Benjamin Franklin’s American Religion: A Conversation with Historian Thomas Kidd

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Thomas Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, where he also serves as associate director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He writes regularly for the blog “Evangelical History” hosted at the Gospel Coalition website. He also frequently contributes to news outlets such as World Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Dr. Kidd has authored many books including, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, and George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. His most recent book, this time from Yale University Press, is Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father.

Professor Thomas Kidd, welcome to Thinking in Public.

MOHLER: Professor Kidd, your book on Benjamin Franklin’s religious life really addresses a dimension of Franklin that no one’s written about and perhaps even really thought about for some time. How did you come to Benjamin Franklin’s religious life for such a major project?

KIDD: Well, as you know, I published a biography of George Whitefield in 2014, and that led me into the discussion of Whitefield and Franklin’s relationship, which started as a business partnership in the 1740s but turned into a close and enduring friendship that lasted for 30 years. And Franklin really admired Whitefield in spite of the fact that Franklin clearly—as he wonderfully describes in his autobiography—did not share all of Whitefield’s faith and would go to Whitefield’s revival meetings and, you know, listen with the rest of the crowd and try his best not to be swayed by Whitefield’s gospel overtures. And so it’s a mystery about Franklin’s faith or religious views and why he has these very significant relationships, not only with Whitefield, but with other evangelicals in the 18th century, including his sister Jane Mecom. And yet Franklin is a skeptic and through the end of his life maintains skepticism about some key points of Christianity, including the divinity of Christ. And so, knowing about that relationship more from Whitefield’s perspective made me interested in investigating the whole story of Franklin’s own religion, and then that led me to realize—and I didn’t know this going into the project—that Franklin wrote an enormous amount on religion. We think that he probably published as an author more on religious topics than any other layperson in the 18th century. So I went into the project thinking that it might be a bit of a stretch to do the project and instead it turned into a flood of primary evidence for me to sort through to understand what Franklin is thinking about religion.

MOHLER: Now I want to ask you the easiest question in order to get to some things I want to really ask you and press you about, but why in the world should anyone in the year 2017 care at all what Benjamin Franklin thought about in terms of religion or held as religious beliefs?

KIDD: Well for one thing, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation, our religious origins or secular origins, is one of the most hotly debated historical questions in America and American politics today. So any time we can take on the question of one of the major founders’ faith, I think it has immediate political-cultural resonance. I think that Franklin in particular presents a fascinating conundrum, because he on one hand is outspoken about his skepticism. I mean, he says in the autobiography that he’s a deist, so I mean we can take him at his word that he’s some sort of deist. But then as you go through the body of his writings, his letters, and publications, the Bible and religious concepts, theological concepts, is omnipresent in his work. And so whereas today we tend to want to say, you know, it’s either an evangelical founding where all the founding fathers are traditional believers, or it’s an entirely secular founding in which they’re all skeptical deists and almost atheists. Franklin is a perfect example of why that dichotomy is a false one.

MOHLER: Yes, and always has been, and you know, the other thing I think, Americans often think about when someone is raised like Benjamin Franklin, is they think the Revolution and they think of history from the Revolution forward. I think one of the most interesting aspects of Benjamin Franklin is that he was a world famous man, certainly in the English speaking world, long before the Revolution was conceived, more or less, even before such thoughts seem to have emerged into public life. This was a very famous man, and in that sense an exemplar in many ways of the Enlightenment. So talk about that a bit.

KIDD: That’s right. He is the oldest among the major revolutionaries, quite a bit older than some of the others like Madison and so forth. And he lives an enormously long life. He lives into his 80s when in the 19th century, that’s just very unusual to live that long for anyone. And so he sees a lot of changes. I mean, he grows up in a traditional Puritan family in Boston and then sees the growing diversity and public role of skepticism about traditional faith emerge. And then on a parallel track, he sees the enormous upswell of the Great Awakening in the late 1730s and 1740s and the coming of George Whitefield and the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and he’s able to observe and participate in all those trends. Now the question of the Enlightenment is just a hugely fraught topic of debate among historians about Was there an Enlightenment? What was the Enlightenment? Did Christians participate in the Enlightenment? And so forth. But I think that at least we can say that the public role of skepticism about traditional faith was more pronounced by, say, 1800 than it was in 1700, and there’s a trend towards more naturalistic understandings of various phenomenon whether, you know, a comet appears in the sky and do you intuitively say, “Well, this is a sign from God,” or “This is a meteorological phenomenon, an astronomical phenomenon.” What is your gut reaction towards those kinds of events? And Franklin is undoubtedly leading the charge in many ways towards a more naturalistic view of the world in which we inhabit. And yet Franklin almost reflexively is speaking about all these political and scientific developments that he participates in, in biblical, biblicist sorts of ways. And so it’s striking that it’s Franklin and Jefferson and Adams who are originally proposing that the National Seal of the United States be a scene from Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea. I mean, you know, we ended up with a much more, you know, not Christian kind of National Seal with e pluribus unum, but that just comes reflexively to these men of the Enlightenment because they grow up in such a deeply biblicist world and Franklin, I think, probably the most of all among the founders, does. He grow up in that deeply biblicist world of the Puritans.

