Before proceeding, one might ask, does such a question matter? If you are a Christian apologist who seeks to prove that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, it might. But if one is trying to prove that converting to Christianity provides a great boon to every individualʼs life in this case Franklinʼs, there is little evidence of him changing much if at all (provided he did convert, which is the question at issue). Obviously one can convert to Christianity and not develop half as curious an intellect and remarkable career as Benʼs, nor grow half as tolerant of othersʼ religious beliefs as Ben was. Benʼs friends included adherents to all sects of Christianity as well as heretical (Socians, Arians, Unitarians (like Joseph Priestly, whom Ben called “honest”—and Ben lauded, supported and attended the opening of the first official Unitarian Church in England). Ben even befriended non-Christian deists and atheists and admired the teachings of Confucius.
Franklin also supported and praised the erection of a new meeting house in Philadelphia that he hoped would “not accommodate any particular [religious] sect, but the inhabitants in general. So that even if the Muslim ruler of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mahometanism [Islam] to us, he would find a pulpit at his service,” because as Franklin wrote, “If the Turks [Muslims], believing us in the wrong, as we think them, should out of the same charitable disposition, send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, shouldnʼt we in the same manner give him free liberty of preaching his doctrine?” When a trustee involved in the meeting houseʼs construction died—leaving an imbalance in the religious sects contributing to its construction—it was decided that Franklin take his place because Franklin was a man of “no sect.” (But after the meeting house was finished Franklinʼs tolerant view did not prevail and only preachers from a limited number of Protestant sects were allowed to use the facility—no Catholics, Jews or people of non-Christian religions.)
Franklinʼs religious tolerance can also be inferred from his dislike of the oath that all office-holders of the colony of Pennsylvania, including Franklin, had to sign prior to the American Revolution when Protestant Britain ruled the American colonies. The oath ran in part, “Each of us for himself do solemnly and sincerely profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God, blessed for evermore. And we do acknowledge the Holy Scripture to be by divine inspiration,” and “I solemnly promise and declare that… our heart abhor, detest and renounce as impious and heretical that damnable doctrine and position that princes who are excommunicated and deprived by the Pope… may be deposed or murdered by their subjects,” and “solemnly and sincerely profess and testify that in the sacrament of the Lordʼs Supper there is no transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ,” and that “the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other saint, or the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.”
After 1776, when the colonies revolted against Britain and began setting up their own governments Franklin urged that no oaths of political office in Pennsylvania should demand one believe in sectarian religious views, instead, Ben urged that people be allowed to worship “according to the dictates of their own consciences, no one should be compelled to attend religious worship, or to erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry against their free will and consent. Nor can any man who acknowledges the being of a God [a belief that would include heretics and deists] be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship.” Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights (composed when Franklin was the leader of that state constitutional convention).
However, the state constitutional convention was not content with Benʼs statement and added a Religious Claus that demanded belief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. The Religious Claus stated that office holders in Pennsylvania must swear: “I DO believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be give by Divine Inspiration.” Not pleased by the Religious Claus, Franklin wrote a letter to a friend, “I agreed with you in sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the Clause in our Constitution, which required the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it [the Old Testament] was given by divine Inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed the Clause but being overpowerʼd by numbers, and fearing what might in future times be added onto it, I insisted on the additional Clause that no further or more extended profession of faith should ever be required.”
Franklin admitted he had doubts about the faithful transmission of the Bible, and doubts about the “inspiration of several things in the Old Testament” that he viewed as “impossible to be given by divine inspiration, such as the praise ascribed to the angel of the Lord of that abominably wicked and detestable action of Jael [see cartoon illustrating some of the difficulties Franklin had with the ethical lesson embedded in the tale of Jael]… If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather… renounce the whole.” Ben also doubted Jesusʼs divinity and wrote numerous words about virtue/good works being of far greater importance than oneʼs religious beliefs.
