HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
26 June, 2013
From Boyhood to Manhood
XVII. The Young Skeptic
by Thayer, William M.

"What book have you there, Ben?" inquired John Collins, some time before the newspaper enterprise was started.

"Lord Shaftesbury's work. I have been looking into it for some time; and Anthony Collins' work, too," answered Benjamin. "I suppose that my father would say they are not quite Orthodox; but they are very interesting, and I think their views are reasonable."

"I have been questioning your Orthodoxy for some time, Ben, but I thought you would come out all right in the end, and so I have said nothing. I do not know about your coming out right if you become a disciple of Shaftesbury." John made this reply more in jest than in earnest, for he cared little whether Benjamin was a skeptic or not. Perhaps he was skeptical himself at that time; some things indicate as much.

"I think it is rather difficult to tell how I shall come out, John; but I do not propose to believe any thing in religion, science, or any thing else, just because my father does," responded Benjamin. "I know that I have accepted some religious dogmas because I was taught them, and for no other reason."

"Then you do not now believe all that you have been taught about religion, if I understand you?"

"No, I am free to say that I do not. There is neither reason nor wisdom in portions of the creed of the Church."

"Why, Ben, you surprise me. You are getting to be quite an infidel for a boy. It won't do for you to read Shaftesbury and Collins any more, if you are so easily upset by them. I do not know any thing about them, only from what I hear. I never read a paragraph of either."

"One thing is sure," continued Benjamin. "I mean to be classed among the few people who think for themselves. It is a small company I shall be found in, but it is an independent one. Most people are religious because they are so instructed. They embrace the religion of their fathers and mothers, without asking what is true or false. I will not be of that class. I will not be Orthodox or Heterodox because my ancestors were."

"There is not much danger that you will do that, Ben. Present appearances rather indicate that the religious opinions of your father will be blown sky-high." John did not mean quite as much as his language in this reply denoted.

"You do not understand me. I respect my parents and their religious opinions, though I doubt some of the doctrines they have taught me. I never examined them until I began to read Shaftesbury and Collins, but accepted them as correct because my father and grandfather believed them. I shall do that no more, that is all I meant."

"Well, I can not say that you are wrong, Ben. If you make half as good a man as your father is, by believing half the truths he believes and advocates, you will stand pretty well in the world. I expect that we ought to avoid religious cant, bigotry, and intolerance."

"I expect so, too; and there is much of all three existing to-day," Benjamin answered. "A bigot may be a well-meaning man, but so much the worse for him. There is so much bigotry in Boston to-day, that the minister of each denomination thinks his denomination has all the truth and all the religion there is. I think that idea is a falsehood, to begin with."

"I shall agree with you there, Ben. I have no question that a man may be a Christian without believing half that most denominations profess to believe. And I suppose that the main thing is to be Christians, and not theologians."

"You are drifting to my side as fast as is necessary," remarked Benjamin, laughing. "You will come clear over in due time. I am sure you will, if you read Shaftesbury."

"Well, I must drift home in a hurry," responded John. "Whether I shall drift to you, the future will reveal. You are now in too deep water for me. I should drown if I got in where you are."

John left, and Benjamin went on thinking, as he was wont. He put more thinking into every twenty-four hours than any three boys together in Boston. At this time he was quite a doubter,--really a young skeptic. In the printing office he drifted in that direction faster and faster. He was a kind of speculator from childhood. He loved to argue. He enjoyed being on the opposite side, to indulge his propensity to argue. After he learned the Socratic method of reasoning, he was more inclined to discuss religion with different parties. Perhaps he did it to practise the method, rather than to show his aversion to religion. But, judging from what followed, in the next three or four years, he grew decidedly unbelieving. We can discover his lack of reverence for the Christian religion, and want of confidence in it, in articles he wrote for the Courant. Nothing very marked, it is true, but some of his articles lean in that direction.

Besides, Benjamin was one of those talented, independent boys, who think it is manly to break away from ancestral creeds. When he was eleven years old he was assisting his father to pack a barrel of pork for winter use. When the work was done he said to his father:

"Father, it would save time if you would say grace over the whole barrel now, instead of saying it over a piece at a time."