MOHLER: I understand that the Enlightenment as an idea is fraught, as you say, amongst historians. But clearly, something happened, and that something was perceived then, just to take a figure like Immanuel Kant, as a major turning point in thought. And it’s perceived now—and I like the way you put it—that somewhere between 1700 and 1800, something happened, you know, this massive turn to the subject of skepticism, of naturalism, and in terms of public life and public theology, all kinds of deisms. And I think one of the most interesting insights I got from your book is just remembering that when you’re dealing with someone like Benjamin Franklin, you’re dealing with a variety of deism. But let’s put that in context for just a moment, because you do have the arguments made by many these days, as you said, just to shorthand, would be that the founding fathers, certainly the informative figures of the intellectual elite on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in revolutionary America, they were deists. And yet deism isn’t just one thing. It has many subspecies.

KIDD: That’s right, and I think you have the Enlightenment, the broader trend towards naturalism and skepticism, and then deism is a kind of subset of the Enlightenment and in particular with regard to a more skeptical approach to traditional Christianity, traditional religion. Now, I think in American popular discourse about the founding, deism is usually seen as meaning only one thing, and that is the cosmic watchmaker view of God in which God wound up the universe—there is a creator God, but that he wound up the universe and let it run on its own, and God has gone off somewhere and is not paying any attention anymore to human affairs. But that’s only one part of what deism could mean in the 18th century, and I think that deism really—the hallmark of it is skepticism about something or some ideas about traditional religion. I think for Franklin, because of the context in which he grows up, it’s very much a reaction against his parents’ Calvinist faith. And so some of his doubts have to do with predestination, the election of the saints to salvation, and some rather particular doctrines within Calvinism, but also his perception that the Puritans were very apt to be fighting about theological minutia, as he saw it, and that he wanted to steer his religion away from bickering about theology towards living out Christ-like principles. And so I mean in many ways, Franklin saw himself as a certain kind of Christian, you know, a primitive Christian, as they would put it, a Christian who’s getting back to Christ’s original teachings. This is how he saw it. And so, you know, Franklin over the course of his life becomes more and more convinced, he tells us, that God rules over human affairs by his providence, and yet Franklin still considered himself a deist and he didn’t see deist and Christian as necessarily contradictory. Traditional Christians of course would reject that and say that, you know, deism does not work, especially if you don’t affirm the divinity of Christ. That’s not Christian, but this is the way Franklin saw things.

MOHLER: But you know, even in terms of classical deism, there wasn’t an absolute rejection of divine providence. There was a rejection of peculiar or specific divine providence. So you would have some of the deists who would have believed that there was God’s intention throughout history and its unfolding over sufficient time; that moral judgment would be made. I mean, you have George Washington speaking sometimes in almost those terms; Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. I realize we’re skipping periods here, but would speak in much the same way about divine judgment being meted out in history, but still separating that from the claim that this battle turned out this way because of divine providence. So taking the more general, longer view. And the deists also wanted to preserve Christian morality. So it reminds me of the point that we’ve often made in the 21st century that atheists are not of one species, that they’re generally rejecting some specific god. So when you look at the New Atheists, they’re not just atheists in general. Their arguments are against Christianity, against Christian theism.

KIDD: Yeah.

MOHLER: And so the deists, they were assuming not only morality, they were assuming the necessity of a Christian, biblical morality. And Franklin was an exemplar of that. He clearly believed that a society would require a moral people living by a biblical morality.

KIDD: Yes, that’s right. And and I think, you know, the story of him being asked after the Constitutional Convention, what kind of government have you created? and he says, “A republic, if you can keep it.” And if that story’s true, and it sounds like something Franklin would have said, I think part of what he has in mind there is that a republic must be sustained by morality and virtue. And this is, I mean, this is just widely assumed among of the founders that if you’re going to have a republic, that you have to have a virtuous people to sustain it or else the republic will degenerate and collapse. And so even the most skeptical among the founders—Jefferson probably is the most skeptical and strident, especially late in his life, anti-christian views and so forth; but he still says that Jesus’s moral teachings are the most sublime that the world has ever seen. And Franklin certainly shares that opinion. So I mean Franklin is over time more and more convinced, I think especially during the American Revolution, he’s so angry at the British. I mean he goes from being fairly moderate about whether America should declare independence to during the course of the Revolution he becomes just very angry at the way that the King of England is prosecuting the war and so forth and he says that for these reasons, there has to be justice, ultimately, if not in this life then in a future judgment. And so Franklin says at the end of his life very clearly that among the doctrines that he does believe in is a future judgment by God for the works that we’ve done in this life, for good or ill. And so I mean far from being this idea of an uninvolved God, God is really—and you’re right, not necessarily in a meticulous or recognizable way by providence—but that everything is going to be resolved by God in favor of divine justice.