Concerning Franklinʼs religious journey, he was raised Presbyterian but in his youth joined a club of writers known for lampooning the clergy of Massachusetts in articles published in the New-England Courant. Later he was drawn to Deism. He also studied Confucianism. In fact it was Ben who first introduced Confucius to the American colonies. In 1737, Franklin published a series of papers “From the Morals of Confucius” in his weekly magazine The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin called the Chinese masterʼs philosophy “the gateway through which it is necessary to pass to arrive at the sublimest wisdom.” Franklinʼs list of virtues paralleled Confucian virtues, see Benjamin Franklin and Chinese Civilization. Franklin also mentioned Confuciusʼs plan for positive change in a letter to famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield. And when Rev. Hemphill began to stress the importance of virtue/good works to such a degree that the orthodoxy of the Reverendʼs beliefs were investigated by Christian authorities, Franklin composed several anonymous defenses of the Reverendʼs views. (The Rev. Jedediah Andrews, an elder clergyman who had taken Rev. Hemphill for his assistant, came to view Hemphillʼs sermons as part of a “dreadful plot laid by Satan to root Christianity out of the world,” and charged that the eloquent preacher drew about him only “Free Thinkers, Deists and nothings.”)
Throughout his life Franklin rarely attended church, was never confirmed, nor did he participate in sacraments and ordinances of any church per Prof. David Holmes, author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. He held little respect for doctrinal religious beliefs. As Franklin wrote in his autobiography near the end of his life:
“I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though 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 governed 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 esteemʼd the essentials of every religion, and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country I respected them all, though with different degrees of respect as I found them more or less mixed with other articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, servʼd 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, induced me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increased in people and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.”
With so little respect for church going and doctrine, Franklinʼs family and friends remained concerned that he might not get to heaven, for example…
In 1738 Franklin wrote in response to his parentsʼ concern, “My mother grieves that one of her sons is an Arian, another an Arminian… I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded he holds none that are dangerous; which I hope is the case with me.”
In 1740 the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield wrote to Franklin, “I do not despair of your seeing the reasonableness of Christianity. Apply to God; be willing to do the divine will, and you shall know it.”
In 1743, Franklin wrote in response to his dearest sister Jennyʼs [Jane Franklin Mecom] concern, “I took your Admonition very kindly, and was far from being offended at you for it… There are some things in your New England [Presbyterian] doctrines and worship which I do not agree with, but I do not therefore condemn them or desire to shake your belief or practice of them. We may dislike things that are nevertheless right in themselves. I would only have you make me the same allowances, and have a better opinion both of morality and your brother… If you can perceive the fruit to be good, donʼt terrify yourself that the tree may be evil.”
In 1764, replying to the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield, Franklin wrote, “Your frequently repeated wishes and prayers for my eternal as well as temporal happiness are very obliging. I can only thank you for them, and offer you mine in return. I have myself no doubts that I shall enjoy as much of both as is proper for me. That Being who gave me existence, and through almost sixty years has been continually showering his favors upon me, whose very chastisements have been blessings to me, can I doubt that he loves me? And if he loves me, can I doubt that he will go on to take care of me not only here but hereafter? This to some may seem presumption; to me it appears the best grounded hope; hope of the Future; built on experience of the past.”
In 1768 Whitefield wrote to Franklin, continuing to attempt to convert him, adding, “Your daughter I find is beginning the world. I wish you joy from the bottom of my heart. You and I shall soon go out of it—before long we shall see it burnt—Angels shall summon us to attend on the funeral of time—And (Oh transporting thought!) we shall see eternity rising out of its ashes. That you and I may be in the happy number of those who in the midst of the tremendous final blaze shall cry Amen—Hallelujah—is the hearty prayer of, my dear Doctor…”
In 1769 Franklin wrote Whitefield, “I see with you [we agree] that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below [on earth]; I wish I could believe with you, that they are well attended to by those above [in heaven]; I rather suspect, from certain circumstances, that though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs [here on earth] are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence [wisdom] or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost. It is, however, an uncomfortable thought, and I leave it.”
In 1790, a year before his death, Franklin published Part Four of his autobiography in which he wrote of his relationship with the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield the following, “We had no religious connection. He used indeed sometimes to pray for my conversion but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death. The following instance will show something of the terms on which we stood. Upon one of his [Whitefieldʼs] arrivals from England he wrote to me that he should come soon to Philadelphia, but knew not where he could lodge. My answer was; You know my house… you will be most heartily welcome. He replied that if I made that kind offer for Christʼs sake, I should not miss of a reward. And I replied, Donʼt let me be mistaken; it was not for Christʼs sake, but for your sake.”
