Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?

Category: Culture Wars/Popular Culture 1,258 3

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is one of the most popular of America’s founders. He is well known for helping to draft the Declaration of Independence and taking part in the Constitutional Convention that led to the US Constitution. There are many things about Franklin’s life that any American, whether Christian or not, will find attractive. “His Autobiography…extols the virtues of hard work, industry, self-improvement, education, and honesty.” He was one of the wealthiest men in America and has a long list of philanthropic and civic contributions to the city of Philadelphia. He invented things such as bifocals, the catheter, swimming flippers, a carriage odometer, the modern stove, and the lightening rod. “Yet he refused to patent his inventions because he wanted them to benefit mankind. His civic organizations – hospitals, fire companies, libraries, and schools – brought improvement to society.” He led a “rags-to-riches” story that is described today as the American Dream.[1]

Since Franklin led such a great life, and the fact that he believed in a Supreme God (see below), it is only natural that American Christians believe that he was a fellow believer. Was Benjamin Franklin, one of wisest and hardworking of America’s founders, a Christian? Did he believe that salvation only came through Christ? Or is he more like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who seemed like Christians on the outside, but inside were men who hated the foundational doctrines of Christianity? In this article, we will take a look at the religious beliefs of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin’s Religious Beliefs

Franklin wrote:

“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 with them.”[2]

Franklin believed in one God who created and sustains everything. He is to be worshipped, and his children are to do good deeds to each other. To him, “Religion was worthless unless it promoted virtuous behavior.”[3] This strong belief in virtue, and his other beliefs, had a foundation in his childhood. Franklin was raised in a home devoted to Puritanism, in a church that taught New England Calvinism which included teachings such as the sovereignty of God, original sin, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. Franklin’s father, Josiah, wanted the young Benjamin to become a minister. However, Josiah eventually could no longer pay the cost of the education for his son. Therefore, he placed his son into an apprenticeship under Benjamin’s older brother, James, who was a Boston printer.[4]

Early in his life, Franklin had a run-in with Deism, the belief that there is a god, but that god does not interact with his creation. This god created the world like a clockmaker, and after creating the world, left it alone to run on its own (there are no miracles in this religious system). Franklin notes that after reading a book on religion, he became a “thorough Deist.”[5]

Robert Fuller, author of Religious Revolutionaries, believes that Franklin continued to be a deist throughout his life. He notes, “[Franklin] had also devoured the writings of several deists, confirming his intuitive rejection of doctrinal Christianity and his movement toward a more rational and practical religious philosophy.”[6] Fuller continues, “Over the course of his life Franklin slowly fashioned his own deistic philosophy…Like all deists, Franklin rejected belief in divine revelation…Franklin’s delineation of ‘the essentials of religion’ largely mirror the deistic philosophy of his day.”[7]

However, there are many problems with what Fuller is saying. When one look at Franklin’s own words about his religious beliefs, it becomes clear that he was not a deist. First, Franklin argued that God “sometimes interferes by his particular Providence and sets aside the Effects which would otherwise have been produced.”[8] Historian John Fea says, “Franklin put his faith in an active God who watched over his natural creation and could, on occasion, intervene in the lives of his human creation as well.”[9] Deists do not believe that God interferes with the world at all. A Deistic god does not put aside the “effects” of nature to perform miracles and get involved with the affairs of men.[10]

Second, “Franklin believed that God requires worship, answers prayer, and intervenes in history to meet the needs of ‘particular Persons.’”[11] Franklin believed that the United States was “influenced, guided, and governed” by God. He believed in the power of prayer for individuals and the nation. He even called for a prayer during the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.[12] Franklin said concerning the Constitutional Convention:

“I beg I may not be understood to infer, that our General Convention was divinely inspired, when it form’d the new federal Constitution…yet I must own I have so much faith in the general Government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a Transaction of such momentous Importance to the Welfare of Millions now existing, and to exist in the Posterity of a great Nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenc’d, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior Spirits live, and move, and have their Being.”[13]

Franklin believed that the United States was being led and protected by God. He said, “In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the divine protection! Our prayers, sir, were heard; and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor.”[14]

Was Franklin a Christian?