MOHLER: So if we were to generalize here, speaking for an example of the distinction between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, in the example of Thomas Jefferson, we would have someone who, as you said, by the end of his life was abundantly specific in his rejection of the supernatural claims of Christianity, and in particular of the deity of Christ and by extension, all supernatural acts and attributes associated with Christ: miracles, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and all the rest. As you point out in your book, Franklin would often admit to questions, perhaps even a generalized skepticism, about those central Christian doctrines, but he never flatly rejected them.

KIDD: That’s right. I mean, I think some of this boils down to differences in personality. I mean, Franklin is, and we know this, he’s a very genial character and doesn’t like being dogmatic, doesn’t like being provocative. And he steers in that direction as a young man and becomes kind of a notorious skeptic in Philadelphia. And he takes a lot of flack for it and he gets a taste of that and doesn’t like it. And so for much of the rest of his adult life, I think Franklin is much more of a skeptic in the form of raising questions, undermining, maybe, some people’s confidence about theological certitudes, but never necessarily wanting to take firm, certainly anti-christian positions the way that Jefferson does, and certainly John Adams against Trinitarian belief, takes on some, you know, very strident anti-Trinitarian positions. But Franklin is more, you know, noncommittal I would say as a skeptic, and you know, even at the end of his life when he has this wonderful exchange, though troubling in some ways, with Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College. Five weeks before Franklin dies, he says that he can’t be sure about whether Jesus was really the Son of God, that he could never quite convince himself that Jesus was fully divine, but that he figured he would find out soon enough anyway, so it didn’t really matter. And so that’s the epitome of that kind of noncommittal, good natured kind of Franklin skepticism.

MOHLER: You know, if you read certain of Franklin’s statements, writings, you come to the conclusion that this man was at least a nominal Christian. If you look at other statements, you think this man is at least a nominal atheist or agnostic.

KIDD: [laughter]

MOHLER: You use several adjectives about Benjamin Franklin, and what I want to suggest is interesting is that unlike a lot of books, you actually don’t tie anything up neatly with this. So you begin the book saying he’s not a very good deist, because he’s actually arguing to pray for divine providence, even in the assembly of the founding fathers together. A good deist actually wouldn’t do that, consistently at least. And so you use adjectives like “perplexing” and then “elusive.” I want to ask you, and you’ve kind of hinted at this, was this a rhetorical, a political, even commercial strategy on Franklin’s part to remain elusive?

KIDD: That’s a great question. I mean I do think that he had gotten burned by his ventures into radical skepticism as a late teen/early twenties. During his extended trip to London he published probably his most radical tract where he basically, you know, he deals with the problem of evil of saying, well, since God is all powerful, then that must mean that there isn’t any good or evil because God couldn’t permit evil. So there is no evil. Which, you know, he was trying to be ridiculous to force people to look at the problem of evil, and he says that he was embarrassed by this almost as soon as it came out because he realized over time that you just can’t live like this. I mean, there has to be good and evil.

MOHLER: Right.

KIDD: Everybody believes in good and evil and you have to, you know, affirm that or else you really can’t function in the world anymore. And so I think some of it is that he had his own profound doubts about traditional faith, about his parents’ Calvinism. But he came to believe that he did not want to be known for that. Instead, he preferred to be known, if he could, for what he thought was the best of religion, which was its encouragement of charity and benevolence and loving service, especially to the least of these. And so he I think, styled himself—I mean, Franklin is very conscious of the way that he styles his public persona, and he just decided, partly I think because of his friendships with George Whitefield, with his evangelical sister, Jane, that he did not want to trouble them or embarrass them. He really did believe that it was important for people to do their very best in works of charity and loving service, and so that’s what he wanted to be known for. And so, yes, I think, I mean it’s a conscious decision to keep his doubts more to himself than he did as a young man and to emphasize that what he wanted was a religion of charity and service. And whatever doubts he had about the doctrines behind Christianity, he would just keep silent about or make it a joke.

MOHLER: You know these days the social historians make everything of economic issues and related, but too many of us make too little of it, and I think it’s important to recognize that Franklin was not particularly highborn by the culture of the day and was economically vulnerable as a young man. And until he established rather significant wealth in terms of his printing business, he really could not become too scandalous or he would have been poor.

KIDD: That’s right. I mean there’s one episode where he inserts kind of an anti-clerical joke in one of his shipping advertisements, you know, about Black Gowns and Sea Hens—and there’s some suggestive connotations of Sea Hens—and it just unleashes all this vitriol towards Franklin as a printer for engaging in anti-clerical, even anti-Christian, kind of talk. And he sees in that moment, it elicits his Apology for Printers, which is one of the first great defenses of a free press in American history, but you also see him scrambling there to say, “No, no, no, no. I’m not anti-Christian. Don’t worry about me.” And he says specifically that it would be crazy for him to indulge in that sort of thing because so many of his customers are pastors.

MOHLER: Absolutely. And he’s still in Boston, after all, which is a very Christian city at that time, so much so that he would have made himself scandalous beyond repair, I think, certainly in doing the kind of business he was doing, had he been openly identified as, uh, as, as an enemy of the faith.

KIDD: That’s right.

