Benjamin Franklin has been described as being deceptively simple but in reality a man of enormous complexity.
Although notably engaged in scientific and political activities during his lifetime, Franklin expended considerable effort pondering the religious or spiritual side of human existence. In the words of historian Edmund S. Morgan, "People feel a need to know who they are, and finding out, they usually reach very decided opinions about a God who made them. Franklin was no exception. ... As a young man Franklin did a lot of thinking about that and more than once changed his mind."
Young Benjamin's parents were devout Presbyterians, but like Thomas Jefferson at a similar age, he became increasingly skeptical of religious doctrines. By 15, he was reading widely and soon found himself attracted to Enlightenment thinkers. The more Franklin studied the attacks of Christian writers attempting to discredit Enlightenment thought, the further he drifted away from conventional religious beliefs. As he noted in his autobiography, "I soon became a thorough Deist."
Benjamin Franklin circa 1785
(Painting — Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis)
According to an 18th-century definition, a deist believed in the existence of an impersonal god who created a universe governed by uniform natural laws but afterward did not interfere in the day-to-day operation of this natural order.
Thereafter, the teenage Franklin developed his thinking about God and the universe without reliance on the Bible or permanent affiliation with any organized religion. Although consistently professing belief in a supreme being, he followed a selective path throughout his life in both personal morality and religious practice.
During Franklin's youth, his iconoclastic spirit led him to playfully philosophize about the idea of predestination as opposed to free will. If, as Calvinists believed, everything was preordained, would praying be a useless activity? These and other conundrums of religion challenged his theological thinking.
Franklin, however, soon tired of such mental gymnastics: "The great uncertainty I found in metaphysical reasonings disgusted me, and I quited that kind of reading and study for others more satisfactory."
A few years later in 1728, the young religious rebel veered off sharply in yet another direction from mainstream theological thinking. Franklin went so far as to contemplate the existence of multiple gods, one of whom created our world, supervised by a separate and supreme god.
Franklin also visualized an elaborate personal deistic religious service which he believed could replace the more common church rituals then in practice.
Over the decades in which Franklin's religious thought was unfolding, his tolerance regarding other faiths remained steadfast. According to Norman Cousins, "His respect for the religions of others was itself an article of his faith."
Though the free-thinking Franklin seldom attended church, he urged both his sister and daughter to observe the Sabbath. In a letter to the latter he once wrote, "Go constantly to church, whoever preaches. The act of devotion in the Common Prayer Book is your principal business there, and, if properly attended to, will do more towards amending the heart than sermons generally can do."
As philosopher Kerry Walters has written about Franklin's attitude, "Genuine worship consisted in improving one's personal character and society, not congregating in darkened churches chanting unintelligible creeds."
Any account of Franklin's religion must include morality since much is said about this subject in his autobiography. Later in life, Franklin became convinced that morality, or virtue, was the essence of all true religion, including deism. In his autobiography he stated his goal of achieving personal moral perfection and created a list of 13 virtues which he believed were paramount.
His extensive list included temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.
Interestingly, as Franklin scholar Edmund S. Morgan points out, "What is totally missing from the list is charity, love of one's fellow man. And charity ... was actually the guiding principle of Franklin's life."
It's also noteworthy to mention that Franklin fell short in his quest to reach moral perfection. More than one historian has written about Franklin's common-law marriage to Deborah Reed, his salaciously flirtatious behavior with certain aristocratic ladies of Paris when he was our nation's ambassador to France, and the fact that two illegitimate children resulted from Franklin's youthful indiscretions. In the words of historian Thomas Foster, Franklin "wrote his own code of morals."
Throughout his life, Franklin frequently behaved contrary to the moral principles he advised others to follow. This pattern has led many historians to question the sincerity of Franklin's religious beliefs and exemplary moral code.
Despite Franklin's apparent hypocrisy in such maters, he pragmatically recognized the social usefulness of religion. There is little doubt that he viewed religion as essential for maintaining personal and social morality. Franklin's writings reveal a low estimation of human nature, and he thought undermining religion would be a great mistake.
"If men are so wicked as we see them now with religion, what would they be without it?" he wrote Franklin in his autobiography.
Just a month prior to his death in 1790, Franklin explained his religious views in detail to a well-known Congregational minister: "Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting his conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion."
The 84-year-old Franklin concluded his letter by praising the moral teachings of Jesus but expressing doubt about his divinity. Franklin added that he did not agonize or spend much time pondering that question because "he expected soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."
With few exceptions, Franklin's attitude toward religion was similar to that of several other American leaders of the revolutionary generation, such as Jefferson, Madison, Paine and the legendary George Washington. All, in the broadest sense, were deists and staunch supporters of tolerant diversity in religious belief and practice.
Bruce Dudley lives in Camden, Del., and Paul Smiths.
Bernstein, R.B., "The Founding Fathers Reconsidered"
Cousins, Norman, "In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers"
Foster, Thomas A., "Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest For a Relatable Past"
Morgan, Edmund S., "Benjamin Franklin"
Morris, Richard B., "Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny"
Walters, Kerry, "Franklin and the Question of Religion"
"The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin," ed. Carla Mulford