“Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father” by Thomas S. Kidd
Has Benjamin Franklin an authentic Christian who subscribed to any orthodox confession of faith? Responding to an inquiry about his faith from his friend Ezra Stiles, Congregational minister and president of Yale College, Franklin writes,
I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. (234)
In truth, Franklin was neither confessional nor an orthodox Christian. Instead, Thomas S. Kidd, a prolific historian of the United States at Baylor University, would have us claim Franklin as the pioneer of a distinctly American religion he describes as “doctrineless, moralized Christianity” (6). In his biography of Franklin, Kidd seeks to show “how much Franklin’s personal experiences shaped his religious beliefs” (5).
In nine lively and entertaining chapters, Kidd charts Franklin’s trajectory from his Boston Puritan childhood and indentured servitude in his brother’s print shop to his rise as a self-made man and essayist in Philadelphia’s printing and newspaper industry, and finally to his career as a statesman for Pennsylvania and the newly formed United States. Slavery, philosophy, romantic relationships with younger women, and vegetarianism are just a few of the topics broached in this biography. Along the way, Kidd ably demonstrates Franklin’s continual interaction with religion and avoids forcing him into the neat categories of believer, atheist, or the more protean “deist.” Instead, Kidd suggests Franklin slid along a spectrum of belief and skepticism, and the devout faith of his sister Jane Mecom and his unlikely friend, George Whitefield, served to “tether him”—one of Kidd’s preferred phrases—to the faith of his parents.
Chapters 1 through 3 treat Franklin’s childhood, bookish youth, and establishment as a printer in Philadelphia in his early twenties. Chapters 4 through 6 treat Franklin’s successful career as a printer, his fame for his experiments with electricity, and his friendship and business relationship with Whitefield, for and about whom he printed vast amounts of literature. Chapters 7 through 9 and the conclusion bring Franklin through his diplomatic stays in England and France. Kidd indeed shows how Franklin’s different contexts shaped his religious ideas. Where his stays in Europe broadened his view of religion (195), his experience of the American Revolution brought him closer to his parents’ Reformed view of fallen humanity (224). Despite these developments, moralism remained the core of his belief.
Despite my following critiques, I commend the biography to readers interested in church history, colonial America, and the founding fathers. The lack of a bibliography is unfortunate but expected, as is the use of endnotes. Several quotations and references to concepts were unfortunately not cited, but the text is largely free of typographical errors and repetition from chapter to chapter.
Kidd mainly endorses Max Weber’s theory about a Protestant work ethic stemming from anxiety over one’s election or reprobation (3, 16, 100, 162). I would have appreciated actual critical engagement with Weber’s theory rather than passing approval. Kidd also seems to generalize various forms of Protestantism, flattening out differences between theological views. For example, he portrays both Franklin’s father and Whitefield as devout Calvinists, yet Whitefield’s evangelistic practices subverted Reformed ecclesiology. Thus Whitefield may have encouraged Franklin on his course of doctrinal innovation, even while he “tethered” him to conservative Protestantism. In addition, such a use of the term “Calvinism” refers primarily to soteriology, effectively attempting to extract it from the other loci of Reformed theology. In my view, Calvinism is shorthand for the complete body of doctrine contained within the Reformed confessions, and careless use of the term hints at evangelical doctrinal minimalism. Kidd’s largest underlying claim is that:
Franklin was the pioneer of . . . doctrineless, moralized Christianity. Franklin was an experimenter at heart, and he tinkered with a novel form of Christianity, one where virtually all beliefs became nonessential.
. . . For Franklin, Christianity remained a preeminent resource for virtue. But he had no exclusive attachment to Christianity as a religious system or as a source of salvation. (6–7)
As far as Franklin’s religious descendants today, Kidd identifies “doctrineless, moralized Christianity” as “America’s most common code of spirituality” (7–8). Pointing to such figures as Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen as its proponents, Kidd adapts sociologist Christian Smith’s term “moralistic, therapeutic deism” to describe this phenomenon. In doing so, he makes no reference to the influence of pagan, gnostic, and pantheistic ideas on late-modern American religion. And yet, Dr. Franklin’s gouty shoulders cannot bear this load alone.
It would have been simpler to draw a connection between Franklin’s religion and Modernism, whether of Schleiermacher or the Protestant mainline churches. Franklin’s creed echoes Modernism’s universal fatherhood of God and universal brotherhood of man, its skeptical denial of supernatural intervention in history (Franklin spoke of a generic “God” and impersonal Providence), its kernel-and-husk approach to Scripture, and especially its exaltation of ethics over doctrine. Moreover, both Franklin and Modernism instrumentalized religion for social and political ends. Kidd’s admirable historical scholarship aside, his overarching claim linking Franklin to progressive spirituality and his analysis of contemporary American religion fall short because he politely declines to acknowledge that doctrineless Christianity, to borrow a line from J. Gresham Machen, “not only is a different religion from Christianity but it belongs in a totally different class of religions.” Doctrineless Christianity is not Christianity, and that is where the “electrifying” enigma of Franklin’s religion and its alleged progeny loses its charge.
J. G. Amato is a member of the United Reformed Churches in North America and a graduate student of history at Stanford University.