As I show in my new religious biography of Franklin, Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin about his need to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. "He used indeed sometimes to pray for my conversion," Franklin recalled, "but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard."
Franklin and Whitefield’s clashing ideas about faith also became an issue in the founding of the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor of the University of Pennsylvania. ...
Drawing on John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), Franklin's Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749) laid out plans for the academy, with educational goals of virtue and practical service. Theology and ancient languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Latin) were de-emphasized. English grammar was a primary emphasis, because it was more useful than "foreign and dead languages," Locke had written.
... Reading about moral exemplars in the past would remind students of the "advantages of temperance, order, frugality, industry, perseverance" and other virtues. It would also reveal the "necessity of a public religion," he argued. Franklin even noted that pupils would learn of the "excellency of the Christian Religion above all others ancient or modern." But on that subject, Franklin was terse.
For explanation of Christianity's value, he footnoted Scottish moral philosopher and Anglican minister George Turnbull's Observations upon Liberal Education (1742). Franklin restated Turnbull's view regarding the "excellence of true Christianity above all other religions." Turnbull had contended that Christianity was the best known source of virtue: "That the persuasion of a divine providence, and a future state of rewards and punishments, is one of the strongest incitements to virtue, and one of the most forcible restraints from vice, can hardly be doubted.," he wrote. Turnbull's view of Christianity's practical benefits tracked closely with Franklin's own convictions.
What, then, was the aim of the academy? What was the proper goal of education? For Franklin, it was to impress upon the students the desire "to serve mankind, one's country, friends, and family." Franklin knew that some potential supporters would balk at such a human-centered vision. Thus, in an extended footnote, he insisted that the aim of service to mankind was another way of saying the "glory and service of God." Here Franklin was re-stating his notion of true religion: "Doing good to men is the only service of God in our power; and to imitate his beneficence is to glorify him."