Is Your Religion Ben Franklin’s Or Paul’s (And Can You Tell The Difference)?

Locke and Shaftesbury opened an intellectual world firmly in the deist camp, even though deism itself was more an outlook and reading list than a card-carrying affiliation. Franklin later described his religious sensibility as the sort of minimalist belief he found in Locke and Shaftesbury. These were, as he put it, “the essentials of every known religion” and contained nothing that “might shock the professors of any religion”:

That there is one God, who made all things.
That he governs the world by his providence.
That he ought to be worshiped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving.
But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.
That the soul is immortal.
And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or in the hereafter.

These convictions did not keep deists from church membership or Sunday services. Indeed, Locke and Shaftesbury remained in the Church of England if only for the sake of respectability and the prayer book’s elegance. In other words, deism at least at this stage in its development was not anti-Christian. Franklin’s own deist convictions never required him to sever ties with the people and institutions of organized Christianity.

D. G. Hart | Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant. Spiritual Lives. ed. Timothy Larsen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 39.


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  1. In a general sense, is deism as described, simply a small u unitarian / universalism religion? Or at least a subspecies of the same? Is one term “deism’ to be preferred than the other ‘unitarian’ when discussing the declension from orthodox Christianity?

    • Deism, as term, probably pre-dates Unitarian. I’ve seen Deism in sixteenth-century Latin or French texts. The OED dates both English terms to the late 17th century. For whatever reason Franklin is always classed as a Deist rather than a unitarian but yes, I think Deists are lower case unitarians.

  2. Scott,
    My former colleague–Gary Scott Smith, who retired about five years before I did–has written extensively on the American presidency, and his take is similar to Darryl’s. Gary has said that the founding generation (Adams, Jefferson, Washington, et al.) was neither pure/orthodox Christian nor pure/orthodox deist, but a hybrid.
    BTW, I enjoyed your conversation with DGH and Brad on Presbycast this week-end; thanks!
    T. David

    • The idea of B. Franklin’s and other Colonial giants faith being a hybrid could be misleading once we understand precisely what these men believed and taught. Many historians of American way of life and thinking behind the political philosophy of the A Revolution, as it found its expression in J Locke and the Declaration, had a view of God and of human nature which was not Christian but Deist, which was not orthodox and conservative but radical. It was definitely not a tangelo.
      The A Revolution in its basic philosophy was not Christian, and the democratic way of life which arose from it was not, and is not, Christian, but was, and is, a Deistic and secularized caricature of the evangelical point of view. Thomas Jefferson was the leader of this new age. His motivation for separation had in view the creation of a society which would reflect their basic philosophy of God and Man, of human destiny. J preached rebuilding society according to a pattern dictated by their Deism. Jefferson had a vision of an earthly city yet to be built, which is now known as the American Dream. For J, man was the interpreter of truth and not God. And ‘it would come as a sad shock to many Christians if they were to recognize the true nature of the democratic philosophy which they so erroneously identify with the Christin way of life.’ J looked to natural law rather than to the providence of God, a sovereign God. Nature, rather than the Bible, was mans best source for the knowledge of God. He denied the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ. He completely denied the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. And of particular importance was Jeffersons hatred for the clergy, and his anti ecclesiastical practice. This deism served as a frame of reference for their political, economic and social views. And the fact that John Witherspoon and other evangelicals of day were willing to sign the D should not blind us to it’s essentially anti Christian character, and anti Christian character of Jeffersonian democracy.
      Deism was a direct revolt against Calvinism–the guide for the Puritans social, economic and political conduct.

      PS Unitarianism is simply based on a false view that man was made inherently good and potentially pefectible. Hence, the idea of universal salvation.–A hybrid of Deism.

      T J, Writings (Age of Reason)- 1947
      Education of H Adams 1918
      The decline and revival of the social gospel – P Center -1940
      Theological Interpretation of American History – C Greg Singer – 1964

  3. Sure, when you water down your “confession” sufficiently, when you broaden the gates, when you wave your hand dismissively over certain details in the name of ecumenism, you can come up with a bland, unshocking creed.

    But only someone with a superficial understanding of biblical Christianity could imagine that creed could be acceptable to anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord.

  4. Please forgive me for any attitude of judging the writer or Benjamin Franklin – While I have read similar essays, your thought is correct and I will purchase the book. My only concern was due to Dr. Gordon’s comment concerning these men having a hybrid form of Christianity. There is no biblical support for a hybrid Christianity. There is no question that Franklin and others in the Colonial period incorporated some sense of biblical attitude in print culture, urban life, and science. However that is only due to the influence of the Reformation, Calvinism and the Puritans. The whole world of art, science, intellectual life and politics transformed after 1517.
    Deism had its origin in the rationalism of Descartes “I think therefore I am.” Deism, as it unfolded, proved to be a revolt against evangelical orthodoxy at practically every major point. Deism denied the Scriptures and the only infallible rule of faith and practice and subjected the content of revelation to the demands of reason. It denied the doctrine of the Fall, total depravity, redemption through Jesus Christ alone, predestination, effectual calling, and nearly all doctrine of the Scriptures.

