The world has produced few wiser or better men than our American Socrates, Benjamin Franklin. While he lived he was loved and honored by all; when he died, two continents mourned as a child mourns the loss of a beloved father. Eagerly has the church striven to place to her credit the prestige of this wise and good man’s name. But in vain; she cannot efface the oft-repeated declarations of his disbelief.
Franklin received a religious training, but his good sense and his humane nature forced him to rebel against the irrational and inhuman tenets of his parents’ faith, and at an early age a spirit of skepticism was developed in him, as the following extracts from his Autobiography will show:
“My parents had given me betimes religions impressions, and I received from my infancy a pious education in the principles of Calvinism. But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself” (Autobiography, p. 66).
He read much, and the ambition of his youth, as he declares, was to become a decent writer of the English language. His favorite exercise was to reproduce, in his own words, the ideas of the authors he read. Alluding to this, he says:
“The time which I devoted to these exercises, and to reading, was the evening after my day’s labor was finished, the morning before it began, and Sundays when I could escape divine service. While I lived with my father, he had insisted on my punctual attendance on public worship, and I still indeed considered it as a duty, but a duty which I thought I had no time to practice” (Ibid. P. 16).
In the course of his mental pursuits he read Locke on the “Human Understanding,” and carefully studied some essays which taught the Socratic method of disputation, which he immediately put to use in combating superstition:
“Charmed to a degree of enthusiasm with this mode of disputing, I adopted it, and renouncing blunt contradictions, and direct and positive argument, I assumed the character of a humble questioner. The perusal of Shaftesbury and Collins had made me a skeptic; and, being previously so as to many doctrines of Christianity, I found Socrates’ method to be both the safest for myself, as well as the most embarrassing to those against whom I applied it. It soon afforded me singular pleasure; I incessantly practiced it; and became very adroit in obtaining, even from persons of superior understanding, concessions of which they did not foresee the consequence” (Ibid, p. 17).
The result of his many disputes upon the subject of religion is easily divined. He says:
“I began to be regarded, by pious souls, with horror, either as an apostate or an Atheist” (Ibid, p. 22).
Being associated with an elder brother in the publication of the New England Courant, young Franklin made use of its columns to propagate his radical thoughts. From an old edition of Goodrich’s Reader (Fifth, pp. 273, 274) I quote the following relative to his adventures in this field of religious criticism:
“In Boston, in 1721, when the pulpit had marshaled Quakers and witches to the gallows, one newspaper, the New England Courant, the fourth American periodical, was established as an organ of independent opinion, by James Franklin. Its temporary success was advanced by Benjamin, his brother and apprentice, a boy of fifteen, who wrote pieces for its humble columns.
“The little sheet satirized hypocrisy and spoke of religious knaves as of all knaves the worst. This was described as tending ‘to abuse the ministers of religion in a manner which was intolerable.’ ‘I can well remember,’ writes Increase Mather, then more than four score years of age, ‘when the civil government would have taken an effectual course to suppress such a cursed libel.’ “The ministers persevered, and, in January, 1723, a committee of inquiry was raised by the legislature. Benjamin Franklin, being examined, escaped with an admonition; James, the publisher, refusing to discover the author of the offense, was kept in jail for a month; his paper was censured as reflecting injuriously on the reverend ministers of the gospel; and, by a vote of the House and Council, he was forbidden to print it, ‘except it be first supervised.'”
This young opponent of priestcraft soon after left Boston, went to New York, and from thence to Philadelphia. In passing through New Jersey he stopped at an inn near Burlington, kept by a Dr. Brown. Of this Dr. Brown, he writes as follows:
“This man entered into a conversation with me while I took some refreshment, and perceiving that I had read a little, he expressed toward me considerable interest and friendship. Our acquaintance continued during the remainder of his life. I believe him to have been what is called an itinerant doctor; for there was no town in England, or indeed in Europe, of which he could not give a particular account. He was neither deficient in understanding nor literature, but he was a sad Infidel; and, some years after, wickedly undertook to travesty the Bible, in burlesque verse, as Cotton has travestied Virgil. He exhibited, by this means, many facts in a very ludicrous point of view, which would have given umbrage to weak minds, had this work been published, which it never was” (Autobiography, p. 25).
