Thursday, February 26, 2015

Benjamin Franklin and Christian Faith

I recently came across a letter from one of our nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.  It was written to the President of Yale College, Ezra Stiles.  Stiles was quite a fan of Franklin, especially as a scientist, and Franklin had given the college some scientific equipment and a few antiquities.   I’m not enough of a Franklin expert to know if it was his last letter, but it would certainly be among the last.  Dated March 9, 1790, Franklin would be dead within six weeks.

In fact, Franklin seems all too aware to his approaching finitude, cautioning Stiles, who wanted to honor Franklin at Yale with a portrait:

You have an excellent Artist lately arrived. If he will undertake to make one for you, I shall chearfully pay the Expence: But he must not long delay setting about it, or I may slip thro' his Fingers, for I am now in my 85th Year's and very infirm.

In the letter Franklin makes two statements I wish to comment upon.  The first:

“You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it.

I had to wonder whether Franklin was accurate in his memory or whether previous inquires went forgotten.  Franklin is now 85 years of age.  Is this really the first time he has been questioned about his religion?  What a tragic reproach upon Christians.  I realize Christians of the colonial era, were not, for the most part, highly evangelistic and much too intellectual.  I know there were  exceptions like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.  Still, no one had taken Franklin to task about what we believe is the most important part of man—his eternal soul?

And Ezra Stiles?  He was a Congregational minister and a New Englander (Connecticut and Rhode Island) who may never have meet the Pennsylvanian Franklin in person.  Yet, they clearly had many correspondences.  At least Stiles finally got around to asking the key question. 

So maybe we modern evangelicals can walk away with two lessons here.   First, make sure our values match our priorities.  If we really value the souls of mankind, let’s have that conversation before we talk about contemporary events.  Sports, weather, hobbies, and families all make for enriching  and non-threatening conversations, but we shouldn’t be treating faith as an after-thought.  Second, it’s never too late to have that conversation with people in our lives.  I know ‘religion’ makes people uncomfortable and I like putting people at ease, so it’s easy to avoid it.  But I, and millions of other evangelicals, need to get over it.  Have that conversation with the people in your life.  Today.

The second statement Franklin made in his letter was about Jesus:

 As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

Again, where were Franklin’s spiritual friends, elevating the need for him to “busy” himself with thoughts of Jesus?  Why did they let him get away with so casually dismissing the need to contemplate Jesus.  Franklin had previously stated he believed in God.  But his belief in God promoted only a moralism…a doing good to others.  He never saw himself as one who was a sinner…a rebel against the holiness of God in desperate need of the saving work of Jesus.  In Franklin’s view, Jesus was a good teacher and he didn’t need to take the time to figure out if that was all Jesus was.

Benjamin Franklin.  Patriot.  Founder. Witty and brilliant; wise and helpful;  inquisitive and experimental.  He left the world a better place.  But he never properly answered life’s singularly most important question—Who is Jesus?

Have you?


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