    • It was the 17th century western reiteration of the diabolical question first asked in the garden: “Has God really said…?”

  5. Scott,
    I guess I unintentionally started a firestorm here, merely by agreeing with two historians (I am not an historian) who both suggested that the Founders tended to be neither Christian nor Deist, but borrowed from both. I surely did not suggest, nor do I believe, that this was a tenable or viable solution. Smith and Hart simply explain why some deists and some Christians “claim” Franklin et al.; they do so because some of the Founders blended the unblendable, as it were. Neither Smith, Hart, nor Gordon commend this; we simply observe it, as an historical reality. I also observe that Cain slew Abel, but I do not commend it.

    • Along those lines, another man who has done work in this area is Gregg Frazer at the Master’s University, who calls the Founders’ system of belief “theistic rationalism” in his book, *The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders.* Both Christians and secularists want to claim the Founders for themselves, but neither can really lay ahold of them completely because of their blended ideology. I’d like to read Hart’s take on Ben Franklin’s version as well.

  6. Jay,
    Thanks for the heads-up about Prof. Frazer’s work; there appears to be a developing consensus (sparked by John Fea at Messiah College?) that the Founders were a curious blending of the unblendable. When I read the Adams/Jefferson correspondence several years ago, I was surprised by some of Adams’s comments, that were more hostile to Christian orthodoxy than anything I read by Jefferson. Perhaps Adams was more circumspect in his public writings than in his private correspondence.
    T. David

    • Dr. Gordon, you wrote this: “Perhaps Adams was more circumspect in his public writings than in his private correspondence.”

      Without knowing exactly what you’re speaking of, I likely agree with your “perhaps” statement, though I’d be interested in seeing the specific comments to which you refer with this, “When I read the Adams/Jefferson correspondence several years ago, I was surprised by some of Adams’s comments, that were more hostile to Christian orthodoxy than anything I read by Jefferson.”

      My read on this: Adams was dealing with an officially established church (given that the establishment was largely Congregational, the term “churches” is more appropriate) that was largely supportive of the American Revolution and the post-Revolution experiment in republicanism. Because the churches with which Adams had to deal were largely supportive of the Revolutionary War and of the new government, he had to be more careful in his public criticism of the ecclesiastical establishment or of orthodox Christian doctrine. Even proto-Unitarians such as Rev. Charles Chauncy of First Church in Boston had to conceal their writings that criticized orthodoxy, and circulated them only in circles of supporters until they were strong enough to take over the main seminary (Harvard) and the main East Coast churches. (Sound a bit like the tactics of the National Partnership in the PCA, or the Fellowship of St. James in the old PCUS?)

      By contrast, Jefferson was dealing with an established Episcopal church in Virginia prior to the Revolution, and while it may have commanded the outward loyalty of a large majority of Virginians, the pro-British leanings of many among the clergy were deeply unpopular even among many regular attenders at Episcopal parishes. For Jefferson to criticize a pro-British priest of an Episcopal church in the 1770s and 1780s was a whole different thing than for Adams to criticize a Congregational pastor who, more than likely, was a supporter of the American Revolution and had important laymen in his church on whom Adams needed to rely for political support.

      Furthermore, many of the “backwoods” churchgoers in Presbyterian churches, and in parishes whose members later became Methodists or Baptists, were in open or near-open revolt against the Episcopal Church by the time Jefferson became the governor of Virginia. Jefferson was able to get the annual payments to the Episcopal clergy suspended during the Revolutionary War, not so much because of his anti-Christian views or anti-establishment views, but because many non-Episcopalians were much more theologically conservative than the typical Episcopal clergy of the day and resented their tax dollars going to clergy who were perceived as less strict, less biblical, and less patriotic (i.e., at least quietly pro-British) than the non-Episcopal churchgoers.

      I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Jefferson was able to, using modern political terms, “triangulate” his opposition, using a divide-and-conquer strategy to pit more conservative against less conservative churchgoers, and in the process, managed to disestablish the church in Virginia. A direct attack on orthodox Christian doctrine very likely would have backfired, and the same probably could be said for a philosophical argument in favor of disestablishment. Baptists in the 1770s might have supported a pure separation of church and state argument, but how many Virginia Presbyterians would have supported that argument, as opposed to saying, “Stop paying the preachers of a loosey-goosey Episcopal church that secretly or even openly supports a king of German ancestry who is neither English nor Scottish and wants to usurp our historic liberties in the colony of Virginia?”

