Benjamin Franklin’s Religion & Jesus of Nazareth
Continuing with The Living Hour’s month-long series on the Founding Fathers’ reflections on God, Christianity, and Religion, we move today to some commentary from that SBNR Progressive Christian Benjamin Franklin. The following passage is taken from a letter Franklin wrote to the reverend Ezra Stile in 1790, when Franklin was 84 years old, and Stile was serving as president of Yale College. Here we find Franklin discussing his perspectives on religion and the significance of Jesus of Nazareth.
Considering Franklin is 84, it is especially interesting to note his statement that this is the first time he has been questioned about his religious beliefs. True to form, Ben Franklin’s answers reveal the reasonable common sense approach that the candle-maker’s son took towards life, as well as the calm and good-natured temperament for which he was well-known.
This correspondence is probably the most definitive one we have on Benjamin Franklin’s religion. His “creed” is certainly one worth emulating.
You desire to know something of my religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I do not take your curiosity the wrong way, and will try in a few words to gratify it. Here is my creed: 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 Him is to do good to his other Children. And 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 principles of all sound religions, and I admire them, as you do, in whatever sect I meet 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, to be the best the world has ever seen, or is likely to see. But I believe it has received various corrupting changes, and I am in accord with the present dissenters in England in having some doubts regarding Jesus’s divinity: although 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 the opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.
I see no harm however in it being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed. 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, even though I hold not the smallest conceit of meriting such Goodness.1
Read the next article in our series on the Founding Fathers: John Dickinson, Divine Providence & Our Freedoms
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- Some very small edits were made to the above passage to make it more easily read by the modern reader. [↩]