"THE RELIGION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN"

 

A Sermon by the Rev. Bruce Clear

Sunday, May 1, 2005

All Souls Unitarian Church

Indianapolis, Indiana

 

            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.

Benjamin 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 Washington. 

It is 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 Franklin without a doubt.  He was, history tells, just plain fun to be with.  Many of his qualities have become hallmarks of American culture.  He had a homespun sense of humor that has continued from Mark Twain to Garrison Keillor.  He cared about practical questions, wanting to know how everything works, and pioneered more than one field of science.  He put hard work at the top of his list of values, and was a self-made successful businessman.  He had a democratic view not just of government, but of society, not discriminating between rich and poor, educated or uneducated, religious or not.  Most of all, he is, perhaps, the best and earliest model we have of what it means to be tolerant and respectful of differences in society.  All of these qualities were reflected in his views of religion. 

            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 born in Boston in 1706, the tenth child born of Josiah Franklin who came to America as a Puritan dissenter in 1638.  His mother's family also came as Puritans to America, but later converted to the Baptists.  His background was modest, and throughout his life he honored his humble beginnings and held a strong distaste for any show of social elitism or pretension.  His Puritan upbringing provided substantial influence for him -- some of which he turned into good use, and much of which he strongly rebelled against. 

            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 Boston print shop owned by his older brother James.  At age 17, he ran away from home, not telling his family where he was going, and ended up in Philadelphia where he found work at printing companies.  At 19, he took off for England to find adventure and perhaps direction in life. 

            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 Pennsylvania to England, living there for many years, and negotiated with the French during the war winning their alliance.  He became as widely admired throughout Europe as he was in America, winning over kings and shopkeepers with his natural charm. 

            I will not repeat the list of Franklin's accomplishments that I outlined in the reading earlier from Walter Isaacson.  Suffice it to say that this man we associate with bifocal glasses, kites in thunderstorms, nation-building, and pithy sayings was even bigger than his reputation.  He was a marvel everywhere he went, and the French statesman Turgot, referring to Franklin's skill in discovering electricity and negotiating international treaties, commented that, "He snatched lightening from the sky and the scepter from tyrants." 

 

            So we turn now more specifically to Franklin's religious views.  They are simple and straightforward.  He considered himself a "Deist."  Underneath that layer, though, are some complex distinctions to be made. 

            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 his life, Franklin outlined his simple deistic views in a detailed letter to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale University.  Stiles had written inquiring about his religious opinions, and Franklin answered this way: 

 

"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 Providence.  That he ought to be worshipped.  That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children.  That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.  These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever Sect I meet them. 

            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: 

 

            "I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble." 

 

            I say these views of Deism are simple and straightforward.  But Franklin put his own personal twist to them.  The one distinguishing philosophy of Benjamin Franklin, in politics, society, or religion, was that anything that was meaningful had to be practical -- have some good consequences.  Like other deists, he cared little about doctrine or the structure of the godhead or how to be saved.  But he confessed that he thought it too impractical.  For him, religion had to have some positive effect on people's life, making them more virtuous.  His hesitancy about deism came when he concluded that it didn't always serve well enough to make people better people.  At some point he said about deism, "I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful."  For Franklin, a strict, doctrinaire deism was not itself sufficient to guide morals. 

            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 New England doctrines and worship which I do not agree with, but I do not therefore condemn them. . . .  I would only have you make the same allowances." 

 

            You might then think of Franklin as affirming a "practical" or even "ethical" view of religion, rather than a spiritual one.  Throughout his life he often mentioned these words as his fundamental religious principle:  "The most acceptable service to God is doing good to man." 

            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 Franklin cared about deeply.  He was disappointed that the sermon focused only on doctrine and dogma, giving no practical insights into virtue.  Franklin wrote that he was "disgusted" and returned to spending Sundays reading and writing at home. 

            Sometime later, the Presbyterian church brought an assistant minister named Samuel Hemphill, whose sermons were more on ethics than on doctrine.  Franklin became friends with him, but Hemphill was eventually brought to trial by the synod on heresy, and Franklin defended him in the newspaper saying, "A virtuous heretic will be saved before a wicked Christian." 

 

            Franklin's life, like his religion, was about seeking after virtue, about service and self-improvement.  At age 20, he wrote a list of four rules for himself to follow: 

 

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 town in Massachusetts named itself after Franklin and wrote to him asking to donate money for a church bell.  He wrote back saying a library was more important than a steeple and he would send them books instead of a bell, or as he put it, "sense being preferable to sound." 

 

            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.  

