Part 4 Benjamin Franklin on Religion Quakers and Dunkers

Due to his long years serving the Assembly in Philadelphia both as a clerk and a member of the Assembly later Benjamin had a lot of insight and commentary on the Quaker sect as a whole. The assembly at that time was dominated by Quaker rule and it is amusing to read some of the creative ways Benjamin came up with to get progressive and community measures approved by them. Especially as it pertained to militia and any tax moneys going to fund anything with military or potential violence.

Benjamin Franklin Clerk of the Assembly

Benjamin Franklin Clerk of the Assembly

He made the observation a couple of times that it is easy for a religious structure to be anti-violence in it’s doctrines when the individuals and their families are not directly in harms way. He shares two stories to illustrate the difficulty of holding such a doctrine firm even by those who were firmly believe in the doctrines of no violence.

Since retelling what he took such pains to write seems an injustice the following will be in his own words.

The honorable and learned Mr. Logan, who had always been of that sect, was one who wrote an address to them, declaring his approbation of defensive war, and supporting his opinion by many strong arguments. He put into my h ands sixty pounds to be laid out in lottery tickets for the battery, with directions to apply what prizes might be drawn wholly to that service. He told me the following anecdote of his old master, William Penn, respecting defense. He came over from England, when a young man, with that proprietary and as his secretary.

It was war-time, and their ship was chas’d by an armed vessel, suppos’d to be an enemy. Their captain prepar’d for defense, but told William Penn and his company of Quakers, that he did not expect their assistance, and they might retire into the cabin, which they did, except James Logan, who chose to stay upon deck, and was quarter’d to a gun. The suppos’d enemy prov’d a friend, so there was no fighting; but when the secretary went down to communicate the intelligence, William Penn rebuk’d him severely for staying upon deck, and undertaking to assist in defending the vessel, contrary to the principles of Friends, especially as it had not been required by the captain. This reproof, being before all the company, piqu’d the secretary, who answer’d “I being thy servant, why did thee not order me to come down? But thee was willing enough that I should stay and help to fight the ship when thee thought there was danger.” 

My being many years in the Assembly, the majority of which were constantly Quakers, gave me frequent opportunities of seeing the embarrassment given them by their principle against war, whenever application was made to them, by order of the crown, to grant aids for military purposes. They were unwilling to offend the government, on the one hand, by a direct refusal; and their friends, the body of the Quakers, on the other, by a compliance contrary to their principles; hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying, and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable. 

The common mode at last was, to grant money under the phrase of its being for “The king’s use,” and never to inquire how it was applied. 

But, if the demand was not directly from the crown, that phrase was found not so proper, and some other was to be invented. As, when powder was wanting (I think it was for the garrison at Louisburg) and the government of New England solicited a grant of some from Pennsilvania, which was much urg’d on the House by GOvernor Thomas, they could not grant money to buy powder, because that was an ingredient of war; but they voted an aid to New England of three thousand pounds, to be put into the hands of the governor, and appropriated it for the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain. Some of the council, desirous of giving the House still further embarrassment, advis’d the governor not to accept provision, as not being the thing he had demanded; but he reply’d, “I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder,” which he accordingly bought, and they never objected to it.

Later he summarizes his opinion of the Quakers position against war and shares a story about a religious sect called the Dunkers. Since I had never heard of the Dunkers before reading this I found it especially interesting. Hope you do as well!

These embarrassments that the Quakers suffer’d from having establish’d and published it as one of their principles that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being once published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of, reminds me of what I think a more prudent conduct in another sect among us, that of the Dunkers.  I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon after it appear’d. He complain’d to me that they were grievously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charg’d with abominable principles and practices to which they were utter strangers.

I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that, to put a stop to such abuse, I imagin’d it might be well to publish the articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline.

He said that it had been propos’d among them, but not agreed to, for this reason: “When we were first drawn together as a society,” says he, “it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.” 

