Thomas Kidd’s new biography attempts to answer that question. Look into Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father.
I picked up this book with great anticipation. It’s fairly well known that Benjamin Franklin and the English revivalist George Whitefield were friends. An account of their friendship promised a very entertaining and educational story. Unfortunately, though it was educational, the entertainment element was largely wanting in The Printer and the Preacher.
Author Randy Petersen clearly did a lot of research to produce this book on two remarkable men. George Whitefield to a large degree invented popular evangelism as we know it – emotional, dramatic preaching, avoiding denominational distinctives for a “mere Christianity” gospel. Benjamin Franklin, as his major publisher, supported his work (most of the time) because of its positive social effects, but could never accept the deity of Christ. Nevertheless the two men liked and respected each other, and were friends for many years, until Whitefield’s death. Whitefield again and again urged Franklin to consider Christ’s claims, and Franklin politely put him off.
Wouldn’t it be intriguing to have been a fly on the wall during one of these men’s meetings, when the very concepts of what would become American religion were being worked out by two men of intelligence and wit? Alas, The Printer and the Preacher never provides any detail of such a meeting, even in summary. Apparently such accounts don’t exist, and the two men’s letters don’t preserve the kind of interchange we’d like to have. What we get, instead, is bits of factual information scattered like raisins in the great oatmeal bowl of the author’s analysis. Don’t get me wrong – the analysis is good, as far as I can tell. But I wish the author had trusted his story more, and felt less obligated to explain each point to us. Of course that would have left us with a much shorter book.
The Printer and the Preacher is a useful work. But it’s not a great pleasure to read.
Benjamin Franklin’s proposed Great Seal of the United States, showing the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea.
Thoughts after reading a book on Benjamin Franklin:
It is often stated that Franklin and Jefferson were Deists. This is justified in a sense, because they thought of themselves as Deists. But they really weren’t.
They believed that prayer had value, that God could be petitioned. That is completely opposite to true, continental Deism, which believed in a God who paid no attention to His creation.
What these men actually were, was Christians without the Incarnation. They accepted Christianity as a positive social good, but denied that Christ was God.
In essence they were secular, non-kosher Jews, who would never have considered converting to Judaism for social reasons.