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Six Historic Americans|
Benjamin Franklin [Deist]
by Remsburg, John E.
|The world has produced few wiser or better men than our
American Socrates, Benjamin Franklin. While he lived he was loved
and honored by all; when he died, two continents mourned as a child
mourns the loss of a beloved father. Eagerly has the church striven
to place to her credit the prestige of this wise and good man's
But in vain; she cannot efface the oft-repeated declarations
of his disbelief.|
Franklin received a religious training, but his good sense and
his humane nature forced him to rebel against the irrational and
inhuman tenets of his parents' faith, and at an early age a spirit
of skepticism was developed in him, as the following extracts from
his Autobiography will show:
"My parents had given me betimes religions impressions,
and I received from my infancy a pious education in the
principles of Calvinism. But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen
of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different
tenets, according as I found them combated in the different
books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself"
(Autobiography, p. 66).
He read much, and the ambition of his youth, as he declares,
was to become a decent writer of the English language. His favorite
exercise was to reproduce, in his own words, the ideas of the
authors he read. Alluding to this, he says:
"The time which I devoted to these exercises, and to
reading, was the evening after my day's labor was finished,
the morning before it began, and Sundays when I could escape
divine service. While I lived with my father, he had insisted
on my punctual attendance on public worship, and I still
indeed considered it as a duty, but a duty which I thought I
had no time to practice" (Ibid. P. 16).
In the course of his mental pursuits he read Locke on the
"Human Understanding," and carefully studied some essays which
taught the Socratic method of disputation, which he immediately put
in combating superstition:
"Charmed to a degree of enthusiasm with this mode of
disputing, I adopted it, and renouncing blunt contradictions,
and direct and positive argument, I assumed the character of
humble questioner. The perusal of Shaftesbury and Collins
a skeptic; and, being previously so as to many
doctrines of Christianity, I found Socrates' method to be both
the safest for myself, as well as the most embarrassing to
those against whom I applied it. It soon afforded me singular
pleasure; I incessantly practiced it; and became very adroit
in obtaining, even from persons of superior understanding,
concessions of which they did not foresee the consequence"
(Ibid, p. 17).
The result of his many disputes upon the subject of religion
easily divined. He says:
began to be regarded, by pious souls, with horror,
either as an apostate or an Atheist" (Ibid, p. 22).
Being associated with an elder brother in the publication of
the New England Courant, young Franklin made use of its columns to
propagate his radical thoughts. From an old edition of Goodrich's
Reader (Fifth, pp. 273, 274) I quote the following relative to his
adventures in this field of religious criticism:
"In Boston, in 1721, when the pulpit had marshaled Quakers and
witches to the gallows, one newspaper, the New England Courant, the
fourth American periodical, was established as an organ of
independent opinion, by James Franklin. Its temporary success was
advanced by Benjamin, his brother and apprentice, a boy of fifteen,
who wrote pieces for its humble columns.
"The little sheet satirized hypocrisy and spoke of
religious knaves as of all knaves the worst. This was
described as tending 'to abuse the ministers of religion in a
manner which was intolerable.' 'I can well remember,' writes
Increase Mather, then more than four score years of age, 'when
the civil government would have taken an effectual course to
suppress such a cursed libel.' "The ministers persevered, and,
in January, 1723, a committee of inquiry was raised by the
legislature. Benjamin Franklin, being examined, escaped with
an admonition; James, the publisher, refusing to discover the
author of the offense, was kept in jail for a month; his paper
was censured as reflecting injuriously on the reverend
ministers of the gospel; and, by a vote of the House and
Council, he was forbidden to print it, 'except it be first
This young opponent of priestcraft soon after left Boston,
went to New York, and from thence to Philadelphia. In passing
through New Jersey he stopped at an inn near Burlington, kept by a
Dr. Brown. Of this Dr. Brown, he writes as follows:
"This man entered into a conversation with me while I
took some refreshment, and perceiving that I had read a
little, he expressed toward me considerable interest and
friendship. Our acquaintance continued during the remainder of
his life. I believe him to have been what is called an
itinerant doctor; for there was no town in England, or indeed
in Europe, of which he could not give a particular account. He
was neither deficient in understanding nor literature, but he
was a sad Infidel; and, some years after, wickedly undertook
to travesty the Bible, in burlesque verse, as Cotton has
travestied Virgil. He exhibited, by this means, many facts in
a very ludicrous point of view, which would have given umbrage
to weak minds, had this work been published, which it never
was" (Autobiography, p. 25).