I can see the sly twinkle in Benjamin’s eye as he writes about this “sad Infidel” who “wickedly undertook to travesty the Bible.” It was with these same “sad Infidels” that he delighted to associate throughout his life, while many a time he, too, “wickedly undertook to travesty the Bible” by pretending to read from it, but extemporizing in a ludicrous manner as he went along (Parton’s Life of Franklin, Vol. i., p. 320).
In Philadelphia he was associated with a printer named Keimer. Referring to Keimer, he says:
“He formed so high an opinion of my talents for refutation that he seriously proposed to me to become his colleague in the establishment of a new religious sect. He was to propagate the doctrine by preaching, and I to refute every opponent.
“When he explained to me his tenets, I found many absurdities which I refused to admit. … Keimer wore his beard long, because Moses had somewhere said, ‘Thou shalt not mar the corners of thy beard.’ He likewise observed the Sabbath; and these were with him two very essential points. I disliked them both” (Autobiography, p. 40).
At a later period, alluding to his religious belief, Franklin says:
“Some volumes against Deism fell into my hands. They were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s Lecture. It happened that they produced on me an effect precisely the reverse of what was intended by the writers; for the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be refuted, appealed to me much more forcibly than the refutation itself. In a word, I soon became a thorough Deist” (Ibid, p. 66).
In one of his youthful essays he professes a sort of polytheistic belief as shown by the following extracts:
“The Infinite Father expects or requires no worship or praise from us.”
“I conceive, then, that the Infinite has created many beings or gods vastly superior to man.”
“It may be these created gods are immortals; or it may be that after many ages, they are changed, and others supply their places.
“Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceeding good and very powerful; and that each has made for himself one glorious sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable system of planets.
“It is that particular wise and good God, who is the author and owner of our system, that I propose for the object of my praise and adoration” (Franklin’s Works, Vol. ii., p. 2).
He subsequently rejected some of his earlier philosophical and ethical views, particularly those contained in a small pamphlet which he wrote, entitled a “Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain.” Referring to his arguments in this pamphlet he says:
“The object was to prove, from the attributes of God, his goodness, wisdom, and power, that there could be no such thing as evil in the world; that vice and virtue did not in reality exist, and were nothing more than vain distinctions. I no longer regarded it as so blameless a work as I had formerly imagined; and I suspected that some error must have imperceptibly glided into my argument, by which all the inferences I had drawn from it had been affected, as frequently happens in metaphysical reasonings. In a word, I was at last convinced that truth, probity, and sincerity in transactions between man and man were of the utmost importance to the happiness of life; and I resolved from that moment, and wrote the resolution in my journal, to practice them as long as I lived” (Autobiography, pp. 66, 67).
His unbelief in Christianity, however, remained unchanged. He continues:
“Revelation, indeed, as such had no influence on my mind” (Ibid, p. 67).
I have given the theological views of Franklin’s youth and early manhood; I shall next present the religious opinions of his mature manhood and old age. Less reticent than Washington, he was at the same time less radical than Jefferson, and less disposed to combat the dogmas of the church. Nevertheless, his expressed opinions are ample to show that at no time during his career was he a Christian — that he lived and died a Deist.
In a letter to the Rev. George Whitefield, written in 1753, when he was forty-seven years old, we have his opinion of Christianity:
“The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I desire to lessen it in any way; but I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it. I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit, not holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing, and reading, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity” (Works, Vol. vii., p. 75).