MOHLER: You mention theodicy—by the way, you didn’t mention the word, you mentioned the younger Franklin raising these issues. I had an impression. In reading your just really interesting recounting of the young Franklin, I had the impression that he raised some of these issues with a bit of, well, arrogance, youthful arrogance, in failing to understand that some seriously minded Christians had actually thought about these questions before. And he seems to be unaware of an entire world of Christian theology that had already existed, you know, dealing with some of these questions. I don’t know if that was typical of Franklin alone or of others during the era, but he appears to know a great deal about a lot with the exception of Christian theology.

KIDD: It’s hard to know why in his writings about theodicy why he leaves out, the very well established Christian arguments about the effects of the Fall: God’s mercy, you know, holds back his wrath against human kind for all the evil that’s in the world until, you know, the final settlement of all things when Christ comes back. I mean, that’s a very well established, long since established argument in Franklin’s world. I think he probably did know about it, but for maybe rhetorical, argumentative purposes, decided not even to address it. It’s puzzling, because he certainly knows the Bible. He knows the Bible backwards and forwards, the text of the Bible, and he did grow up certainly reading a fair amount of theology. But yeah. It’s an immature kind of production, especially the one about, you know, if God is all powerful then he must not permit evil so there is no good and evil.

MOHLER: It’s fairly adolescent.

KIDD: Even Franklin almost immediately realizes this is just kind of immature, sort of pop philosophy and that doesn’t really work very well, especially in light of the fact that Christians have already given a good answer to this. So I find that episode is sort of mystifying given the context he grows up in and certainly his deep familiarity with the whole text of the Bible.


MOHLER: For far too many Americans, our founding fathers as we know them are like cutout figures. They’re cardboard and static. That’s a problem. And of course they’re also known in their portraits on our coins and on currency. They may have faces on Mount Rushmore. It’s hard for most Americans to cut through all the levels of myth and sometimes even what’s claimed to be history and biography to rightly understand these individuals. They were flesh and blood human beings embedded in a specific moment in history, and it’s important that we do come to terms with them. I appreciate the fact so much that Thomas Kidd in this case gives us such a new view of Benjamin Franklin, a new perspective on a question that has often not been asked, and that is, “What exactly did Benjamin Franklin believe? And in specific, what were his religious beliefs?” Whatever they were, it’s important that we come to a rightful, true, and credible understanding of them, not only so that we will rightly understand Benjamin Franklin but so that we can also understand these issues concerning ourselves.


MOHLER: I had another thought theologically and ecclesiologically reading this book. One of them is that clearly in terms of congregational Calvinist Boston or New England—and by the way we’re using the word Calvinism here, and I do think that we need to reflect upon the fact that what Franklin was rejecting included both what you might call distinctive Calvinist doctrine such as predestination or particular redemption, but he also denied or was extremely skeptical about classical Christianity that would not be considered merely Calvinism but rather just classical, biblical Christianity—as a matter of fact, basic issues and doctrines of the deity of Christ and Trinitarian faith. But it seemed to me that even though it would have been very awkward for him to have claimed any kind of identity with that Congregational Calvinist tradition, he would have made a rather convenient Anglican. But he wasn’t really interested in Anglicanism either.

KIDD: He attended Anglican services in Philadelphia, but it seems to me that the Anglican faith was much more significant to his wife, Deborah than it was to Ben Franklin, and he certainly donated money to help grow Christ Church there in Philadelphia—some reason to think that he was hoping that it would build a really tall steeple for his experiments with lightning, but, you know, it seems like that so much of the imprint is from the Puritan heritage. And you’re absolutely right that some of his skepticism is about specific doctrines related to Calvinism. And then some of it, obviously, with the denial or at least hesitation about the divinity of Christ, is a much more fundamental Christian issue. But I think it’s that childhood inheritance of Puritanism rather than Anglicanism that makes the deepest imprint on him. And it’s not hard to understand why. I mean it’s a very rigorous environment that he grows up in with catechism and Bible reading and prayer and attendance at church probably two or three times a week, hearing deeply learned, long expository sermons, probably thousands, you know, over time for him. And it’s no wonder that this leaves this imprint of the Bible that shapes the way that he talks, the way that he jokes, his similes and anecdotes. It shows up everywhere. The idea for the national seal. It shows up everywhere for Franklin because of that childhood imprint. And then he moves into his skeptical phase, and so while he’s in Philadelphia he is an adherent to Anglicanism, and that probably is what he does for at least the first half of his adult life. We don’t know as much about whether he was attending church in England while he was a diplomat there. And of course he always found Catholicism while he was in Paris more of a curiosity than anything else. But the intellectual inheritance is definitely from the Puritan tradition.

MOHLER: Yeah, I don’t doubt that for a moment. That’s incontrovertible. But I’m just making the point that his beliefs or his skepticism, either way, they could have found a safe home within Anglicanism in a way that they certainly could not in Puritan nonconformity. There were plenty of Anglicans, I’ll just say, in good standing with the Church of England who would have held similar beliefs and were frankly quite open about them. So I’m just thinking politically and sociologically, it’s just interesting that Franklin kept his independence from all organized religion in a sense. Other than with his wife. He was certainly even, I believe, listed in the parish, but his identity is just not distinguishable. That’s why you use words like “perplexing” and “elusive.”

