Benjamin Franklin | Book Review


In 1787, the Constitutional Convention found itself bogged down over the issue of representation. Small states wanted equal representation in the national legislature. Large states wanted proportional representation. The dispute seemed irresolvable, and if it could not be resolved, the young American nation itself might not survive.

Benjamin Franklin — America’s gray eminence, Pennsylvania’s delegate — proposed to solve the impasse by means of daily prayer, reasoning this way:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages.

Franklin’s proposal was defeated handily. “The Convention,” Franklin wrote, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

This episode, from near the end of Franklin’s life, reveals several things about Franklin’s mature religious beliefs, not to mention the influence of religion on the American founding. Like other Founding Fathers — George Washington especially comes to mind — Franklin believed that God providentially ordered world events, particularly the formation of the United States of America. His public rhetoric was shot through with biblical imagery. And he believed in the social usefulness of religion for republican government; hence, the call to prayer.

And yet, these mature religious beliefs, though sincere, were neither orthodox nor evangelical, a fact demonstrated in depth by Thomas S. Kidd in his recently published Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston to devout Puritans who raised him and his siblings in the doctrines of evangelical Calvinism. In his teenage years, under the influence of skeptical writings by Lord Shaftesbury and Anthony Collins, he left that faith and became, in his own words, “a thorough deist.”

Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

Unfortunately, the word deist conjures up the image of a clockmaker god who winds up the universe then leaves it alone. That does not accurately describe Franklin’s mature belief, however. Deists of that stripe, to point out the obvious, do not issue the kind of plea for prayers Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention.

“The key to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent religion,” Kidd writes, “is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint of his childhood Calvinism.” To be sure, Franklin was skeptical of orthodox Christology (i.e., the Incarnation) and evangelical soteriology (i.e., justification by faith). He was consistent on these points throughout his adult life, though he expressed the scope and intensity of his skepticism at different times and in various ways. What mattered to him more than what one believed was how one lived.

This moralism was not atheism, however. Five weeks before he died, in a letter dated March 9, 1790, Franklin described his creed to Yale’s Ezra Stiles, an evangelical Christian, this way:

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.

Not nothing, religiously speaking, but not fully Christian either.

Franklin’s Calvinist rearing no doubt influenced his religious beliefs. Most obviously, it gave him a biblical idiom in which to express himself. Less obviously, warm relationships with evangelical Christians such as his sister Jane Mecom, evangelist George Whitefield, and others moderated his skeptical tone and made him appreciative of evangelicals’ good works. Throughout his life, these evangelicals pleaded with him to put his faith in Jesus, but at the end, all he would say is this: “I think the system of morals and his religion as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see.” Again, not nothing, but not Christianity.

Franklin’s ambivalent religion points to an important truth about the role of religion in America’s founding. Many evangelical Christians think of America as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. This is not a new belief, and it is not entirely wrong. From the start of the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay and all the way to the present day, America has been a nation of self-professed Christians. Protestant political theology exercised tremendous influence on the American colonists; the Bible suffused their public rhetoric, and established churches shaped their public piety. In the 19th century, due to waves of revival, evangelical Christianity became the de facto established religion of the new nation.

And yet, alongside this Christianity sits something less than Christian. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, we might call it non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism. It is a peculiarly American faith. Shaped by Christianity, but not Christian. Sounding like the Bible, but not biblical. This was Franklin’s faith, and the faith of other Founders too, such as Thomas Jefferson. When we query the role of religion in the American founding, we must take this non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism into account, for it was present and it was influential. This was the reason why, for example, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson described God in generic terms — “Nature’s God”— rather than specifically biblical ones.

This truth about the role of religion in America’s founding generates two points of application for evangelical Christians, in my opinion. First, we must recognize that the American experiment is a joint venture, not a sole proprietorship. Yes, orthodox and evangelical Christians played an important role in the establishment of America. They did not play the only role, however.  Alongside them and sometimes in conflict with them, theists of a non-Christian variety exercised influence on the development of our nation. Benjamin Franklin is proof of that

(In fairness, the same reminder needs to be issued to skeptical Americans today who deny Christians a role in the Founding. Not only were they present and influential, but atheists played no role. Even the radically skeptical Thomas Paine argued for the necessity of belief in God, after all.)

