Monday, May 29, 2017

Kidd on Franklin, Whitefield and Education

From Thomas Kidd here. From what I gather, George Whitefield thought that he and Ben Franklin practiced different religions. A taste:
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."


JMS said...

Jon - good post, as always.

I recently came across Edmund Morgan's Intro essay to the online collection of Franklin's papers. Here's a snippet:

"first we should notice his views on a very personal matter, religion. As a boy he was brought up in the Calvinistic religion of New England, but by the time he ran away from his apprenticeship to his brother as a printer, he was ready to run away from Calvinism too. In his first brief trip to England as a young man in 1725-26, he met some of the leading deists and wrote a small treatise showing that moral rules and human free will were meaningless (1:57). He later regretted this and tells much about his religious development in the autobiography. Back in Philadelphia he came to the defense of a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Hemphill, who believed, as Franklin now did, that the only way to honor and obey God was to do good to others. But Hemphill was caught plagiarizing his sermons from other deists and fled the country. Franklin never again engaged in religious controversy. Privately he defended his views briefly and unconvincingly to his sister Jane (2:384). He later explained them more fully in two letters to friends, written thirty-seven years apart, June 6, 1753 and March 9, 1790 (4:503; unpub.).
Franklin evidently believed in God as Creator of the universe, but after the Hemphill episode he was much more interested in the world that God created than he was in its inscrutable Creator.";jsessionid=4A880AADB8B4ED2BC5CFEB73F31BA8FF

Tom Van Dyke said...

Much is made of Franklin's differences with Calvinism as proof of his non-Christianity. However, his affinity for works over ritual or doctrine are in the Bible, which he cites, say James 1:22.

This is a good article even if it's in World News Daily ;-)

and cites Franklin in his own words. His beliefs are solidly argued from the Bible, not from homespun theologizing.

I hera about him being a deist all the time but seldom see passages like this. Franklin was a prayerful man as well, not merely concerned with works.

I am so far from thinking that God is not to be worshipped, that I have composed and wrote a whole book of devotions for my own use; and I imagine there are few if any in the world so weak as to imagine that the little good we can do here can merit so vast a reward hereafter. There are some things in your New England doctrine and worship, which I do not agree with; but I do not therefore condemn them, or desire to shake your belief or practice of them.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Kidd's comments exemplify why an in-depth knowledge of theology should be a prerequisite to studying early American history. The term "conversion" is a very rich theological term that had a much more nuanced understanding in the past than it enjoys today. Kidd seems to understand "conversion" only in the modern sense of changing one's religion, but to Whitefield, "conversion" meant experiencing the resolution of deep psychological pain as one's soul finally yielded to the work of God in bringing about the new birth of Christianity. Whitefield taught that no one could be a Christian without first experiencing this tremendous psychological pain. Franklin denied the need for such "spiritual pangs." This was the source of the contention between the two men and the reason that Whitefield prayed for Franklin's conversion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good stuff, Bill. I noticed from the beginning of my studying this area that without an understanding of Calvinism, too little of the rhetoric and ideas make full sense.

Even for those like Franklin who reject it, it's there in everything they write as the wall they push against. For those who can't "feel" Calvinism, they also can't feel the strong rejection of it by Franklin and Jefferson.

[Indeed, Peter Lawler calls the tension between the two the Founding theology, an "accidental Thomism," which I think I'll recycle from my other blog,]