Review: Ben Franklin: Cultural Protestant by D. G. Hart

From the author of The Lost Soul of American Protestantism and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal American Conservatism, comes Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant. Part of Oxford’s “Spiritual Lives” series, the host of the Paleo Protestant Pudcast (podcast) and co-editor of the Nicotine Theological Journal, D. G. Hart offers the spiritual biography of one of America’s most famous historical figures.

Why is a spiritual biography on Benjamin Franklin needed? Questions regarding his spirituality have long been asked by scholars. For example, how does one categorize Franklin’s religious affiliation(s)? Was Franklin even a Christian, or is he better labeled a deist? Perhaps Franklin was spiritual, but not religious? Or maybe there is some other kind of classification for the founding father? If Franklin was a kind of Christian, what do his associations with organizations such as the Masons tell us? If he was a moralist concerned with virtue, how should we consider his reputation as a fornicator? Through what lens ought we view his love for scientific inquiry and experimentation? What can be deduced from his notoriety as an enlightenment thinker? What do his family background and personal letters reveal about his spiritual life?

In this unique biography, D. G. Hart discusses these and other matters regarding the spiritual life of one of America’s most consequential thinkers and tinkerers.

The Book

The theme that runs throughout this book is that the best way to understand the spiritual life of Benjamin Franklin is by understanding him as a “cultural Protestant.” Franklin as a cultural Protestant can be summarized by recognizing that he was both a product of the American Puritanism into which he was born, and at the same time a representative of the “spiritual, but not religious” kind of Protestantism that has permeated the United States of America since its founding. Hart writes, “As much of a cliché as pulling himself-up-by-his-bootstraps is, his wit and striving say as much about Protestantism as it does about American character.”1

Clearly a distinct figure in both American history and religious history, Franklin’s spiritual life is of great interest to students of both. He was an important figure of three different groups of Americans. First, he was among the spiritual grandchildren of the Puritans who initially settled in the British colonies looking for religious freedom. Second, he was the epitome of the last generation of rugged American colonists. Third, he was a self-made leader of the first class of truly independent Americans. As such, he is of particular interest to students of both American and religious history.

Hart’s biography details Franklin’s spiritual growth, or perhaps lack of spiritual growth, over his years as a successful printer, aspiring philosopher, natural scientist, pragmatic inventor, politician and founding father. Hart incorporates Franklin’s spiritual life into his personal, civic, and political life, giving the reader an idea of the whole man. The author provides succinct surveys of each part of the subject’s life without delving too deep into his work in any of his particular vocations. As he does this, Hart consistently directs the reader to how Franklin’s cultural Protestantism was tied to each aspect of his life. 

The introduction to the chapter on Franklin’s spiritual biography (“A Different Kind of Protestant”), sets the tone for the book by introducing him as a cultural Protestant, or “non-observant” Protestant from Puritan stock. Hart contextualizes Franklin as a product of the unique colonial and Protestant environment from which he came: “in colonial North America avoiding Christianity was impossible. Protestantism was in the background—always there but not something that demanded serious attention or devotion. As an active participant in that society—on so many levels—Franklin himself functioned as a Protestant. He was certainly averse to Puritanism’s ‘hot’ faith. But he held much in common culturally and socially with other Protestants. As such, Franklin was a cultural Protestant.”2

In the opening chapter (“Growing Up Puritan”), Hart provides a family history and proper context for understanding Franklin’s cultural Protestantism. The second chapter (“Young, Restless, and Deist [Briefly]”) details, among other things, Franklin’s unsuccessful dabbling in the deistic enlightenment philosophy that he was drawn to after poring over John Locke and Ashley Cooper in his spare time at the print shop.

His life-long aspiration of attaining moral perfection apart from the established religion of his parents is covered in the third chapter (“Striving”). His concern with moral uplift and virtue apart from the Protestant means of grace reminds one of today’s spiritual-but-not-religious types. As Hart writes, “Franklin’s morality was independent of grace but provided an alternative for those unable to believe or join a church…the path to virtue came not through going to church or listening to sermons but by habits of industry and well-regulated patterns of personal and social life.”3

The fourth chapter (“The Way of Print”) covers Franklin’s time as a hard-working, influential printer in Pennsylvania. Of particular interest is the printer’s prolific printing of religious texts, especially those of the prominent itinerant preacher, George Whitefield. Was Franklin on board with his friend Whitefield’s preaching? Or rather, did he see in the evangelist the potential for a payday? Perhaps both, as Hart writes, “Since Franklin’s work ethic and money-making were mutually reinforcing, the financial advantage to the Philadelphia publisher from personal ties to Whitefield is no proof of hypocrisy. Franklin was proud that moral uplift could be profitable. Why would capitalizing on Whitefield be any different?”4

Hart then provides a peek into the marriage, fatherhood, and dalliances of Franklin in the fifth chapter (“Family Man”). An impressive list of his accomplishments as a citizen of Philadelphia are documented in the sixth chapter (“Civic Uplift”). His establishing of several different civic organizations and institutions—a public library, fire department, hospital, and militia, to name a few—are detailed here. As is his involvement in Masonry. What drove Franklin’s creative and unceasing civic-mindedness? It was likely a manifestation of his cultural Protestantism. As Hart writes, “He embodied the Protestant work ethic, instinctively rallied to projects of civic improvement, and took delight in the sort of secular forms of association that the Reformation had at least implicitly encouraged if not approved outright.”5