Whether his father flogged him for such irreverence, we are not told; nevertheless, the fact is suggestive of an element in the boy's make-up to which the ingenious skeptic may appeal with success. Possibly it was only the native humor of the boy, which, with his love of fun, cropped out on that occasion. It was irreverence, however, whatever may have been his motive.

Many were the conversations that Benjamin had with his friend, John Collins, upon religion, after becoming thoroughly poisoned by reading Shaftesbury and Collins.

"By the way, John, I should like to read to you what your namesake says on the subject. Perhaps you descended straight from this illustrious infidel."

"Perhaps so; but I shall not spend time in tracing my pedigree," John replied. "I never dared to trace my ancestors far back, for fear I should run into some disreputable family."

"It is probably an accident that you are a Collins, so that we can't lay it up against you, John; but I should really like to read two or three paragraphs from Collins' work, that you may judge of him."

"Go ahead, and I will give you respectful attention. If it is above my capacity to understand, I will not hold you responsible."

Benjamin proceeded to read from Collins' work as follows:
"Opinions, how erroneous soever, when the Effect of an impartial Examination, will never hurt Men in the sight of God, but will recommend Men to his Favour. For impartial Examination in the Matter of Opinion is the best that a Man can do towards obtaining Truth, and God, who is a wise, good, and just Being, can require no more of Men than to do their best, and will reward them when they do their best; and he would be the most unjust Being imaginable, if he punished Men, who had done their best endeavor to please him. Besides, if men were to be punished by God for mistaken Opinions, all men must be damned; for all Men abound in mistaken Opinions."

"While Rome was in the Height of its glory for Arms, Learning, and Politeness, there were six hundred different Religions professed and allowed therein. And this groat Variety does not appear to have had the least Effect on the Peace of the State, or on the Temper of Men; but, on the contrary, a very good Effect, for there is an entire Silence of History, about the Actions of those ancient Professors, who, it seems, lived so quietly together as to furnish no Materials for an Ecclesiastical History, such as Christians have given an Occasion for, which a Reverend Divine thus describes: 'Ecclesiastical History' says he, 'is chiefly spent in reciting the wild Opinions of Hereticks (that is, in belying Hereticks); the Contentions between Emperors and Popes; the idle and superstitious Canons, and ridiculous Decrees and Constitutions of packed Councils; their Debates about frivolous Matters, and playing the Fool with Religion; the Consultations of Synods about augmenting the Revenues of the Clergy, and establishing their Pride and Grandure; the impostures of Monks and Fryars; the Schisms and Factions of the Church; the Tyranny, Cruelty, and Impiety of the Clergy; insomuch that the excellent Grotius says, 'He that reads Ecclesiastical history reads nothing but the Roguery and Folly of Bishops and Churchmen.'"

"Matthew says, Jesus came and dwelt at Nazareth that it might be fulfilled, which was spoken by the Prophet saying, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.' Which Citation does not expressly occur in any Place of the Old Testament, and therefore cannot be literally fulfilled."

"In fine, the Prophecies, cited from the Old Testament by the Authors of the New, do plainly relate, in their obvious and primary Sense, to other Matters than those which they are produced to prove."
"Well," said John, interrupting, "I think that will do for my namesake. There is nothing very wonderful to me about that. True enough, I guess, but nothing remarkable. But how about Shaftesbury? What has he written?"

"He disproves the miracles of the New Testament. His 'Inquiry Concerning Virtue' and his 'Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour' are interesting as novels to me."

"I prefer the novels," interrupted John.

"Perhaps you do; but Shaftesbury is one of the most ingenious and pleasant writers known. He does not discard religion; he assails spurious religion only."

"And spurious religion is all religion that he do not believe in, I suppose," suggested John, "come from above or below? When a man does not believe the Bible he tries to show it up; and so when a man do not believe any religion but his own, he tries to explode all others."

"Read Shaftesbury, and judge for yourself," added Benjamin. "You will fall in love with him, as I have. He is one of the most graceful and fascinating writers I know of."

"Perhaps I will read him sometime," replied John. "I must go now; and when I am ready for it I will call for the book."