Writing to his sister, Mrs. Jane Mecom, five years later, he says:
“It is pity that good works, among some sorts of people, are so little valued, and good words admired in their stead. I mean seemingly pious discourses, instead of humane, benevolent actions. These they almost put out of countenance by calling morality, rotten morality; righteousness, ragged righteousness, and even filthy rags, and when you mention virtue, pucker up their noses; at the same time that they eagerly snuff up an empty, canting harangue, as if it were a posy of the choicest flowers” (Works, Vol. vii., p. 185).
“Improvement in religion is called building up and edification. Faith is then the ground floor, hope is up one pair of stairs. My dear beloved Jenny, don’t delight so much to dwell in those lower rooms, but get as fast as you can into the garret; for in truth the best room in the house is charity. For my part I wish the house was turned upside down” (Ibid, p. 184).
Franklin possibly believed in a future state of existence, but his conception of immortality was that of the Deist, and not of the Christian. In his letter to Whitefield, previously alluded to, he mays:
“By heaven, we understand a state of happiness, infinite in degree and eternal in duration. I can do nothing to deserve such a reward. He that, for giving a draught of water to a thirsty person, should expect to be paid with a good plantation, would be modest in his demands compared with those who think they deserve heaven for the little good they do on earth. … for my part, I have not the vanity to think I deserve it, the folly to expect, or the ambition to desire it” (Works, Vol. vii., p. 75).
In a letter to Mrs. Elizabeth Partridge, he observes:
“With regard to future bliss, I cannot help imagining that multitudes of the zealously orthodox of different sects, who at the last day may flock together in hopes of seeing each other damned, will be disappointed, and obliged to rest content With their own salvation” (Works, Vol. x., p. 366).
Writing to his sister, Mrs. Mecom, he says:
“When religious people quarrel about religion, or hungry people about their victuals, it looks as if they had not much of either about them” (Works, Vol. vii., p. 438).
In a letter to “A Friend in England” (supposed to be Dr. Priestley), Franklin makes some observations regarding the inspiration of the Bible:
“I agreed with you in sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the clause in our [Pennsylvania] Constitution, which required the members of the Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it was given by divine inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed the clause; but, being overpowered by numbers, and fearing more in future might be grafted on it, I prevailed to have the additional clause, ‘that no further or more extended profession of faith should ever be exacted.’ I observed to you, too, that the evil of it was the less, as no inhabitant, nor any officer of government, except the members of Assembly, was obliged to make the declaration.
“So much for that letter; to which I may now add, that there are several things in the Old Testament impossible to be given by divine inspiration; such as the approbation ascribed to the angel of the Lord of that abominably wicked and detestable action of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by inspiration from another quarter, and renounce the whole” (Works, Vol. x., p. 134).
He extolled the character of Jesus, but in regard to his divinity he declared himself a skeptic.
His opinion of the Fall of Man, the Atonement, and other Christian doctrines, may be inferred from an anecdote related by him in an essay which he wrote on the “Savages of North America.”
“A Swedish minister having assembled the chiefs of the Susquehanna Indians, made a sermon to them, acquainting them with the principal historical facts on which our religion is founded, such as the fall of our first parents by eating an apple; the coming of Christ to repair the mischief; his miracles and sufferings, etc. When he had finished, an Indian orator stood up to thank him. ‘What you have told us,’ said he, ‘is all very good. It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider. We are much obliged by your kindness in coming so far to tell us those things which you have heard from your mothers. In return, I will tell you some of those which we have heard from ours. In the beginning, our fathers had only the flesh of animals to subsist on; and if their hunting was unsuccessful, they were starving. Two of our young hunters having killed deer, made a fire in the woods to broil some parts of it. When they were about to satisfy their hunger, they beheld a beautiful young woman descend from the clouds, and seat herself on that hill which you see yonder among the blue mountains. They said to each other, it is a spirit that perhaps has smelt our broiled venison and wishes to eat of it; let us offer some to her. They presented her with the tongue; she was pleased with the taste of it, and said, ‘Your kindness shall be rewarded. Come to this place after thirteen moons, and you shall find something that will be of a great benefit in nourishing you and your children to the latest generations.’ They did so and, to their surprise, found plants they had never seen before; but which, from that ancient time, have been constantly cultivated among us to our great advantage. Where her right hand touched the ground they found maize; where her left hand touched it they found kidney- beans.’ … The good missionary, disgusted with this idle tale, said, ‘What I delivered to you were sacred truths; but what you tell me is mere fable, fiction, and falsehood.’ The Indian, offended, replied, ‘My brother, it seems your friends have not done you justice in your education; they have not well instructed you in the rules of common civility. You saw that we, who understand and practice these rules, believed all your stories, why do you refuse to believe ours?’
