Benjamin Franklin on Religion

There is a letter quoted on many internet sites as being from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Paine.  Actually it was written on December 13, 1757 from Franklin to an unknown author who had sent him a manuscript.  Here is the letter:

Dear Sir,

I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For, without the belief of a Providence that takes cognisance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that, though your reasons are subtle, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind spits in his own face.

But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantage of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a great deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?

Note that Franklin does not wish to get into a religious debate, but merely notes the social utility of religion and advises the author that the world would be a worse place without it.  His last sentence is striking:    If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?  Sadly, the last century thumpingly answered that query.

At the end of his life on January 9, 1790, just a few weeks before his death, Franklin set forth his religious beliefs in a letter to Ezra Stiles:

You desire to know something of my religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavor in a few words to gratify it. Here is my creed: I believe in one God, the creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we 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. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is like to see; but I apprehend, it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and more observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss by distinguishing the believers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the goodness of that being in conducting me prosperously through a long life, I have no doubt of its continuance in the next, though without the smallest conceit of meriting such goodness. My sentiments on this head you will see in the copy of an old letter inclosed, which I wrote in answer to one from an old religionist whom I had relieved in a paralytic case by electricity, and who being afraid I should grow proud upon it, sent me his serious, though rather impertinent caution. I send you also the copy of another letter which will show something of my disposition relating to religion.

Franklin was a deist, although not a dogmatic one.  As a young man he wrote out his own epitaph and I doubt if he did not hold to these sentiments throughout his life:

                        The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

Published in: on January 11, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. Great post (among many others). If you have not read it already, I think you would very much enjoy “The Printer and the Preacher” by Randy Peterson.

    It covers the on-again, off-again friendship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield. A slim volume, but there is likely no better book-length treatment of Franklin’s religious beliefs outside collections of his own writing.

    • I will have to look that book up. Benjamin Franklin is endlessly fascinating. There were so many facets to the man and he seemed to have involvement in so many important movements in his time. A very great man even if he had died before the Revolution. However, if he had not been handling our diplomacy with France, there may be no United States today. We were lucky he sided with the Patriots, unlike his son William.

  2. Randy Petersen*

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