Monday, May 7, 2012

The First American

Benjamin Franklin is one of the near-mythical characters among the Founding Fathers of America.  The ambitious politician of the 21st century would take great pride if their career achieved only half of what Franklin accomplished as a statesman, excepting the absence of President of the United States from his resume, and yet politician was just one of the hats that he wore.  He was also distinguished as a printer, author, inventor, philosopher and diplomat.  With so much material to work with, H.W. Brands begins at the beginning, taking us through Franklin’s life in stages from his birth in 1706 to his death in 1790, in a thorough and balanced biography, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Doubleday, 2000). 

Franklin’s early financial success as a printer enabled him to put his imaginative mind to productive work in many other disciplines.  Among his achievements were contributing to the early understanding of electricity, including the invention of the lightening rod.  He helped his adopted home of Philadelphia establish the first fire department, police department and library in America.  He founded a society for the learned among Philadelphia to gather and discuss the issues of science, philosophy and politics and he later started a similar national academy.  He was active in both the politics of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. 

He traveled widely, living a significant portion of his life overseas, primarily in London, where he once stayed for 18 years, returning home as the American Revolution was beginning.  During and after the Revolution he was in Paris, where he represented the fledgling American government to the French crown and negotiated the peace treaty with Great Britain.  While in Europe he was a personal acquaintance of the philosophers Voltaire and David Hume, and he corresponded with Immanuel Kant

Back in America for what would be the sunset of his public career, he served simultaneously as the Governor of Pennsylvania and as an active member of the Constitutional Convention, being considered second in influence only to George Washington.

By nearly any measure Franklin’s life was a full and complete one.  He was the prototype for the notion of the American dream being fulfilled by pulling oneself up by his, or hers, bootstraps.  Yet as I read this comprehensive story of Franklin’s life I found one significant absence among the many areas he studied in depth - theology.  It is not that Brands overlooked Franklin’s thought on religion in general.  It is just that it appears that Franklin repeatedly passed up the opportunity for his own study of theology.

Franklin grew up in Boston, the child of Puritan parents in a city dominated by the Puritan ethos.  There is evidence in his adult life that he personally knew Cotton Mather and he was acquainted with the sermons of Jonathan Edwards.  In Philadelphia Franklin developed a personal friendship with the greatest figure of the Great Awakening, George Whitfield.  But what interested Franklin was the acoustics of Whitfield’s public preaching, rather than the content of the message preached.  In France he was friends with several Roman Catholic priests, and he also had some knowledge of Islam.    

Late in life Franklin summed up his religious sentiments, writing to a friend in a letter,

“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 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.”

Franklin follows this with a paragraph specifically discussing Jesus, where he considers him to be a good moral teacher but quite possibly not divine.  He then concludes,

“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, though without the smallest conceit of meriting such goodness.” (707)

As I read and contemplated these words it struck me that Franklin is not only the First American, as portrayed by Brands, but also perhaps the first person to articulate the “theology” of Moral Therapeutic Deism.

Franklin believes that God exists and that he provides for us.  In response our purpose is to do good, and our eternal reward will be based upon our performance in that endeavor. 

While undoubtedly a genius in every sense of the word Franklin appeared unable to see what the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 19:1-2,

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.

or what Paul wrote in Romans 1:19-20,

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Benjamin Franklin lived a long and active life during a time when the world was changing rapidly, perhaps sometimes too fast and unpredictably for many of those of his era.  And we live in a similar time.  While the discoveries of today may revolutionize tomorrow, they will seem archaic and elementary when we think of them 10 years from now.  But the words of both the Psalmist and Paul will remain true. 

As we study, explore and grow, no matter what our areas of endeavor, let us always remember that God has made it all possible, and that our ultimate end is not mere knowledge, but the glory of God, a purpose which was so beautifully written of by the authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in 1647, saying in Question and Answer 1,

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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