In the seventh chapter (“Church Life”), the author reveals Franklin’s rocky relationship with established religion. His disdain for orthodox, or confessional Protestant theology is notable, as was his appreciation for the moral teachings of Jesus separate from the person and work of Christ. As moral and virtuous as he strove to be, Franklin did not see the need for the means of grace offered in the church. As Hart notes, “he tried to support the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia—the denomination with which Franklin identified throughout his life—by paying his annual subscription. He worshiped with Presbyterians largely in hopes of finding allies for civic improvements…Franklin attended services for five straight weeks. That was enough time to determine that he could make better use of his time.”6

Hart gives the reader an idea of the influence Franklin had as an inventor and one of America’s first great thinkers in the eighth chapter (“The Intellectual”). The political life of Franklin is packed into the ninth and tenth chapters (“Pennsylvania’s Protestant Politics” and “An Empire Fit for God’s Kingdom”). Both his follies and successes are covered. As are his enemies and allies. Never out of the picture though, is Franklin’s influence on future generations of cultural Protestants in America. Hart states, [Franklin’s] own initial plan for a confederation of American states was in effect a blueprint for the sort of cooperative institutions and networks that Protestants in the United States would later found under the banner of Christianizing America and spreading Christian civilization around the world.”7 There is likely no better way to understand that “Christianizing of America” and also the rest of the world, than by employing the term “cultural Protestantism.”

The final chapter (“Autobiography”) includes the context of Franklin’s writing of his Autobiography over the course of several decades. Finally, Hart concludes by summarizing and reemphasizing Franklin’s cultural Protestantism and offers this as a way of understanding Franklin, his spirituality, and his faith before his death: “Franklin saw very little need for Christian teaching about Christ, the atonement, the resurrection, heaven, and hell. The Christian religion was for him chiefly a moral system that produced decent persons and held civilized society together.” As such, “the dilemmas of sin, suffering, the problem of evil, and eternal justice did not provoke wonder in Franklin the way that ordinary human existence did. When Franklin died on April 17, 1790, he likely had every expectation that his experience in the afterlife would match his time on planet earth.”8 As a cultural Protestant, what more could one expect?

Who Should Read this Book?

If your idea of Ben Franklin comes from either cartoons or children’s books, this book will help add some depth to your understanding of one of America’s most famous men. If like me, you were educated in California public schools, and were thus largely devoid of post-Colombian American History, you will certainly benefit from reading this book. If you are a consumer of American social or religious history, or you simply enjoy biographies, then you will appreciate adding this to your collection of good historical works. More importantly, if you are interested in the shaping of the United States as a spiritual, but not religious “Christian” nation, this book will help you better understand where this originated. 

Depending on where one lives and their experiences, they may view this book from a variety of different perspectives. For example, one may live in an urban or college area that has no semblance of cultural Protestantism and wonder where it has gone, if indeed it ever existed. Others may find answers to the world that they live in.

As a pastor in a rural area where the American flag and the cross are so intertwined that there is virtually no separating them, this biography helped add a category to my own understanding of the socio-religious culture in which I operate. It also aided my understanding of several questions that arise from that culture: Where does the idea that we can be a Christian apart from the body of Christ come from? Why do people think being “a good Christian” means they are simply nice to others? How can one consider themselves a Christian without knowing or caring about the fall of Adam, the cross of Christ, and the empty tomb? How can so many self-proclaimed Christians have such a disdain for doctrine, weekly worship services, sermons about sin and grace, and the Sacraments? The answer, in part, is that Ben Franklin and cultural Protestantism paved the way.

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.

Endnotes

1 D. G. Hart, Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 10.

2 Ibid, 4–5.

3 Ibid, 66.

4 Ibid, 84.

5 Ibid, 125.

6 Ibid, 128.

7 Ibid, 211.

8 Ibid, 230.

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  • Scott McDermand II
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    Scott McDermand II is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bad Axe, Michigan. He graduated from San Diego State University (B.A., History) and earned masters degrees at Westminster Seminary California (M.A., Historical Theology; M.Div). He serves on the board of directors of the Heidelberg Reformation Association as secretary. He has a passion for preaching and teaching the Word of God, Biblical theology, Church History, and enjoying fellowship with the people of First Presbyterian Church, Bad Axe, MI. In his free time, he enjoys baseball, reading, classical music, eating whatever his wife cooks for him, and walking their two dogs.

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One comment

  1. Not having read D. G. Hart’s book on Ben Franklin, from your review it seems clear that he has a thorough and insightful view of this founding father. I think your review is best summed up in one of your final comments: Where does the idea that we can be a Christian apart from the body of Christ come from? Why do people think being “a good Christian” means they are simply nice to others? How can one consider themselves a Christian without knowing or caring about the fall of Adam, the cross of Christ, and the empty tomb? How can so many self-proclaimed Christians have such a disdain for doctrine, weekly worship services, sermons about sin and grace, and the Sacraments? Outstanding!

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