< Return to Religion of History's 100 Most Influential People
< Return to Famous Episcopalians
< Return to Famous Deists
The Religious Affiliation of Founding Father
Benjamin Franklin was raised as an Episcopalian but was a Deist as an adult.
Franklin, who normally preferred to contemplate the eternal in the privacy of his own home, had been invited by Jedediah Andrews to become a member of the Presbyterian church. He attended for five Sundays in a row. He became a pew holder and a contributor, but he nevertheless ceased to attend weekly services... In general, most Franklin scholars have found him to be quite moderate in his attitude toward religion. Typically, Alfred Owen Aldridge has described Franklin as a confirmed Deist, who, in contrast to more militant Deists like Tom Paine, did not attempt to "wither Christianity by ridicule or bludgeon it to death by argument."
Benjamin Franklin was identified as an Episcopalian by the Library of Congress. A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution by M. E. Bradford was cited as the source stating he was later a Deist. (Source: Ian Dorion, "Table of the Religious Affiliations of American Founders", 1997).
From: B. J. Lossing, Signers of the Declaration of Independence, George F. Cooledge & Brother: New York (1848) [reprinted in Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, WallBuilder Press: Aledo, Texas (1995)], page 105:
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on the seventeenth day of January, 1706. His father was a true Puritan, and emigrated hither from England, in 1682. He soon afterward married Miss Folger, a native of Boston. Being neither a mechanic nor farmer, he turned his attention to the business of a soap-boilder, and tallow-chandler, which was his occupation for life
From: R.P. Nettelhorst, "Notes on the Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State", posted on Quartz Hill School of Theology website (http://www.theology.edu/journal/volume2/ushistor.htm; viewed 30 November 2005):
The parents of Benjamin wished him to be a minster of the gospel, and they began to educate him with that end in view, but their slender means were not adequate for the object, and the intention was abandoned. He was kept at a common school for a few years, and then taken into the service of his father. The business did not please the boy... At length the harmony between himself and brother was interrupted, and he left his service and went on board a vessel in the harbor, bound for New York. In that city he could not obtain employment, and he proceeded on foot to Philadelphia, where he arrived on a Sabbath morning. He was then but seventeen years old, friendless and alone, with but a single dollar in his pocket... It is said that his first appearance in Philadelphia attracted considerable attention in the streets. When his spare clothing in his pcoket, and a loaf of bread under each arm, he wandered about until he came to a Quaker meeting, where he entered, sat down, went to sleep, and slept soundly until worship was closed. He was then awakened by one of the congregation, and he sought some other place of rest.
Benjamin Franklin, the delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He has frequently been used as a source for positive "God" talk. It is often noted that Franklin made a motion at the Constitutional convention that they should bring in a clergyman to pray for their deliberations:
From: Rick Shenkman, "An Interview with Jon Butler ... Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?", posted 20 December 2004 on History News Network website (http://hnn.us/articles/9144.html; viewed 30 November 2005):
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when present 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?... 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. (Catherine Drinker Bowen. Miracle at Phaladelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1966, pp. 125-126)
...Franklin presented his motion after "four or five weeks" of deliberation, during which they had never once opened in prayer... Franklin's motion was voted down... [Franklin] made the motion during an especially trying week of serious disagreement, when the convention was in danger of breaking up. Cathrine Drinker Bowen comments:
Yet whether the Doctor had spoken from policy or from faith, his suggestion had been salutary, calling an assembly of doubting minds to a realization that destiny herself sat as guest and witness in this room. Franklin had made solemn reminder that a republic of thirteen united states - venture novel and daring - could not be achieved without mutual sacrifice and a summoning up of men's best, most difficult and most creative efforts. (Bowen, p. 127)
About March 1, 1790, [Franklin] wrote the following in a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, who had asked him his views on religion...:
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 likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble...." (Carl Van Doren. Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press, 1938, p. 777.)
He died just over a month later on April 17.
Mr. Butler, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Yale University, is the author of Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Harvard University Press, 1990). This interview was conducted by HNN editor Rick Shenkman for The Learning Channel series, "Myth America," which aired several years ago...
From: Robert G. Ferris (editor), Signers of the Constitution: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Constitution, published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Washington, D.C. (revised edition 1976), pages 165-172:
[Interviewer:] Let's go through some of [the Founding Fathers]... Benjamin Franklin?
[Jon Butler:] Benjamin Franklin was even less religious than Washington and Jefferson. Franklin was an egotist. Franklin was someone who believed far more in himself than he could possibly have believed have believed in the divinity of Christ, which he didn't. He believed in such things as the transmigration of souls. That is that human, that humans came into being in another existence and he may have had occult beliefs. He was a Mason who was deeply interested in Masonic secrets and there are some signs that Franklin believed in the mysteries of Occultism though he never really wrote much about it and never really said much about it. Franklin is another writer whom you can read all you want to read in the many published volumes of Franklin's writings and read very little about religion.
...The principal Founding Fathers--Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin--were in fact deeply suspicious of a European pattern of governmental involvement in religion. They were deeply concerned about an involvement in religion because they saw government as corrupting religion. Ministers who were paid by the state and paid by the government didn't pay any attention to their parishes. They didn't care about their parishioners. They could have, they sold their parishes. They sold their jobs and brought in a hireling to do it and they wandered off to live somewhere else and they didn't need to pay attention to their parishioners because the parishioners weren't paying them. The state was paying them.
Franklin, elder statesman of the Revolution and oldest signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, sat on the committee that drafted the Declaration, attended the Constitutional Convention, and distinguished himself as a diplomat. But he was a self-made man and self-educated intellectual colossus whose interests far transcended politics. He won international renown as a printer-publisher, author, philosopher, scientist, inventor, and philanthropist...
...in 1730 Franklin had taken a common-law wife, Deborah Read, who was to bear him a son and daughter, as was also apparently another nameless woman out of wedlock.
...During the years 1757-62 and 1764-75, Franklin resided in England... Until then a contented Englishman in outlook, primarily concerned with Pennsylvania provincial politics, he distrusted popular movements and saw little purpose to be served in carrying principle to extremes. Until the issue of parliamentary taxation undermined the old alliances, he led the Quaker party attack on the Anglican proprietary party and its Presbyterian frontier allies. His purpose throughout the years at London in fact had been displacement of the Penn family administration by royal authorities--the conversion of the province from a proprietary to a royal colony.
In his twilight years, working on his Autobiography, Franklin could look back on a fruitful life as the toast of two continents. Energetic nearly to the last, in 1787 he was elected as first president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Aboltion of Slavery--a cause to whch he had committed himself as early as the 1730s. His final public act was signing a memorial to Congress recommending dissolution of the slavery system. Shortly thereafter, in 1790 at the age of 84, Franklin passed away in Philadelphia and was laid to rest in Christ Church Burial Ground.
Portrait: from Robert G. Ferris (editor), Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Washington, D.C. (revised edition 1975).
Webpage created 12 June 2005. Last modified 30 November 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: email@example.com.