'Benjamin Franklin' takes a more nuanced look at Franklin's views of God

According to this new biography, Franklin started wrestling with religion and morality as a teenager and never stopped pondering the natures of God, humanity, and the universe.

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    Benjamin Franklin:
    The Religious Life of a Founding Father
    By Thomas S. Kidd
    Yale University Press
    288 pp.
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Ben Franklin seems like the rare founding father who'd actually be fun to hang around – at least if you weren't his wife.

A perennial prankster and sly wit who created characters like Alice Addertongue and Miss Busy Body, he loved to live it up on Friday nights with the guys. He also enjoyed female company, especially of the French variety, and once famously raved about the joys of romancing older women.

A libertine, you might say, or a lout, the kind of undisciplined person who'd be denounced by 18th century America's most famous virtuecrat – Ben Franklin.

But he can't be dismissed as just another hypocrite scold. Turns out this remarkable renaissance man – scientist, best-selling author, inventor, diplomat, political powerhouse – spent his lifetime on a complex journey of faith.

As historian Thomas S. Kidd reveals in Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, Franklin started wrestling with religion and morality as a teenager and never stopped pondering the natures of God, humanity and universe.

He searched for a route to rational religion, Kidd writes, and pioneered a form of Christianity in which "virtually all beliefs become nonessential" but is still devoted to doing the right thing. In other words, a faith that embraces the lessons of the Bible about doing the right thing but leaves the ritual and ceremony behind.

His vision was a far cry from the rigid Puritanism of his parents, and his skepticism started early. At the age of 16, he used the pseudonym of the female Silence Dogood to complain about "blind zealots" who mandated faith but failed to encourage love.

Just a few years later, Franklin would come up with his famous "13 Virtues," such as silence ("speak not but what may benefit others or yourself"), frugality, sincerity, and moderation. He'd soon become a successful printer and author of the hugely popular "Poor Richard's Almanac," which is full of aphorisms both earnest and wry: "Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices." "Fish and visitors stink in 3 days." "Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults."

Other historians have described Franklin as a "deist," one of many of his era's thinkers who liked the separate the idea of a higher power from the traditional Christianity perspective. But Kidd, a Baylor University professor who's previously written books about Patrick Henry and early American religion, thinks the picture is more complicated.

For one thing, some deists suggested that God created the universe and then stood back to watch time unfold without intervening. But Franklin didn't like that idea, claiming that it would invalidate the goodness of God and make prayer useless. Instead, he declared that a belief in Providence would "render us benevolent, useful, and beneficial to others."

Franklin emphasized "the usefulness of faith," Kidd writes. "He did not need absolute certainty about its truth as long as faith was reasonable, practical and made people act selflessly."

Franklin had a habit of being upright himself despite his occasional failings. As a young man, he raised an illegitimate boy who may or may not have been conceived in a loveless liaison. The son would grow up to take the British side against the American rebels, and his father, in the Revolutionary War.

Franklin also found time for tolerance. In one widely reprinted essay that's attributed to him, he imagined a Native American chief peppering a Swedish missionary with difficult questions: Why would God have doomed the chief's ancestors to hell by keeping them in the dark about Christianity? What made one of their stories of the world's creation true and the other "a fable, fiction and falsehood"? Perhaps, the chief suggested, "God dealt with different races of people in a different manner." This suggestion, that there's more than one path to God, was pure Ben Franklin.

Kidd vividly brings Franklin's spiritual quest to life throughout his book, and he provides a direct line from Franklin's beliefs to those we see around us today.

According to Kidd, spiritual descendants of Franklin's doctrine-free faith include Oprah and modern preachers who link faith to personal riches. But "whatever his changing convictions about God over the decades," Kidd writes, "Franklin always believed that faith without works is dead." He didn't mean owning the biggest mansion or fanciest car.

As he aged, Franklin never lost his boldness, for better or worse. On one hand, he was a crucial force for the creation of the Constitution. On the other, at the age of 50 he flirted (and perhaps more) with a woman half his age, taking what Kidd calls a "detour" from his "lifelong quest for virtuous discipline," providing more evidence to posterity that sinners are more interesting than saints.

As an old man, he told a minister friend that he wasn't sure if Jesus was God, but he figured he'd find out soon enough. One thing is clear: Whatever he discovered in the great beyond, he'd want to ask a few follow-up questions before wandering off in search of an attractive angel.

 
 
 

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