TO EZRA STILES
(p. 224)

     ...You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I cannot take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe.That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to beworshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to 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. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever Sect I meet with them.
     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 dogmatize 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. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence, as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Unbelievers in his Government of the World with any peculiar Marks of his Displeasure....


These are Franklinís thoughts on religion.  He wrote them to Ezra Stiles, who had written asking his opinions on a number of subjects.  Franklin was at this time in his last days awaiting death.

One of the things we skipped in the Autobiography was his going to church. He went to the Presbyterian Church for a while but he quit. He stopped going because the minister preached Presbyterianism instead of morality. Franklin would listen to the sermons but he thought they were not improving him. He was not becoming a better person. "You desire to know something of my religion. It is the first time I have been question upon it." This is a different world than what we were just looking at. Edwards is preaching "Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God," but nobodyís bothered to ask Ben what he thinks.

"Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence." So far, so good. Edwards would agree with this. "That He ought to be worshipped." Again Edwards would say yes. "That the most acceptable service we render to Him is doing good to His other children." For Edwards it was flocking forward and fleeing the wrath to come. Doing good to others mattered nothing. Itís one of those things which you do to try to keep out of Hell but doesnít really help. "The soul of the man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this." Similar idea of judgment, but notice the tone and the overall difference. Not that God is ready to cast you into Hell, but that God is just and He will look over you life until you die and decide what to do with you then. So there is an opportunity for goodness as well isnít there.

"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." So yes, Jesus was good. "I have with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is question I do not dogmatize upon." So maybe Jesus is the Son of God, maybe not. "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". He is talking about that he will die and find out soon enough. "I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed". So if believing Jesus is the Son of God will make you a better person because you take his commands to love more seriously, then that is fine, he has no objections if it is a useful belief. This is different from the Puritans because they would say believe it because it is true whether it makes you better or not. Franklin says if it is useful in making you a better person, then go ahead and believe it. If something else makes you a better person, then believe that. Whatís important is that you are a better person.

"I have no doubt of its continuance in the next, though without the smallest conceit of meriting such goodness". This is a little echo of total depravity. "My sentiments on this head you will see in the copy of an old letter enclosed, which I wrote in answer to one from a zealous religionist". This is how he would see Jonathan Edwards, a zealous religionist. "Whom I had relieved in a paralytic case by electricity, and who, being afraid I should grow proud upon it, send me his serious though rather impertinent caution". Franklin is saying just because you have cured me with this electricity stuff, donít think you are God.



 

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Edited by Group 1, English 303-02 Winter Quarter 1998