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Was Benjamin Franklin a Deist?

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In the past two weeks, we have asked the same question about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  I presented the definition of a deist and then provided a number of statements spoken or written by both men.  It was obvious from their own words that neither of the two of them were deists as so many secular revisionists try to claim.

Of the remaining Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin is the one that more historians label as being a deist more than any other.  There is no doubt that the honorable Dr. Franklin was different and unique among the Founding Fathers.  Besides being a genius, inventor, and statesman, he was also eccentric and very outspoken.  But was he a deist?  Let’s see.

In 1730, Franklin wrote:

I propose at this time to discourse on the providence of God in the government of the world. . . .

Agreeing, then, that the world was at first made by a being of infinite wisdom, goodness, and power, which being we call God, the state of things existing at this time must be in one of these four following manners, viz.:—

1. Either he unchangeably decreed and appointed every thing that comes to pass, and left nothing to the course of nature, nor allowed any creature free agency.

2. Without decreeing any thing, 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 unchangeably, and left others to general nature and the events of free agency, which also he never alters or interrupts ; or,

4. He sometimes interferes by his particular providence, and sets aside the effects which would otherwise have been produced by any of the above causes.

I shall endeavor to show 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. . . .

Lastly. If God does not sometimes interfere by his providence, it is either because he cannot or because he will not.

Which of these positions will you choose? There is a righteous nation grievously oppressed by a cruel tyrant: they earnestly entreat God to deliver them. If you say he cannot, you deny his infinite power, which you at first acknowledged. If you say he will not, you must directly deny his infinite goodness.

You are of necessity obliged to allow that it is highly reasonable to believe a Providence, because it is highly absurd to believe otherwise.[1]

One of the greatest evangelist preachers of colonial America was George Whitefield.  Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were credited as being the two ministers responsible for the Great Awakenings that took place in the 1700s.  Franklin and Whitefield became close friends over the years and shared many personal beliefs.  In 1733, Franklin wrote to Whitefield:

For my own part, when I am employed in serving others, I do not look upon myself as conferring favours, but as paying debts.  In my travels, and since my settlement, I have received much kindness from men, to whom I shall never have any opportunity of making the least direct return; and numberless mercies from God, who is infinitely above being benefitted 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.  For I do not think that thanks and compliments, though repeated weekly, can discharge our real obligations to each other, and much less those to our Creator.  You will see in this my notion of good works, that I am for from expecting to merit heaven by them.  By heaven we understand a state of happiness, infinite in degree, and eternal in duration.  I can do nothing to deserve such rewards. . . . Even the mixed imperfect pleasures we enjoy in this world, are rather from God’s goodness than our merit: how much more such happiness of heaven!  For my part, I have not the vanity to think I deserve it, the folly to expect it, nor the ambition to desire it; but 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.

The faith you mention has certainly its use in the world.  I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor 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 public spirit; not holiday keeping, sermon reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and 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 produce any fruit.

Your great master thought much less of these outward appearances and professions, than many of his modern disciples.  He preferred the doers of the word to the mere hearers; the son that seemingly refused to obey his father, and yet performed his commands, to him that professed his readiness but neglected the work; the heretical but charitable Samaritan, to the uncharitable though orthodox priest, and sanctified Levite; and those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, raiment to the naked, entertainment to the stranger, and relief to the sick though they never heard his name, he declares shall in the last day be accepted; when those who cry Lord! Lord! Who value themselves upon their faith, though great enough to perform miracles, but have neglected good works, shall be rejected.  He professed that he came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance; which implied his modest opinion that there were some in his time who thought themselves so good that they need not hear even him for improvement; but now-a-days we have scarce a little parson that does not think it the duty of every man within his reach to sit under his petty ministrations; and that whoever omits them, offends God.  I wish to such more humility, and to you health and happiness; being your friend and servant.[2]

In 1756, Franklin again wrote to George Whitefield and said:

I sometimes wish that you and I were jointly employed by the crown to settle a colony on the Ohio…What a glorious thing it would be to settle in that fine country a large, strong body of religious and industrious people!… Might it not greatly facilitate the introduction of pure religion among the heathen, if we could, by such a colony, show them a better sample of

Christians than they commonly see in our Indian traders?…

In such an enterprise, I could spend the remainder of life with pleasure; and I firmly believe God would bless us with success, if we undertook it with a sincere regard to His honour,…[3]

There are a plethora of sources declaring that Franklin was a deist.  According to one of these sources:

Benjamin Franklin was raised as an Episcopalian but was a Deist as an adult. [4]

Franklin was born in 1706 and died in 1790 at the age of 84.  According to the statement above, Franklin was a deist as an adult.  Other sources state that he became more and more of a deist the old he got.  If this is so, then how do they explain one of the most powerful speeches delivered in early American history?