KIDD: Yeah.

MOHLER: And also when it comes to the issue of Franklin and religion, one of the key questions that has been addressed in previous works is what happened in the second half of Franklin’s adult life. How did his friendship with George Whitefield change, or change not, his understanding of these basic theological questions?

KIDD: Well it is a very peculiar friendship because they are not on the same page and Whitefield, to his credit, does not pull any punches. I mean he periodically—we have it documented; I’m sure it was much more in conversation—he implores Franklin, Whitefield implores Franklin to put his faith in Christ for salvation and to be born again. It’s a charming relationship, I think, in today’s context. It seems so hard for people who are very different religiously to maintain friendships like this. I think it speaks well to both men that they were able to maintain what I think was a very close friendship, an admiring and close friendship for 30 years in the context of their differences. I think that Franklin for sure becomes more muted in his skepticism just because he knows that if he speaks out that he will have to answer to the very formidable George Whitefield and also the very formidable Jane Mecom, his sister, who’s a devout evangelical believer, but not famous like Whitefield and very modest. She was really poor. And I say in the book that those relationships, I think, helped to tether him to traditional faith even if he doesn’t ultimately embrace it, because he respects these evangelical figures in his life. He loves them and he doesn’t want to unnecessarily offend them. He takes them seriously. So much so that later on he even proposes founding a colony along with Whitefield in the Ohio River Valley country and says that we can have a society that will be more fully devoted to Christian principles and we’ll treat native Americans fairly, and it will be great. Wow. I mean imagine Franklin and Whitefield founding a colony together. And it was just, I mean it was a transient thought that he had, but it speaks to just how deeply, personally sympathetic he was to Whitefield even though he couldn’t ultimately cross the line of faith the way that Whitefield implored him to do.

MOHLER: Now I really appreciate you including in the book one specific way that Whitefield implored him to do just that. You go back to his epitaph written for himself, I think it was 1727, when Franklin wrote this epitaph as he looked to his own death. He spoke of his body being food for worms, and then speaking of the body he said, “For it will,” as he believed, “appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the author.” And just to interject there, again, if you looked at that you would say, “Oh my goodness. That sounds like a Christian. “And the day of resurrection.” And you could over read that in a full affirmation of classical Christianity. But my point is that as you point out too, I think it’s page 177 in your book, Whitefield in 1755 responded to Franklin’s epitaph by saying, “Believe on Jesus, and get a feeling possession of God in your heart and you can not possibly be disappointed of your expected second edition.” There’s a sweet friendship in that.

KIDD: It is, and you know, Whitefield, he—you would think today we might feel some obligation to not be so forthright and bold in Whitefield’s witness, and it’s a great example, I think, of Whitefield’s integrity in the sense that here you have the greatest preacher of his generation who also takes obligation to personal evangelism so seriously. So it goes from crowds of, you know, tens of thousands of people down to this personal relationship—now, obviously with a very famous and influential person, but Whitefield—it was that kind of comment from Whitefield to Franklin was typical of their relationship. And yet, Franklin at the end—Whitefield dies in 1770, quite a long time before Franklin dies, and Franklin just in private correspondence talks about how much he loved Whitefield, how much he admired him, and says that he would never see Whitefield’s integrity every surpassed in any other person. He didn’t need to say that. I mean it’s a private letter he’s writing in, and I think that tells you how much he really did care for Whitefield.

MOHLER: In 1728, Franklin wrote an article that we could summarize the title of as, “Articles of Belief: Inconclusive.” But inconclusive in a Christian frame. His articles of belief at least derive from the Christian faith and tradition, even if they’re not an expression of it. Then in the end of his life, or toward the end of his life, in his autobiography he mentioned five different beliefs. First, that there is one God who created the universe and who governs it by this providence. Second, that he ought to be worshiped and served. Third, that the best service to God is doing good to men. Four, that the soul of man is immortal. And five, that in a future life, if not the present one, vice will be punished and virtue rewarded. Now, Professor Kidd, the reason that I read those all and especially with emphasis on number five is because you rightly point out in the beginning of the book that the call for prayer for the meticulous providence that Franklin sought meant that he wasn’t a very consistent deist. But here at the end of your book, I would argue that, looked at theologically, this is an even less consistent deist. How did Franklin change over time on this question as reflected even in those five articles of belief?