In 1795, Dr. Joseph Priestley (a Unitarian Christian), wrote in his Memoirs of his friend Franklin, “It is much to be lamented, that a man of Dr. Franklinʼs general good character, and great influence, should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done so much as he did to make others unbelievers.”
Now for the question…
Is Fortenberry correct? Can we detect Franklin “Becoming a Christian” circa 1735, during the period when Franklin composed defenses of Reverend Hemphillʼs sermons?
Franklin for his part never denied he was a “Christian” in some completely non-sectarian sense based on his understanding of Jesus as an inspired moral exemplar (but not necessarily God incarnate), and that the teaching of morality was the main thing, the primary point of religion. For instance he wrote in Poor Richardʼs Almanac, “Serving God is Doing good to Man, but Praying is thought an easier Service, and therefore more generally chosen.” As Dr. Joseph Waligore points out “All of the Christian deists [of that era] claimed to be Christian and the vast majority of them claimed they were the only ones advocating the Christianity Jesus taught. A better name for them might be ‘Jesus-centered deists’ because they identified Christianity with Jesusʼ moral teachings.”
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Christian religious historians as well as secular historians continue to doubt that Franklin was a Christian in the same way that orthodox doctrinal believing Christians (especially Evangelicals) believe themselves to be Christians today. See for instance these two pieces both titled, “Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?”
However, Christian apologist, Bill Fortenberry, suggests in his piece, The Conversion of Benjamin Franklin that Ben “converted” in mid-life circa 1735, based mainly on statements found in Franklinʼs four defenses of Rev. Hemphillʼs preaching, all written the same year. Fortenberry begins by focusing on Franklinʼs use of the term “Our Savior” in one of Franklinʼs early defenses of Rev. Hemphillʼs sermons. But Franklin has the term come out of the mouth of a Presbyterian character he named “S.” who defends Hemphillʼs views against another Presbyterian character named “T.” Franklinʼs character, “S.,” says, “Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher.” But where in Franklinʼs lifetime of writing before or after that one year do you find Ben using the phrase “Our Savior” again? Even Fortenberry admits, “If these are the opinions of Franklin himself, then this dialogue marks the first recorded instance that I know of in which he referred to Jesus as the Savior and as the Christ.” Also, Franklin knew that a Presbyterian minister must preach about Jesus as “Savior” or get fired, and Franklin was writing in defense of the Presbyterian minister, so why wouldnʼt Franklin employ the requisite term, speak the lingo, for that is precisely what Franklin knew was necessary in this case to keep Hemphill in the pulpit. The same goes for the other statement Fortenberry mentions, from Franklinʼs piece written the same year titled, A Defense of Mr. Hemphillʼs Observations. Hemphill was charged by his fellow Presbyterian ministers with having preached “against the Doctrine of Christʼs merit and satisfaction.” So Franklin, writing a defense of Hemphill states, “Let us then consider what the scripture doctrine of this affair is, and in a word it is this: Christ by his Death and Sufferings has purchased for us those easy terms and conditions of our acceptance with God, proposed in the Gospel, to wit, faith and repentance: By his death and sufferings, he has assured us of Godʼs being ready and willing to accept of our sincere, though imperfect obedience to his revealed will; By his death and sufferings he has atoned for all sins forsaken and amended, but surely not for such as are wilfully and obstinately persisted in. This is Hemphillʼs notion of this affair [notice that Ben distances himself from declaring such beliefs in Franklinʼs own name], and this he has always preachʼd; and he believes, ʻtis what no wise man will contradict.” Note how Franklin is writing about “the scripture doctrine of this affair” in an intellectually distant fashion. What does Franklin mean by “the scriptural doctrine of this affair” but the Presbyterian scriptural doctrine? Does this mean such doctrine equals Franklinʼs view? I donʼt see how one could leap to such a conclusion because Franklin was never eager to defend either “scripture” or “doctrine,” not before the Hemphill affair and not afterwards. Franklin adds toward the end of this paragraph, “This is Hemphillʼs notion of this affair,” again distancing himself from the matter. Franklin is obviously speaking the lingo to try and keep Hemphill in the pulpit. But Fortenberry sees none of this, only a firm decision on Franklinʼs part to convert to doctrinal Christianity at that point in his life and declare it to the world—well, anonymously declare it in defenses geared toward keeping a morally-fixated minister in the local pulpit preaching sermons that even heretics might enjoy, nothing either new or surprising there.
