BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: THE RELIGIOUS LIFE OF A FOUNDING FATHER
Thomas Kidd is distinguished professor of history and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor. He is the author of several books on early American history. In 2015, he was interviewed on his book about George Whitefield.
The following interview revolves around Professor Kidd’s latest book, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father.
Moore: What (or who) was the impetus that led you to write this book?
Kidd: There is no more controversial historical topic in America today than the faith of the Founding Fathers. Writers on the topic tend to go to one of two extremes. Popular Christian writers often try to claim most or all of the Founders as Christians, while secular writers say the Founders were “godless” and even closet atheists. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.
I had started to look at Franklin more closely while writing my biography of the evangelist George Whitefield. Franklin and Whitefield were friends for decades. Franklin was one of the two most skeptical Founders (along with Thomas Jefferson), but Franklin was still haunted by the deep biblicism of his Puritan childhood. The tension between his Calvinist heritage and the skepticism of his adult life is the organizing theme of the book.
Moore: Several times you mention how much Franklin appreciated the ethical system of Christianity, but not the theology that undergirds it. Did he ever see any inconsistency in picking one while discarding the other?
Kidd: He was definitely experimenting with a new system of religion that I call “doctrineless, moralized Christianity.” He admired Jesus’s moral teachings and loved the practical works of Christian benevolence, like hospitals and orphanages. Franklin just wasn’t convinced that you needed to embrace particular doctrines in order to get Christian virtue. Christian friends and family members, such as George Whitefield and Franklin’s closest sibling Jane (Franklin) Mecom, definitely saw inconsistency in doctrineless, moralized Christianity. They insisted that he needed to experience the “new birth” of salvation, and believe in Christ as Savior, in order to enjoy God’s transforming power. God’s power produced enduring virtue.
Moore: In one of my marginal notes I wrote that Franklin could not tolerate “pedantic, polemical, and prideful Presbyterians.” Doctrinal fidelity is crucial to the integrity of the Christian faith, but we can go too far in our zeal for secondary and tertiary doctrines. What can we learn about all this from the response of Franklin to the doctrinal “precisionists” of his day?
Kidd: Franklin grew up in a world of intractable conflict between and within different Christian denominations. His culture was far more biblically literate than ours, and that resulted in more prominent fights over theology. For his part, Franklin was sick of it. He was especially repulsed by Philadelphia Presbyterians’ disciplining of his favorite pastor, Samuel Hemphill, in the mid-1730s. That episode led to the single greatest outburst of Franklin’s religious writing in his career, as he jumped into technical debates about grace, works, and the imputed righteousness of Christ.
Doctrinal orthodoxy, as you suggest, must be a priority for faithful Christian churches. But there’s also a major risk of churches and Christians becoming known primarily for fighting about theology (or perhaps fighting about politics).
Moore: You mention that King Philip’s War “was, by percentage of population killed, the deadliest conflict in American history.” I know you have much respect as I do for J.I. Packer and Leland Ryken. I have read and reread both of their fine introductions to the Puritans. Surprisingly, neither one mentions King Philip’s War. Why do you think that is?
Kidd: I suspect it is a difference resulting from genre. Theologians of the Puritans are understandably focused on the Puritans’ beliefs. I am fascinated with theology, too, but as a historian I also tend to ask questions about the way that cultural context makes a significant imprint on theology.
Moore: Joseph Addison’s writings made a big impact on Franklin. It was not just what Addison said, but how he said it. Unpack that more for us.
Kidd: Addison was one of the greatest essayists of eighteenth-century England. His writing was deeply learned but Addison also had a caustic wit. When Franklin discovered Addison’s essays as a young man, he found his most profound literary influence. Franklin devoured just about any literature he could get his hands on in those years, and he was deeply influenced by other English luminaries such as John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. But Addison was his most significant model as a writer.
Moore: Many times Christians view Deism as a monolith, but you mention that there were different kinds of Deists. In what ways did Franklin fit and not fit the Deist category?
Kidd: He called himself a “thorough Deist” in his Autobiography, so this is certainly a valid place to start. As you suggest, Deism could mean a lot of things in the eighteenth century. Some Deists were really just critical of certain points of Christian theology, especially Calvinism. Others were closer to today’s agnostics, adopting the classic “watchmaker” view of an absent creator God. Franklin was uncertain about the Bible’s reliability and the divinity of Jesus. But especially as he grew older, he drifted back toward his parents’ view of the sovereignty of God over history. He also thought that God might act in response to prayer. This explains the otherwise perplexing scene of the “Deist” Franklin proposing that the Constitutional Convention open its sessions with prayer in 1787.
Moore: What are a few things you would like your readers to take away from this book?
Kidd: For those who might have seen Franklin as irreligious and entirely skeptical, I would want them to understand what a deep imprint that biblical concepts and the Bible itself made on Franklin. His skepticism about traditional faith was undeniable, but the Puritan legacy left a huge legacy in the way that Franklin thought, wrote, and spoke. The Founding Fathers were a diverse bunch with regard to personal faith, but Franklin illustrates how even the skeptics could not escape the influence of the biblicist culture of the Founding.
For those Christians who might be eager to turn Franklin into a faithful believer, however, I would want them to take a sober look at Franklin’s own statements just five weeks before he died, when he said that he could never quite believe that Jesus was divine. He also said that he feared Jesus’s teachings had been corrupted in the form they had been passed down to us (i.e. in the Gospel