Benjamin Franklin's Last Prayer
Were the Founding Fathers Christians?
It's a common quarrel among students of American history – and one that's frequently fought along partisan lines. Conservatives point to the frequent references to God and divine providence made in the letters and speeches of the Founders, whereas liberals point to their rejection of clericalism and skepticism toward the supernatural aspects of religion.
This question, difficult to answer for all the major early American leaders, proves particularly puzzling when applied to Benjamin Franklin. Some scholars, most recently Thomas Kidd, have taken Franklin's proposal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention as evidence for Franklin's belief in particular providence. Others, comparing Franklin's proposal with his other statements questioning an active, providential deity, have concluded that he was insincere. Ultimately, neither perspective is quite right.
Franklin's relationship with Christianity and his thoughts on the role of religion in public life indicate that he was a humanist, but of the classical liberal sort many of today's liberals seem to have forgotten.
Franklin's earliest essays in Boston proved him to be the most radical of the young wits who gathered around his brother James's newspaper, The Courant. Franklin wrote scandalous attacks against the political and religious authorities. The very name "Silence Dogood" mocks Cotton Mather, who was bombastic yet failed to practice the principles of his Essays to Do Good. After James was jailed for such attacks, Franklin boldly printed articles that questioned the tenets of Christianity, and even the existence of God. By the age of 17, he was notorious for being an atheist.
Franklin's critique of God's providence deepened over the next several years: he pointed out the logical contradictions in, and provided psychological explanations for, the idea of an infinite God who answered prayers. He also attacked Presbyterian orthodoxy, questioning not just Jesus's divine nature, but other fundamental tenets of Christianity, including justification by faith, spiritual conversion, and original sin. Franklin later wrote to George Whitefield, "Though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence or imprudence." For Franklin, "God" meant the natural order in which humans participate. Nature was greatly, but not infinitely, good, and Franklin placed his faith in human prudence, not prayer, to ameliorate man's condition. We see this in his 1726 plan of conduct. Although the teenage Franklin had used the doctrine of determinism to undermine virtue, his plan marked his turn to ethical questions he had lampooned as a young man. But his subsequent list of virtues was not rooted in any divine revelation; it was all too human.
Yet Franklin also rejected atheism, which he concluded was more pernicious to society than Christian zealotry. He printed in the 1733 Gazette, "Who would not rather live with the Ecclesiastical Savages in Spain and Italy, than with these unnatural Savages?" While philosophy searches for laws of nature accessible to human reason, atheism meant belief in a disordered universe and a world devoid of ethical standards and permanent truths. The atheist, Franklin concluded, was a parasite off the political order that had nurtured him. In a famous letter, he discourages a young man from publishing a refutation of God's providence: "It is not necessary, as among the Hottentots that a Youth to be receiv'd into the Company of Men, should prove his Manhood by beating his Mother." For Franklin, the atheist's undetected resentment toward God manifests itself in his desire to strike at the very root of civility, the common belief that holds society together.
So in 1749, Franklin argued for a "Publick Religion," proclaiming the "Excellency of the Christian Religion above all others." The reasons were obvious to Franklin: the modern return to "primitive Christianity" celebrates charity, not cruelty; it is republican in politics and commerce, not based on conquest; and it embraces an experimental science that eluded the ancients.
But Franklin was no orthodox Christian. When it was politically feasible, he opposed religious tests and state-supported churches. His response to Christian doctrines that might threaten public order was to use rhetoric to make them reasonable – to measure all religions, including Islam, by a useful deist creed. Faith was an important means to moral virtue for those who could not be moral by reason.
Franklin sought to make Christian doctrines reasonable by making them compatible with natural law: "The Knowledge, and our Obligations to the Practice of the Laws of Morality ... are discoverable by the Light of Nature; or by reflecting upon the human Frame, and considering its natural Propensities, Instincts, and Principles of Action, and the genuine Tendencies of them." Franklin's teaching of natural law constituted a distinctively political project. While the principles of natural law were true – that is, beneficial considering human happiness – without a divine lawgiver to implement them (of which Franklin saw no evidence), they did not constitute a law properly speaking, and the result was chaos in human affairs. Human heroes or lawgivers must step in to provide religious teachings, civil legislation, and most importantly a code of virtue imposed by honor and shame, which enforces these useful maxims, making them genuine laws.
After his rejection of an infinite providential deity, in 1731, Franklin forwarded a "Doctrine to be Preached" that included an infinite God who rewards virtue and punishes vice in an afterlife. He similarly stressed Jesus the lawgiver, defining faith as assent to his laws and repentance as sincerely forsaking and amending sins. Religions may disagree on doctrine, but they could unite under natural law in the political "cause of Liberty."
Franklin's belief in the necessity of a public religion, more than any sincere belief in a personal God, explains his exhortation to prayer at the Constitutional Convention. It was a political calculation, not a reconsideration of the opinions he held on prayer his entire life. Every political community, he thought, requires some common belief, and in Franklin's teaching, the best possible regime would be constructed upon the "self-evident" truths of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." He warned his colleagues not to imitate the "Builders of Babel," who, like today's liberal "new atheists," tried to build a political order without the support of religion. Such an attempt at political atheism, he believed, would result not in a more rational order, but in an entirely unreasonable alternative creed. One suspects that Franklin would have been unsurprised by the religious zealots who demand speech codes and safe spaces on today's college campuses.
Mr. Slack is a professor of politics at Hillsdale College and the author of Benjamin Franklin, Natural Right, and the Art of Virtue (Rochester, 2017).