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was meeting at what is now called Independence, Hall in Philadelphia.  They were trying to draft a new governing document for the fledgling nation.  The Articles of Confederation that had been drawn up earlier had proven to be inadequate for the task.  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 any agreement on a document.  At this critical point, Franklin asked the president of the Convention, George Washington for the floor, which was readily granted.  The 81 year old Franklin stood and addressed Washington and the rest of the assembly with the following words:

Mr. President:

The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own wont of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance.

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? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: 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. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.[5]

Jonathan Dayton made the following statement on June 28, 1787 following Benjamin Franklin’s monumental speech calling for the Continental Congress to be opened with prayer ever day:

The doctor sat down, and never did I behold a countenance at once so dignified and delighted as was that of Washington, at the close of this address! Nor were the members of the Convention, generally, less affected. The words of the venerable Franklin fell upon our ears with a weight and authority, even greater than we may suppose an oracle to have had in a Roman senate! A silent admiration superseded, for a moment, the expression of that assent and approbation which was strongly marked on almost every countenance;…[6]

Written in his latter years, Franklin wrote comparing the Divine guidance and direction of the U.S. Constitution to Moses and the Ten Commandments and Laws passed on to them by God:

A Zealous advocate for the proposed federal constitution, in a certain public assembly, said, that “the repugnance of a great part of mankind to good government was such, that he believed, that if an angel from heaven was to bring down a constitution, formed there for our use, it would nevertheless meet with violent opposition.” He was reproved for the supposed extravagance of the sentiment, and he did not justify it.

Probably it might not have immediately occurred to him, that the experiment had been tried, and that the event was recorded in the most faithful of all histories, the Holy Bible; otherwise, he might, as it seems to me, have supported his opinion by that unexceptionable authority.

The Supreme Being had been pleased to nourish up a single family, by continued acts of his attentive providence, till it became a great people: and having rescued them from bondage by-many miracles, performed by his servant Moses, he personally delivered to that chosen servant, in presence of the whole nation, a constitution and code of laws for their observance, accompanied and sanctioned with promises of great rewards, and threats of severe punishments, as the consequence of their obedience or disobedience. . . .

To conclude, I beg I may not be understood to infer, that our general convention was divinely inspired when it formed the new federal constitution, merely because that constitution has been unureasonably and vehemently opposed : yet, I must own, I have so much faith in the general government of the world by Providence, that l can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous importance to the welfare of millions now existing, and to exist in the posterity of a great nation, should be suffered to pass, without being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior spirits live, and move, and have their being.[7]

Lastly, taken from his own autobiography, Franklin wrote:

And conceiving God to be the fountain of wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his assistance for obtaining it; to this end I formed the following little prayer, which was prefix’d to my tables of examination, for daily use.

“O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me.”

I used also sometimes a little prayer which I took from Thomson’s Poems, viz.:

“Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme! O teach me what is good; teach me Thyself! Save me from folly, vanity, and vice, From every low pursuit; and fill my soul With knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure; Sacred, substantial, never-fading bliss!”[8]

Remember that the definition of a deist is someone who believes that God created the earth and universe and then has had nothing more to do with His creation.  He doesn’t answer prayer, He does not interfere with the affairs of men or nations, He is a silent and non-participatory God.  Like Washington and Jefferson, Franklin was not a deist and did believe in a God that answered prayer and directed the lives of people and nations.  He frequently referred to Scriptural history and verses in many of this discourses.

References

[1] Franklin, Benjamin. A Lecture on the Providence of God in the Government of the World, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Vol II, Philadelphia, 1726-1757.

[2] Franklin, Benjamin. Letter to George Whitefield, June 6, 1733, William Temple Franklin, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, LL.D., Henry Colburn, London, 1818, pp. 1-3.

