If like me you have annual reading goals, you probably struggle to decide which books are worth your precious time. It’s not my custom to elect books at random, but after my 18-month old daughter Sophia grabbed a thin, 1955 used copy of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography off the shelf, I took her to the task.
The Autobiography is not your typical first-person account of a life. Essentially a set of diary entries from various points in Franklin’s career, it is fragmented and incomplete—the final decades of Franklin’s life are left unwritten. A major portion of the book is from a single year, 1771.
Religion of the Self-Made Man
One of the most recognizable of America’s Founding Fathers, he was a publisher, editor, scientist, and diplomat. To cover Franklin’s life, even the contents of the Autobiography, would demand more space than permitted here. My particular interest is Franklin’s religious beliefs, opinions, and reflections as expressed in the Autobiography.
Born in 1706, Franklin was raised in a Christian home in provincial New England. Though his father desired that his son become a clergyman, the younger Franklin had a skeptical bent that led him to embrace deism. He confessed faith in a supreme being whose attributes included “infinite wisdom, goodness, and power.” However, Franklin denied the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the necessity that sin be atoned for. He was markedly modern in his adherence to a privatized set of religious beliefs.
Franklin describes how, as a fifteen-year-old, he rejected the very notion of revelation and nearly became agnostic. Nevertheless, he credited deliverance from religious and ethical relativism in his own words, to “the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situation, or (these) altogether preserved me from this dangerous time of youth.”
Ambiguous statements about who or what caused a particular outcome notwithstanding, Franklin did portray himself as cautiously pious, making note of his church attendance, support for the evangelist George Whitefield, and financial contributions to build church buildings. He records that although Whitefield sought to convert him, Franklin never became a believer. Christ’s atonement, justification and other doctrines were, in his eyes, irrelevant to attaining wisdom and virtue. Franklin even drafted a list of 13 “Virtues” that functioned as a code of personal conduct to be kept throughout his life. Reflecting on adolescence, when he was entertaining the skepticism of freethinkers, Franklin described his flavor of deism in the following:
I grew convinc’d that truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man were of 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. Revelation indeed had no weight with me, as such; but I entertained an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.
Throughout the Autobiography, Franklin juxtaposed his conviction that while religious claims were uncertain and speculative, morality was rationally self-evident. As a man whose chief concern was what worked, his pragmatism would have a profound impact on American popular and intellectual culture that continues to the present day.
Virtue of a Different Sort
In his monumental biography on Jonathan Edwards, the historian George Marsden draws a contrast between the pastor-theologian and America’s renaissance man. Both born in Dissenting (English Protestants who were not part the Church of England) homes only miles away and three years apart. Two of the greatest minds in the nation’s history, they possessed diametrically different visions of God and the world. Historians have opined that America has been a fulfilment of Franklin more than Edwards, though America’s continued religiosity gives evidence that Edwards’ impact should not be overlooked.
If Edwards and Franklin were alive today, the moral condition of America would almost certainly shock the latter more than the former. Edwards saw with greater clarity what a secularized ethics would eventually produce. One of Edwards’ most brilliant writings was a short essay titled, A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue. Posthumously published in 1758, it was classic in its assertion that all true ethics must be theological in nature and it was prophetic in its arguing that a rational ethical system was not properly virtuous. Furthermore, even the most basic claims, the supposed “self-evident” truths beloved by Franklin and his contemporaries were not impervious to attack.
Two-and-a-half centuries later, Edwards’ assessments have been proven accurate—more so than his contemporaries realized. The deism of Franklin was informed and buttressed by a nation and culture imbibed with Christian teaching. In a pluralistic culture like our own, Franklin’s slippery subjective tripartite of “sincerity, honesty, and integrity” is a wax nose that can be shaped at will.
It should come as no surprise that even popular reads such as Yuval Harari’s Sapiens devote space to attacking the cherished notion that “all men are created equal.” Though an atheist, Harari rightly attributes human dignity to Christianity, not nature. The God of Benjamin Franklin is a nature god, a distant abstraction, one who, Franklin famously said, “helps those who help themselves.” That is to say, he doesn’t help at all.
“Sincerity, honesty, and integrity” are pithy, but the gospel that Franklin missed reveals that we are actually insincere, dishonest and lack integrity. We need Christ for the very reason that our moral efforts fail dismally. Even if healthy and wealthy, the self-made man is not a Christian man, who by contrast, is foremost a justified man.