Of all the founding fathers, Ben Franklin would likely have been most at home in modern America. This land of pop-faith preachers, self-help guidebooks, and ardent unbelievers would have been familiar to the inventor, whose spiritual life was as empty of transcendent meaning as it was full of pithy aphorisms.
Reading Franklin’s writing today is like skimming through one of those paperback books in airport terminals. Their covers promise life-changing truths, but their spines bend easily and crack under pressure. The problem is that Franklin was a man of action rather than ideas, and recent biographical attempts to penetrate beyond the public persona he cultivated so assiduously often end up regurgitating what Franklin already wrote in his Autobiography.
In Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, the Baylor University professor Thomas S. Kidd attempts to break through Franklin’s exterior by focusing on the polymath’s faith—or apparent lack thereof. In nine concise chapters, Kidd uses episodes from Franklin’s life to draw conclusions about the founding father’s religious beliefs. The book, while light on biographical details, reveals the extent to which Franklin’s stated beliefs were often in conflict with his actions. This new biography is evidence that living virtuously without the help of organized religion was as difficult in the eighteenth century as it can be today.
Franklin has enjoyed something of a historiographical renaissance in the past decade: three separate biographies—from Walter Isaacson, H. W. Brands, and Edmund Morgan—were released between 2002 and 2004, and last year Yale University chose to name one of its two new residential colleges after Franklin. In our collective consciousness, Franklin’s is a feel-good, rags-to-riches tale about a printer-diplomat leading his country to independence. Balancing entrepreneurialism with public-spiritedness, Franklin is remembered as an inventor and innovator who preferred stout boots and plain clothes to the latest Parisian fashions.
In canonizing Franklin, most historians have emphasized his diverse contributions to American politics and culture. Kidd’s biography does not reject this narrative, but specifically focuses on how Franklin built an image of himself as a critic of religion despite his Christian upbringing. After breaking away from his Calvinist roots in Boston, Franklin gained notoriety as the editor of The Pennsylvania Gazette, a newspaper that often pilloried religious and political dogmas: witch-hunters, Puritans, Catholics, and Freemasons all came under fire. Franklin’s satirical columns captivated the Quaker colony while bolstering his image as a champion of the everyman, and an ethical critic of Christianity and backwards superstition to boot.
But in promoting this narrative about the iconic “First American,” the Franklin industry has overlooked some of his key character flaws. The boundless adoration of Franklin—a man who flirted with married women, had children out of wedlock, was reluctant to baptize his son, visited prostitutes, befriended drunkards, and never kept a regular church attendance—suggests that our country has either forgotten the more sordid details of his life, or is unperturbed by them. Indeed, one of “Bawdy Ben’s” letters to a friend was so licentious that for much of the nineteenth century it was censored out of his collected works—a mark of the popular preference to look on the man’s brighter side.
Kidd’s book offers a timely portrait of a founding father whose struggles with organized religion—more fundamentally, his struggle to believe in anything at all—are not unlike our own. John Adams felt Franklin was a mirror in which people saw their own beliefs, a tendency that persists to this day. Like Franklin, many Americans feel alienated from religious traditions but also struggle to find meaningful replacements. Franklin let go of organized religion, espousing a life of virtue in its stead. But after over two centuries of Franklin’s personal, anticlerical, and deed-driven spiritual tradition in America, the country seems no better for it.
In the early 1730s Franklin compiled a list (which later appeared in the Autobiography) of thirteen virtues, including temperance, industry, and humility. Under “humility,” Franklin wrote only four words: “imitate Jesus and Socrates.” This roadmap to virtue, Franklin assured, would assist in the “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” Was Franklin being ironic when he wrote this? Did he really believe that “perfection” was in reach, or that the path toward it could be so straightforward? Surely someone practicing humility would avoid telling others about their path to moral perfection. Franklin sounds here like our current president, who said that he is “much more humble than you would understand.”
Kidd’s book skims the surface of Franklin’s religious entanglements, but never really addresses the fact that Franklin used his print shop to turn religion into a commodity. Franklin published more on religion than any other layperson of the eighteenth century, and made a fortune in the process. His newspaper reprinted sermons, covered religious controversies, and followed the movements of famous preachers. For the English author D. H. Lawrence, whom Kidd cites as a vocal critic of Franklin, the founding father embodied the drainage of any true transcendent experience from the spiritual life of Protestant America. In his view, Franklin’s true god was the free market.
Nowhere was this laissez-faire approach to spirituality more evident than in the abridged version of the Book of Common Prayer, which Franklin co-authored with the iconoclast Francis Dashwood. Their truncated text called for the shortening of Anglican services, a move that would appeal to young professionals too busy making money to attend lengthy prayer services. With money always in mind, Franklin argued that modernizing the liturgy would encourage turnout and boost revenue for churches.
But at what cost? Franklin and Dashwood ripped out large swaths of liturgy; they excised half the Apostles’ Creed, including almost all references to Jesus Christ. They removed many Psalms on the grounds that they were repetitive and only of interest to Jews, and they deleted all mention of the word “cursed,” including “Cursed is he that lieth with his neighbor’s wife.”
“All cursing of mankind,” wrote Franklin, was “best omitted in this abridgment.”
As Kidd suggests in his introduction, Franklin’s list of virtues and his revised prayer book were early precursors to the modern-day self-help industry. (In particular, Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth” and his Autobiography, which focus on daily habits rather than the afterlife, were also urtexts of the self-help movement.) Bestsellers like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1999) and Teresa Jordan’s 2014 Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off) urge people to focus on “practical rather than spiritual values,” an injunction that reflects Franklin’s grounded approach to human life.
This new religious biography from Kidd is a testament to the difficulty of discerning Franklin’s religious views. He was a lifelong skeptic, someone who, as Kidd writes, “was not sure of the answer, but . . . liked raising the question.” Still, for all the similarities between Franklin’s pop faith and the current crisis of belief in America, Franklin saw himself at the time not as a revolutionary but as a reformer. His anti-establishment views were part of a serious intellectual project gaining steam across the colonies and into Europe.
More than anything, Religious Life will leave readers admiring Franklin’s cheerful resolve in the face of moral and spiritual ambiguity. He is at once a revolutionary and a historian, with one foot in the Puritan past and another in the Enlightenment. To quote Hamlet: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again.”
As the American religious tradition continues to erode, Franklin’s scattered and skeptical outlook may not point the way toward rebuilding lost belief. And yet, his religious perspective did precurse our own, and in this sense Kidd’s representation of the man is a fitting guide for recognizing the spiritual emptiness, the sacrilegious irreverence, and the incoherent ideologies that plague our time.