Fortenberry also remains blind to everything else Franklin has to say in his four defenses of Hemphill written that year, such as Franklinʼs many lines advocating the priority of moral teachings and practices over doctrinal beliefs. Letʼs look at what Fortenberry missed beginning with Franklinʼs anonymously composed work…
As Hemphillʼs ecclesiastical trial began, Franklin came to his defense with an article purporting to be a dialogue between two local Presbyterians. “Mr. S.,” speaking in defense of Hemphillʼs views, and “Mr. T.,” who complains, “I do not love to hear so much of morality [in sermons]; I am sure it will carry no man to heaven.” To which “Mr. S.” replies, “Faith is recommended as a means of producing morality: our savior was a teacher of morality or virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful teacher [of morality and virtue]. Thus faith would be a means of producing morality, and morality of salvation. But that from such faith alone salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian doctrine nor a reasonable one. And I should as soon expect, that my bare believing Mr. Grew to be an excellent teacher of the mathematics, would make me a mathematician, as that believing Christ would itself make a man a Christian.”
Franklin also had Hemphillʼs defender, “Mr. S.” say, “Morality or virtue is the end, faith only a means to obtain that end: and if the end be obtained, it is not matter by what means;” and, “No point of faith is so plain as that morality is our duty, for all sides agree in that. A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian.”
Now letʼs look at what Franklin says in…
“The Commission reassuming the third Article of Accusation against Mr. Hemphill [notes that] while he amply insists upon Christ as a king and law-giver, giving the best system of Laws, he takes no notice of his making satisfaction to the justice of God, but once barely mentions him as a Savior.” The paragraph [from Hemphillʼs sermons] upon which the censure [of Hemphill] is grounded [is this one]:
“To preach Christ is universally allowed to be the duty of every Christian minister, but what does that mean? It is not to use his name as a charm, to work up the hearers to a warm pitch of enthusiasm, without any foundation in reason to support it: It is not to make his person or his offices incomprehensible: It is not to exalt his glory as a kind condescending savior, to the dishonor of the unlimited goodness of the creator and Father of the universe, who is represented as stern and inexorable, expressing no indulgence to his guilty creatures, but demanding full and rigorous satisfaction for their offences: It is not to encourage undue and presumptuous reliances on his merits and satisfaction to the contempt of virtue and good works. No, but to represent him as a law-giver as well as a saviour, as a preacher of righteousness, as one who hath given us the most noble and complete system of morals enforced by the most substantial and worthy motives; and shows that the whole scheme of our redemption is a doctrine according to godliness.” [from one of Hemphillʼs sermons]
[Franklin then asks]…If the Reader will consider the paragraph [by Hemphill], he will find the whole meaning of it [Hemphillʼs meaning] to be this, We are not to preach up Christ so as to dishonor God the Father, nor are we to make such undue reliances upon his merits as to neglect good works; but we are to look upon him in both characters of saviour and lawgiver; that if we expect he has atoned for our sins, we must sincerely endeavor to obey his laws.”
Note that whether Franklin himself agrees with the Christian idea of atonement via Jesusʼs death is not answered, since this was written primarily in defense of what Hemphill preached. These Observations were published without Franklinʼs name on them, and you can see that Franklinʼs strongest points of agreement with this ministerʼs sermons were with the preacherʼs emphasis on following Jesus as “a preacher of righteousness who hath given us the most noble and compete system of morals.”
Franklin also wrote…
Defending Hemphill, Franklin stated, “Hemphill has said, ‘That what he means in his account of Christianity, is, that our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to restore mankind to that state of perfection in which Adam was at first created; and that all those laws that he has given us are agreeable to that original law, as having such a natural tendency to our own ease and quiet, that they carry their own reward, etc.’ That is, that our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to publish such a system of laws as have a natural tendency to restore mankind to that state of perfection in which Adam was at first created, etc.”