I can see the sly twinkle in Benjamin's eye as he writes about
"sad Infidel" who "wickedly undertook to travesty the Bible."
It was with these same "sad Infidels" that he delighted to
associate throughout his life, while many a time he, too,
"wickedly undertook to travesty the Bible" by pretending to read
from it, but extemporizing in a ludicrous manner as he went along
(Parton's Life of Franklin, Vol. i., p. 320).
In Philadelphia he was associated with a printer named Keimer.
Referring to Keimer, he says:
"He formed so high an opinion of my talents for
refutation that he seriously proposed to me to become his
colleague in the establishment of a new religious sect. He was
to propagate the doctrine by preaching, and I to refute every
he explained to me his tenets, I found many
absurdities which I refused to admit. ... Keimer wore his
beard long, because Moses had somewhere said, 'Thou shalt not
mar the corners of thy beard.' He likewise observed the
Sabbath; and these were with him two very essential points. I
disliked them both" (Autobiography, p. 40).
At a later period, alluding to his religious belief, Franklin
"Some volumes against Deism fell into my hands. They were
said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's
Lecture. It happened that they produced on me an effect
precisely the reverse of what was intended by the writers; for
the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be
refuted, appealed to me much more forcibly than the refutation
itself. In a word, I soon became a thorough Deist" (Ibid, p.
In one of his youthful essays he professes a sort of
polytheistic belief as shown by the following extracts:
"The Infinite Father expects or requires no worship or
praise from us."
"I conceive, then, that the Infinite has created many
beings or gods vastly superior to man."
"It may be these created gods are immortals; or it may be that
after many ages, they are changed, and others supply their places.
"Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceeding good
very powerful; and that each has made for himself one
glorious sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable system
"It is that particular wise and good God, who is the
author and owner of our system, that I propose for the object
of my praise and adoration" (Franklin's Works, Vol. ii., p.
He subsequently rejected some of his earlier philosophical and
ethical views, particularly those contained in a small pamphlet
which he wrote, entitled a "Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity,
Pleasure and Pain." Referring to his arguments in this pamphlet he
"The object was to prove, from the attributes of God, his
goodness, wisdom, and power, that there could be no such thing
as evil in the world; that vice and virtue did not in reality
exist, and were nothing more than vain distinctions. I no
longer regarded it as so blameless a work as I had formerly
imagined; and I suspected that some error must have
imperceptibly glided into my argument, by which all the
inferences I had drawn from it had been affected, as
frequently happens in metaphysical reasonings. In a word, I
was at last convinced that truth, probity, and sincerity in
transactions between man and man were of the utmost importance
to the happiness of life; and I resolved from that moment, and
wrote the resolution in my journal, to practice them as long
as I lived" (Autobiography, pp. 66, 67).
His unbelief in Christianity, however, remained unchanged. He
"Revelation, indeed, as such had no influence on my mind"
(Ibid, p. 67).
I have given the theological views of Franklin's youth and
early manhood; I shall next present the religious opinions of his
mature manhood and old age. Less reticent than
Washington, he was
at the same time less radical than
Jefferson, and less disposed to
combat the dogmas of the church. Nevertheless, his expressed
opinions are ample to show that at no time during his career was he
a Christian -- that he lived and died a Deist.
In a letter to the Rev. George Whitefield, written in 1753,
when he was forty-seven years old, we have his opinion of
"The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the
I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I
desire to lessen it in any way; but I wish it were more
productive of good works than I have generally seen it. I mean
real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public
spirit, not holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing, and reading,
performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled
with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men,
less capable of pleasing the Deity" (Works, Vol.
Writing to his sister, Mrs. Jane Mecom, five years later, he
"It is pity that good works, among some sorts of people,
are so little valued, and good words admired in their stead.