 This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man traveling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them. To avoid this kind of embarrassment, the Quakers have of late years been gradually declining the public service in the Assembly and in the magistracy, choosing rather to quit their power than their principle. 

Part 3 Benjamin Franklin on Religion and Reverend Whitefield

For those of us who grew up in Christian circles avidly reading biographies of great Christian heroes of the faith the name of Mr. Whitefield in early American history will ring some bells. Due to this past reading about the famous (or infamous depending on the doctrinal leanings of the particular history book) pastor I found it particularly fascinating that he made it into Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Reading the first hand accounts from Benjamin himself is veryvery interesting. At least to me. 😀 Especially since he was curious about the same sort of details I am. Like how exactly a mans voice could possibly carry to SO many people in an outdoor setting without modern day sound equipment.

And so as we dive into 1739 in Dr. Franklins own words perhaps a picture of the man that he dedicated this portion of his autobiography to. I like pictures. Even old black and white ones that make me wonder if they really represent what the actual person looked like at all.

Reverend Whitefield

Reverend Whitefield

 

In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. 

He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches, but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refus’d him their pulpits, and he was oblig’d to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admir’d and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street. 

And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner propos’d, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon receiv’d to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected. Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people of Philadelphia; the design in the building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the habitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

Mr. Whitefield, in leaving us, went preaching all the way thro’ the colonies to Georgia. The settlement of that province had lately been begun, but, instead of being made with hardy, industrious husbandmen, accustomed to labor, the only people fit for such an enterprise, it was with families of broken shop-keepers and other insolvent debtors, many indolent and idle habits, taken out of jails, who, being set down in the woods, unqualified for clearing land, and unable to endure the hardships of a new settlement, perished in numbers, leaving many helpless children unprovided for.

The sight of their miserable situation inspir’d the benevolent heart of Mr. Whitefield with the idea of building an Orphan House there, in which they might be supported and educated. Returning northward, he preach’d up this charity, and made large collections, for his eloquence had a wonderful power over the hearts and purses of his hearers, of which I myself was an instance.

I did not disapprove of the design but, as Georgia was then destitute of materials and workmen, and it was proposed to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here, and brought the children to it. This I advis’d; but he was resolute in his first project, rejected my counsel, and I therefore refus’d to contribute.

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me, I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver, and he finish’d so admirably, that I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all. At this sermon there was also one of our club, who, being of my sentiments respecting the building in Georgia, and suspecting a collection might be intended, had, by precaution, emptied his pockets before he came from home.

Towards the conclusion of the discourse, however, he felt a strong desire to give, and apply’d to a neighbour, who stood near him, to borrow some money for the purpose. The application was unfortunately made to perhaps the only man in the company who had the firmness not to be affected by the preacher. His answer was, ” At any other time, Friend Hopkinsons, I would lend to thee freely; but not now, for thee seems to be out of thy right senses.”

Some of Mr. Whitefield’s enemies affected to suppose that he would apply these collections to his own private emolument; but I who was intimately acquainted with him (being employed in printing his Sermons and Journals, etc.) never had the least suspicion of his integrity but am to this day decidedly of the opinion that he was in all his conduct a perfectly honest man, and methinks my testimony in his favour ought to have the more weight, as we had no religious connection. 

He us’d, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death. 

The following instance will show something of the terms on which we stood. Upon one of his arrivals from England to Boston, he wrote to me that he should come soon to Philadelphia, but knew not where he could lodge when there, as he understood his old friend and host, Mr. Benezet, was removed to Germantown. 

My answer was, “You know my house; if you can make shift with its scanty accommodations, you will be most heartily welcome.” He reply’d, that if I made that kind offer for Christ’s sake, I should not miss of a reward. And I returned, “Don’t let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.” One of our common acquaintance jocosely remark’d, that, knowing it to be the custom of saints, when they received any favour, to shift the burden of the obligation from off their own shoulders, and place it in heaven, I had contriv’d to fix it on earth.