We have not time to follow the companionship of these two youth. It was intimate, and Benjamin succeeded in making a Shaftesbury disciple of John, so that one was about as much of an unbeliever as the other. In his "Autobiography," Benjamin confesses that he "was made a doubter by reading Shaftesbury and Collins," although he began to dissent from his father, as we have already seen, in his boyhood, when he read the religious tracts of Boyle.

We know that Benjamin was charged with being an atheist by his brother. True, it was when his brother was angry because he left him; still, he would not have been likely to make such a statement to others without some foundation for it. Franklin himself gives one reason for his leaving Boston (in his "Autobiography"): "My indiscreet disputations about religion began to make me pointed at with horror by good people as an infidel and atheist."

Another admission in his "Autobiography" reflects upon this subject:
"The time I allotted for writing exercises and for reading, was at night, or before work began in the morning, or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the printing house, avoiding as much as I could the constant attendance upon public worship, which my father used to exact of me when I was under his care, and which I still continued to consider a duty, though I could not afford time to practise it."
There is an intimate connection between loose religious views and the non-observance of the Sabbath. Skeptics are not friendly to the Sabbath as a class. It is an institution they inveigh against with much spirit. No doubt the change going on in Benjamin's opinions had much to do with his ceasing to attend public worship.

Fifteen years afterwards, when Benjamin was fully established in business in Philadelphia, his parents became very anxious about his skeptical ideas, and wrote to him about it. Their letter is not preserved, but we have his in reply, which, while it confirms the fact, shows him to be more reverent and thoughtful than they feared. It is, also, evidence of a filial regard for his father and mother that is always as beautiful as it is honorable. We furnish the letter below:
"PHILADELPHIA, April 13, 1738.

"Honored Father,--I have your favors of the 21st of March, in which you both seem concerned lest I have imbibed some erroneous opinions. Doubtless I have my share, and when the natural weakness and imperfection of human understanding is considered, the unavoidable influence of education, custom, books, and company, upon our ways of thinking, I imagine a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes, and a good deal of boldness who affirms, that all the doctrines he holds are true, and all he rejects are false. And, perhaps, the same may be justly said of every sect, church, and society of men, when they assume to themselves that infallibility which they deny to the pope and councils.

"I think opinions should be judged of by their influences and effects; and if man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded he holds none that are dangerous,--which, I hope, is the case with me.

"I am sorry you should have any uneasiness on my account, and, if it were a thing possible for one to alter his opinions in order to please another's, I know none whom I ought more willingly to oblige in that respect than yourselves. But, since it is no more in a man's power to think than to look like another, methinks all that should be expected from me is to keep my mind open to conviction; to hear patiently, and examine attentively, whatever is offered me for that end; and, if after all I continue in the same errors, I believe your usual charity will induce you rather to pity and excuse than blame me; in the mean time your care and concern for me is what I am very thankful for.

"My mother grieves that one of her sons is an Arian, another an Arminian; what an Arminian or an Arian is, I can not say that I very well know. The truth is, I make such distinctions very little my study. I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue; and the Scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined what we thought, but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said, Lord! Lord! but that we did good to our fellow-creatures. See Matt. xx.

"As to the free masons, I know no way of giving my mother a better account of them than she seems to have at present (since it is not allowed that women should be admitted into that secret society). She has, I must confess, on that account, some reason to be displeased with it; but, for any thing else, I must entreat her to suspend her judgment till she is better informed, unless she will believe me when I assure her that they are in general a very harmless sort of people, and have no principles or practices that are inconsistent with religion and good manners.

His sister also, later on, in her great anxiety for his spiritual welfare, wrote to him, and he replied as follows:
"PHILADELPHIA, July 28, 1743.

"Dearest Sister Jenny,--I took your admonition very kindly, and was far from being offended at you for it. If I say any thing about it to you, 't is only to rectify some wrong opinions you seem to have entertained of me; and this I do only because they give you some uneasiness, which I am unwilling to be the occasion of. You express yourself as if you thought I was against worshipping of God, and doubt that good works would merit heaven; which are both fancies of your own, I think, without foundation. I am so far from thinking that God is not to be worshipped, that I have composed and wrote a whole book of devotions for my own use; and I imagine there are few if any in the world so weak as to imagine that the little good we can do here can merit so vast a reward hereafter.