So, our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to publish a system of laws. In other sections, Franklin writes:
“We are now justified by a faith, the very life and soul of which consists in good works.”
“All hopes of [eternal] happiness to Christians, as such, considered separately and distinctly from the practice of the moral virtues are vain and delusory [delusional].”
“[Speaking of] our lost and undone state by nature, as it is commonly called, proceeding undoubtedly from the imputation of old Father Adamʼs first guilt. To this I answer once for all, that I look upon this opinion [of imputed or Original Sin] every whit as ridiculous as that of Imputed Righteousness… It is absurd in itself, and therefore cannot be fathered upon the Christian religion as delivered in the Gospel. Moral guilt is so personal a thing, that it cannot possibly in the nature of things be transferred from one man to myriads of others, that were no way accessary to it. And to suppose a man liable to punishment upon account of the guilt of another is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel.”
“What do [they] mean here, by these words, justification by his (Christʼs) righteousness, or as they elsewhere call it his imputed righteousness to justify us in the sight of God? Do they mean that the Almighty transfers the personal and perfect righteousness of Christ to men, or that he infuses it into them, and looks upon it, as the same thing with their own actual obedience to his law, and that in him they fulfill the law? Such a notion is abominably ridiculous and absurd in itself; and is so far from being a peculiar of Christianity, that the holy Scripture is absolutely a stranger to it.”
In fact, Franklin was so set on defending the teaching of morality as Jesusʼs primary role and blessing on humanity that Franklin shed his usual velvet gloved approach to religious disputes and instead “became his [Hemphillʼs] zealous partisan,” accusing the Presbyterian synod of “malice and envy,” “pious fraud… bigotry and prejudice.” Franklinʼs resentment of the entrenched, pious clerical establishment seemed to get the better of his temper. Perhaps the local heresy trial of a preacher so zealous for good works (as was Franklin himself) was too much for Franklin who was well aware of the history of Christians subjecting each other to heresy trials, and exiling or persecuting the opposition. For Franklin wrote in a London paper in 1772:
“If we look back into history for the character of the 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 practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [Britain] and in New England.”
Even when it was discovered that Hemphill had plagiarized many of his sermons (from a heterodox or heretical preacher in England!), Franklin continued to defend Hemphill, explaining, “I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture, though the latter was the practice of our common teachers.” In the end, Hemphill left town and Franklin quit the Presbyterian congregation.
Fortenberryʼs attempt to convince others that Franklin “converted to Christianity” hasnʼt convinced Franklin experts.
For instance, Fortenberry quotes Franklin correctly as admitting that no one deserves heaven based on the good works they do on earth, and one cannot earn the gift of eternal life. But one cannot build on the idea of eternal life as a gift the idea that believing in Jesusʼs sufferings and resurrection alone guaranteed such life. Instead, Franklin merely spoke of it as a gift of God, admitting, in a letter in 1753, “You will see in this my notion of good works that I am far from expecting (as you suppose) that I shall merit heaven by them. By heaven we understand, a state of happiness, infinite in degree, and eternal in duration: I can do nothing to deserve such reward,” which isnʼt to say that Jesusʼs death and resurrection was what secured one heaven as Fortenberry would like Ben to have written. Instead, in the rest of the letter one can read that Franklin viewed all mankind as his “brethren,” not just “Christians,” and Franklin took pains to explain why doing good to each other was far more important than any doctrinal religious beliefs. Franklin wrote, “Mankind are all of a Family… I have received much kindness from men, to whom I shall never have any opportunity of making the least direct return. And numberless mercies from God, who is infinitely above being benefited by our services. These kindnesses from men I can therefore only return on their fellow-Men; and I can only show my gratitude for those mercies from God, by a readiness to help his other children and my brethren. For I do not think that ‘thanks, and compliments,’ thoʼ repeated weekly, can discharge our real obligations to each other, and much less those to our Creator.” Franklin continued his letter in a Gandhi-like way so as not to get into a debate over religious doctrines of salvation by adding, “The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world; I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it: I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not [religious] holiday-keeping, sermon-Reading or hearing, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, fillʼd with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise Men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. The Worship of God is a duty, the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth Leaves, thoʼ it never produced any fruit. Your great master [Jesus] thought much less of these outward appearances and professions [of faith] than many of his modern disciples. He preferred the doers of the word to the mere hearers; the son that seemingly refused to obey his father and yet performed his commands to him that professed his readiness but neglected the works [i.e., the parable of the prodigal son]; the heretical but charitable Samaritan to the uncharitable though orthodox priest and sanctified Levite [i.e., the parable of the Good Samaritan]: and those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, raiment to the Naked, entertainment to the stranger, and relief to the sick, etc. though they never heard of his name, he declares shall in the last day be accepted, when those who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ who value themselves on their faith though great enough to perform miracles but have neglected good works shall be rejected. He [Jesus] professed that he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; which implied his modest opinion that there were some in his time so good that they need not hear even him for improvement.”