I mean seemingly pious discourses, instead of humane,
benevolent actions. These they almost put out of countenance
by calling morality, rotten morality; righteousness, ragged
righteousness, and even filthy rags, and when you mention
virtue, pucker up their noses; at the same time that they
eagerly snuff up an empty, canting harangue, as if it were a
posy of the choicest flowers" (Works, Vol. vii., p. 185).
"Improvement in religion is called building up and
edification. Faith is then the ground floor, hope is up one
pair of stairs. My dear beloved Jenny, don't delight so much
dwell in those lower rooms, but get as fast as you can into
the garret; for in truth the best room in the house is
charity. For my part I wish the house was turned upside down"
(Ibid, p. 184).
Franklin possibly believed in a future state of existence, but
his conception of immortality was that of the Deist, and not of the
Christian. In his letter to Whitefield, previously alluded to, he
"By heaven, we understand a state of happiness, infinite
in degree and eternal in duration. I can do nothing to deserve
such a reward. He that, for giving a draught of water to a
thirsty person, should expect to be paid with a good
plantation, would be modest in his demands compared with those
who think they deserve heaven for the little good they do on
earth. ... for my part, I have not the vanity to think I
deserve it, the folly to expect, or the ambition to desire it"
(Works, Vol. vii., p. 75).
In a letter to Mrs. Elizabeth Partridge, he observes:
"With regard to future bliss, I cannot help imagining
that multitudes of the zealously orthodox of different sects,
who at the last day may flock together in hopes of seeing each
other damned, will be disappointed, and obliged to rest
content With their own salvation" (Works, Vol. x., p. 366).
Writing to his sister, Mrs. Mecom, he says:
"When religious people quarrel about religion, or hungry
people about their victuals, it looks as if they had not much
of either about them" (Works, Vol. vii., p. 438).
In a letter to "A Friend in England" (supposed to be Dr.
Priestley), Franklin makes some observations regarding the
inspiration of the Bible:
"I agreed with you in sentiments concerning the Old
Testament, and thought the clause in our [Pennsylvania]
Constitution, which required the members of the Assembly to
declare their belief that the whole of it was given by divine
inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed
the clause; but, being overpowered by numbers, and fearing
more in future might be grafted on it, I prevailed to have the
additional clause, 'that no further or more extended
profession of faith should ever be exacted.' I observed to
you, too, that the evil of it was the less, as no inhabitant,
nor any officer of government, except the members of Assembly,
was obliged to make the declaration.
much for that letter; to which I may now add, that
there are several things in the Old Testament impossible to be
divine inspiration; such as the approbation ascribed
to the angel of the Lord of that abominably wicked and
detestable action of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. If
rest of the book were like that, I should rather suppose
given by inspiration from another quarter, and renounce the
whole" (Works, Vol. x., p. 134).
He extolled the character of Jesus, but in regard to his
divinity he declared himself a skeptic.
His opinion of the Fall of Man, the Atonement, and other
Christian doctrines, may be inferred from an anecdote related by
an essay which he wrote on the "Savages of North America."
"A Swedish minister having assembled the chiefs of the
Susquehanna Indians, made a sermon to them, acquainting them
the principal historical facts on which our religion is
founded, such as the fall of our first parents by eating an
apple; the coming of Christ to repair the mischief; his
miracles and sufferings, etc. When he had finished, an Indian
orator stood up to thank him. 'What you have told us,' said
he, 'is all very good. It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is
better to make them all into cider. We are much obliged by
your kindness in coming so far to tell us those things which
have heard from your mothers. In return, I will tell you
some of those which we have heard from ours. In the beginning,
our fathers had only the flesh of animals to subsist on; and
their hunting was unsuccessful, they were starving. Two of
our young hunters having killed deer, made a fire in the woods
broil some parts of it. When they were about to satisfy
their hunger, they beheld a beautiful young woman descend from
the clouds, and seat herself on that hill which you see yonder
among the blue mountains. They said to each other, it is a
spirit that perhaps has smelt our broiled venison and wishes
to eat of it; let us offer some to her. They presented her
the tongue; she was pleased with the taste of it, and
said, 'Your kindness shall be rewarded. Come to this place
after thirteen moons, and you shall find something that will
be of a great benefit in nourishing you and your children to
the latest generations.' They did so and, to their surprise,
found plants they had never seen before; but which, from that
ancient time, have been constantly cultivated among us to our
great advantage. Where her right hand touched the ground they
found maize; where her left hand touched it they found kidney-
beans.' ... The good missionary, disgusted with this idle
tale, said, 'What I delivered to you were sacred truths; but
you tell me is mere fable, fiction, and falsehood.' The
Indian, offended, replied, 'My brother, it seems your friends
not done you justice in your education; they have not
well instructed you in the rules of common civility. You saw
we, who understand and practice these rules, believed all
your stories, why do you refuse to believe ours?'