      I’m not a supporter of an established church. I think history is crystal clear that a church established by the state, given enough time, comes to look much more like King Henry VIII’s Church of England than like John Calvin’s Geneva. I understand the historic Covenanter argument for “recognizing the true church” as opposed to “establishing the church,” but it’s patently obvious that there’s no way to make that work in the current American situation of widespread religious pluralism.

      But I do think that when reading men like Adams and Jefferson, we need to read them in their context of political leaders in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the American experiment in republicanism was brand new, and when the religious pluralism we see today was not only unknown but unimaginable to the vast majority of New Englanders or Virginians. Perhaps a very few men like Jefferson wanted something similar to the civil religion consensus of late 1800s America, and an even smaller number wanted the atheism and anti-Christian approach of the French Revolution, but I just don’t think successful political leaders like Adams and Jefferson got to be successful by “saying the quiet part out loud” very often.

      I guess what I’m saying is that if men in the pulpit such as Chauncy said one think in public but was far more radical in private, it should not surprise us if men in the pews such as Adams did the same.

  7. This is very helpful. Adams (in correspondence with Jefferson) referred to Calvin’s deity as a “devil,” which is pretty strong language, even in private correspondence. Even in private correspondence with Adams, Jefferson was fairly reserved. I think your accounting makes very good sense; they were eager to gain allies, not lose them. Also, if I recall correctly, it was fairly late when Adams made his comment about Calvin’s deity; both were out of public office and public affairs, so perhaps he felt freer then than he would have earlier in his career. Thank you for your explanation.

    • Thank you, Dr. Gordon. I hear similar comments about Calvinism being demonic heresy on a pretty regular basis from modern American evangelicals — the Missouri Ozarks are well-known for being the Bible Belt, but the Reformed faith pretty much collapsed around here by the mid-1800s. Southern Presbyterians were unable to provide even a tiny fraction of the pastors needed to fill the demand by poor Scots Irish hardscrabble farmers who were moving west for cheap land but couldn’t get Reformed men to fill their pulpits. Right here in my own county, one of the original settlers of our county was a Southern Presbyterian, started a church, got permission from the County Commission to have his church meet in the county courthouse, had many of the key local leaders as members, and rode hundreds of miles on horseback trying to get a Presbyterian pastor to take a call to the church he had founded, but couldn’t get anyone to come and finally had to settle for a Methodist circuit rider. What could have been a Presbyterian Church became a Methodist Church, and that story was repeated all over the Ozarks with Methodist and Baptist pastors preaching to Scots Irish people who wanted to be Presbyterians but couldn’t get pastors.

      However, in the context of late 1700s and early 1800s New England which was explicitly founded by Puritans, and considering that the Edwardsean role in the First Great Awakening was still within living memory, I concur with you that saying that Calvin’s deity was a devil “is pretty strong language.”

      Here’s another factor to consider: Adams’ comment may not have been unique by the early 1800s as the Unitarians went public with their attacks.

      It’s been a long time since I’ve read the primary source documents from the Unitarian Schism — as you may know, Dr. Gordon, I used to be on the board of the Congregational Studies Conference and I used to spend a lot of time reading that sort of thing — but referring to Calvin’s deity as being a devil was not unique to Adams.

      In the minds of the Unitarians, attacking Calvinism was not the same as attacking Christianity. Their view was that Christianity needed to be saved from dogma that was irrational and evil insofar as it denied human freedom and dignity. Of course that’s wrong, and their advocacy of human freedom and dignity was based on a denial of a biblical view of human depravity that wasn’t merely Arminian but full Pelagianism.

      I can’t cite quotes from memory, but I’ve read similar language from supporters of the Unitarian Schism. What I don’t remember is whether those quotes were private correspondence later mentioned in biographies I’ve read, or whether those quotes were from public statements intended to attack the Trinitarian side and to attack the historic faith of the New England churches as being not just irrational but evil. Certainly the Unitarians used very severe language toward Calvinism in general and the Puritan heritage of New England in particular. I just don’t remember if that specific language about Calvin was used.

      A point to remember: Rev. Chauncy began his ministerial career at First Church in Boston fighting Edwards, and ended his career promoting early forms of the movement that later became full-blown Unitarianism. His career spanned the theological declension of New England, and a good case can be made that he played a major role in making that declension happen. There is certainly debate within the Reformed world on how orthodox Edwards was, and it’s pretty obvious that some of Edwards’ successors clearly departed from Reformed orthodoxy. However, it’s also clear that the New England opponents of what they considered to be “Calvinism” regarded it as the historic faith of their churches which they were deliberately rejecting. Their problem was with the core of the Reformed faith, not secondary issues on which Calvinists themselves disagree.

      I know this is long but I hope it helps. I wish I had access to a theological library to back up and refresh my memory, but I don’t, and it would take a drive of well over two hours to find a library that’s likely to have the primary source documents on the Unitarian Schism I would need to properly footnote my point.

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