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

A Deliberate Life

The past six weeks or so I have been doing a lot of self examination. Externally and internally. Sometimes in life you have to deal with what is dealt. Put out fires as they pop up and just do the next thing because nobody else is and it must be done.

The past few years this has been how most of my life has been lived. It hasn’t been very deliberate and it definitely hasn’t been planned or structured.

One of the things I’ve done was take an inventory. What things do I do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis that are enjoyable, productive, and helpful to my family and myself? What things do I do that encourage personal growth and restore my energy reserves instead of drain it? Something that has been very sad to me for the past 3+ years is that I have had neither the mental space, physical energy and most of all no time to read for personal edification or enjoyment. Reading used to be as much a part of my life as eating and breathing. I literally inhaled books. Recent years reading has been purely centered around self education in the realm of health. Studies, books, nutritional certifications and more studies and more holistic health and healing books.

In an effort to live more deliberately and to start making changes in my life that are positive this past month I started two books that were not in the least health related. And made time to read on them a little bit every day. It’s been wonderful. Part of my brain is awake and alive again. It just so happened that the first book I started was Benjamin Franklins Autobiography.

One of those brain niggles that had been bugging me for years is seeing some conservative Christian friends of mine quote Ben Franklin and put some sort of a disclaimer to the effect “I know he was an atheist but I thought this was really good” then followed by one of his many quotes. Rather startling to me since nothing I had ever read of his years ago back when I read historical stuff all the time had ever led me to believe he was an unreligious man much less an atheist. His autobiography explains a great deal about why people may have gotten that impression about him but how it is absolutely incorrect. More on Ben Franklin and his religious beliefs in his own words in a future post.

For now what I want to talk about is his personal edification program. The old geezers (I use the term geezer with the utmost respect and fondness) memoirs could not have come at a more fortuitous time for me. He spends quite a bit of time outlining some of the structures he used in his own life to build the life and legacy that he left to not only his family but to our Country as well.

Since he says it all ever so much better than I could and I would venture to guess cares very little that he be quoted now and would in-fact probably be a bit flattered to know that people still care all these many years later I am going to present it in his own words without my muddled interpretations of it.

Excerpt from the second part of Benjamin Franklins Autobiography written when he was 79 years old and living in France.

It was about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. 

While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method. 

In the various enumerations of the moral virtues I had met with in my reading, I found the catalogue more or less numerous, as different writers included more or fewer ideas under the same name. 

Temperance, for example, was by some confined to eating and drinking, while by others it was extended to mean the moderating of every other pleasure, appetite, inclination, or passion, bodily or mental, even to our avarice and ambition. I propos’d to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1. TEMPERANCE: Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. 

4. RESOLUTION: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. 

7. SINCERITY: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. 

12.CHASTITY: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation. 

13: HUMILITY: Imitate Jesus and Socrates

He follows this list at length detailing how he began to incorporate and discipline himself in these areas of his life one at a time and gives an example of a gardener attacking a weed infested garden. The gardener would start with one bed at a time and restore it before moving on to the next bed that needed tending and care. As he reflects back over his life he mentions that he never successfully implemented his ORDER point and that since he began this as a young man with an excellent memory he allowed himself slack in this area, something he regretted as an older man with poor memory and lifelong habits of disorganization.

Lest anyone be tempted to equate this list of morals life disciplines with a legalism based religious structure, or even so far as to assume that this code that he implemented in his life was even close to suggesting a path of salvation or anything like that. In the full context of his writings it is not in the least presented that way. Merely life-style habits along the lines of how we would discipline ourselves to make up our beds when we get up in the morning, or work out X number of times a week to maintain cardio health. This was his structure to help him maintain lifetime relationship health with his family, business and eventually political realms.

I have found his perspectives refreshing and incredibly timely at this juncture in my life. It was worth sharing. Hope you got some value or insight out of it as well.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin