“God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves”: The Eclectic Faith of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, patriot, politician, diplomat…and Deist. That’s a fact according to many modern historians. After all, Franklin himself advocated for Deism. He once wrote that his skepticism of Christianity made him “a thorough Deist.”[i] Of course it should be noted he wrote that conviction at the tender age of fifteen in a private journal.
Deists reject the divinity of Jesus, miracles and biblical revelation.
Consequently, many historians also argue Franklin was agnostic. Still others contend Franklin’s religion was eclectic, self-styled and personal. His Christian background was also evident in many of his writings, values and statements. Could Franklin’s Deism be mostly a youthful fancy…a temporary phase of life?
What’s the truth?
First, Benjamin Franklin was more religious than most Americans today.
He was a product of the First Great Awakening (1730s – 1770s)–a religious revival in America and parts of Europe that was culturally transformative. The question in Franklin’s day wasn’t whether you believed in God or not, or even in Jesus, but rather what kind of Christian are you? The issue was denominationalism–schisms of Christianity–that divided Americans.
Raised Presbyterian, Franklin struggled with divisive denominationalism and his church’s rigid traditions that separated both Christians and Americans. Like most young people, he found his preacher’s sermons boring and lacking in moral principles. Consequently, Franklin avoided church services and reserved Sundays for personal Bible study.[ii] Later in life Franklin embraced Freemasonry—a fraternal organization that blends good works and God.
Nevertheless, Franklin remained marked by Christianity.
He gleaned much of his pithy wisdom from the Bible. His popular series Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732-1757) was packed with proverbs that sounded biblical. In 1747, as the “president” (governor) of Pennsylvania, Franklin proposed a fast and prayer day. He reminded Pennsylvanians of their “duty…to acknowledge their dependence on…Almighty God.” Franklin preached “…there is just reason to fear that unless we humble ourselves before the Lord [and] amend our Ways, we may be chastized with yet heavier Judgments.”[iii]
In the mid-1750s, Franklin penned a recruitment pamphlet for Europeans intending to send their kids to America. Part of Franklin’s pitch was America’s colonial Christian culture. Franklin boasted how America had no adolescent misbehavior…because it was devoted to Faith and Christianity. He noted America was so Christianized that it was possible to grow old and never personally meet “either an Atheist or an Infidel.” Franklin extolled how America’s Christian culture produced “mutual forbearance and kindness” and a “remarkable prosperity” that brought “favor” to the nation.”[iv]
Benjamin Franklin’s America was a Christian America.
In a 1778 correspondence to France (widely known as secular and Deist) , Franklin practically bragged about “a Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district…the principal support of [America’s] virtue, morality and civil liberty.” Another time Ben remarked “Whosoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”[v]
Essentially, Franklin saw America as a place where religion was prevalent, thoughtful, respected, and productive.
Whatever were his youthful Deist views regarding Jesus’ divinity, his affection for Jesus was undeniable. Franklin’s concluded, “As to Jesus of Nazareth…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.”[vi] In his 1789 autobiography, the elder Franklin outlined thirteen virtues that guided his life—including frugality, silence, temperance and cleanliness. His top virtue? Humility… which he noted needed to “imitate Jesus.”[vii]
Franklin also pursued various Christian disciplines like prayer, charity, and service.
He prayed daily, petitioning for Divine strength, wisdom and blessing upon his work. He declared he “was never without religious principles…never doubted…the existence of the Deity; that [God] made the world, and governed it by his Providence.” Franklin noted the importance of “doing good to man” and belief in both a final judgment and eternal life.[viii] Consequently, he was no agnostic and certainly no secularist. Franklin was firmly committed to a belief in Creator God and Jesus, as well as to His Providence and Governance of this world. He may have temporarily–as a young teenager–embraced Deism, but his later writings and statements betrayed that theological idea. Franklin also disagreed with the more irreligious writings of Thomas Paine.
Later in life, Benjamin Franklin gravitated back to church attendance.
Historian Carl Van Doren detailed Franklin’s latter church experiences and recorded how Franklin’s family owned a pew at the famed Christ Church (Episcopal) in Philadelphia, PA. It’s where Benjamin Franklin attended Sunday services with his family and witnessed the baptisms of his two youngest children. Both his parents, his wife and Franklin himself are buried at Christ Church. He also financed clergy salaries, supported building programs, and helped with church accounting.[ix] These are hardly the acts and lifestyle of an agnostic or unbeliever.
Franklin described in his own Autobiography a longtime friendship with famed revivalist George Whitefield. In fact, Franklin faithfully attended Whitefield’s crusades and printed his sermons and journals.[x] Franklin was so impressed by Whitefield he financed an auditorium solely for his Philadelphia revivals…then later donated that space to launch the University of Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Franklin’s religion found flight during a fiery debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
The issue was prayer…particularly the practice of prayer to guide the Constitutional Convention. Various factions of political thought had created a moment where there was question if a Constitution could be created to satisfy every state. At one point the aged Franklin rose and stated:
.. 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. … 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: … 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.
None of this sounds like the rhetoric of an irreligious Deist or agnostic secularist.
Benjamin Franklin was never a faithless man.
He believed in God and, despite any Deist and Masonic dispositions, maintained deep appreciation for Christianity. Yes, he struggled with religious divisiveness, pomposity, and hypocrisy, but Franklin still valued how Christianity framed American culture. In elderhood Ben Franklin attended, to what degree we cannot say, a Christian church in Philadelphia and was eventually buried in that same church’s graveyard.
Maybe that why Benjamin Franklin’s faith is hard to define—particularly over 230 years after his passing. Perhaps spiritual ambiguity is exactly what Franklin preferred.
Regardless, like a lightning strike on a kite string, Franklin’s faith proved just as unpredictable, unique and, to a degree, shocking. For this Founding Father, religion and Christianity, in particular, remained a faithful friend to guide and guard his life.
Perhaps Benjamin Franklin’s faith story is best summarized in his famous proverb: “God helps those who help themselves.”
[i] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1848): 97.
[ii] Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren (New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1938): 131.
[iii] Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Theo. Fenn and Company Volume 5, 1851): 169. Accessed on Google Books.
[iv] The Works of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (New York: Frederick Campe and Company, 1835): 306. Accessed on Google Books.
[v] As quoted in George Bancroft, History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1866), Vol. IX, p. 492.
[vi] Benjamin Franklin, Works of Benjamin Franklin, John Bigelow, editor (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), p. 185, to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790.
[vii] Franklin added “and Socrates” as someone else to model.
[viii] Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111frank2.html
[ix] Van Doren, Franklin, 132.
[x] Autobiography of Franklin, 1848, 164-170.
[xi] Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), Vol. I, pp. 451-452, from James Madison’s Notes on the Convention for June 28, 1787.
Excellent summary of Ben Franklin’s commitment to a God. I would find it interesting to review what is taught about him in history books being used today is Middle School and High School?