The following extract from a letter to Jared Ingersoll, written in 1762, shows how he regarded the Christian Sabbath: “When I traveled in Flanders I thought of your excessively strict observation of Sunday, and that a man could hardly travel on that day among you upon his lawful occasions without hazard of punishment, while where I was everyone traveled, if he pleased, or diverted himself in any other way; and in the afternoon both high and low went to the play or the opera, where there was plenty of singing, fiddling, and dancing. I looked around for God’s judgments, but saw no sign of them. The cities were well built and full of inhabitants, the markets filled with plenty, the people well favored and well clothed, the fields well tilled, the cattle fat and strong, the fences, houses, and windows all in repair, and no ‘old tenor’ anywhere in the country; which would make one almost suspect that the deity was not so angry at that offense as a New England justice.”
In a letter to Dr. Price he had this to say of religions tests:
“I think they were invented not so much to secure religion as the emoluments of it. When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support, itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one, (Works, Vol. viii., p. 506).
The above was written in 1780. It is as true to-day as it was a century ago, and I respectfully commend it to the prayerful consideration of those pious fanatics who, under the mask of temperance and other reforms, are endeavoring to have religious tests incorporated into our national Constitution.
Clerical conceit and arrogance receive the following merited rebuke from his pen:
“Nowadays we have scarcely a little parson that does not think it the duty of every man within his reach to sit under his petty ministration, and that whoever omits this offends God. To such I wish more humility” (Works, Vol. vii., pp. 76, 77).
In an essay on “Toleration” the intolerant character of Christianity is thus presented:
“If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [England] and in New England” (Works, Vol. ii., p. 112).
In a speech which Sparks ascribes to Franklin, we find the following hit at religious dogmatism:
“Most sects in religion think themselves in possession of all truth, and that whenever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the Pope, that ‘the only difference in our two churches, in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England never in the wrong.'”
On one occasion, when Whitefield visited this country, he wrote to Franklin, stating that the friend with whom he expected to lodge in Philadelphia had left the city. Franklin very naturally tendered him the hospitalities of his home. Referring to Whitefield’s acceptance, he writes:
“He replied that, if I made that offer for Christ’s sake I should not miss of a reward. And I returned, ‘Don’t let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.” One of our common acquaintances jocosely remarked that, knowing it to be the custom of the saints, when they received any favor, to shift the burden of obligation from off their own shoulders and place it in heaven, I had contrived to fix it on earth.”
The following is an extract from a letter written to Richard Price of England:
“My nephew, Mr. Williams, will have the honor of delivering you this line. It is to request from you a list of a few good books, to the value of about twenty-five pounds, such as are most proper to insulate principles of sound religion and just government. A new town in the state of Massachusetts having done me the honor of naming itself after me, and proposing to build a steeple to their meeting house if I would give them a bell, I have advised the sparing themselves the expense of a steeple, for the present, and that they would accept of books instead of a bell, sense being preferred to sound” (Works, Vol. x., p. 158).
The fact that Franklin selected a man who denied the infallibility of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, to make a collection of books “to inculcate principles of sound religion,” to say nothing of his expressed preference of sense to sound? is of itself sufficient to prove his disbelief in popular Christianity.
At the age of eighty, in a letter to Benjamin Vaughan, of England, he paid the following tribute to the character of heretics:
“Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price, and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestley. I do not call him honest by way of distinction, for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude, or they could not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not, like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however, mistake me. It is not to my good friend’s heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, ’tis his honesty that brought upon him the character of a heretic” (Works, Vol. x., p. 365).
