Benjamin Franklin on Religion Part 1

As promised in my previous post here is an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Specifically one of the sections in which he mentions his relationship with organized religion. Being raised a Presbyterian it was my personal impression from reading this section that he felt particularly justified in pointing out the flaws he found common within that particular denomination.

And so, without further preamble, in the old Gentleman’s own words, just as it should be.

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho’ some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that He made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or thereafter.

These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, and I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induc’d me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increas’d in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally elected by voluntary contributions, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect was never refused.

Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of it’s propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. 

He us’d to visit me sometimes as a friend and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens. 

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagin’d in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality.

But he confin’d himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz: 1) Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2) Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3) Attending duly the publick worship 4) Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers. These might all be good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more. 

I had some years before compos’d a little Liturgy, or form of prayers, for my own private use, entitled, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. I return’d to use of this and went no more to the public assemblies.

My conduct might be blameable, but I leave it, without attempting to further excuse it; my present purpose being to relate facts, and not make apologies for them. 

He later goes on at length outlining his life disciplines. As part of that section he shares a couple of prayers he prayed on a daily basis and had written in the daily log book he used to track his various disciplines and challenges.

And conceiving God to be the fountain of wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his assistance for obtaining it; to this end I formed the following little prayer, which was prefix’d to my tables of examination, for daily use.

“O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. Strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me.” 

I used also sometimes a little prayer which I took from Thomson’s Poems.

“Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme! O teach me what is good, teach me Thyself! Save me from folly, vanity, and vice, from every low pursuit, and fill my soul with knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure; Sacred, substantial, never-fading bliss!” 

To be continued in future posts. 🙂 He has quite a lot to say on the subject in various  contexts.

Benjamin Franklin sets precedent for prayer before Assembly

Benjamin Franklin sets precedent for prayer before Assembly

6 thoughts on “Benjamin Franklin on Religion Part 1

    • Hah, nope, that would be a lie wouldn’t it? =P He as in Benjamin Franklin was raised Presbyterian and so having that personal background it was my impression he felt more justified in pointing out the criticisms he had of them over other denominations. =) Sorry my wording and sentence structure was confusing.

  1. My bad… I just reread it and it is perfectly clear ‘he’ was the Presbyterian. I must have had brain fog. =) I read the article after I posted the comment. I found myself re-reading and reading
    some sentences out loud because I’m so spoiled to the shorter sentences of modern English. Old Ben Franklin was a deep thinker as so many of America’s founders were. You are a deep thinker and I’m very proud of you. Love you,

  2. I agree with old Ben, that if I were subject to sermons that really meant nothing, and had no real meat in them, then I would no longer go. That’s probably why I haven’t gone anywhere in a very long time, sad to say.

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