Second, given the foregoing point, it behooves orthodox and evangelical Christians to be more mindful of political rhetoric. Invocations of God — whether in American history or at the present time — are not necessarily invocations of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Too often, we read our Christian convictions into the theological pronouncements of the Founders, which means we misread them. By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

 

Book Reviewed:
Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Thursday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Chris Colvin helps pastors think more clearly about office hours. His bottom line? “You must give your staff — and yourself — space to be relational and permission to set their own schedules. At the same time, you need to be consistent and available.”
  • Clay Scroggins is my guest for the Influence Podcast. He is lead pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, and author of How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, which Zondervan publishes on August 22nd. It’s an excellent book!
  • I review Thomas S. Kidd’s newest book, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Here’s my concluding sentence: “By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.”

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Review of ‘George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father’ by Thomas S. Kidd


George-Whitefield Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

George Whitefield is not well known by Americans today, including American evangelical Christians, his spiritual heirs. In the eighteenth century, however, Whitefield was well known not only in America, but also in his native England—well known, well loved, and widely criticized. Thomas S. Kidd outlines the life of this influential evangelist in George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

Whitefield was born in a Gloucester inn on December 16, 1714, to hardworking though not particularly religious parents. He secured a work-scholarship to Oxford University, where he fell under the spiritual influence of John and Charles Wesley and entered ministry in the Church of England. Together with the Wesley brothers, Whitefield led the trans-Atlantic evangelical revival that came to be known as the Great Awakening through ceaseless itinerant evangelism, innovative use of print media, and development of personal and institutional relationships across denominations.

“[Whitefield’s] colleague and frequent rival John Wesley left a greater organizational legacy,” Kidd writes, “and his ally Jonathan Edwards made a more significant theological contribution. But Whitefield was the key figure in the first generation of evangelical Christianity.” Kidd concludes: “Whitefield was the first great preacher in a modern evangelical movement that has seen many. Perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen.”

Reading Kidd’s biography of Whitefield—which will be the standard work for years to come—I was struck by several similarities with contemporary American evangelicalism that are worth noting, both positive and negative.

The first is Whitefield’s blend of principle and pragmatism. Whitefield was an ordained priest in the Church of England and a convinced Calvinist. This did not prevent him from working with English Dissenters and Arminians (at least of the Wesleyan variety), Scottish Presbyterians, or American Congregationalists, however. Rather, with them, he emphasized the experience of the “new birth”—that is, being born again—and the doctrine of justification by faith. These expressed the essence of the gospel.

To proclaim that gospel, Whitefield pragmatically utilized a variety of innovative techniques. These included itinerant evangelism, field preaching, personal discipleship (the hallmark of Methodism), and the use of newspapers to promote the ministry. The result was a trans-Atlantic revival united by a powerful spiritual encounter and a theology that explained it, far more than by ecclesiology or denominational distinctives.

The second is Whitefield’s emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, both as the One who brings about regeneration (the technical term for the new birth) and the One who empowers ministers to proclaim the gospel. Wesley’s journals are filled with descriptions of people experiencing the throes of spiritual conviction, not to mention the experience of breaking through to the peace of conversion. He also routinely speaks of the Spirit prompting his actions and words. Kidd even notes a handful of occasions where Whitefield, his colleagues, or his followers may have spoken in tongues. Ironically, in light of the cessationist theology that characterized evangelical Calvinism in the early twentieth century, Kidd points out that the revivalists believed in the contemporary work of the Holy Spirit—though not as Pentecostals do today—while their non-evangelical critics were the ones who were cessationists, believing that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had ceased in the Apostolic Era.

This emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit was often a help to the emerging evangelical movement, rooting God’s work in the heart and not merely the head, but it was also occasionally a hindrance. Critics routinely accused Whitefield and his followers of “enthusiasm,” a mindless religious ecstasy detached from good theology, good taste, and good sense. Sometimes, they were right. In turn, under what Whitefield assumed to be the prompting of the Spirit, he often criticized non-evangelical ministers for being “unconverted,” that is, not even Christian. This won him few friends among that group. As Whitefield and his followers matured, they learned to distinguish the fire of genuine revival from “wild-fire.”