When interrogated as to why he did not promulgate his rational views on religion he replied:
“The things of this world take up too much of my time, of which indeed I have too little left, to undertake anything like a reformation in religion” (Ibid, p. 323).
Franklin was not an Atheist; he did not deny the existence of a God; he believed in a God; but his God was the humane conception of Deism and not the God of Christianity. His biographer, Parton, says:
“He escaped the theology of terror, and became forever incapable of worshiping a jealous, revengeful, and vindictive God” (Life of Franklin, Vol. i., p. 71).
“In conversation with familiar friends he called himself a Deist or Theist, and he resented a sentence in Mr. Whitefield’s journal which seemed to imply that between a Deist and an Atheist there was little or no difference. Whitefield wrote: ‘M.B. is a Deist; I had almost said an Atheist.’ ‘That is,’ said Franklin, ‘chalk, I had almost said charcoal” (Ibid, Vol. i., p. 319).
At the age of eighty-four, just previous to his death, in reply to inquiries concerning his religious belief from Ezra Stiles, the President of Yale College, he wrote as follows:
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 worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render 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.”
It is not improbable that Franklin had much to do with shaping the Deistic belief of Paine. Parton says:
“Paine was a resident of Philadelphia, a frequenter of Franklin’s house, and was as well aware as we are of Dr. Franklin’s religious opinions. Nor is there much in the ‘Age of Reason‘ to which Franklin would have refused to assent.” (Life of Franklin, Vol. ii., p. 553).
In his letter to Ezra Stiles, he extols the system of morals taught by “Jesus of Nazareth,” but says, “I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the Dissenters in England, doubts as to his divinity.”
There was “found” in Franklin’s handwriting, or in a handwriting resembling his, the draught of a letter advising against the publication of an anti-religious manuscript which had been submitted to the writer. To relieve a pressing want some enterprising Christian long afterward transformed this letter into a religious novelette, or tract, altering the language and affirming that it was written by Franklin to Paine for the purpose of dissuading him from publishing his “Age of Reason,” the manuscript of which he was presumed to have sent to Franklin for his opinion. It was given the suggestive title “Don’t Unchain the Tiger,” and published as “A true story.” In disproof of this story, the following facts may be cited:
- The “Age of Reason” was the first Anti-Christian writing that came from Paine’s pen, and he expressly declares that he did not begin to write this work until the autumn of 1793.
- This letter purports to have been written July 3, 1786, more than seven years before Paine wrote his “Age of Reason.”
- Franklin, its reputed author, died April 17, 1790, nearly four years before Paine’s book was written.
- The letter is anonymous. It is addressed to no one and signed by no one. It cannot be positively affirmed that Franklin wrote it, while it can be affirmed with certainty that the person to whom it was written is absolutely unknown.
- Freethought was widely prevalent at the time it is said to have been written. Hundreds in France, England and America were talking and writing against Christianity. Why then was Paine singled out as the one who provoked the criticism?
- Regarding his literary productions Paine says: “In my publications, I follow the rule I began with in ‘Common Sense,’ that is to consult nobody, nor to let anybody see what I write till it appears publicly.”
- The religious opinions advanced in the “Age of Reason” are the religious opinions which Franklin held. Is it reasonable to suppose that Franklin would condemn his own opinions?
- There are several versions of this letter extant, all differing from the original. It has been published with Paine’s name prefixed, and Franklin’s name subscribed to it. If these published versions are known to be in part forgeries, may not the original be a forgery also?
- At the time this story appeared it was believed that no greater service could be rendered religion than the invention and circulation of calumnies against Thomas Paine.
- Its chief disseminator was the American Tract Society, a society that has probably published more pious fictions than any other publishing house in this country.
Upon this story and his motion for prayers in the Convention that framed our Constitution is based the Christian piety of Franklin. Regarding the latter, it is only necessary to remark that it was in harmony with the second and third articles of his Deistic creed.
