"THE RELIGION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN"
A Sermon by the Rev. Bruce Clear
Sunday, May 1, 2005
We need more people with the qualities of Benjamin Franklin. We need clear and practical thinking, tolerant acceptance of others, and open-mindedness. And we need humor.
Franklin was the classic "Renaissance Man," with achievements in
widely diverse areas of life. He was a
writer and journalist, a statesman at the founding of our country, an
international diplomat who negotiated the end of the war in Paris, a scientist
who unlocked the mysteries of electricity and weather, a civic leader who
founded a University, built libraries, and organized numerous civic improvement
organizations. Most of all, he was trusted and respected more broadly than any
other founder with the possible exception of
amazing how deeply this country was blessed at its beginning by the assortment
of great minds that shaped it into being.
I have often wondered what it would be like to actually meet these
people. By most accounts, the greatest
mind was probably Jefferson, but if I had the choice to spend an afternoon and
choose only one of these great people to meet, I would pick
I want to talk specifically about his religious views, but in doing so, I know I give inadequate attention to so much more about him. All I can do is give a bare outline to remind you of the breadth of his life, and then leave it all aside while I then address his opinions on religion.
Benjamin Franklin was
It was originally expected that he would study for the ministry, but his father decided the family couldn't afford college, though some believe his father's real reason was that, having observed Benjamin's spunky character as a child, he thought his son not well suited for ministry. So Benjamin Franklin, who became a magnificent man of letters, was mostly self-educated.
At age ten, he
apprenticed in a
When he returned, he
settled back down and started a family.
Over the next 20 years, he built his business into such a financial
success that he formally retired at age 42 so he could devote his time to civic
matters, scientific experiments, and international diplomacy. He became the agent of the colony of
I will not repeat the
So we turn now more
Most of the leading founders of this nation were Deists. Deism was a religious philosophy born of the Enlightenment. In its simplest form, it is a belief in a Creator God who does not interfere with the world, but just set everything in motion and lets nature take care of itself. The Deist has a deep commitment to reason and science, and a faith that the only way humans can understand God is to understand how nature works. Deists have no interest in theological speculations about salvation or about the divinity of Jesus.
Very near the end of
"You desire to know something of my
Religion. . . . Here is my Creed: I believe
in one God, Creator of the Universe.
That he governs it by his
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, 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; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it. . .
Then the 84 year old Franklin, who was ailing and soon to die when we wrote this, added with typical wit about his doubt of Jesus' divinity:
think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an
I say these views of
Deism are simple and straightforward.
He was convinced that for most people, and for himself as well, a strong belief in God was useful for living a better life. Therefore, he was more outspoken than many other deists about God. He believed in God not because he thought the belief was true, but because he thought the belief made him, and others, better people. It was useful.
His was a simple formula: if the consequences of the religious belief are good, then the belief is good, whether true or false. When his parents, of strong Puritan background, expressed their concern about his religious expressions, he wrote to them saying this:
"I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me."
"I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. And the Scripture assures me that at the last day we shall not be examined by what we thought, but what we did. . . that we did good to our fellow creatures."
"There are some things in your
You might then think
This view is
illustrated in the story about his only attempt to attend a church
regularly. He always paid dues to the
Presbyterian Church, and once experimented with regular attendance. He went for five weeks and heard the sermons
of the Rev. Jedediah Andrews. He found
them to be "uninteresting and unedifying since not a single moral
principle was inculcated or enforced, their aim seeming to be rather to make us
good Presbyterians than good citizens."
On the last Sunday he went, the subject was about virtue, something that
Sometime later, the
Presbyterian church brought an assistant minister named Samuel Hemphill, whose
sermons were more on ethics than on doctrine.
Be frugal and pay your debts
Speak the truth always.
Be hard working.
Speak ill of no one, ever.
Every day, he examined his progress on these rules. Some years later, the passion for self-improvement became far more sophisticated when he began what he came to call the "Moral Perfection Project." This time, he listed what he perceived to be thirteen human virtues -- for example temperance, order, frugality, industry, sincerity, cleanliness, and so forth. He made a grid with thirteen columns and each day marked whether he improved himself in any category, or failed to improve himself. Of this project he later wrote, "I was surprised to find myself much fuller of faults than I had imagined." Yet he never retreated from his effort to seek self-improvement.
