You will find a mixed bag of beliefs when it comes to Benjamin Franklin and his religion. He believed in God and His supremacy. Although he grew up under Calvinist teaching, he later came under the influence of British Deistic thought and he eventually became a prominent Deist, but rejected the more radical Deism. Yet, mixed in with his Deist belief was Calvinistic doctrine. One could say that Franklin became a new and prudent Deist.
Benjamin Franklin’s character demonstrates that from early youth he became independent in thought and actions. Enrolled in the Boston Latin School at the age of eight his father had to withdraw him after the first year. The Boston Latin School was well known for many of the famous Puritan divines, a future Franklin apparently did not want to follow. One author stated that while a youth he was reported not as pious or faithful, but as “skeptical, puckish . . . irreverent.”(1) He went to another school but soon educated himself from the age 10 and on.
Many would argue that because Franklin was a known Deist, our country could not have a Christian foundation. That argument ultimately denies the sovereignty of God to work through all of His creation. It also is an argument that clearly objects to and denies the true God of Christianity. They may say ‘not so;’ why then do they protest so much against Christianity? Benjamin Franklin held a firm belief and faith in God. He also believed in Divine intervention and God’s sovereignty. Although he did not conform to the traditional Christian faith, he embraced a firm and unmovable faith in God and His works in the founding of America. Read what he spoke when after four to five weeks the Constitutional Convention was stalled:
“In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance.
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 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 be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.”(2)
Franklin’s belief in God was firm. He was fully convicted of His existence and sovereignty and he firmly believed that without the blessings and guidance of God they would not succeed. One can imagine that Franklin, who broke with traditional Christianity, is the one to stand before the Convention delegates and rebuke them for not seeking God’s guidance. The irony of it is humorous. God’s providence truly does work through all of humanity. That day the Constitutional Convention moved on and brought forth the foundation of America.
Franklin wrote a paper in 1732 entitled On the Providence of God in the Government of the World. He proceeds to “. . . go about to prove this first Principle, the Existence of a Deity and that he is the Creator of the Universe. . .”. He continues to make two more points of God giving life, sustenance, and His sovereignty over all of creation. After completing these arguments, Franklin then establishes his theme on the providence of God in the government of the world. He directly states that God “sometimes interferes by His particular providence and sets aside the effects which would otherwise have been produced by . . . causes.”(3) He did not quote scripture, but many of his statements were built on specific scriptures he learned in his youth.
When Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790, there was a picture of the Day of Judgment by his bedside. There is no question that Benjamin Franklin not only played a critical role in the founding of our country, he boldly declared that the United States of America was formed through the sovereignty of God.
1 Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), page 10
2 The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Reported by James Madison, a delegate from the state of Virginia. Ed. by Gaillard Hund and James Brown Scott, Oxford University Press, 1920.
3 Benjamin Franklin, “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World”, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, eds. Leonard W. Labaree, et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959-), 1:264; or online at http://www.franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp Volume 1: 1706-34
Bibliography: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David L. Holmes, © David L. Holmes 2006; Published by Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, NY; The Religious Views of Benjamin Franklin, Chapter 5, Pages 53-57.