[3] Franklin, Benjamin. Letter to George Whitefield, July 2, 1756, John Bigelow, ed., The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1887, V. 2, pp. 467.

[4] The Religious Affiliation of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, Adherents.com.

[5] Franklin, Benjamin. Speech Delivered Thursday, June 28, 1787, to the Constitutional Convention at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA.

[6] Littell, Eliakim. Littell’s Living Age, E. Littell & Co., Boston, 1850, V. 25, p 359.

[7] Franklin, Benjamin Dr., A Comparison of the Conduct of the Ancient Jews, and of the Antifederalists in the United States of America, Essays And Letters: Part II, Commercial and Political, John Sharp, London, 1820, V. 2, pp. 135-140.

[8] Franklin, Benjamin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Chapter 8. EarlyAmerica.com.

Christian Life & Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States

“I was debating an ACLU attorney at Christmas on an NPR station. I pulled out a Xerox copy of The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States and said to her: ‘Until you answer this book, the ACLU can’t make a case against America’s Christian founding.’ She was shocked when she saw it. She asked where I had gotten it. The only thing that gave her relief was the fact that the book was not in print. But now it is.”

Be afraid ACLU. Be very afraid. Morris packs The Christian Life and Character with page after page of original source material making the case that America was founded as a Christian nation. The evidence is unanswerable and irrefutable. This 1000-page book will astound you and send enemies of Christianity into shock. Keep in mind that it was published in 1864 and has been out of print for more than a century. It has been newly typeset using a very readable font and added subheads. A new Foreword written by my long-time friend Dr. Archie Jones describes the background of the book and provides a brief biography of the author. Gary DeMar

Benjamin Franklin Morris’ book has been out of print for more than 100 years. If you can find an original copy, it’s only because you have looked in the deep recesses of university libraries where the volume is probably collecting dust on dimly lit library shelves. Organizations like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have done their best to ignore the content of the massive compilation of original source material found in this book. If Americans ever become aware of the content assembled by the author, the arguments for a secular founding of America will turn to dust.

Reprinted for the first time in over 140 years in 2007, this book has already been through it’s seventh printing. Don’t miss out on the fantastic wealth of information this book has in store! Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States could very well be responsible for rediscovering the truth of America’s Christian foundation.

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  • Robert Tolliver

    I am an avid and even radical believer that America has undeniably and easily proveable Judeo Christian roots. I am currently writing a a series on “Is America Worth Saving?” in my weekly e-letter, and have been reminded again of the profound influence of Christianity on this land. Your articles on Washington, Jefferson and Franklin leave no doubt that none of these Founding Fathers were mere Deists, but each had a strong belief in a personal God Who was actively involved in the affairs of men on a personal level. I copy and save every such article you write because of the research and documentation you provide. Thanks!

  • Benjamin Sullivan

    Your argument is based upon the present day, cookie cutter understanding of Deism. A brief review of history will show you that it varied greatly. One could very conceivably be a Christian Deist – there were in fact, Christian Deists at that time. I am a Freemason as were Franklin and Washington and you sir, are mistaken. :)

  • DeistReality

    “Remember that the definition of a deist is someone who believes that God created the earth and universe and then has had nothing more to do with His creation. He doesn’t answer prayer, He does not interfere with the affairs of men or nations, He is a silent and non-participatory God. Like Washington and Jefferson, Franklin was not a deist and did believe in a God that answered prayer and directed the lives of people and nations.”

    Your definition of what a Deist believes comes from people (Noah Webster..the Catholic church and Atheists) who were never self professed Deists in the first place. ALL Deist of antiquity believed that God played a conscious active role in their life in some way. One need only study Thomas Paine’s words political as well as theological to know that he believed in Providence. Thomas Paine started a “Theophilanthropists” (God,Love,and man) church. This was a Theistical church that promoted a Creator that was very active in His/? works. They believed in life after death and that its possible God judges us.

    It may make you feel good in some way to misrepresent what Deists are all about. Why don’t you try studying self professed Deists and stop assuming so much!

    Franklin’s Autobiography: page 27 of 81 – USHistory.org

    “But I was scarce fifteen 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 itself. 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.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_lnH8gMA4E

    • http://www.blogofbenjamin.com Benjamin Sullivan

      Thank you for this comment my friend! :)

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