Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father
by Thomas S. Kidd.
Yale University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $30.
John Adams once commented of his senior colleague, Benjamin Franklin, that “the Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought of him as half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker.” In composing Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, Baylor historian Thomas Kidd notes that this competition of claims on Franklin’s faith was not exclusive to his contemporaries but also marks subsequent Franklin scholarship. Eschewing dogmatic efforts to cast Franklin as either a “faithful believer” or “stone-cold atheist”—the ambiguity arising from Franklin’s own unwillingness to dogmatize—Kidd attempts to let the founding father speak for himself, presenting Franklin’s religious life and thought in all of its diversity, irony, self-contradiction, and idiosyncrasy.
Kidd makes this effort through extensive quotation of Ben Franklin’s public writings and private correspondence, making occasional reference to secondary sources at points of scholarly debate but preferring to leave these original texts largely unencumbered. Assuming a basic familiarity with Franklin’s life, the American founding, and eighteenth-century religion, Kidd is able to focus on his subject matter without becoming distracted in explaining irrelevant circumstances. At the same time, religion and religious themes are so central to Kidd’s understanding of Franklin’s life that attention to this subject lends itself to a reasonably comprehensive treatment of Benjamin Franklin’s familial, entrepreneurial, and political life as well.
The portrait that emerges is that of a quintessentially American religious life, in more ways than one. A son of New England Puritans, Franklin’s imagination remained captivated by the Christian scriptures, even as he repudiated his family’s doctrinaire Calvinism for a devotion marked more by charitable treatment of fellow men than by one’s particular convictions about God.
Eminently inquisitive and practical, Ben Franklin’s faith was such that—despite his premeditated resolve to the contrary—his first encounter with George Whitefield saw him induced by the great preacher’s powerful oratory and ethical appeal to empty out his pockets in alms for Whitefield’s orphanage. Yet upon reading reports of the size of Whitefield’s crowds, Franklin incredulously visited another sermon for the sole purpose of conducting a scientific experiment on the evangelist’s audibility. Describing this balance of reason and devotion in Benjamin Franklin’s religious thought, Kidd remarks that this “reasonableness of faith was the keystone of Anglo-American theology long before and after Franklin’s life”.
Highlighting Franklin’s points of departure from orthodox Christianity, Kidd designates Franklin, with his non-doctrinal endeavor to “imitate Jesus and Socrates,” as the founder of “that distinctively American, quasi-religious genre, the self-help movement.” Citing Franklin’s Autobiography and especially The Way to Wealth, Kidd demonstrates that the deficit of doctrine in the printer’s religion was filled up with intertwined ethical maxims and industrious advice. Faith without work was never of interest to Franklin. After abdicating the Puritan church of his childhood, Franklin spent much of his life seeking institutions and organizations for free religious inquiry and social charity. Franklin founded and participated in a number of intellectual and ethical societies, but his non-doctrinal, social religious vision was epitomized in the Freemasons.
Throughout his account, Kidd is careful to nuance Franklin’s aversion to doctrinaire religion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was dogmatically skeptical about supernatural religion; Franklin, however, was skeptical of any dogmatization—whether religious or irreligious. Franklin saw the apex of human religious inquiry not in arriving at the correct conclusions, but in asking the right questions. One of the reasons that so many have found Franklin theologically baffling, according to Kidd, is that instead of articulating a fully formulated opinion, he preferred dialogue—even with himself! Franklin would often write an essay and publish it pseudonymously in The Pennsylvania Gazette, only to write and publish equally anonymous response essays refuting the original argument. Mixed as they are with humor and irony, it is sometimes impossible to discern which character—if any—actually represented Franklin’s opinion; he simply enjoyed the give and take of public debate, not to mention the profits it could generate. Commenting on one such debate about the reliability of supernatural stories, Kidd writes, “Franklin was not sure of the answer, but he liked raising the question.”
Despite his ambivalence about religious doctrine’s veracity, Franklin held doctrinal religion in high regard. Indefatigably social in his thought, “Franklin never embraced his role as a public anti-Christian skeptic,” according to Kidd; whereas tearing down traditional Christian doctrines might have afforded Franklin some satisfaction, he came to realize that such dogmatic skepticism “might be true” but “was not very useful.” Everything, for Franklin, hinged on the capacity to cultivate virtue; he could tolerate the doctrinal certainty of orthodox churches so long as they produced virtuous and public-spirited citizens.
This openness to traditional religion for others but not himself is seen clearly in the family life of Franklin—who was out of town when his son, Francis, was baptized. In correspondence, Franklin tells his wife that he hopes their daughter, Sally, would continue to be a zealous church attender and would diligently observe the Book of Common Prayer’s rituals. Later in his life, while serving as a diplomat in France, Franklin sent his accompanying grandson to Geneva that his might be “a Presbyterian as well as a republican” education, rather than the Catholic and aristocratic instruction he would receive in France. These admonitions even extended, ironically, to Franklin’s infamously flirtatious—if not adulterous—relationships with younger women such as Catherine Ray of Rhode Island, whom he counseled to “Be a good girl, and don’t forget your catechism. Go constantly to meeting—or Church—till you get a good husband; then stay at home, and nurse the children, and live like a Christian.” This odd “fatherly advice,” like much of Franklin’s religious writing, confounds attempts to distinguish between the satirical and the serious.
Kidd, with an obviousappreciation for Benjamin Franklin’s life and thought, successfully resists the biographer’s temptation to lapse into hagiography. He depicts Franklin as representative of the prejudices and injustices of the eighteenth century, as well as predictive of the theological vacuousness of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Beyond all of the self-contradiction, moral inconsistency, and ironic unorthodoxy, Kidd presents Franklin as religiously hopeful. Asked shortly before his death about the divinity of Christ, Franklin responded with his standard non-dogmatism and postponed the question, writing, “it is needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble”—an allusion to his approaching afterlife. Kidd concludes his biography by describing Franklin’s deathbed, where in 1790 the printer gazed upon an old painting of the Judgement Day, with some souls permitted into glory and others allocated to perdition. Closing Kidd’s hardbound volume, the reader’s mind returns to Benjamin Franklin’s self authored epitaph from six decades before his death:
The Body of
Benjamin Franklin, Printer,
Like the Covering of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms;
But the Work shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new and more elegant Edition,
Revised and corrected,
By the Author.
Hayes Bierman is the Public Life Editor of Fides Quaerens, a journal of religion and culture. He lives in North Carolina with his beautiful wife and daughter.