The last time I saw Mr. Whitefield was in London, when he consulted me about his Orphan House concern, and his purpose of appropriating it to the establishment of a college.

He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ’d the most exact silence. He preach’d one evening from the top of the Courthouse steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles.

Both streets were fill’d with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river, and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur’d it. 

Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill’d with auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil’d me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach’d to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the antient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.

By hearing him often, I came to distinguish easily between sermons newly compos’d, and those which he had often preach’d in the course of his travels. His delivery of the latter was so improv’d by frequent repetitions that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turn’d and well plac’d, that, without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleas’d with the discourse; a pleasure of much the same kind with that receiv’d from an excellent piece of musick. This is an advantage itinerant preachers have over those who are stationary, as the latter can not well improve their delivery of a sermon by so many rehearsals.

His writing and printing from time to time gave great advantage to his enemies; unguarded expressions, and even erroneous opinions, delivered in preaching, might have been afterwards explain’d or qualifi’d by supposing other that might have accompani’d them, or they might have been deny’d; but litera scripta monet.

Critics attack’d his writings violently, and with so much appearance of reason as to diminish the number of his votaries and prevent their encrease, so that I am of opinion if he had never written any thing, he would have left behind him a much more numerous and important sect, and his reputation might in that case have been still growing, even after his death, as there being nothing of his writing on which to found a censure and give him a lower character, his proselytes would be left at liberty to feign for him as great a variety of excellent as their enthusiastic admiration might wish him to have possessed.

Benjamin Franklin as represented by a reinactor

Benjamin Franklin as represented by a reinactor

 

Part 2: More of Benjamin Franklin on Religion and Personal Discipline

Excerpts taken from Benjamin Franklins Autobiography.

My list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve, but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc, and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc. 

I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right. 

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language and yet I generally carried my points.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. 

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

This following section is his account of a period of time where he attended regular sermons given by a controversial pastor and ended up embroiled in the fight on behalf of the pastor writing pamphlets for his defense.  Illustrates all too well that church splits and religious controversy on this soil pre-dates even the founding of the US as an independent country.

About the year 1734 there arrived among us from Ireland a young Presbyterian preacher, named Hemphill, who delivered with a good voice, and apparently extempore, most excellent discourses, which drew together considerable numbers of different persuasion, who join’d in admiring them. Among the rest, I became one of his constant hearers, his sermons pleasing me, as they had little of the dogmatical kind, but inculcated strongly the practice of virtue, or what in the religious stile are called good works.

Those, however, of our congregation who considered themselves as orthodox Presbyterians, disapprov’d his doctrine, and were join’d by most of the old clergy, who arraign’d him of heterodoxy before the synod, in order to have him silenc’d. I became his zealous partisan, and contributed all I could to raise a party in his favour, and we combated for him a while with some hopes of success. There was much scribbling pro and con upon the occasion; and finding that, upon tho’ an elegant preacher, he was but a poor writer, I lent him my pen and wrote for him two or three pamphlets, and one piece in the Gazette of April, 1735. Those pamphlets, as is generally the case with controversial writings, tho’ eagerly read at the time, were soon out of vogue, and I question whether a single copy of them now exists.

During the contest an unlucky occurrence hurt his cause exceedingly. One of our adversaries having heard him preach a sermon that was much admired, thought he had somwhere read the sermon before, or at least a part of it. On search he found that part quoted at length, in one of the British Reviews, from a discourse of Dr. Foster’s. This detection gave many of our party disgust, who accordingly abandoned his cause, and occasion’d our more speedy discomfiture in the synod. I stuck by him, however, as I rather approv’d his giving us good sermons compos’d by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture, tho’ the latter was the practice of our common teachers. He afterward acknowledg’d to me that none of those he preach’d were his own; adding, that his memory was such as enabled him to retain and repeat any sermon after one reading only.

On our defeat he left us in search elsewhere of better fortune, and I quitted the congregation, never joining it after, tho’ I continu’d many years my subscription for the support of it’s ministers.

 

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