The Ex-Baptist Pastor Who Popularized Ben Franklin’s Electrical Experiments

The Ex-Baptist Pastor Who Popularized Ben Franklin’s Electrical Experiments September 8, 2015

James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America offers a remarkable account of Ebenezer Kinnersley, a Baptist pastor who lost his Philadelphia church position due to his opposition to the Great Awakening. Kinnersley then improbably became the greatest popularizer of Ben Franklin’s discoveries in electricity.

Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth-century revivals. As a three-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job.

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (ca. 1816), Benjamin West, Philadelphia Museum of Arts, Public Domain.

Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados).

The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them.

Kinnersley, contemptuous of religious enthusiasm and superstition, proclaimed that his shows were subduing fearful apprehensions of electricity and lightning, and bringing them into the realm of rational understanding. “Another miracle! the ignorant would say,” Kinnersley scoffed. But now through Franklin’s experiments, “the mystery was understood.” Yet Kinnersley did not see himself as undermining faith with science. Instead, he paired the de-mystifying of nature with greater worship of God. Scientific knowledge leads us “to the First Cause,” he wrote, “by refining, enlarging, and exalting our ideas of the great author and God of Nature.”

For many believing scientists, knowledge has continued to produce doxology. But in Kinnersley’s popularization of Franklin, we can see tangible ways in which a former pastor also helped open new opportunities to believe that the natural world is all there is. Divine mysteries, the rationalist says, will all eventually dissipate before the bright sun of science.

[Friends, you can sign up here for my Thomas S. Kidd author newsletter. Each newsletter will update you on what’s happening in my writing and in the world of American religious and political history. It will contain unique material available only to subscribers, and each will help you keep up with my blog posts, books, and other writings from around the web. Your e-mail information will never be shared. Thanks!]

"Who says we are a secular nation? You and atheists? Where did you get that? ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
"Personal attack. Once you run out of reason fuel and facts, you engage in personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
">>>"Read your responses to my comment and see whom is truly the one making 'personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • In my 60 short years of life and love of history, it seems to me that science generates substantially more perplexing questions than the number of phenomena that it can now explain!