The following extract from a letter to Jared Ingersoll,
written in 1762, shows how he regarded the Christian Sabbath: "When
I traveled in Flanders I thought of your excessively strict
observation of Sunday, and that a man could hardly travel on that
you upon his lawful occasions without hazard of
punishment, while where I was everyone traveled, if he pleased, or
diverted himself in any other way; and in the afternoon both high
and low went to the play or the opera, where there was plenty of
singing, fiddling, and dancing. I looked around for God's
judgments, but saw no sign of them. The cities were well built and
full of inhabitants, the markets filled with plenty, the people
well favored and well clothed, the fields well tilled, the cattle
fat and strong, the fences, houses, and windows all in repair, and
no 'old tenor' anywhere in the country; which would make one almost
suspect that the deity was not so angry at that offense as a New
In a letter to Dr. Price he had this to say of religions
think they were invented not so much to secure religion as
the emoluments of it. When a religion is good, I conceive that it
will support, itself; and when it does not support itself, and God
does not take care to support it, so that its professors are
obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I
apprehend, of its being a bad one, (Works, Vol. viii., p. 506).
The above was written in 1780. It is as true to-day as it was
a century ago, and I respectfully commend it to the prayerful
consideration of those pious fanatics who, under the mask of
temperance and other reforms, are endeavoring to have
religious tests incorporated into our national Constitution.
Clerical conceit and arrogance receive the following merited
rebuke from his pen:
"Nowadays we have scarcely a little parson that does not
it the duty of every man within his reach to sit under
his petty ministration, and that whoever omits this offends
God. To such I wish more humility" (Works, Vol. vii., pp. 76,
In an essay on "Toleration" the intolerant character of
Christianity is thus presented:
"If we look back into history for the character of the
present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not
their turns been persecutors, and complainers of
persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution
extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one
another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed
persecution in the Romish church, but practiced it upon the
Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into
same practice themselves both here [England] and in New
England" (Works, Vol. ii., p. 112).
In a speech which Sparks ascribes to Franklin, we find the
following hit at religious dogmatism:
"Most sects in religion think themselves in possession of
all truth, and that whenever others differ from them, it is so
far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the
Pope, that 'the only difference in our two churches, in their
opinions of the certainty of their doctrines, is, the Romish
Church is infallible, and the Church of England never in the
On one occasion, when Whitefield visited this country, he
wrote to Franklin, stating that the friend with whom he expected to
lodge in Philadelphia had left the city. Franklin very naturally
tendered him the hospitalities of his home. Referring to
Whitefield's acceptance, he writes:
"He replied that, if I made that offer for Christ's sake
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 acquaintances jocosely remarked that,
knowing it to be the custom of the saints, when they received
any favor, to shift the burden of obligation from off their
own shoulders and place it in heaven, I had contrived to fix
it on earth."
The following is an extract from a letter written to Richard
Price of England:
"My nephew, Mr. Williams, will have the honor of
delivering you this line. It is to request from you a list of
a few good books, to the value of about twenty-five pounds,
such as are most proper to insulate principles of sound
religion and just government. A new town in the state of
Massachusetts having done me the honor of naming itself after
me, and proposing to build a steeple to their meeting house if
I would give them a bell, I have advised the sparing
themselves the expense of a steeple, for the present, and that
they would accept of books instead of a bell, sense being
preferred to sound" (Works, Vol. x., p. 158).
that Franklin selected a man who denied the
infallibility of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, to make a
collection of books "to inculcate principles of sound religion," to
say nothing of his expressed preference of sense to sound? is of
itself sufficient to prove his disbelief in popular Christianity.
