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BENJAMIN FRANKLIN


Picture of Benjamin Franklin
[Library of Congress]

1706-1790

Signer of the Declaration of Independence (Pennsylvania), Delegate to the Constitutional Convention (Pennsylvania)

Biographical Data
Religious Views
Quotations
Misquotations
References, Links, & Further Reading



Education: Grammar School until age 10, then apprenticeship & self-education

Occupation: businessman, publisher, writer, inventor, scientist, etc.

Political Affiliation:

Organizational Affiliation(s): Mason


Religious Affiliation: none

Summary of Religious Views:

Franklin, who believed in a providential God, strongly doubted the divinity of Jesus, but he approved of his moral teachings. Franklin believed that all religion tends to promote morality, hence he was tolerant of a wide variety of religious beliefs, and donated money to all denominations which asked for contributions.

Views on Religion & Politics:


Quotations:

"If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England. To account for this we should remember, that the doctrine of toleration was not then known, or had not prevailed in the world. Persecution was therefore not so much the fault of the sect as of the times. It was not in those days deemed wrong in itself. The general opinion was only, that those who are in error ought not to persecute the truth: But the possessors of truth were in the right to persecute error, in order to destroy it. Thus every sect believing itself possessed of all truth, and that every tenet differing from theirs was error, conceived that when the power was in their hands, persecution was a duty required of them by that God whom they supposed to be offended with heresy. By degrees more moderate and more modest sentiments have taken place in the Christian world; and among Protestants particularly all disclaim persecution, none vindicate it, and few practise it. We should then cease to reproach each other with what was done by our ancestors, but judge of the present character of sects or churches by their present conduct only." -- Letter to the London Packet, 3 June 1772

"I am fully of your Opinion respecting religious Tests; but, tho' the People of Massachusetts have not in their new Constitution kept quite clear of them, yet, if we consider what that People were 100 Years ago, we must allow they have gone great Lengths in Liberality of Sentiment on religious Subjects; and we may hope for greater Degrees of Perfection, when their Constitution, some years hence, shall be revised. If Christian Preachers had continued to teach as Christ and his Apostles did, without Salaries, and as the Quakers now do, I imagine Tests would never have existed; for I think they were invented, not so much to secure Religion itself, as the Emoluments of it. When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig'd to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one. But I shall be out of my Depth, if I wade any deeper in Theology" -- letter to Richard Price, 9 Oct. 1780

"MR. PRESIDENT,
"The small Progress we have made, after 4 or 5 Weeks' close Attendance and continual Reasonings with each other, our different Sentiments on almost every Question, several of the last producing as many Noes as Ayes, is, methinks, a melancholy Proof of the Imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political Wisdom, since we have been running all about in Search of it. We have gone back to ancient History for Models of Government, and examin'd the different Forms of those Republics, which, having been originally form'd with the Seeds of their own Dissolution, now no longer exist; and we have view'd modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our Circumstances.
"In this Situation of this Assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find Political Truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings? 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 engag'd in the Struggle, must have observed frequent Instances of a superintending Providence in our Favour. To that kind Providence we owe this happy Opportunity of Consulting in Peace on the Means of establishing our future national Felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that GOD governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that "except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe, that, without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little, partial, local Interests, our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and a Bye-word down to future Ages. And, what is worse, Mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate Instance, despair of establishing Government by human Wisdom, and leave it to Chance, War, and Conquest.
"I therefore beg leave to move,
"That henceforth Prayers, imploring the Assistance of Heaven and its Blessing on our Deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to Business; and that one or more of the Clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that Service." -- speech at the Constitutional Convention, 28 June 1787 (There was little support for this motion; it was tabled and not taken up again.)

"You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I cannot take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. 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.
"As to 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 as to his Divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence, as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Unbelievers in his Government of the World with any peculiar Marks of his Displeasure.
"I shall only add, respecting myself, that, having experienced the Goodness of that Being in conducting me prosperously thro' a long life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, though without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness. My Sentiments on this Head you will see in the Copy of an old Letter enclosed, which I wrote in answer to one from a zealous Religionist, whom I had relieved in a paralytic case by electricity, and who, being afraid I should grow proud upon it, sent me his serious though rather impertinent Caution. I send you also the Copy of another Letter, which will shew something of my Disposition relating to Religion. With great and sincere Esteem and Affection, I am, Your obliged old Friend and most obedient humble Servant
"P. S. . . .
"I confide, that you will not expose me to Criticism and censure by publishing any part of this Communication to you. I have ever let others enjoy their religious Sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd. All Sects here, and we have a great Variety, have experienced my good will in assisting them with Subscriptions for building their new Places of Worship; and, as I have never opposed any of their Doctrines, I hope to go out of the World in Peace with them all." -- letter to Ezra Stiles, 9 March 1790

