“The Christian Deist Writings of Benjamin Franklin”

This article was published in the January 2016 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. ” Click below to read the article https://www.academia.edu/24415187/The_Christian_Deist_Writings_of_Benjamin_Franklin

Here is the first paragraph of the article:

Benjamin Franklin’s religious beliefs have been difficult for scholars to characterize because they seem to combine real piety with Enlightenment irreligiosity. Franklin wrote that while a teenager, in the early 1720s, he “became a thorough Deist.”[1] In 1725, Franklin published a pamphlet, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, which was so unorthodox it has been described by one scholar as “sacrilegious,” and “radical, even atheistic.”[2] Three years later, in 1728, Franklin wrote an essay, “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion,” in which he maintained that the deity who created the universe was too distant from his creation to care about it. Franklin believed this distant God had delegated lesser divine beings to watch over every solar system, including ours.[3] Many scholars, such as Alfred Owen Aldridge, Kevin Slack, and Benjamin E. Park, focus on Franklin’s earliest works and see Franklin as basically irreligious.[4]  Other scholars do not focus on Franklin’s earliest writings, and instead consider the many devout statements he made later in his life.  Carla Mulford, for example, shows how Franklin’s ethics were deeply connected to his piety and “belief in the presence of divinity in the world.”[5]  She neglects, however, Franklin’s longest religious writings, ones written in 1735 to defend the Reverend Samuel Hemphill.  In one newspaper article and three tracts defending Hemphill, a Philadelphia minister accused of heresy and deism, Franklin referred to Jesus as “Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Mankind” or “Our Saviour.”[6]  He continually described the Bible as the “sacred Scriptures” and the “holy Scriptures.”[7]  He stated Christianity was “the Christian Revelation,” and he declared the apostles “were endued [sic] with the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.”[8]  By making these statements, while simultaneously attacking the clergy and privileging reason over biblical revelation, Franklin was not being inconsistent.  Instead, he was revealing that he was part of a significant eighteenth-century school of thought, one that scholars have long neglected.  This school of thought is best described as Christian deism.

[1] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Mineola, NY, 1966), 43.

[2] J. A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 2006), 1:271, 287.

[3] Benjamin Franklin, “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion,” Nov. 20, 1728, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (hereafter PBF), ed. Leonard Labaree et al., 41 vols. to date (New Haven, CT, 1989–), 1: 101­–9, also http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp?vol=1&page=101a.

[4] Alfred Owen Aldridge, Benjamin Franklin and Nature’s God (Durham, NC, 1967), 29-33; Kevin Slack, “Benjamin Franklin’s Metaphysical Essays and the Virtue of Humility,” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 2 (Spring 2013): 42-6; Benjamin E. Park, “Benjamin Franklin, Richard Price, and the Division of Sacred and Secular in the Age of Revolutions,” in Benjamin Franklin’s Intellectual World, ed. Paul E. Kerry and Matthew S. Holland (Madison, NJ, 2012), 119-135: esp. 124-5.

[5] Carla Mulford, “Benjamin Franklin, Virtue’s Ethics, and ‘Political Truth,’” in Resistance to Tyrants, Obedience to God: Reason, Religion, and Republicanism at the American Founding, ed. Dustin Gish and Daniel Klinghard (Lanham, Maryland, 2013), 85-104: 93.

[6] Benjamin Franklin, A Defence of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill’s Observations: or, an Answer to the Vindication of the Reverend Commission (Philadelphia, 1735), 19, 35. In PBF, 2:90–126, and also http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=2&page=090a.

[7] Franklin, Defence Hemphill’s, 33-5; Franklin, A Letter to a Friend in the Country, Containing the Substance of a Sermon Preach’d at Philadelphia, in the Congregation of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill, Concerning the Terms of Christian and Ministerial Communion (Philadelphia, 1735), 9, 30. In PBF, 2:65–88, http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=2&page=065a.

[8] Franklin, Defence Hemphill’s, 19; Franklin, Letter Friend, 20.


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