All of this sounds very Christian. Franklin believed in a God who loved humanity and guided it. But, like Jefferson and Adams, Franklin had a very different belief about Jesus that should make every Christian shutter. Regarding Jesus Franklin said:

“As for 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 to his Divinity; tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think needless to busy myself with it now, where I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”[15]

Fea says flat-out that “Franklin’s religious creed falls well short of orthodox Christianity.”[16] Franklin thought that Jesus was not God in the flesh, which is a requirement to be saved (Romans 10:9). He also believed that the New Testament had been changed, yet he says that Jesus’ morals and religion were the best the world had ever seen, or ever will. This is odd. How did he know that the morals and religion of Jesus had not been changed? He believed that the New Testament had been changed, yet he still accepted part of it. Franklin picked what he wanted to believe and what went along with what he already believed about Jesus and religion. Notice that he says that he did not think it important enough to study whether Jesus was divine or not.

Concerning the afterlife Franklin said, “And if he [God] loves me, can I doubt that he will go on to take care of me not only here but hereafter? This to some may seem Presumption; to me it appears the best grounded Hope: Hope of the Future; built on the Experience of the Past.” Franklin says, “[T]he soul of Man is immortal and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.”[17]

Many of Franklin’s beliefs are compatible with Christianity such as the belief in one God, prayer, worship, Providence, and doing good deeds. However, Franklin’s creed does not mention the Trinity, the deity of Christ, Christ’s atonement of sins and resurrection, or salvation by faith in Christ. Franklin’s beliefs were more about virtue and good deeds than Christian doctrine. Franklin even said that a “virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian.” True Christianity was doing good deeds to others was his belief. He made it clear that the ultimate end of true religion is “Morality or Virtue.”[18] This is in complete contradiction to Scripture, which tells us that we are saved by faith, not deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Conclusion

It is sad to say, that based on the available evidence, Benjamin Franklin never repented of his beliefs about Jesus. Franklin clearly was not a Christian as defined by the Bible. His life is a good example to teach us that hard work and good deeds do not, in themselves, lead to heaven. Good deeds are evidence that we have faith, but it by faith that we are saved.

What do you think? What were your beliefs about Benjamin Franklin’s religion before reading this article? Have they changed or stayed the same? Leave a comment below and visit us on Facebook.


[1] John Fea. Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). Pg. 217.

[2] Franklin to Ezra Stilesm March 9, 1790.

[3] Fea, 216.

[4] Fea, 217-218. Robert C. Fuller. Religious Revolutionaries (New York: Palgrave, 2004). Pg. 42.

[5] Quoted in Fea, 218.

[6] Fuller, 42.

[7] Ibid., 43-44.

[8] Quoted in Fuller, 44-45.

[9] Fea, 219.

[10] Fuller notes this, but for some odd reason still thinks Franklin was a Deist (pg. 44).

[11] Fea, 219.

[12] Ibid., 219.

[13] Franklin, “A Comparison of the Conduct of Ancient Jews and Anti-Federalists in the United States of America,” 1788. Quoted in Fea, 219. Emphasis added.

[14] Quoted in Jon Meacham. American Gospel (New York: Random House, 2006). Pg. 89.

[15] Franklin to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790.

[16] Fea, 220.

[17] Quoted in Fea, 221.

[18] Quoted in Fea, 221.

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3 thoughts on “Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?

  1. Pingback: true religion online

  2. TJ

    He might not have come to understand that yet in his journey. But let Christ do the judging wether he was a true Christian or not. It sounds like he was trying to follow Christ since he wanted Christianity to be taught in schools. Also I think he was just stating that, when you truly have faith in Christ’s grace; your works just follow. I don’t think he was stating his works were going to get him to heaven.

  3. TJ

    It does seem he was confused and unsure of his salvation. If he actually stated these things listed above.

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