"And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence, which lead me to the means I used and gave them success. My belief of this induces me to hope, though I must not presume, that the same goodness will still be exercised toward me, in continuing that happiness, or enabling me to bear a fatal reverse, which I may experience as others have done: the complexion of my future fortune being known to Him only in whose power it is to bless to us even our afflictions." -- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1791, Ch. 1

"Before I enter upon my public appearance in business, it may be well to let you know the then state of my mind with regard to my principles and morals, that you may see how far those influenc'd the future events of my life. My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself.
"Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but, each of them having afterwards wrong'd me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith's conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho' it might be true, was not very useful.
". . .
"I grew convinc'd that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I form'd written resolutions, which still remain in my journal book, to practice them ever while I lived. Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; but I entertain'd an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered. And this persuasion, with the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me, thro' this dangerous time of youth, and the hazardous situations I was sometimes in among strangers, remote from the eye and advice of my father, without any willful gross immorality or injustice, that might have been expected from my want of religion." -- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1791, Ch. 6

"I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho' some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem'd the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix'd with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv'd principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induc'd me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increas'd in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contributions, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.
"Tho' I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us'd to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail'd on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday's leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc'd, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.
"At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things." And I imagin'd, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin'd himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God's ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more. I had some years before compos'd a little Liturgy, or form of prayer, for my own private use (viz., in 1728), entitled, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. I return'd to the use of this, and went no more to the public assemblies. My conduct might be blameable, but I leave it, without attempting further to excuse it; my present purpose being to relate facts, and not to make apologies for them." -- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1791, Ch. 8

Misquotations:

"Whosoever shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world." -- This quotation has not been found anywhere in Franklin's recorded writings or speeches, as has been acknowledged by David Barton.

"I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For, without the belief of a Providence that takes cognisance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that, though your reasons are subtle, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind spits in his own face.
"But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantage of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.
"I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a great deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?"
-- (Several variants of this letter have been published.) This is supposed to be a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Paine in 1785 or 1786, advising him against publishing The Age of Reason. Although the handwriting of this document reportedly resembles that of Franklin, it is by no means certain that it was in fact written by him, since it is unsigned, and some experts suspect it may be a forgery. The intended recipient of the letter is likewise uncertain, since there is no address. If the note refers to The Age of Reason, it cannot have been written by Franklin, since Paine did not even begin writing that book until 1793, and Franklin died in 1790. (See the discussion of this note in Paul F. Boller & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, Oxford Univ. Press, 1989, p. 28)

"In whatever country Jews have settled in any great numbers, they have lowered the moral tone, depreciated the commercial integrity, have segregated themselves, and have not been assimilated, have sneered at and tried to undermine the Christian religion, have built up a state within a state, and have, when opposed, tried to strangle that country to death financially.
"If you do not exclude them from the United States, in the Constitution, in less than 200 years they will have swarmed in such great numbers that they will dominate and devour the land and change our form of government."
-- Sometimes called the Benjamin Franklin Prophecy, this forgery can be traced back no further than 1934, when it appeared in a pro-Nazi newspaper in the U.S. The source cited for the quote by that paper is also fictitious. Franklin was very tolerant of diverse religions, and gave monetary support to any religious group that solicited contributions, including the Hebrew Society of Philadelphia when they sought funds for the construction of a new synagogue. (See the discussion of this quote in Paul F. Boller & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, Oxford Univ. Press, 1989, pp. 26-28)

"I fully agree with General Washington that we must safeguard this young nation, as yet in its swaddling clothes, from the insidius influence and impenetration of the Roman Catholic Church which pauperizes and degrades all countries and peopple over whom it holds sway." -- Another outright forgery, drawn from the same fictitious source as the preceding one. (See the discussion in Paul F. Boller & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, Oxford Univ. Press, 1989, p. 28)

References, Links, & Further Reading: Books, Articles, Links


Books

Works By Benjamin Franklin

ed. by L. W. Labaree and W. B. Willcox, et al., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 42 vols. to date, Yale Univ. Press, 1959-
ed. by J. A. Leo Lemay, Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings (Library of America), Library of America, 1987

