Benjamin Franklin, Religion, and His Search for Moral Certainty
What exactly Benjamin Franklin thought of religion has become a topic of hot debate since his death in 1790. Known largely for his scientific and diplomatic exploits, Franklin was nonetheless a man of his time. Religion played a much bigger part in eighteenth-century society and, save for few philosophers like Thomas Jefferson, served as the main reference point for quandaries on ethics and morality.
Because of the world he was born into, Franklin wrote as if he couldn’t help but use religious metaphors and references to biblical texts. But was Benjamin Franklin actually religious? And what role did he see religion playing in the American society he helped to create?
Franklin’s Puritan Heritage
To understand anyone, you have to go back to their beginnings; and Franklin is no different. Though he later became one of the most famous Pennsylvanians to ever trod the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia, Franklin was born in Massachusetts.
Born in January, 1706, in Boston, Franklin was raised by devout Puritans. Benjamin’s father, Josiah, had grown up on the teachings of New England Calvinism. A faith remembered for its strict and rigid view of human morality, the Puritan branch of Calvinism believed in a god that had complete control over the world and the people in it. The Puritans also believed in predestination, meaning that God had, at the beginning of time, decreed who would be save and who would be damned. While it may sound solemn, many in the eighteenth-century found predestination as “a comfortable doctrine” because it assured them that their life had meaning (even if they couldn’t control that meaning).1
Puritanism wasn’t all gloom-and-doom, though. Their pastors preached the importance of good works (though only the works of saved souls would mean anything), and they became famous for their work ethic.
Steeped in this world, Benjamin Franklin became of an expert on the Puritan religion and its favorite scriptures. In fact, he once claimed that he had read the entire bible by age five.2 And, throughout his life, he displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the bible, often making references to or quoting particular passages that supported his arguments.
Recognizing his son’s intellectual talents, Josiah wanted to send Benjamin to Harvard to study theology and pursue the life of a pastor.3 But, as the younger Franklin entered his teen years, he started reading things other than the bible. His growing skepticism of the faith of his parents, combined with the price tag of a Harvard education, kept the younger Franklin out of the pastorhood.
Young Franklin Discovers Deism
When Benjamin Franklin began to make his way in the world as a young man, his curious mind and voracious appetite for books quickly brought him into contact with a new religious philosophy: deism.
A product of the Enlightenment and its conviction that the human condition could be perfected through the application of reason, deism believed in the so-called “clock-maker god.” The core tenet of deism was that a creator began the universe, then simply sat back and watched how it evolved. For a scientifically minded young man, brought up in a highly religious environment, this proved highly appealing. In his autobiography, Franklin recalled his introduction to deism with seeming elation:
“But I was scarce 15 when, after doubting by turns of several Points as I found them disputed in the different Books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation it self. Some Books against Deism fell into my Hands; they were said to be the Substance of Sermons 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 me much stronger than the Refutations. In short I soon became a thorough Deist.”
Despite his youthful enthusiasm for deism, Franklin’s personal belief system evolved substantially over his life. Even though he tried, he just couldn’t quite rid himself of good old Puritan values. Namely, that everything must have a purpose, especially religion.
The Evolution of Benjamin Franklin’s Religion
In his autobiography, literally the paragraph after he describes his path to becoming a “thorough Deist,” Franklin recalls how “I began to suspect that this Doctrine tho’ it might be true, was not very useful.”5 Franklin’s quandary with Deism was more about ethics than the belief in a Puritan-style God. Franklin admitted that a lot of the supernatural elements of Christianity held no sway over him. “Revelation had indeed no weight with me…”6 But, he craved a system of morality that he, and society in general, could adhere to.
“I grew convinc’d that Truth, Sincerity and Integrity in Dealings between Man and Man, were of the utmost Importance to the Felicity of Life, and I form’d written Resolutions, (which still remain in my Journal Book) to practice them ever while I lived.”7
If these later recollections of a youthful existential crisis were in fact true, then Franklin, even as a young man, was thinking like the founder of a nation. How could a society inspire its people to behave in a virtuous manner? How could it distinguish right from wrong, good from bad? Clearly the laws of man couldn’t do the trick, or, after 3,000+ years of laws, they would have! For Franklin, the answer was to lean into the religiosity of the eighteenth-century society in which he found himself.
This need for a system of social morality caused Franklin’s views of deism to evolve. In the 1700s, deism could, in fact, mean a wide variety of things. While Franklin may have started his deistic journey by embracing the idea of the clock-maker god, his metaphysics evolved. Ultimately, he seems to have settled on a god that could answer prayer and interact with the world, but denied Christian rites and dogma, like the existence of the Holy Trinity.8
Benjamin Franklin Creates a Religion
Though he never gave it a name or codified it in any way, Benjamin Franklin seems to have attempted to create his own form of religion. As one historian has put it, “Franklin was the pioneer of… doctrineless, moralized Christianity.” Annoyed with bickering of Christian sects in America, and potentially frightened by the inter-sectarian violence that lay in Europe’s past, Franklin wanted a system of faith that could inspire virtue and social unity. But he could not fully escape his Puritan programming.
To that end, he saw Jesus as the greatest teacher of morality who had yet lived. While he never embraced the divinity of Christ, he fully believed in the moralistic teachings of Jesus. Namely, the doing of good deeds and the practice of religious toleration.10 But, these basic tenets were not the product of divine inspiration, but rather the rational reflection on the condition of mankind. On Jesus and Christianity, Franklin wrote the following in a letter to his friend Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College:
“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 have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity…”11
For Benjamin Franklin, the point of religion was to engender virtue within a populace, and so create a harmonized society. But why did society need religion for this? There were some, Franklin reasoned, who could “live a virtuous life without the assistance afforded by Religion.” But, due to the pervasive nature of religion in eighteenth-century society, most people needed religion to “restrain them from Vice, and to retain them in the practice of [virtue] till it becomes habitual.”12
Sources on Benjamin Franklin and Religion
- Christine Leigh Heyrman, “Puritanism and Predestination,” nationalhumanitiescenter.org
- Thomas S. Kidd, “A ‘Thorough Deist?’ The Religious Life of Benjamin Franklin,” ageofrevolutions.com
- Thomas S. Kidd, “Reconciling Deism and Puritanism in Benjamin Franklin,” yalebooks.yale.edu
- Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Part 6, franklinpapers.org
- Kevin Slack, “Benjamin Franklin and the Reasonableness of Christianity,” cambridge.org
- Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017): 8.
- Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, 6.
- Benjamin Franklin, “A Letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College,” americanheritage.com
- John Fea, “Benjamin Franklin and His Religious Beliefs,” paheritage.wpengine.com