KIDD: I think that as time wore on—I suggested some of this earlier—that his experiences in the American Revolution—and this was very common too; I think all of the founders were burdened by the weight of what happened to the American Revolution. I mean it all seems inevitable to us looking back on it, but it was such a difficult decision for them to even take up the question of independence and it seemed insane, you know, at the outset to take this on against arguably the most powerful military on the face of the earth, to go up against an effectively non-existent American military. And so many people thought that the American patriots would just be crushed. And so to watch the political process and the military struggles and victories—and of course Franklin is there in Paris securing the French alliance, which, you know, absolutely indispensable for the Americans winning the Revolutionary War, to have the French assistance and then independence secured and then the Constitution ratified through the struggles that that required. So many of them said even if they had been skeptical about this before, they look at that national history and they go back to diversity, you know, can a nation be born at once? Can a nation be born in day? And they think this has the scent of the miraculous about it. And so Franklin I think is driven along. And you mentioned Lincoln before; I think there’s a lot of comparisons here to be made with Lincoln. The Lincoln early skepticism and then the weight of the presidency, and the incredible difficulties of the Civil War, I think, steer him towards a greater sense of God’s providential role in history. And Franklin senses that too, and so by the end of his life, as you suggested, he is not only willing to affirm the idea of God moving in history, but also to affirm that there will be a future judgment of the good and bad works and that we are accountable to that.

MOHLER: I want to go back to where we began when you mentioned the relevance of Franklin’s religious life to today, and you mentioned contemporary controversies, including the question is America/was America a Christian nation. I want to add a bit of perplexity in terms of that question. And I was raised in the midst of some of those discussions. I can remember as a teenager hearing messages, one in particular, on why Thomas Jefferson was a Christian.

KIDD: [laughter]

MOHLER: I later read Thomas Jefferson and as a Christian came to understand Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian.

KIDD: [laughter]

MOHLER: But I understood also what was at stake in terms of the larger cultural conflict, and the question was concerning America and its origins. And it seems to me that you’ve got these two ridiculously polarized conversations going on where you’ve got on the one hand people arguing that all of the founders were Christians. They baptize them in a way that I think does incredible injury to biblical Christianity and to the Gospel of Christ, and furthermore just isn’t even credible on documentary terms. You don’t even have to engage in historiography. All you have to do is be able to read documents. That just fails. On the other hand, you’ve got this enormous intellectual trajectory coming especially out of the 1950s and beyond where you have the denial of a Christian influence and basically the denial of a Christian structure of thought to the founding—I don’t want to say just fathers, but mothers, to the colonial and revolutionary Americans. And it seems to me intellectual honesty, which, I just want to say, I appreciate in your works, all of them, and in particular in this one, is to treat the individuals with honesty and to apply a very credible historiography to the individuals, to the era, to the time, to the documents, but at the same time to recognize that there is a theological backdrop here, and background that can’t be denied. That there is a specific skepticism even that marked even the most skeptical, and that was a skepticism concerning Christianity. Christianity haunted even the skeptics and created their frame of moral reference.

KIDD: Yeah, I think haunted is the right word. I think Jefferson is probably even more haunted than Franklin. You grow up with Franklin in his intentionally biblicist environment and even though you try to run, you can’t quite get away from it. And they are also profoundly living off of borrowed Christian capital and they said—we said it in the question of is morality, Christian morality, indispensable to the life of the Republic?—and there was vast consensus on that, that we needed strong religion, churches, to fuel the life of the Republic, and if we didn’t have that we would degenerate and the Republic would collapse and lead to the rise of a strong man to restore order. That’s just classical republican theory, but it syncs up I think very well with Christian ideas about morality and virtue, maybe not syncing up with where that morality and virtue comes from—you know, the Jonathan Edwards idea of a true virtue comes from the regenerated heart and the work of God in the life of a believer, where, you know, Franklin certainly didn’t see the need for that kind of regeneration and thought that you could do this through simple moral effort and disciplined practices kind of thing. But if the question is, do we need Christian morality? there’s so much overlap and assumptions that are being made. And so I think people like Franklin, like Jefferson, are tinkering with their own skepticism about particular doctrines and questions about salvation, and that’s very important. But when you come to public affairs and the nature of a republic, there’s such broadly shared Christian assumptions that they couldn’t even possibly question it.

MOHLER: Right.

KIDD: I mean, it would never even occur to them to question the idea that Christian morality is essential to the life of republic. And so I think when you go to people like Jefferson and Franklin, I mean I would be first in line to tell you if they were Christians. I wish they were Christians. I want everybody to be a Christian. But when you see somebody denying the divinity of Christ, when Jefferson produces the Jefferson “Bible,”  which is an edition to the gospels that ends in them rolling the stone in front of the grave and going away, I mean you say from a Christian standpoint, this is utterly unacceptable. And we just have to, because if the gospel, if Biblical truth is the number one priority, then we have to say that kind of religion is not Christianity. On the other hand, there’s so many themes and inheritances in intellectual traditions within even the minds of the most skeptical founders that you can see the influence of biblicism and Christianity everywhere in the founding. So I mean, I think sometimes I’m kind of an equal opportunity offender in these kind of discussions, because you know conservative Christians so often go to trying to say that the, you know, the saints of our civil religion, you know, the founding fathers, they had to all be Christians because we’re a Christian nation, therefore they had to all be Christian. Whereas the secularists say, no, no, no, none of them were Christians. They’re all very skeptical deists, probably closet atheists, and religion has nothing to do with the founding. Of course, the historical facts suggest that there was a third way in the founding.