Biographies

Douglas Anderson, The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin (New Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural History), Johns Hopkins Press, 1997
H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, Doubleday, 2000
M. H. Buxbaum, Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin (Critical Essays on American Literature), 1987
James Campbell, Recovering Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service, Open Court, 1999
Joyce E. Chaplin, The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius, Basic Books, 2006
I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin: Scientist and Statesman, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975
I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin's Science, Harvard Univ. Press, 1990
Paul W. Conner, Poor Richard's Politicks: Benjamin Franklin and His New American Order, Oxford Univ. Press, 1969
Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (The Library of American Biography), 1954; reprint 1962
Jonathan R. Dull, Franklin the Diplomat: The French Mission (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society), American Philosophical Society, 1982
Stanley Finger, Doctor Franklin's Medicine, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2006
William S. Hanna, Benjamin Franklin and Pennsylvania Politics, Stanford Univ. Press, 1964
David F. Hawke, Benjamin Franklin, Konecky, 1976
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon & Schuster, 2003
Francis Jennings , Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man, Norton, 1996
Bruce E. Johansen, Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rationale for the American Revolution, Gambit, 1982
R. L. Ketcham, Benjamin Franklin (The Great American thinkers), Washington Square Press, 1965
Claude-Anne Lopez and Eugenia W. Herbert, The Private Franklin : The Man and His Family, Norton, 1975
Robert Middlekauff, Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, Univ. of California Press, 1996
David T. Morgan, The Devious Dr. Franklin, Colonial Agent: Benjamin Franklin's Years in London
Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin, Yale Univ. Press, 2002
James B. Nolan, General Benjamin Franklin: The military career of a philosopher,, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1936
Paul C. Pasles, Benjamin Franklin's Numbers: An Unsung Mathematical Odyssey , Princeton Univ. Press, 2007
ed. by Charles L. Sanford, Benjamin Franklin and the American Character, D. C. Heath Co., 1955
Michael Brian Schiffer, Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment, Univ. of California Press, 2003
Charles Coleman Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture, Yale Univ. Press, 1962
Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy, 2nd ed., Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969
Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, Garden City Publishing Co., 1938
Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Penguin, 2005
Esmond Wright, Franklin of Philadelphia, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986
P. R. Zall, Ben Franklin Laughing: Anecdotes from Original Sources by and About Benjamin Franklin, Univ. of California Press, 1980

Religious Views

Alfred O. Aldridge, Benjamin Franklin and Nature's God, Duke Univ. Press, 1967
Kerry S. Walters, Benjamin Franklin and His Gods , University of Illinois Press, 1998

Articles

Jacob Abbott, "Early and Private Life of Benjamin Franklin," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 4, Iss. 20, January 1852, pp. 145-166
Jacob Abbott, "Public Life of Benjamin Franklin," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 4, Iss. 21, February 1852, pp. 289-310
Paul Leicester Ford, "The Many-Sided Franklin. Franklin's Schooling and Self-Culture - His Services to Education - His Library," The Century, Vol. 57, Iss. 3, January 1899, pp. 395-414
Paul Leicester Ford, "The Many-Sided Franklin. Franklin's Religion," The Century, Vol. 57, Iss. 4, February 1899, pp. 502-520
Paul Leicester Ford, "The Many-Sided Franklin. Franklin as Printer and Publisher," The Century, Vol. 57, Iss. 6, April 1899, pp. 803-818
Paul Leicester Ford, "The Many-Sided Franklin. Franklin as Writer and Journalist," The Century, Vol. 58, Iss. 2, June 1899, pp. 283-304
Paul Leicester Ford, "The Many-Sided Franklin. Franklin the Scientist," The Century, Vol. 58, Iss. 5, September 1899, pp. 750-763
Paul Leicester Ford, "The Many-Sided Franklin. Franklin as Politician and Diplomatist," The Century, Vol. 58, Iss. 6, October 1899, pp. 881-899
Paul C. Pasles, "A Bent for Magic," Mathematics Magazine, February 2006, pp. 3-13
Paul C. Pasles, "The Lost Squares of Dr. Franklin," American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 108, No. 6, June-July 2001, pp. 489-511
Stuart P. Sherman, "Franklin," in ed. W. P. Trent, J. Erskine, S. P. Sherman & C. Van Doren, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Cambridge University Press, 1907-21, pp. 881-899

Links

Works By Benjamin Franklin

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Early America)
Writings of Benjamin Franklin

Biographical Sites

FRANKLIN, Benjamin, 1706-1790 (Biographical Directory of the US Congress)
Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World (The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary)
Benjamin Franklin FAQ (Franklin Institute)
Benjamin Franklin -- A Documentary History (J.A. Leo LeMay -- University of Delaware)
Benjamin Franklin (PBS)
The Electric Benjamin Franklin (ushistory.org)
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) (Hypertext on American History)
Benjamin Franklin (ushistory.org: Signers of the Declaration of Independence)
Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania (National Archives -- The Founding Fathers)
The Friends of Franklin, Inc.
Benjamin Franklin (Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution -- Center of Military History, United States Army )
The Men Behind the American Revolution: Benjamin Franklin (18th Century History)
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) (PAL: Perspectives in American Literature)
Benjamin Franklin (Colonial Hall)
Frankliniana Database (The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary)
EtCetera (The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary)
Ben Franklin's Amazing Magic Square

Franklin & Religion

Six Historic Americans: Benjamin Franklin (Internet Infidels)
Franklin & the Presbyterians: Freedom of Conscience Versus The Need for Order (Early America)
The Many-Sided Franklin. Franklin's Religion (Paul Leicester Ford -- The Century),
The Franklin Prayer Myth (The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State)



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