Franklin’s motion for prayers in the Constitutional Convention has been used as the basis for another clerical falsehood that has been presented to the eyes or ears of nearly every man, woman and child in the United States. We are told that, the Convention for a month opened its sessions without prayer, that at the end of this time nothing had been accomplished, it was in a state of confusion, and on the point of adjourning, when Franklin came forward, proposed that the sessions be opened with prayer, which was adopted, after which the work of the Convention was speedily and successfully performed. This is adduced as a striking proof of the efficacy of prayer. The fact is, there was not a prayer offered in the Convention from the time it convened until it closed. So nearly unanimous were the members in their opposition to Franklin’s proposition that not even a vote was taken on it. Franklin himself, referring to it, says: “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”
Reference may be made here to the oft-quoted Epitaph of Franklin. Regarding this the St. Louis Globe of May 7, 1893, says: “This was written by Franklin simply as a jest; it is not and never was on his gravestone.”
The “New American Cyclopedia” contains the following relative to Franklin’s religion: “Fault has been found with his religious character. He confesses that during a period of his life, before the age of twenty-one, he had been a thorough Deist; and it has been said that five weeks before his death he expressed a ‘cold approbation’ of the ‘System of morals’ of ‘Jesus of Nazareth.'”
Johnson’s “New Universal Cyclopedia” says: “In youth he was an avowed skeptic in religious matters and of somewhat loose morals, but his practical good sense enabled him to correct his way of living, and he in later life treated the Christian religion with reverence, though never avowing his faith in any religious system.”
Sparks, though loth to admit that Franklin was not a Christian, says: “It is deeply to be regretted that he did not bestow more attention than he seems to have done on the evidences of Christianity” (Life of Franklin, p. 517).
The truth is, Franklin bestowed more attention on the evidences of Christianity than his Christian biographer is willing to concede. Had he bestowed less attention on these evidences Christianity might not be compelled to lose the prestige of his illustrious name.
Dr. Franklin and Dr. Priestley were intimate friends. Of Franklin, Priestley writes:
“It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers” (Priestley’s Autobiography, p. 60).
This great man was himself denounced as an Infidel. He was a Unitarian of the most advanced type, and was mobbed and driven from England on account of his heretical opinions and his sympathy with the French Revolution. Franklin’s Infidelity must have been of a very radical character to have provoked the censure of Dr. Priestley.
While in France, Franklin consorted chiefly with Freethinkers, among whom were Mirabeau, D’Holbach, D’Alembert, Buffon, and Condorcet. Respecting his religious belief, Parton classes him with Goethe, Schiller, Voltaire, Hume, and Jefferson, and says they would all have belonged to the same church.
John Hay, in a posthumous article on “Franklin in France,” which appeal the Century for January, 1906, says:
“Franklin became the fashion of the season. For the court itself dabbled a little in liberal ideas. So powerful was the vast impulse of Freethought that then influenced the mind of France — that susceptible French mind, that always answers like the wind harp to the breath of every true human aspiration — that even the highest classes had caught the infection of liberalism.”
Mr. Hay mentions among Franklin’s most esteemed acquaintances, Voltaire, D’Holbach, Condorcet, and D’Alembert, four of France’s most pronounced Infidels.
Franklin and Voltaire, a short time before the death of the latter, met for the first time at a theater in Paris. On being introduced, they cordially shook hands. But this was not enough. Each then clasped the other in his arms, and for a moment held him in an affectionate embrace, It was not a mere formal meeting between two aged philosophers; a deeper significance attached to the interesting scene. It was the spontaneous outburst of kindred feelings and a common faith. It was the Deism of the New World, through its most illustrious representative. saluting that of the Old.
Theodore Parker, who made a study of Franklin’s religious opinions, writes:
“If belief in the miraculous revelation of the Old Testament and the New is required to make a man religious, then Franklin had no religion at all. It would be an insult to say that he believed in the popular theology of his time, or of ours, for. I find not a line from his pen indicating any such belief.”