This very practical route to self-improvement was also at the root of his religious views. For some religions, virtue means self-sacrifice. But for him virtue was always improving your character. If religion had no positive practical consequences, it had no meaning. In an early essay he wrote about his religion, he ended with this sentence: "This religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our own minds, and render us benevolent, useful, and beneficial to society."
Late in his life, a
But the aspect of his religious views I most admire, and I hope to emphasize here, is his commitment to religious toleration. Such commitment flows from his pragmatic conviction that the role of religion is to make us better people.
His broad approval of
religious diversity was illustrated in the curious story of his friendship with
the great itinerate evangelist George Whitefield. History finds Whitefield astounding in many
ways, including his powerful voice: he would regularly preach to crowds up to
6,000 people, without need of amplification.
Whitefield, a Methodist, held a traditional Calvinistic and Puritan
theology of salvation and damnation, which
"Even if the Muft of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service."
"The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I desire to lessen it in any way; 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 holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing, and reading, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers . . . ."
At the end of his life, as one of the organizers of July 4th celebrations, he made sure that any celebratory parade in town invited the participation of clergy from every religion, including the rabbi. At his death in 1790, twenty thousand people turned out for a procession led, again, by all clergy in town, of every faith.
Part of my reason for
The story I just told -- and every word of it
is true -- is used by many today to suggest our country was established by the
blending of religion with state, and the great founder Benjamin Franklin is the
hero of the story. But it isn't the
whole story, and by itself it is very misleading. The rest of the story is that
Among the founders, Benjamin Franklin was probably not the most vocal in advocating strict separation of church and state. But his life-long commitment to religious diversity and tolerance would obviously encourage the government not to tamper in religious matters.
Finally, we come now to the question the rests obstinately among Unitarian Universalists: Was Benjamin Franklin a Unitarian? As I've mentioned here before, we UUs are frequently guilty of the cardinal sin of name-dropping, and savor lists of famous Unitarians and Universalists. Benjamin Franklin's name appears on some of those lists, but does not appear on many others. It makes for an interesting debate.
There are different
criteria for deciding whether an historic figure was, in fact, a
Unitarian. One of the key factors, of
course, must be whether that person held beliefs fully consistent with
Unitarians of his day. On that basis,
The summary of his religious beliefs, written to Yale President Styles near the end of his life, could have been penned by any number of Unitarians in the late eighteenth century. He confessed a belief in God as Creator, and in the immortality of the soul, and that we serve God only by our service to other people. He said he always doubted the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus, though he regarded Jesus' moral teachings to be the best ever presented. Throughout his life, he eschewed any pretension toward speculation about salvation by grace, but repeatedly insisted that how we live our lives is the only true measure of religion. And finally, he reiterated his commitment to tolerance, reporting that he enthusiastically supported all religions that work to improve the quality of human life, and respected their doctrines though he may not have agreed with them.
All of that, as I say,
fit neatly into the prevailing Unitarian views in his day. Add to that his association with a number of
respected Unitarian leaders, first among whom was Joseph Priestly, and English
scientist who was to become a Unitarian minister. Priestly is known in science books as the man
who discovered oxygen. He and Franklin
became close friends in
"Remember me affectionately . . . to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction, for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude, or they could not venture to their own heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, 'tis his honesty that brought upon him the character of a heretic."
Some years later, when Priestly was violently
run out of
So it is clear that
not only were
On or off a specific
"In both his life and his writings,
(Selections from Poor Richard's Almanack)
Of all the amazing accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin, it may be his wisdom tinged with humor that is most lasting. Just for fun, I thought I'd remind us all of the famous wisdom found in a series of books he called "Poor Richard's Alamack." Some of the pithy sayings are rather famous, and universally used today, such as:
He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.
Haste makes waste. (But then he added:) Make haste slowly.
East to live, and not live to eat.
No gains without pains.
Then there are many more just as insightful an clever that have not become quite as well known.
He is a fool who cannot conceal his wisdom.
A good example is the best sermon.
There are more old drunkards than old doctors.
When the well is dry we know the worth of water.
Diligence is the mother of good luck.
Keep your eyes open wide before marriage, half shut afterwards.
Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.
Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults.
And finally, of course, one which all of us have experienced at one time or another:
Fish and (house-) guests stink after three days.
From Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Benjamin Franklin was the founding father who winks at us. George Washington's colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we find it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time.
"He was, during his