The Deist Question

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Franklin was a great man among the Founding Fathers
Benjamin Franklin was a printer, writer, scientist, philosopher and politician. He initially gained fortune and fame through the publication of his book, "Poor Richard's Almanac". He taught himself five languages. Benjamin Franklin organized the first postal system in America, the first volunteer fire department, and a circulating public library. He helped found the University of Pennsylvania, a hospital, an insurance company, a city police force, a night watch and the first militia. He invented the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, the rocking chair, bi-focal glasses, the glass harmonica, and made numerous scientific discoveries.
Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, laid the ground work for the Articles of Confederation with his Albany Plan, and he signed the US Constitution. He served as a diplomat to England and France, was Governor of Pennsylvania, and he was appointed the first president of the first anti-slavery society in America.

Franklin wrote a pamphlet on deism which he later regretted.
In his late teens, Franklin traveled to England to purchase printing materials. "Unfortunately he was thrown in the way of some distinguished infidels while he was in London, (among whom was Lord Mandeville,) and received flattering attentions from them. His mind became tinctured with their views, and he was induced to write a pamphlet upon deistical metaphysics, a performance which he afterward regretted, and candidly condemned." (from "Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence" by B. J. Lossing, 1848)

Franklin saw denominations as containing basic knowledge of God, but divisive
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho' some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal degrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful...I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that He made the world, and govern'd it by His Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.
These I esteem'd the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix'd with other articles, which without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv'd principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another."


During the Great Awakening Franklin noted the effects of George Whitefield's ministry in 1739 and later recorded them in his autobiography: "It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."
In his last letter to George Whitefield, Franklin wrote, "I sometimes wish, that you and I were jointly employ'd by the Crown to settle a colony on the settle in that fine country a strong body of religious and industrious people!...Might it not greatly facilitate the introduction of pure religion among the heathen, if we could, by such a colony, show them a better sample of Christians than they commonly see in our Indian traders?"

Franklin considered the Christian religion to be above all others
In 1749, Benjamin Franklin stated in his "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania": "History will also afford the frequent opportunities of showing the necessity of a public religion, from its usefulness to the public; the advantage of a religious character among private persons; the mischiefs of superstition, &c. and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern."

Franklin doubted the divinity of Jesus Christ; thus he was not a Christian
A few days before his death, Franklin wrote to Reverend Ezra Stiles: "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is like 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; though 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 more observed..."


A deist believes God created the world but that it continues without His miraculous intervention. Yet Franklin recounted God's miraculous interventions during the Constitutional Convention: "In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain...we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection. - Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor." A deist doesn't believe in the divinity of Christ or the inspiration of the Bible, yet Franklin believed in the resurrection of his body.
Franklin wrote his own epitaph:

Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stripped of its lettering and gilding
Lies here, food for worms;
Yet the work itself shall not be lost,
For it will (as he believed) appear once more,
In a new,
And more beautiful edition,
Corrected and amended

Ben Franklin invited Thomas Paine to America in 1774. Paine did not sign any founding documents. Paine published "Common Sense" in January 1776 and joined the Continental Army. He became the Secretary of Committee of Foreign Affairs, but he was forced to resign after two years for disclosing secret information. He returned to England nine years later and became deeply involved in the French Revolution. Paine wrote "The Age of Reason" (published while he was in prison) and he was accused of being an atheist. But on the first page he boldly declared, "I believe in one God, and no more." Paine didn't believe in any church or in any holy books. He was actually a deist. After his release he stayed in France until 1802, when he sailed back to America, after an invitation by Thomas Jefferson. He died in 1809, and the newspapers read: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm" (referring to "The Age of Reason").

Franklin rejected Paine's deism in "The Age of Reason"
Before Paine published "The Age of Reason," he sent a manuscript copy to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin replied: "I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that...the consequence of printing this piece will be a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits into the wind, spits in his own face."

Franklin urged Paine not to publish "Age of Reason"
Franklin continued in his response to Paine, "But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it?...Think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue...I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person...If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it? I intend this letter itself as proof of my friendship."