"There are some things in your New England doctrine and worship which I do not agree with; but I do not therefore condemn them, or desire to shake your belief or practice of them. We may dislike things that are nevertheless right in themselves; I would only have you make me the same allowance, and have a better opinion both of morality and your brother. Read the pages of Mr. Edwards' late book, entitled, 'Some Thoughts concerning the present Revival of Religion in New England,' from 367 to 375, and, when you judge of others, if you can perceive the fruit to be good, do not terrify yourself that the tree may be evil; be assured it is not so, for you know who has said, 'Men do not gather grapes off thorns, and figs off thistles.'

"I have not time to add, but that I shall always be your affectionate brother,


"P.S. It was not kind in you, when your sister commended good works, to suppose she intended it a reproach to you. 'T was very far from her thoughts."
The sequel will show much more concerning the skepticism of Franklin; and that the time came when he saw the folly of such unbelief, and gave his adherence to the Christian religion. At the same time, he learned from experience the danger of reading infidel publications, and warned the young against following his example. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that, as early as 1728, when he was but twenty-two years of age, he was not so much of an infidel as some of his friends supposed; for then he prepared a code of morals and belief for his own use, entitled "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion." In this document he avows his belief in "One Supreme, most perfect Being," and prays to "be preserved from atheism, impiety, and profaneness." Under the head of "Thanks" occur the following:

"For peace and liberty, for food and raiment, for corn, and wine, and milk, and every kind of healthful nourishment,--Good God, I thank Thee!

"For the common benefits of air and light, for useful fire and delicious water,--Good God, I thank Thee!

"For knowledge, and literature, and every useful art, for my friends and their prosperity, and for the fewness of my enemies,--Good God, I thank Thee!

"For all my innumerable benefits, for life, and reason, and the use of speech; for health, and joy, and every pleasant hour,--Good God, I thank Thee!"

It is true, there is not much religion in these things; and though they may have been adopted to satisfy the demands of conscience only, they prove that he was not an atheist, as many supposed.

Benjamin's experience with skeptical and infidel books recalls the experience of two young men, when about the same age, with publications of kindred character, which came very near depriving the United States of two good Presidents.

Before Abraham Lincoln began the study of law, he was connected with a clique or club of young men, who made light of religion, and read books that treated it as a delusion. It was at this time that he read Paine's "Age of Reason" and Volney's "Ruins," through which he was influenced to array himself against the Bible for a time,--as much of a skeptic, almost, as any one of his boon companions. But his early religious training soon asserted itself, and we hear no more of hostility to religion as long as he lived. On the other hand, when he was elected President, he spoke as follows to his friends and neighbors, who had assembled at the station to bid him adieu on leaving for Washington, on the eve of the late bloody Civil war:
"My Friends: No one not in my position can appreciate the sadness I feel at this parting. To this people I owe all that I am. Here I have lived more than a quarter of a century. Here my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. I know not how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves on me, which is greater, perhaps, than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I can not succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support; and I hope you, my friends, will pray that I may receive that Divine assistance, without which I can not succeed, but with which success is certain. Again I bid you all an affectionate farewell."
When James A. Garfield became a member of the "Black Salter's" family, he found "Marryatt's Novels," "Sinbad the Sailor," "The Pirates' Own Book," "Jack Halyard," "Lives of Eminent Criminals," "The Buccaneers of the Caribbean Seas"; and being a great reader, he sat up nights to read these works. Their effect upon him was to weaken the ties of home and filial affection, diminish his regard for religious things, and create within him an intense desire for a seafaring life. Nothing but a long and painful sickness, together with the wise counsels of his mother and a popular teacher, saved him from a wild and reckless life upon the sea, by leading him to Christ and a nobler life, in consequence of which his public career was one of honor, and closed in the highest office of the land.

Neither Lincoln nor Garfield would have been President of the United States if the spell, with which the influence of corrupt books bound them for the time, had not been broken by juster views of real life and nobler aims.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works