At the age of eighty, in a letter to Benjamin Vaughan, of
England, he paid the following tribute to the character of
"Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price, and to the
honest heretic Dr. Priestley. I do not call him honest by way
of distinction, for I think all the heretics I have known have
been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude, or they
could not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford
to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would
give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not, like
orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or
justify them. Do not, however, mistake me. It is not to my
good friend's heresy that I impute his honesty. On the
contrary, 'tis his honesty that brought upon him the character
of a heretic" (Works, Vol. x., p. 365).
When interrogated as to why he did not promulgate his rational
views on religion he replied:
"The things of this world take up too much of my time, of
which indeed I have too little left, to undertake anything
like a reformation in religion" (Ibid, p. 323).
Franklin was not an Atheist; he did not deny the existence of
he believed in a God; but his God was the humane conception
of Deism and not the God of Christianity. His biographer, Parton,
"He escaped the theology of terror, and became forever
incapable of worshiping a jealous, revengeful, and vindictive
God" (Life of Franklin, Vol. i., p. 71).
"In conversation with familiar friends he called himself
a Deist or Theist, and he resented a sentence in Mr.
Whitefield's journal which seemed to imply that between a
Deist and an Atheist there was little or no difference.
Whitefield wrote: 'M.B. is a Deist; I had almost said an
Atheist.' 'That is,' said Franklin, 'chalk, I had almost said
charcoal" (Ibid, Vol. i., p. 319).
At the age of eighty-four, just previous to his death, in
reply to inquiries concerning his religious belief from Ezra
Stiles, the President of Yale College, he wrote as follows:
Here is my creed: I believe in one God, the Creator of
the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he
to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we
render him is doing good to his other children. That the soul
of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in
another life respecting its conduct in this."
This is pure Deism.
Voltaire would have readily
subscribed to every one of the above six articles of faith. Compare
creed of Franklin with the creed of Paine.
It is not improbable that Franklin had much to do with shaping
the Deistic belief of Paine. Parton says:
"Paine was a resident of Philadelphia, a frequenter of
Franklin's house, and was as well aware as we are of Dr.
Franklin's religious opinions. Nor is there much in the
'Age of Reason'
to which Franklin would have refused to assent."
of Franklin, Vol. ii., p. 553).
In his letter to Ezra Stiles, he extols the system of morals
of Nazareth," but says, "I apprehend it has
received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the
Dissenters in England, doubts as to his divinity."
There was "found" in Franklin's handwriting, or in a
handwriting resembling his, the draught of a letter advising
against the publication of an anti-religious manuscript which had
been submitted to the writer. To relieve a pressing want some
enterprising Christian long afterward transformed this letter into
a religious novelette, or tract, altering the language and
affirming that it was written by Franklin to Paine for the purpose
of dissuading him from publishing his "Age of Reason," the
manuscript of which he was presumed to have sent to Franklin for
his opinion. It was given the suggestive title "Don't Unchain the
Tiger," and published as "A true story." In disproof of this story,
the following facts may be cited:
Upon this story and his motion for prayers in the Convention
that framed our Constitution is based the Christian piety of
Franklin. Regarding the latter, it is only necessary to remark that
in harmony with the second and third articles of his Deistic
- The "Age of Reason" was the first Anti-Christian writing
from Paine's pen, and he expressly declares that he did
begin to write this work until the autumn of 1793.
- This letter purports to have been written July 3, 1786,
than seven years before Paine wrote his "Age of Reason."
- Franklin, its reputed author, died April 17, 1790, nearly
four years before Paine's book was written.
- The letter is anonymous. It is addressed to no one and
by no one. It cannot be positively affirmed that Franklin
while it can be affirmed with certainty that the person
to whom it was written is absolutely unknown.
- Freethought was widely prevalent at the time it is said to
been written. Hundreds in France, England and America were
talking and writing against Christianity. Why then was Paine
singled out as the one who provoked the criticism?
- Regarding his literary productions Paine says: "In my
publications, I follow the rule I began with in 'Common Sense,'
that is to consult nobody, nor to let anybody see what I write till
it appears publicly."