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence: "My views...are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from the anti-christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others." To William Short, seventeen years later, he wrote regarding Jesus' doctrines, " is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc."

Jefferson considered Christ's doctrines corrupted by Paul and others
Jefferson wrote to William Short in 1820 regarding Jesus' doctrines: "Among the sayings and discourses imputed to Him by His biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same Being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of His doctrines, led me to try to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that His past composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by man."

Jefferson wrote his own "corrected" harmonized gospel
Jefferson removed the supernatural events from the gospels and organized Jesus words in chronological order. Then he placed translations in Greek, Latin, French and English side by side in his book "The Life and Morals of Jesus". He told John Adams that he was rescuing the Philosophy of Jesus and the "pure principles which he taught," from the "artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves."
In a letter to Charles Thomson in 1816, Jefferson wrote regarding his book, " is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me an infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author never said nor saw."

President Jefferson offered a National Prayer for Peace in Jesus' Name
In 1805, President Jefferson offered a National Prayer for Peace: "Almighty God, ...We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honorable ministry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitude brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endow with Thy spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen."

Jefferson's Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786)
The Anglican Church was officially recognized as the state religion in Virginia. The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom disestablished that denomination. Section two reads: "Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." James Madison actually pushed it through the Virginia legislature while Jefferson was in France. It made them both enemies of the Anglican priests.

Jefferson was wrongly called irreligious, atheist, deist, and an infidel
In an 1816 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote Mrs. Harrison Smith: "That priests indeed have heretofore thought proper to ascribe to me religious, or rather anti-religious sentiments, of their own fabric, but such as soothed their resentments against the Act of Virginia for establishing religious freedom. They wished him to be thought atheist, deist or devil, who could advocate freedom from their religious dictations. But I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to Him, and not to the priests....I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives and by this test my dear Madam, I have been satisfied yours must be an excellent one to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read."

The Baptists, persecuted by the Anglicans, were concerned the Federal Government might choose a national denomination. The Baptist Association of Danbury wrote President Jefferson of this concern. Jefferson assured them that Congress was not in the process of choosing any Christian denomination in order to make it the "state" religion. He stated: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State." This wall illustration was used to comfort church members from the fear of federal encroachment.

Jefferson made provision for religion at the University of Virginia
Thomas Jefferson recommended the establishment of a school of "Theology and Ecclesiastical History" at the University of Virginia and he also set aside a place inside the Rotunda for chapel services: "It is supposed probable, that a building of somewhat more size in the middle of the grounds may be called for in time, in which may be rooms for religious worship."
Thomas Jefferson outlined the responsibilities of the professor of ethics at the University of Virginia: "The proof of the being of a God, the Creator, Preserver, and Supreme Ruler of the Universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and the laws and oblations which these infer, will be in the province of the professor of ethics."

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence
On August 30, 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote James Madison regarding the Declaration of Independence: "I know that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiments which had never been expressed before...I pray God that these principles may be eternal, and close the prayer with my affectionate wishes for yourself of long life, health and happiness."

Jefferson's epitaph and memorial
Inscribed on his grave is the epitaph Jefferson composed: "Here lies buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, author of the Statutes for Religious Freedom in Virginia, and father of the University of Virginia."
The Jefferson Memorial has inscribed in marble Thomas Jefferson's own words: "Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens...are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion." "No men shall...suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively." "Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the Book of Life than that these people are to be free."


Term Definition
charlatanism the practice of fraud, or the method of pretending the possession of greater knowledge or skills
cognizance awareness, perception, realization, or knowledge
counterpoise balance and equilibrium
dissenter one who declares disagreement; One who separates from the service and worship of any established church
facilitate to assist and make easier
hereafter the time after death; eternity
inconsiderate without due regard for the rights or feelings of others
Materialist one who denies the existence of spiritual substances, and maintains that the soul of man is the result of a particular organization of matter in the body
precept any commandment or order intended as an authoritative rule of action; but applied particularly to commands respecting moral conduct
Spiritualism insistence on the spiritual side of things, as in philosophy or religion