The Religious Life of a Founding Father
- ISBN: 9780300217490
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: May 2017
When teaching courses concerning American autobiographical writing, I have found that there is a group of important figures who remain enigmatic, especially in a genre that promises revelation. One must be careful about thinking that the ”truth” is what we are led to think it is. Granted, one has to allow that there are many sorts of truths, and our interests may not be the same as those whose versions we are studying would have it. That is more or less fair, though my experience with undergraduates is that they can be quite irritated when they think they see evasion or obfuscation. In the age of Facebook, they are looking for a certain kind of honesty and authenticity that is actually hard to find, especially in an era of “truthiness,” or, more ominously, “fake news.” With a very few of the writers that I study, the problem is significant; along with my students, I start to think that I have been given a truth, only to be sucked into a carefully constructed trap. Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain] works this way; so does Henry Adams—though certainly with a different style and different purposes. But most of all, Benjamin Franklin seems to lie in wait, allowing us to construct an idea of who he is, but, very slyly, without ever really saying, suggesting that the whole thing could be an elaborate ruse. I have come to feel that Franklin is always selling what we want him to be in a very intentional way, which is, of course, also something to be careful about concluding. But as he says in various ways, most famously of the virtue of “Humility” in his famous list, “the appearance” is possibly more significant than the “reality.” On the matter of Franklin’s religious beliefs and practices, all of the above are perhaps more true than on any other subject.
None of this is lost on Thomas S. Kidd, whose new biography of Franklin—Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father—takes up the most difficult question of what Franklin “believed” throughout the course of a long life. As the subtitle promises, it is an intellectual history, an important discussion by a scholar who knows the subject. Given our historical moment in which what our “founding fathers” may have intended for our nation to be is under some examination, with considerable discussion as to whether, for instance, the United States is a “Christian” nation, this book is certainly needed. As far as I can tell, Kidd has read every extant document in which Franklin says anything about religion. It is no great surprise that he resists arriving at conclusions that Franklin himself avoided, in that frustrating enigmatic way. But what he has found gives us a lot to think about. I will note here that this book is just what it says—a biography focused on one complex aspect of a life. Those looking for a full-scale political biography, for example, may need to look at other versions. But this book is necessary in its focus.
For example, we have Franklin’s letters to his sister, Jane Mecom, who remained in the Massachusetts Calvinist tradition which Franklin was born into. He is respectful of her views even as he resists her constant overtures to come home to his familial religious traditions. Then there is Franklin’s deep and long friendship with the evangelist George Whitefield—leader of the “Great Awakening”—a friendship that seems impossible without some mutual sympathy. Whitefield appears more often in Kidd’s index that anyone other than Franklin himself. But this brings us to one of those moments where we have to be careful, and Kidd does not miss it. He carefully points out that Franklin simply may have seen a chance with Whitefield; he sees the sensation that the man created, famously making a mathematical study of the possible size of Whitefield’s remarkable crowds, and secures the rights to publish Whitefield’s work. He makes a fortune. Indeed, a fortune that arguably gave him the financial security to engage in the myriad of projects of every kind that he is famous for. And, as with his sister, Franklin’s responses to Whitefield’s entreaties on Franklin’s spiritual life are evasive. Was Franklin a deeply cynical “business man” as both Edgar Allan Poe and D.H. Lawrence would have it, or do we see a man who is simply interested in many things and is willing to entertain the ideas of anyone who was serious about ideas? Kidd is careful not to take a side, and I think he is right in this. He lays out the cases, documents them as thoroughly as seems possible, and then allows us a chance to think it all over.
Whatever the case, we can know some important things about so central a figure in every kind of American cultural, scientific, and intellectual history from Kidd’s fine work. It is clear that Franklin always circled back to a strenuous non-doctrinal belief in what he calls “virtue.” He does this within a rhetorically religious personal and cultural history and environment. While his views change over time, it seems fair to say that his consistent single belief is in that rather vague term. Everyone is a little bit right in who they believe Franklin is and everyone is a little bit wrong. Maybe, after all, there is no more appropriate figure than the carefully constructed pluralistic everyman, Franklin, to appear on US currency. As the saying in popular parlance goes, “it’s all about the Benjamins.” Christian, Diest, agnostic, founding prophet of “The Society of the Free and Easy”; all are tempting as categories to use to classify Franklin’s belief system, and Kidd, in a most even-handed way, gives them all a chance. The book opens and closes with the story of Franklin suggesting to his fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention that they engage in a prayer. What sort of prayer? And, in which tradition? How could prayer be appropriate for a political moment? The motion was tabled. What was Franklin thinking? I suspect Kidd bring us as close as we are going to get to an answer.
Charles S. Adams is professor of English at Whittier College.Charles S. AdamsDate Of Review:September 8, 2017