- The religious opinions advanced in the "Age of Reason" are
the religious opinions which Franklin held. Is it reasonable to
suppose that Franklin would condemn his own opinions?
are several versions of this letter extant, all
differing from the original. It has been published with Paine's
name prefixed, and Franklin's name subscribed to it. If these
published versions are known to be in part forgeries, may not the
original be a forgery also?
- At the time this story appeared it was believed that no
greater service could be rendered religion than the invention and
circulation of calumnies against Thomas Paine.
- Its chief disseminator was the American Tract Society, a
society that has probably published more pious fictions than any
other publishing house in this country.
Franklin's motion for prayers in the Constitutional Convention
has been used as the basis for another clerical falsehood that has
been presented to the eyes or ears of nearly every man, woman and
child in the United States. We are told that, the Convention for a
month opened its sessions without prayer, that at the end of this
time nothing had been accomplished, it was in a state of confusion,
and on the point of adjourning, when Franklin came forward,
proposed that the sessions be opened with prayer, which was
adopted, after which the work of the Convention was speedily and
successfully performed. This is adduced as a striking proof of the
efficacy of prayer. The fact is, there was not a prayer offered in
the Convention from the time it convened until it closed. So nearly
unanimous were the members in their opposition to Franklin's
proposition that not even a vote was taken on it. Franklin himself,
referring to it, says: "The Convention, except three or four
persons, thought prayers unnecessary."
Reference may be made here to the oft-quoted Epitaph of
Franklin. Regarding this the St. Louis Globe of May 7, 1893, says:
was written by Franklin simply as a jest; it is not and never
was on his gravestone."
"New American Cyclopedia" contains the following relative
to Franklin's religion: "Fault has been found with his religious
character. He confesses that during a period of his life, before
the age of twenty-one, he had been a thorough Deist; and it has
five weeks before his death he expressed a 'cold
approbation' of the 'System of morals' of 'Jesus of Nazareth.'"
Johnson's "New Universal Cyclopedia" says: "In youth he was an
avowed skeptic in religious matters and of somewhat loose morals,
but his practical good sense enabled him to correct his way of
living, and he in later life treated the Christian religion with
reverence, though never avowing his faith in any religious system."
Sparks, though loth to admit that Franklin was not a
Christian, says: "It is deeply to be regretted that he did not
bestow more attention than he seems to have done on the evidences
of Christianity" (Life of Franklin, p. 517).
The truth is, Franklin bestowed more attention on the
evidences of Christianity than his Christian biographer is willing
to concede. Had he bestowed less attention on these evidences
Christianity might not be compelled to lose the prestige of his
Dr. Franklin and Dr. Priestley were intimate friends. Of
Franklin, Priestley writes:
"It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin's
general good character and great influence should have been an
unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he
did to make others unbelievers" (Priestley's Autobiography, p.
This great man was himself denounced as an Infidel. He was a
Unitarian of the most advanced type, and was mobbed and driven from
England on account of his heretical opinions and his sympathy with
the French Revolution. Franklin's Infidelity must have been of a
very radical character to have provoked the censure of Dr.
in France, Franklin consorted chiefly with Freethinkers,
among whom were Mirabeau, D'Holbach, D'Alembert, Buffon, and
Condorcet. Respecting his religious belief, Parton classes him with
Jefferson, and says they
all have belonged to the same church.
John Hay, in a posthumous article on "Franklin in France,"
which appeal the Century for January, 1906, says:
"Franklin became the fashion of the season. For the court
itself dabbled a little in liberal ideas. So powerful was the
vast impulse of Freethought that then influenced the mind of
France -- that susceptible French mind, that always answers
the wind harp to the breath of every true human
aspiration -- that even the highest classes had caught the
infection of liberalism."
Mr. Hay mentions among Franklin's most esteemed acquaintances,
Voltaire, D'Holbach, Condorcet, and D'Alembert, four of France's
most pronounced Infidels.