MOHLER: Well, there’s a third way now, that’s the thing. You may be an equal opportunity offender, and if so, so am I and have been for a long time on this, but the reality is that Christians, biblically minded Christians, actually do always have this category. You have a category of people who have a Christian frame of reference, but you don’t believe they’ve been converted to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and they’ve given no credible claim or testimony of it and some of them are even openly rejecting Christian doctrines or even the necessity of coming to faith in Christ. But their frame of reference is still entirely Christian in a moral frame, even in a general theistic frame. I mean this is the nominal Christian experience in America, and in the intellectual elites it’s always been kind of third option. It might be the option that’s disappearing fastest in the elites of our culture right now, but certainly it was indispensable to the intellectual furnishing of the mind in colonial America.

KIDD: That’s right, and I do think that one of the things that’s at stake in a book like this and our understanding of the founding fathers is that to the extent that dominant American culture is turning towards the primacy of individual expression, amoral license and so forth, and we see evidence of that everywhere in our culture and the news today. The culture of the founding contradicts that. Not because all the founding fathers were Christians in at least in a, you know, in a biblical, evangelical kind of sense, but because they assumed that in order to have a republic that will thrive, you had to have virtue, and virtue came from faith.

MOHLER: And most of them thought very well of Jesus. I’m not saying of Christ. I’m making that distinction that did merge in that fraughted Enlightenment age, but nonetheless. In other words, it was Jefferson who very much wanted to talk about the life and morals of Jesus in that truncated New Testament you mentioned. And Franklin made many statements of appreciation. Again, Christians, evangelical Christians, can over-read that, not understanding what is being rejected as well as being affirmed.

KIDD: That’s right, and you don’t have as many people like this, I mean at least articulate people like this today. I mean certainly the South there’s a lingering Christian culture in which people will certainly affirm, you know, the importance of the Bible and biblical morality even thought they’re not converted. But more commonly what you have today is people where there’s no overlap and they can’t see any kind of value coming out of biblical morality and that, as I said, individual expression is the rule of the day; as long as you don’t harm someone. But of course even that, I mean, how do you know it’s wrong to not harm other people? And you know, well is it just what we agree on? But the foundations are crumbling for the founders. I mean they would have, Jefferson says that Jesus’s moral teachings are the most sublime moral philosophy ever known to man, but you’re absolutely—a distinction between Jesus and Christ is an important one, and their representative of that kind of turning towards saying, “Can’t we just take Jesus’s moral teachings and forget about the Bible’s claims to him being the messiah?”

MOHLER: I had another thought reading your book and then completing your book; I recognized you had the thought too and that was that, and I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and part of this is because I’ve been doing a project looking back at the middle of the 20th century. So Christian Smith and his associates looking at the religious beliefs of young people came I think to the now rightly famous or infamous designation of that civic religion as held by American adolescents and now emerging adults, as he calls them, being Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. And clearly that’s not biblical Christianity. But the other thought I had when I read Christian Smith and frankly had one of these conversations with him on Thinking in Public, my thought was, you know, there’s an old, very old American tradition like this. I mean you could even say Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale were very much a part of the same thing. And going back further you can find plenty of 19th century evidence. And then it pops up in your book, I was glad to say. In a sense what Franklin and some of the others were looking for is an expression of Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism that fit the late 18th century.

KIDD: That’s right and you know, I talk about that in the book, although I choose to call it Doctrinalized, Moralized, Christianity just because I think Franklin’s kind of view on this is a little more, well, it’s more intellectually serious than what you get today. And it’s a little more hard-edged I think, the therapeutic, not as much—

MOHLER: A little less therapeutic, yes.

KIDD: And the moralism is I think a bit more principled and serious, that it’s this view that in order for the Republic to survive you have to have people who are benevolent and concerned about society and public good and the public welfare and are willing to sacrifice themselves to serve that good. I mean that’s not so much on the radar screen for Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.

MOHLER: No, but it is in the background, I would argue. In one sense it’s a precursor to that. I want to shift to one other thing. I remember a Gordon Wood essay on George Washington and the distinction between public and private character and George Washington, his absolute determination to demonstrate at all times an upright public character, believing that was his responsibility as a citizen, as a general, and later of course as President of the United States. But that distinction between public and private morality or character, that certainly comes to mind in terms of reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin. You treat these issues very carefully, but what was that distinction in Franklin’s mind? Because we’re talking about Christian morality, but that didn’t exactly restrain Benjamin Franklin in terms of his private life.

