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  • Benjamin Franklin:Philosopher of Progress
  • Jerry Weinberger (bio)

Benjamin Franklin was by the age of forty-two, when he retired, a very rich man. He made money in lots of different ways, but much of it was as a writer and publisher. By his own telling he sold two hundred and fifty thousand copies of Poor Richard's Almanac in the years between 1733 and 1758 when the last edition came out.1 That's a best seller even by today's publishing standards and it is simply astounding if we consider the reading population in the Colonial America of Franklin's time. But it's not surprising that Franklin's biggest seller was Poor Richard, which is still the most famous of Franklin's literary inventions.

It is surprising, however, that his second best selling publication project was not something he wrote, but rather the sermons and journals of George Whitefield, a friend of Franklin and the fire-breathing, make-'em-swoon evangelist of the Great Awakening. I say it's surprising because Franklin's biggest publishing flop was his brief collaboration with another pal, the infamous rake Baron le Despencer (founder of the even more infamous Hell Fire Club, where the aristocratic "Monks of Mendmenham" cavorted with prostitutes dressed up as nuns), in a project for abridging the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

The prayer book project was a flop for the simple reason that the "Abridgement" left out such theological trifles as the Holy Ghost and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.2 Had Thomas Jefferson been in London at the time, 1773, he surely would have bought some copies. But few British faithful were interested. Franklin's association with le Despencer was the sort of thing that led John Adams later to say (to the French statesman François marquis de Barbé-Marbois) of Franklin in France that he had no religion and "all the atheists, deists, and libertines, as well as the philosophers and ladies, are in his train—another Voltaire, and thence."3

What are we to make of Franklin, an Enlightenment and Progress man if ever there was one among the Founders, rubbing elbows with such opposites as Whitefield and the free-thinking libertine le Despencer? The answer is that Franklin was indeed a man of the Enlightenment; but he was as well in my view, a freethinking critic of Enlightenment freethinking and, for all of his optimism about the technological conquest of nature, no believer in the inevitable march of moral or intellectual progress. And he was especially doubtful of that ultimate goal of Enlightenment progressives (including the recent chorus of militant atheists)—a fully secular society governed by the dictates of reason alone.

Don't get me wrong. Franklin had a lot of nasty and Enlightenment-sounding things to say about the dangerous influence of priests and organized ecclesiastical power. In the mid-1730's he weighed into the religious politics in Philadelphia, in support of the good-works preacher Samuel Hemphill in his contest with the Presbyterian Synod. To defend Hemphill against the Synod's charges of heterodoxy, Franklin published three pamphlets (Observations on the Proceedings Against Mr. Hemphill, Letter to a Friend in the Country, and Defense and Observations) and a piece in the Gazette ("Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians").4

In these pieces, Franklin, the most widely read in theology of all the Founders, said the following about the doctrines of his Presbyterian neighbors: The doctrine of original sin was an absurd "bugbear set up by Priests (whether Popish or Presbyterian I know not) to fright and scare an unthinking populace out of their senses, and inspire them with terror, to answer the little selfish ends of the inventors and propagators." The idea that one person can be subject to punishment for the guilt of another was monstrous, said Franklin, and made God cruel, arbitrary, and unjust. The doctrines of justification by faith alone and salvation by means of the merits and satisfactions of Christ were antinomian, said Franklin, and comprised "the most impious doctrine that was ever broached...[with] a natural tendency to make men act as if Christ came into the world to patronize vice, and...


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