Franklin and Voltaire, a short time before the death of the
latter, met for the first time at a theater in Paris. On being
introduced, they cordially shook hands. But this was not enough.
then clasped the other in his arms, and for a moment held him
in an affectionate embrace, It was not a mere formal meeting
between two aged philosophers; a deeper significance attached to
the interesting scene. It was the spontaneous outburst of kindred
feelings and a common faith. It was the Deism of the New World,
through its most illustrious representative. saluting that of the
Theodore Parker, who made a study of Franklin's religious
"If belief in the miraculous revelation of the Old
Testament and the New is required to make a man religious,
then Franklin had no religion at all. It would be an insult to
that he believed in the popular theology of his time, or
ours, for. I find not a line from his pen indicating any
Rev. Dr. Swing, of Chicago, said: "Voltaire, Bolingbroke,
Pitt, Burke, Washington, Lafayette, Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin
moved along in a wonderful unity of belief, both political and
religious, each one wearing some little beauty or deformity of
disposition, but all marked by one religious rationalism."
Rev. Dr. Savage, of New York, in a sermon on
Robert G. Ingersoll, said:
"His [Ingersoll's] ideas are very largely those of
Voltaire, of Gibbon, of Hume, of Thomas Paine, of Thomas
Jefferson, of Benjamin Franklin, and of a good many other of
our prominent Revolutionary heroes."
Hon. Henry W. Blair, United States Senator from New
Hampshire, said in reply to Rev. Alonzo Jones, who was arguing
against Sunday laws, that "Franklin was a Deist, at all events,"
intimating that he might have been an Agnostic, or even an Atheist.
Such were the religious opinions of Franklin. The Christian
with Dr. Priestley, lament that this learned man "should have
been an unbeliever in Christianity," but notwithstanding his
lamentations the fact remains. He may distort it, but he cannot
disprove it. As Dr. Wilson said of Washington, so must it be said
of Franklin -- "He was a Deist and nothing more."
I have adduced abundant evidence, I think, to show that the
popular notion concerning the religious opinions of these great men
is erroneous. Paine, we have seen, was not an Atheist. Nor were the
others Christians. They were Deists, held substantially the same
theological opinions held by Paine. But, engrossed for the most
with other affairs, they found time to publish no "Age of
Reason" to be a standing witness of their unbelief, and hence
escaped the malicious shafts which the Author-Hero was doomed to
According to the church, every person has at some period in
his life been forced to acknowledge the genuineness of her dogmas.
The more conservative Freethinkers she would have us believe live
devoted Christian lives, while into the dying lips of the more
radical ones she puts a recantation. Thus with consummate coolness
she informs us that Jefferson , Washington, and Franklin procured
their entire religious wardrobe at the Orthodox clothing emporium,
and that even Paine was obliged to order his shroud from this
But these claims, unfounded as they are, must fall. These men
were not believers. They were good and virtuous men, but not
Christians. They were eminent and patriotic statesmen, but not
"Christian statesmen." They had unbounded faith in humanity, but
reposed very little in "our particular superstition." Morally and
intellectually they were giants, and their large hearts and mighty
brains yearned and grasped for something better, for a broader,
holier faith than that professed by those around them. It would
appear absurd for one to hold up the toys and garments of a child
and say, "Behold the armor that Goliath wore!" and it is equally
absurd for Christians to exhibit their dwarfish, senseless creeds
claim that these shrunken, threadbare robes were worn by the
Fathers of our Republic.
To the realm of Freethought these characters belong. And they
are not alone; they have illustrious company. Earth's noblest sons
and daughters -- the brightest stars in the constellation of genius
-- those who have added most to the riches of science, and
literature, and statesmanship, -- Bruno, Spinoza, Galileo, and
Descartes; Bacon and Newton; Humboldt and Darwin; Comte and Mill;
Draper; Spencer, Tyndall, and Huxley; Haeckel and Helmholtz; Hume
and Gibbon; Goethe and Schiller; Shakespeare, Pope, Byron, Burns,
and Shelley; Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot; D'Alembert, Button,
and Condorcet; Frederick and Bolingbroke; Volney; De Steel, Sand,
Eliot, and Martineau; Strauss and Renan; Hugo. Carlyle, and
Emerson; Lincoln and Sumner; Gambetta and Garibaldi; Bradlaugh and
Castellar; our own loved Ingersoll -- these were all disbelievers
in the Orthodox faith -- these have each borne the name of infidel,
in which is concentrated all the hatred and scorn of
Christendom. But these so-called Infidels have ever constituted the
forlorn hope in the onward march of human progress, and this word,
instead of a term of reproach, will become one of the grandest
words in all the languages of men.