KIDD: That’s correct, and I definitely talk about it in the biography of once he reaches middle age that he engages in a series of inappropriate relationships, often with much younger women. And he is silent about how his code of virtue which he commits himself, how that sinks with his series of relationships with these women. And I do think it has to do with that public/private distinction. I think that’s an astute observation because on one hand, Franklin is I think much like Washington: rigorously committed to public service, and feels like that once he has become independently wealthy that he’s obligated to serve the public interest as a diplomat, as a scientist, and these sorts of things. And you see, I mean one of the things that’s so delightful about Franklin is he tries all these things in American history for the first time. So, you know, founding the hospital in Philadelphia, and he’s one of the main charitable backers for this. He makes a specifically—it’s one of the most Christian writings he ever produces—it’s just unambiguously Christian that he says, “As Christians, we’re supposed to take care of the least of these and we have these indigent people who aren’t receiving any kind of treatment. We need a hospital.” And people were doing this in Europe. Now we need to commit ourselves to do this to demonstrate our seriousness as a Christian society in Philadelphia. And so for Franklin I think there’s a way in which being engaged in that sort of thing in the founding of what would become the University of Pennsylvania, in his representation of the colonies in the United States as a diplomat, and his tireless service for the nation—that all these kind of things can run along a parallel track to his inappropriate relationships with these younger women. Now, obviously Franklin’s never going to explain those in any kind of public way, but I do think that he probably excused in his mind some of this more salacious behavior that he engages in by his belief that while I’m serving the public good and so my private behavior, especially when there’s, you know, willingness on the part of these ladies who engage in these relationships, that doesn’t matter as much. Or at least that’s what he told himself.

MOHLER: You know, of course there’s the entire incredible story, that’d be an epic story just taken by itself of the breech between Franklin and his illegitimate son, William, over the American Revolution. I was in London just days ago and I walked by the old St. Pancras church, and that’s where William Franklin is buried, although his grave is now lost, I discovered once there at the churchyard. But just this horrible epic story, but it is with Franklin and his illegitimate son and that private/public character or virtue distinction. Here I was thinking about it at a London churchyard, but, now with you today. I want to ask you another question. I can draw a direct line from your first major work published on the Great Awakening to Patrick Henry to George Whitefield, from George Whitefield to Benjamin Franklin. Where do you go next?

KIDD: Well, my next project is that I’m actually writing an American History textbook for B&H Academic that is going to be pitched to college freshman, maybe advanced high school students. I think along these lines, I mean even at the textbook level there tends to be this gulf between, you know, rigidly secular textbooks, which is the standard, secular in its assumptions, and views religion skeptically, and the second half of American history often just entirely ignores it except for maybe the moral majority. And then on the other hand you have the Christian kind of providentialist histories that, you know, advance kind of the Christian nation thesis and the overwhelming Christian presence in the Revolution. And it seemed like to me and to B&H Academic that there was a need for a kind of more balanced approach that would work well especially in the Christian college market. And so I’m busy writing away at that, having a great time. I’m up through the 1970s now but I’m intending to take it at least through the 2016 election, which would be a lot of fun to try to explain that.

MOHLER: That should test you as an historian. I’ll look forward to that. That’s one of those books that, given what you’ve just said, I might read from the last chapter forward, because that will give you a whole new test. Professor Thomas Kidd, as always, great to talk with you and I appreciate your work so much. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

KIDD: Thank you so much.


MOHLER: In this new book, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, Professor Thomas Kidd presents Benjamin Franklin as involved in an internal tug of war between skepticism and traditional faith. By the time we come to the end of the book, honesty compels us to say that it appears that in that tug of war, skepticism had the stronger hand. There are more indications of this most fundamental skepticism on the part of Benjamin Franklin all the way to the end of his life than any suspicion of an affirmation of traditional Christianity. That’s simply not made possible by Franklin’s own statements and rather consistent statements over time. But that is not to say that Benjamin Franklin was not involved in what Thomas Kidd calls an internal tug of war. He clearly was. You can see it in his writings, you can see it in his actions, and yes, you can see it over the decades of his very long life. One of the most crucial insights you gain from reading this book is that that tug of war was witnessed by others, his sister for one and perhaps even more significantly, George Whitefield, one of the most famous evangelists not only of his age but of all Christian history. In thinking of his friend Franklin, Whitefield said in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin had “made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity,” but Whitefield went on to say, “I would not humbly recommend to your diligent, unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new birth.” All the way to the end of his life, George Whitefield demonstrated this concern about his friend Benjamin Franklin about the state of his soul and about the fact that Benjamin Franklin had resisted, perhaps even rejected, the very idea of his need for a savior and for the experience of the new birth. We learn several lessons as evangelical gospel-minded Christians from Whitefield here. In the first place, we learn how not to over-read perhaps the inclination to Christianity or even the experience of the new birth just because persons are friends because we care about them. George Whitefield clearly cared deeply about Benjamin Franklin, but that did not mean that he overlooked the fact that Franklin clearly had not experienced a conversion to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The second thing we learn is just dogged persistence. George Whitefield to the very end of his own life was doing his dead level best to make certain that Benjamin Franklin was confronted with the claims of Christ, with the truth of the gospel, and with a call to repentance and faith, a call to conversion. Just from a Christian perspective, how amazing is it for us to imagine that there once was a time when figures such as Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield walked the earth, and not only that, walked the earth together? One of the interesting things for us to reflect upon is the fact that it really does matter to us what Benjamin Franklin believed, because given Benjamin Franklin’s role in American history and in the American imagination, it still matters. It matters eternally for Benjamin Franklin, but it also matters in terms of our understanding not only of Franklin, but of our nation and of ourselves. This is the kind of history that greatly aids us in that kind of understanding.

Thanks again to my guest Thomas Kidd for thinking with me today.

For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.