            Franklin's belief in God, we've already seen, was not the typical deism.  He conceived the Supreme Power of the Universe to be far too great to have any specific interest in any individual person's life or destiny.  And yet, since people seem to need to worship this illusive God, God appears to us in lesser and more personal form, in limited ways humans are able to perceive.  Therefore, God is revealed differently in different religions.  Biographer Isaacson said it this way: 

 

"Franklin seems to be saying that different denominations and religions each have their own gods: There is a God of the Puritans, who is different from Franklin's own God, or the God of the Methodists, of the Jews, of the Anabaptists, or, for that matter, of the Hindus, Muslims, and the ancient Greeks." 

 

            Franklin's frequently repeated principle was, again, "The most acceptable service to God is doing good to man."  Therefore, Franklin approved of any religion that encouraged moral improvement, and all did.  As a result, Benjamin Franklin, the philanthropist, gave regular financial contributions to every church in Philadelphia, including the synagogue, when it was established. 

            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 Franklin clearly rejected.  Yet Franklin pursued a close friendship, inviting the evangelist to stay with him in town.  The establishment leaders of the city looked suspiciously on this out-of-towner who became so popular.  When a proposal was made by Whitefield supporters to construct a large new lecture hall to accommodate the preacher, Franklin added his support, but making sure the building was available to every speaker.  He wrote to a friend about the project, saying,

 

"Even if the Muft of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." 

 

            In 1753, Franklin wrote a letter to his friend Whitefield which illustrates his ability to blend religious toleration with unorthodox views.  He wrote: 

 

"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 speaking on Franklin's religion today is the seemingly increasing claim recently among some that our country's founders sought to establish a Christian nation.  You can see that in Franklin's case, this is not so.  Yet he has sometimes become "Exhibit A" for their claim because of an incident that happened at the Continental Congress in composing the Constitution.  The delegates were deadlocked on an issue that didn't seem to have a solution.  Tempers were flaring.  Benjamin Franklin, the senior delegate in attendance and respected elder statesman, rose to suggest that perhaps it would help if the entire group joined in prayer.  After that, the deadlock was broken, and the Constitution was written. 

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 Franklin's suggestion for a prayer was turned down.  He wrote in his notes the following sentence:  "the Convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary."  The fact is no public prayers were delivered at the Constitutional Convention.  But Franklin was the one who broke the deadlock, and did so without public prayer.  He did it with his usual practical genius for problem solving.   The stalemate happened because the small states wanted each state represented equally in Congress and the large states wanted representation by size of population.  It was Franklin who suggested two legislatures -- a Senate represented by two Senators each, and a House of Representatives elected according to number of citizens.  Problem solved. 

            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, Franklin fits well into the fold. 

            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 England during Franklin's long stays there, and in fact Franklin later reported that they spent time together almost every day.  In 1774, when a Unitarian Church was established in London, Franklin attended the dedication ceremony with Priestly, and continued attending there somewhat regularly.  In a letter to another friend in England, Franklin had this interesting comment to make about Priestly: 

 

"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 England because of his dissenting views, he settled in Franklin's hometown of Philadelphia and founded a Unitarian church there, becoming its minister.  Franklin attended that church from time to time, too.  Franklin was also well acquainted with Jefferson, who identified himself as Unitarian.  And there was the politically contentious relationship he had with New England Unitarian John Adams.  (One other close relationship was with Universalist Benjamin Rush, another signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Rush was a distinguished physician in Philadelphia and one of the founders of the Universalist Church of America in 1790.) 

            So it is clear that not only were Franklin's views wholly consistent with Unitarians in his day, but he was close to quite a number of those who were Unitarian.  This is, in fact, a reason for not including him on the list of famous UUs.  He had the opportunity to join a Unitarian church in his hometown led by his close friend.  But he didn't.  Jefferson had no such opportunity in Virginia.  Franklin had every opportunity in his writings to identify himself as a Unitarian, but he chose not to do so.  Jefferson did do so on several occasions.  These are the reasons for leaving Franklin off the list of historic Unitarians.  You may put him wherever you wish, but I am more persuaded to leave him off than to include him. 

 

            On or off a specific list, Franklin's religion was something Unitarians can admire, in his own day and in ours.  I'll close with some summary words from biographer Isaacson: 

 

"In both his life and his writings, Franklin became a preeminent proponent of this creed of tolerance.  He developed it with great humor in his tales and with an earnest depth in his life and letters.  In a world that was then (as, alas, it still is now) bloodied by those who seek to impose theocracies, he helped to create a new type of nation that could draw strength form its religious pluralism . . . .  

 


READING

(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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


READING

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 eighty-four-year-long life, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical though not most profound, political thinkers.  He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it.  He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream, and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold.  He launched various civic improvement schemes such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fundraiser.  He helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism.  In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism.  And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government."

            "Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first century America.  A successful publisher and consummate net-worker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks's phrase, "our founding Yuppie."  We can easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture, and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas.  He would laugh at the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi, or about a farmer's daughter.  We would admire both his earnestness and his self-aware irony.  And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues, and spiritual values."