and showed his father the letter from Sir William, his father said that Governor Keith “must be of small discretion to think of setting a boy up in business who wanted yet three years of being at man’s estate.” In spite of the urging by both Benjamin and Captain Holmes his father refused to help and sent Governor Keith a letter thanking him for his offer but believed Benjamin was too young to manage such an important business.
Not to be denied Governor Sir William Keith, disgusted with the current crop of printers in Philadelphia promised to set Benjamin up himself. Plans were made for Benjamin to travel to England to buy the proper equipment. Letters of Credit were to be furnished. Sir William entertained Benjamin several times at his home and the coming voyage to England was discussed as a forgone conclusion. However, setting an exact date took longer than expected but finally the date was set and Benjamin was ready to leave for England.
James Ralph, a close friend from his reading club, though married, insisted on going with Benjamin to England; both departed. The Letters of Credit were supposed to be in the ships mail bags and when the ship was underway the Captain gave Benjamin permission to examine the mail. There were no Letters of Credit.
During the voyage which ran into bad weather and was not pleasant, Benjamin became acquainted with a Mr. Denham, a Quaker merchant. When he related his plight to Mr. Denham he found that Governor Keith was famous for failing to honor his promises and that he actually had no credit to give.
Denham advised Benjamin to find employment and he quickly found a job with a reputable printer named Palmer. Ralph, however, was not so fortunate. He found some of his relatives but they were all poor. He brought no money and now let Benjamin know that he had no intention of returning to the Colonies. Since Ralph could not find work he was dependent on Benjamin and managed to keep him broke.
Ralph was an aspiring poet but without the poetic gift. Benjamin discouraged him but he continued to give him samples for evaluation. He finally found employment in another town. He had a girlfriend and while he was out of town Benjamin helped her and they became close. He writes, “I grew fond of her company, and, being at that time under no religious restraint, and presuming on my importance to her, I attempted familiarities (another erratum) which she repulsed with a proper restraint, and acquainted him with my behavior. This made a breach between us and when he returned again to London, he let me know that I had cancell’d all the obligations he had been under to me.” He meant, of course, that he would no longer attempt to pay the sizeable debt he owed to Benjamin. Benjamin was relieved to be free from the burden as he was now was able to save some of his own money.
Following his extended sojourn in England Franklin returned to the States. During his absence Deborah Read, the young woman whose hand in marriage was refused by her mother got involved with a rascal who married her and then quickly absconded with her dowry leaving her shaken and alone. Franklin continued to want her as his wife and since she was not legally free to marry they established a common-law marriage. Also, Franklin had sired an illegitimate son and they took him into their home and raised him. They had two children of their own, Francis and Sarah. Francis died of smallpox at the age of four while Sarah survived and became a caretaker for her father during his dotage. The autobiography I have does not mention his common law marriage or that his son, William, was illegitimate.
Franklin soon had his own printing business and developed a partnership arrangement where he would set up deserving men in the printing business and receive a portion of the profits in return. He writes that this provided him with an income and allowed him to become active in local politics.
His reading habit took him to the Public Library and an extensive study of world history. Thoughts about his historical studies created a wish to bring peace to the world. He decided that wars were a result of “parties” and the variety of motives these parties brought to the public square. He maintained that even when a particular party rose to prominence the individuals that made it up tended to adopt their own views and promote them to the detriment of the party. He concluded that all this created confusion. He observed that very few men who rise in power have the best interests of the nation as their prime concern and “fewer still, in public affairs, act with a view to the good of mankind.”
In response to the world’s problems he conceived the idea of forming a “United Party of Virtue” which would gather the “virtuous and good men of all nations into a regular body, to be governe’d by suitable good and wise rules, which good and wise men may probably be more unanimous in their obedience to than common people are to common laws.” He intended a creed that would include:
“That there is one God, who made all things.
“That he governs the world by his providence.
“That he ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving.
“But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.
“That the soul is immortal.
“And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.
He recalled this project in his autobiography and noted that he was extremely busy at the time this idea was birthed and unfortunately it got shelved.
Franklin lived a long and productive life. He brought together several different groups that liked to read and discuss authors. His intent was always to bring benefits to society. His inventions were never commercially exploited. He was one of the founders of the University of Pennsylvania. He was Postmaster first for the State of Pennsylvania and later co-master with William Hunter for all of the colonies.
His religion is evident all through his autobiography. Concerning the Colonies he wrote “Providence seems by every means intent on making us a great people. May our virtues public and private grow with us, and be durable, that liberty, civil and religious, may be secured to our posterity, and to all from ever part of the Old World that take refuge among us.”
Even after he gained some fame he continued to sign his name as “Benjamin Franklin, Printer”. As his father had intended, the printing business was an excellent foundation for his work. In 1732 he began publishing an “Almanack” using the pseudonym, Richard Saunders. It became know as “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and became very popular. At its zenith it had ten thousand subscribers and provided him with a generous income.
Likewise, his “Book of Virtues” became well known and was used by many as a guideline for personal improvement. The book listed thirteen virtuous qualities: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. The book provided and astute expansion of each quality.
Franklin writes about the thirteenth virtue which was added to the original twelve. “My list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend of mine having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added “Humility” to my list giving an extensive meaning to the word. He goes on to admit that he was never entirely successful but that he made a number of changes in his verbal contentions all designed to reign in his ego.
At the beginning of his autobiography he wrote, “And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence, which led me to the means I used and gave them success. My belief of this induces me to hope, though I must not presume, that the same goodness will be exercised toward me, in continuing that happiness, or enable me to bear a fatal reverse, which I may experience as others have done, the complexion of my future fortune being known to Him only in whose power it is to bless to us even our afflictions.”
There was a distinct flavoring of the Reformation in Franklin’s reference to Predestination and his preoccupation with good works which was stronger than that of most Wesleyan evangelists. His father’s religion affected him more than he would probably have admitted.
Ben Franklin was an intellectual who during his long lifetime read and digested hundreds of books. Though he eschewed organized religion disdaining the shallow and boring sermons of many preachers his association with the famous evangelist George Whitefield was amicable. He endorsed Whitefield’s preaching but not his theology. Whitefield’s attempts to convert Benjamin failed.
Franklin was not the cold Deist he is often portrayed to be. His religion was active and vibrant but neither public nor contentious. He was intellectually religious. He was not a chosen Christian. I suspect his resistance to Christianity might have been a result of sexual sin. In “Chastity”, his twelfth virtue, his counsel was: “Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.” Not a Christian definition of sexual restraint. Confronted with the Gospel he declined but his refusal to become a Christian did not preclude his serious pursuit of Christian ethics. He endeavored to help his fellow man by doing good works and pronouncing ethical standards. He seemed to believe that salvation was a result of good works.
I am often astounded when I think about the variety of conversions that make up the Christian Body. Some of us were selected and apprehended from a dissolute existence, others went forward at Evangelical Churches, some came to Christ slowly, some are intellectual believers who have never experienced the hand of the Savior, and some grew up in Christian families where they knew Grace from an early age. Franklin’s faith that god was in control and was guiding his steps was a sweet counter to some of today’s Christians who seek to control God making Him their servant.
With all of his theological wisdom and intellectual prowess R. J. Rushdoony spoke of his private relationship to the Savior where he would seek His help and guidance by silently asking in everyday matters. Those that miss that intimate relationship miss the essence of the Christian life.