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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
"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
"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
"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
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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
"PHILADELPHIA, April 13, 1738.
His sister also, later on, in her great anxiety for his spiritual
welfare, wrote to him, and he replied as follows:
"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.
"PHILADELPHIA, July 28, 1743.
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:
"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
"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."
"For peace and liberty, for food and raiment, for corn, and wine, and
milk, and every kind of healthful nourishment,--Good God, I thank
"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
"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
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.