The Original “Spiritual But Not Religious” American

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Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd’s name should sound familiar to TGC readers—he runs the Evangelical History blog with Justin Taylor.

In 2014, Kidd published the biography George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. This spring, he published a new book, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. The two volumes should be paired, not only because because Whitefield and Franklin show up in each other’s biographies, but also because Kidd believes these two late-colonial figures together contributed important pieces of America’s cultural and spiritual DNA. Whereas Whitefield (along with Jonathan Edwards) contributed directly to the formation of American evangelical Christianity, Franklin gave America both a preference for hard work and also his own version of religious expression. Kidd labels this contribution “doctrineless, moralized Christianity.”

In the biography, Kidd follows Franklin as he wrestles with the Scripture and Christian faith he’d heard as a young man growing up in Boston.

Elusive, Enigmatic Faith

Teasing out what Franklin believed is a historical challenge. Kidd describes Franklin’s faith as “elusive” (3, 4) and “enigmatic” (236). Not only did Franklin develop in his thinking over time, but he also played with religious ideas and debated different positions equally. He would sometimes write a religious piece for his newspaper under one pen name and then respond to it with a letter to the editor, criticizing the first piece under a second pen name.

While other authors—Gregg FrazerDavid Holmes, and John Fea—have tried to pin down Franklin’s religious beliefs, they each devote only one chapter in larger studies to him, whereas Kidd uses the freedom of an entire book to understand the contours of Franklin’s religious thought.

Franklin was raised in Boston in a devout Puritan home—his father emigrated to Massachusetts to take part in the fervor of the colony, and both his parents gave evidence of their faith, joined the local congregation, and hosted prayer meetings in their home.

Franklin’s avid reading, however, brought him into contact with ideas from the movement broadly known as “the Enlightenment” that questioned the authority of Scripture and the tenets of traditional Christianity. His exposure to heterodox ideas only increased when Franklin fled his Boston apprenticeship to seek his fortune in Philadelphia and London.

In London, he openly called himself a Deist and began wrestling with the meaning of human freedom. Kidd rightfully points out that Deism could mean different things; he defines Franklin’s deism as “1) doubts about Calvinism, 2) qualms about the Bible’s reliability, 3) resistance to churches’ claims of religious authority, and 4) a focus on ethics” (28).

The final element is the one Kidd emphasizes, showing that Franklin came to prioritize moral behavior over any defined doctrines. At the same time, Franklin continued to argue for belief in a divine providence that could intervene in the world and in a future state of rewards and punishments (decided according to works done on earth).

Even so, Franklin remained connected to orthodox Christians who kept him from drifting into even more radical positions. Kidd does much with two of Franklin’s relationships: with the evangelist George Whitefield, who, until his death, repeatedly invited Franklin to a life of faith, and Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom, who challenged Franklin on his moralistic assertions.

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition
Jonathan Den Hartog

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