What did Benjamin Franklin really think of God?
Kidd (History and Religious Studies/Baylor Univ.; American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths, 2016, etc.) admirably plies the writings of Franklin to discover the Founding Father’s evolving views on the divine throughout the course of his long life. Such a book matters because of Franklin’s ties to the Enlightenment, his effect on nearly all literate Americans of the mid- to late-18th century, and his life’s undeniable imprint on American politics and society. As the author argues, “Franklin…was a pioneer of…doctrineless, moralized Christianity,” This form of the faith was divorced from orthodoxy, steeped in reason, and geared toward the good conduct of moral citizens. Kidd begins his examination with Franklin’s childhood; he was raised in a Calvinist/Puritan tradition in which Scripture was at the center of all learning. Franklin’s command of the Bible cannot be underestimated, writes the author, and this knowledge came into play not only in his thinking, but also in his writing. As a young adult, Franklin rejected Calvinism and jumped wholeheartedly into the ideas of deism. This period gave rise to some of his most heterodox and eyebrow-raising writings on religion. However, as Franklin aged, his views mellowed. Through exposure to various Christian sects, a lengthy friendship with famed evangelist George Whitefield, and his own leadership role in society, Franklin went on to espouse a skeptical and yet heartfelt form of Christianity focused on good works as the embodiments of one’s faith. By the end of his life, it seems certain he believed in an afterlife and in a certain level of providential activity in human affairs. Kidd opens and closes with the image of Franklin calling upon the 1787 Constitutional Convention to open in prayer, asking for God’s direction. Unusual for a deist, to say the least.
A highly accessible study of an enigmatic yet influential faith life.