As for the rest of Fortenberryʼs interpretations, I will let Franklinʼs own words and opinions as I have cited throughout this piece speak for themselves.
Lucky for Fortenberry he defines being “a Christian” as something that has nothing to do with a belief in Jesusʼs divinity, nor a belief in the Trinity, so he has opened up the door to possibly labeling Franklin a Christian even though Franklin doubted Jesusʼs divinity. But unlike Franklin, Fortenberry believes that “every word of Scripture was directly and intentionally authored by God Himself for the purpose of being included in the Bible.” And unlike Franklin, Fortenberry emphasizes the necessity of believing that Jesusʼs death and resurrection was what secured one eternal life. But as we have seen, Franklinʼs beliefs throughout his entire life emphasized that Jesusʼs greatest gift was being a moral teacher, and only used “savior” and the idea of atonement when citing and defending Hemphill against heresy accusations, and Ben always prefaced such statements as being either those of Hemphill or “doctrinal” Presbyterian views that Ben did not say were his own since he was never confirmed as a man of any sect. We also know how Ben felt about the necessity (or rather the lack of necessity) of believing in doctrines compared with the necessity of doing good, as pointed out many times in Benʼs life both before and after the year Hemphill was on ecclesiastical trial. One can only wish Fortenberry luck in propagating his idiosyncratic interpretations of Benʼs beliefs in lieu of discussions Fortenberry has already had with other experts on Franklinʼs life and religious views, like these:
From Dr. Kiddʼs piece:
Part of the problem with calling any of the Founders deists is the difficulty of defining deism. What did that term mean in the eighteenth century? Could you be a deist and somehow believe in prayer, as Franklin apparently did, at least as of the Constitutional Convention? (Franklin made a failed motion for the convention to open its sessions in prayer.) Could you be a deist and say with Jefferson, “I am a real Christian”?
Arguments about whether any or all the Founders were deists usually are hamstrung by overly precise definitions of deism. Deists believed in God as the cosmic watchmaker, critics protest, so any sign that a person believed in prayer or Providence automatically disqualifies them. But deism in eighteenth-century Europe and America could mean many different things. Its adherents could range from people who had qualms about Calvinism, to those who criticized the corruptions of the church as “priestcraft,” to more radical deists who espoused beliefs that seem close to atheism. We should also remember that “deism” and “deists” were terms probably more often used by critics against their opponents, rather than by deists themselves…
Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted to dispense with Christian dogma and recover the true faith, which was a quality of living rather than a set of arcane propositions which (as they saw it) the guardians of orthodoxy defended in order to protect their own power. This is why Franklin gave so much attention to tests of personal virtue, and experimented constantly with charitable projects. Likewise, Jefferson was almost obsessed with the person and teachings of Jesus, but believed that in his teaching and behavior Jesus served as the preeminent example of “human excellence,” and that his followers imposed claims about his divinity and resurrection after the teacherʼs death. But neither Jefferson nor Franklin imagined that we could do without this recovered rationalist Christianity—it was the best guide we had to real virtue.
The deistsʼ closest descendants today are not the “new atheists” who have stirred up so much media chatter in recent years. Their closest descendants are probably liberal mainline Christians who see Jesus as their model but who eschew (or even deny) the particular, exclusive doctrines that have been associated with Christian orthodoxy for millennia. …
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