The third is the paradoxical combination of unity and division. As noted above, the Anglican Whitefield partnered with ministers of other Protestant denominations to promote revival. This is true of evangelicalism to the present day. But just as there are sharp theological disputes today between Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals, there were sharp theological disputes between the same two groups in the eighteenth century. Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, as was the Welsh evangelist Howell Harris. The Wesley brothers, on the other hand, were equally staunch Arminians. The theological debates between those four individuals, and their respective followers, were intense and often nasty. Nevertheless, throughout his ministry, Whitefield found his way toward cooperation with the Wesley’s in gospel ministry.

The fourth is the confusion of the gospel and patriotism. Whitefield came to prominence during Protestant England’s seemingly endless wars with Catholic powers. Like other Protestants in his age, he viewed the Reformation dispute with Rome as both theological (How are we saved?) and political (Who will rule us?) in nature. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear with Spain and the Seven Years War with France, Whitefield preached pro-English, anti-Spanish, anti-French, and anti-Catholic sermons that are embarrassing to read today. My guess is that in two hundred years, the patriotic sermons of today’s evangelicals will cause readers to blush too.

It has been said that the past is a foreign country. Reading Whitefield’s biography reminds us that his age was vastly different from our own. Like many in America in the eighteenth century, Whitefield owned slaves, a fact for which he can (and should) be criticized. (His marriage was also nothing to write home about.)

On the other hand, the past is not so foreign that it is unable to teach us lessons about our own time. This is especially true of contemporary American evangelicalism. The trans-Atlantic evangelical revival of the eighteenth century initiated patterns of spiritual experience, theological doctrine, and ministry methodology that are still recognizable among American and British evangelicals today, for better and for worse.

As evangelicals move forward in the twenty-first century, it is thus reasonable to ask: Who will be our Edwards, to teach us in this postmodern intellectual milieu? Who will be our Wesley, to organize, network, and disciple us? And who will be our Whitefield—the evangelist whose preaching of the gospel will draw men and women, boys and girls to Christ? Kidd notes that Whitefield was perhaps “the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen.” I would add only five words: though hopefully not the last.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Patrick Henry: Advocate of Christian Republicanism


patrick-henry Thomas S. Kidd, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (New York: Basic Books, 2011). $28.00, 320 pages.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Patrick Henry before I read Thomas S. Kidd’s biography of him. I knew—as all schoolboys should know—that he uttered the famous line, “give me liberty, or give me death.” I also knew that his support for a general assessment for religion—taxpayer funded clergy support—in Virginia provoked James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance. And finally I knew that Henry, an anti-Federalist, opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. I didn’t know much else, and I didn’t know how to connect what little knowledge I had of Henry into a consistent picture of the man.

The merits of Kidd’s biography are that it filled out my knowledge of Patrick Henry’s and explained why his political vision was more or less consistent. Kidd uses the term Christian republicanism to describe Henry’s politics, which I might summarize as a faith-based practice of ordered liberty. Henry’s belief in liberty explains his early advocacy of the cause of Independence, as well as his opposition to the Constitution, which he felt aggrandized the Federal government with too much power. His belief in order—not merely “law and order,” but the kind of moral self-government that arises from religious practice—led him to support the general assessment for religion. This general assessment was denominationally non-specific: In other words, the taxpayer could direct his assessment to the church of his choice. Henry believed that such an assessment was necessary to the support of Christian churches, which he in turn felt were vital to the health of the American republic. Ironically, it is James Madison’s view of religious disestablishment, not Henry’s quasi-establishmentarianism, that has turned out to best promote the health of Christianity in America.

Like many Founders, Henry was not always consistent with his own moral principles. As a Christian republican, he felt that virtue was necessary to the health of a free society. And yet, as Kidd shows, Henry—always concerned with his family’s financial health—was not above engaging in instances of morally dubious land speculation. More critically, Henry owned slaves in his lifetime and did not provide for their manumission after his death. Henry knew that the practice of slavery was problematic. As he wrote to Virginia Quaker leader (and abolitionist) Robert Pleasants: “Would anyone believe that I am a master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot justify it…” [emphasis added].

Reading about Patrick Henry—or about any of the Founders—reminds us to avoid the twin dangers of easy hagiography and easy demonology. Patriotic renderings focus on his advocacy of liberty, while critics point to his hypocrisy on slavery. The value of good biography is to bring these two realities of Henry’s life into tension, and Kidd’s book is nothing if not good biography.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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