The Rev. Dr. Swing, of Chicago, said: “Voltaire, Bolingbroke, Pitt, Burke, Washington, Lafayette, Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin moved along in a wonderful unity of belief, both political and religious, each one wearing some little beauty or deformity of disposition, but all marked by one religious rationalism.”
The Rev. Dr. Savage, of New York, in a sermon on Robert G. Ingersoll, said:
“His [Ingersoll’s] ideas are very largely those of Voltaire, of Gibbon, of Hume, of Thomas Paine, of Thomas Jefferson, of Benjamin Franklin, and of a good many other of our prominent Revolutionary heroes.”
The Hon. Henry W. Blair, United States Senator from New Hampshire, said in reply to Rev. Alonzo Jones, who was arguing against Sunday laws, that “Franklin was a Deist, at all events,” intimating that he might have been an Agnostic, or even an Atheist.
Such were the religious opinions of Franklin. The Christian may, with Dr. Priestley, lament that this learned man “should have been an unbeliever in Christianity,” but notwithstanding his lamentations the fact remains. He may distort it, but he cannot disprove it. As Dr. Wilson said of Washington, so must it be said of Franklin — “He was a Deist and nothing more.”
I have adduced abundant evidence, I think, to show that the popular notion concerning the religious opinions of these great men is erroneous. Paine, we have seen, was not an Atheist. Nor were the others Christians. They were Deists, held substantially the same theological opinions held by Paine. But, engrossed for the most part with other affairs, they found time to publish no “Age of Reason” to be a standing witness of their unbelief, and hence escaped the malicious shafts which the Author-Hero was doomed to receive.
According to the church, every person has at some period in his life been forced to acknowledge the genuineness of her dogmas. The more conservative Freethinkers she would have us believe live devoted Christian lives, while into the dying lips of the more radical ones she puts a recantation. Thus with consummate coolness she informs us that Jefferson , Washington, and Franklin procured their entire religious wardrobe at the Orthodox clothing emporium, and that even Paine was obliged to order his shroud from this establishment.
But these claims, unfounded as they are, must fall. These men were not believers. They were good and virtuous men, but not Christians. They were eminent and patriotic statesmen, but not “Christian statesmen.” They had unbounded faith in humanity, but reposed very little in “our particular superstition.” Morally and intellectually they were giants, and their large hearts and mighty brains yearned and grasped for something better, for a broader, holier faith than that professed by those around them. It would appear absurd for one to hold up the toys and garments of a child and say, “Behold the armor that Goliath wore!” and it is equally absurd for Christians to exhibit their dwarfish, senseless creeds and claim that these shrunken, threadbare robes were worn by the Fathers of our Republic.
To the realm of Freethought these characters belong. And they are not alone; they have illustrious company. Earth’s noblest sons and daughters — the brightest stars in the constellation of genius — those who have added most to the riches of science, and literature, and statesmanship, — Bruno, Spinoza, Galileo, and Descartes; Bacon and Newton; Humboldt and Darwin; Comte and Mill; Draper; Spencer, Tyndall, and Huxley; Haeckel and Helmholtz; Hume and Gibbon; Goethe and Schiller; Shakespeare, Pope, Byron, Burns, and Shelley; Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot; D’Alembert, Button, and Condorcet; Frederick and Bolingbroke; Volney; De Steel, Sand, Eliot, and Martineau; Strauss and Renan; Hugo. Carlyle, and Emerson; Lincoln and Sumner; Gambetta and Garibaldi; Bradlaugh and Castellar; our own loved Ingersoll — these were all disbelievers in the Orthodox faith — these have each borne the name of infidel, a word in which is concentrated all the hatred and scorn of Christendom. But these so-called Infidels have ever constituted the forlorn hope in the onward march of human progress, and this word, instead of a term of reproach, will become one of the grandest words in all the languages of men.