Benjamin Franklin The religious life of a founding father

Thomas S. Kidd

Book - 2017

"Renowned as a printer, scientist, and diplomat, Benjamin Franklin also published more works on religious topics than any other eighteenth-century American layperson. Born to Boston Puritans, by his teenage years Franklin had abandoned the exclusive Christian faith of his family and embraced deism. But Franklin, as a man of faith, was far more complex than the "thorough" deist who emerges in his autobiography. As Thomas Kidd reveals, deist writers influenced Franklin's beliefs, to be sure, but devout Christians in his life--including George Whitefield, the era's greatest evangelical preacher; his parents; and his beloved sister Jane--kept him tethered to the Calvinist creed of his Puritan upbringing. Based on research into Franklin's voluminous correspondence, essays, and almanacs, this fresh assessment of a well-known figure unpacks the contradictions and conundrums faith presented in Franklin's life." -- Publisher's description

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New Haven : Yale University Press [2017]
Main Author
Thomas S. Kidd (author)
Physical Description
278 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 237-267) and index.
  • Introduction
  • 1. Child of the Puritans
  • 2. Exodus to Philadelphia, Sojourn in London
  • 3. Philadelphia Printer
  • 4. Poor Richard
  • 5. Ben Franklin's Closest Evangelical Friend
  • 6. Electrical Man
  • 7. Tribune of the People
  • 8. Diplomat
  • 9. The Pillar of Fire
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Though Benjamin Franklin described himself as a "thorough deist," historian Kidd (Baylor) points out that even to Franklin, deism at different times meant many different things. As such, Kidd's exploration of Franklin's religious life is a needed addition to scholarship on the founding generation. Having already published the excellent biography George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father (CH, Mar'15, 52-3610), Kidd is particularly well positioned to document Franklin's influential friendship with this essential evangelist and publishing marvel. Kidd's skill is not limited to this one relationship, however, as he deftly portrays many of Franklin's associations, ranging from family members and mistresses to servants, friends, and colleagues. Through each, the author proves Franklin to be, not surprisingly, a complicated spiritual man. Kidd makes a simple or static understanding of Franklin's philosophy, spiritual or otherwise, untenable. The book's chronological prose has a meandering style within chapters, but an effective one. Kidd's research and fairness prove invaluable in providing a nuanced grasp of an essential founding father who, while "well-known," is too often misunderstood. Readers seeking to truly understand Franklin, and particularly his religious commitments and beliefs, should certainly seek out Kidd's work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. --Jason R. Edwards, Grove City College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Debating the Founding Fathers' faith is a sturdy American indoor sport. So a biography of the most celebrated Founder oriented around his religious opinions should fly off library shelves. And Kidd proffers a very fine book about America's first international celebrity. Drawing on Franklin's many pamphlets and newspaper essays on religion, his correspondence with his most religious close friends his sister Jane Mecom and the spearhead of the Great Awakening, evangelist George Whitefield and the remarks of other acquaintances, Kidd argues that Franklin was, from very early on, a deist who believed in benevolent divine Providence. He disliked doctrine, especially the Calvinist predestination in which he was raised, preferring the Christian morality of good works. Having first read the Bible in toto by age five, he had its words at the tip of his tongue; his writing and speech teem with biblical citation and allusion. When he disputed with doctrinaire Christians, he used reason, never deprecation. Of humble heritage, he avoided mounting his high horse. He pioneered a distinctly American kind of religion, Kidd says, a doctrineless, moralized Christianity, in which virtually all beliefs became nonessential and God calls all to do good. Consider this lucid, economical, nonacademic work of scholarship a new cornerstone of Franklin studies.--Olson, Ray Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review

If the relationship of the Founding Fathers to religion were to be put in Facebook terms, it would be: "It's complicated." This is even truer of Benjamin Franklin's relationship to Christianity. Kidd (history, Baylor Univ.; coauthor, Baptists in America), an evangelical historian trained at the University of Notre Dame, has carefully culled Franklin's (1706-90) works in an attempt to understand his faith. In the end, Kidd finds Franklin's spirituality to be enigmatic. Raised Calvinist, he was close to a number of religious figures over the years and disputed with many more. His was an ethical, rather than dogmatic Christian; he greatly admired the moral teachings of Jesus, but was unsure about his divinity. Kidd presents a man who seriously investigates the claims of his religion and, as a result, offers a fuller portrait of the Founding Fathers, who are too often seen simply as deists. -VERDICT Kidd's smoothly written work examines Franklin's religion without losing the objectivity of the historian, adding an important element to the general study found in Walter -Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An -American Life.-Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

What did Benjamin Franklin really think of God?Kidd (History and Religious Studies/Baylor Univ.; American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths, 2016, etc.) admirably plies the writings of Franklin to discover the Founding Father's evolving views on the divine throughout the course of his long life. Such a book matters because of Franklin's ties to the Enlightenment, his effect on nearly all literate Americans of the mid- to late-18th century, and his life's undeniable imprint on American politics and society. As the author argues, "Franklinwas a pioneer ofdoctrineless, moralized Christianity," This form of the faith was divorced from orthodoxy, steeped in reason, and geared toward the good conduct of moral citizens. Kidd begins his examination with Franklin's childhood; he was raised in a Calvinist/Puritan tradition in which Scripture was at the center of all learning. Franklin's command of the Bible cannot be underestimated, writes the author, and this knowledge came into play not only in his thinking, but also in his writing. As a young adult, Franklin rejected Calvinism and jumped wholeheartedly into the ideas of deism. This period gave rise to some of his most heterodox and eyebrow-raising writings on religion. However, as Franklin aged, his views mellowed. Through exposure to various Christian sects, a lengthy friendship with famed evangelist George Whitefield, and his own leadership role in society, Franklin went on to espouse a skeptical and yet heartfelt form of Christianity focused on good works as the embodiments of one's faith. By the end of his life, it seems certain he believed in an afterlife and in a certain level of providential activity in human affairs. Kidd opens and closes with the image of Franklin calling upon the 1787 Constitutional Convention to open in prayer, asking for God's direction. Unusual for a deist, to say the least. A highly accessible study of an enigmatic yet influential faith life. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.