Benjamin Franklin: Champion of Generic Religion

By Morgan, David T. | The Historian, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Benjamin Franklin: Champion of Generic Religion

Morgan, David T., The Historian

John Adams, one of many contemporaries who had little use for Benjamin Franklin, intended no compliment when he observed of Franklin's religious views that "the Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker."(1) Had Dr. Franklin ever been among Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims, doubtless he would have convinced them that he was deeply sympathetic to their beliefs as well. The fact that no one to this very day is quite sure of Franklin's religious beliefs would please him enormously, if he were still with us, for Benjamin Franklin liked to keep people guessing. That is what made him a controversial figure during his lifetime, and that is why he remains controversial today.

Franklin would find it highly amusing that in recent years he has been portrayed by the political and religious Right as an orthodox Christian who helped lay the foundations of a Christian nation. The good doctor was certainly not anti-Christian, for he believed that the Christian religion inspired many Americans to be good citizens; moreover, their faith comforted them in times of crisis and gave them strength. On the other hand, Franklin believed that all other religions did the same for their adherents--Islam, Hinduism, and all the rest. Religion--any religion--was a good thing in his view, for it served a useful purpose. Franklin treated all religions alike, making him in all probability the first American champion of generic religion.

Still, the Philadelphia philosopher was well aware that except for a few Jews, the nation he was helping to establish was peopled overwhelmingly by various kinds of Christians. Most were Protestant, including numerous Congregationalists and Episcopalians, a generous supply of Baptists and Presbyterians, some Methodists and Lutherans, and a sprinkling of various religious groups from the German states. While some Catholics had played a significant part in the American Revolution, and by 1850 Catholics would become the largest single religious group in the United States, in the 1780s they composed perhaps one percent of the population.

There is no evidence to indicate that Franklin wished to impose a Christian or any other particular religious agenda on the American people. He and his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were wise enough to look down the road to a future time when the mostly Christian religious picture might change and to eschew setting up a state based on a particular religion. There is nothing in the Constitution as it was originally ratified to suggest any connection between the state and any specific religion. That the founding fathers intended to keep them separate is patently obvious, and that intention was reinforced by the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Franklin was dead by the time the amendment was ratified, but all available evidence suggests that he would have endorsed it enthusiastically.

What exactly were Franklin's own religious beliefs? That question has been explored by a goodly number of Franklin scholars, and no consensus has been reached yet. There is a reason for that: Simply put, the man who captured the imagination of Europe with his explanations of electricity left behind only three treatises on religion and a sprinkling of comments on the subject in his letters and in his Autobiography. The three treatises were written before Franklin was 30 years old, while he was still searching to discover exactly what he believed. They appeared long before he became the self-assured philosopher and scientist renowned throughout the Western World. While the treatises give some insight into Franklin's religious concerns, it can be argued that greater insight can be found in his Autobiography, which he did not begin writing until he was 65 years old. …

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