Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Reflections: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is the first book that I read on my new Amazon Kindle eBook reader. I was filtering through the most popular free books from Amazon and this one caught my eye, because I enjoy reading history, especially American history, and I found that I really didn’t know much about Benjamin Franklin, who is widely considered one of the great founders of our nation. Because this book is an autobiography, the language is slightly different than that which we are used to today, but I was not too distracted by the occasional old and expired phrases. You can read about history or you can read history, and when reading this book I felt that I was reading history. I got to know Benjamin Franklin on a personal level, something that history books could never accomplish. Of course most of us know Benjamin Franklin for his experiments with electricity, but the man accomplished so much more than just that. He was instrumental in developing the modern day library, he published the very popular “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” he founded the Union Fire Company and a hospital, he was a central figure in American politics, and so much more. You will read about many of these things in his own words, but I am more interested in the faith and religious life of Benjamin Franklin. It is quick to see that even such a successful and wise man such as Benjamin Franklin is not without his faults and failings especially when it comes to religious beliefs or lack thereof. Below are some quotes that I highlighted as I was reading that I found to be of particular interest.

Quotes from Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography:

“And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence, which lead me to the means I used and gave them success. My belief of this induces me to hope, though I must not presume, that the same goodness will still be exercised toward me, in continuing that happiness, or enabling me to bear a fatal reverse, which I may experience as others have done: the complexion of my future fortune being known to Him only in whose power it is to bless to us even our afflictions.”

“I was put to the grammar-school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me, as the tithe of his sons, to the service of the Church.”

“If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.”

“My indiscrete disputations about religion began to make me pointed at with horror by good people as an infidel or atheist.”

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

“I grew fond of her company, and, being at that time under no religious restraint, and presuming upon my importance to her, I attempted familiarities (another erratum) which she repuls'd with a proper resentment”

“We never worked on Saturday, that being Keimer's Sabbath, so I had two days for reading.”

“For the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”

“I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho' some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. 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. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induc'd me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increas'd in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contributions, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused. Tho' I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia.”

My Reflections

It is unquestionable that Benjamin Franklin was a spiritual man although he certainly wasn’t the most religious. He spoke frequently about God and religion and their place in society. He grew up in a very religious Protestant family. When he was 8 years old, his father put him in grammar school with the idea that he would become a preacher. Although he had little formal education, Ben Franklin always had a desire to learn new things. His dedication to learning is admirable. However, in the spirit of learning, Ben Franklin questioned many things including his religion. He reasoned that in his mind he was better served to not attend religious worship but rather use that time to study. In a sense, learning and reason became his religion.

Ben Franklin became a Deist, which is belief in God only based on nature and reason, because he found that he more often than not agreed with their reason on most issues. Ben Franklin fell into the same trap that so many people fall into today. By most accounts, he tried to live a virtuous life although he certainly had his struggles. His concern was primarily to avoid confrontation with anyone when it came to religion or religious beliefs and that it was best to simply get along with people regardless of their religious beliefs. He followed the mantra ‘live and let live,’ but in placing all his trust in reason he often tried to justify unreasonable behavior. Take his following quote for instance: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

The problem with his form of moral relativism is that it denies an absolute truth. Without absolute truth, any individual can justify nearly any action and consider it good and moral. As Christians, we know and understand that there is absolute truth and that it is found in Jesus Christ and his church. Many of these absolute truths do not even require a religious belief, but they are written on each of our hearts. Not every action is a good or moral action. There is such a thing as right and wrong. Denial of truth will not lead to utopia, but a society that has no rules or moral backbone. It will lead to anarchy. It is not charitable to simply allow people to live in serious sin. As St. Paul wrote and I am paraphrasing, if the sin is not deadly we may be better served to not bring attention to it but to pray for that person. However, if the sin is deadly we have a responsibility to bring it to the attention of the person for their own well being. Our concern should not be solely focused on the effect it has on this world, but also the eternal effect our actions or in actions have on our souls and the souls of others. Ben Franklin said that he believed in life after death, but he didn’t allow that belief to guide his beliefs or decisions. He placed his trust in his own reason to guide his beliefs and decisions and he refuted any religious dogma that might possibly cause division. Unfortunately, the truth will often cause division. This must not prevent us from proclaiming the truth. In fact, it should inspire us to proclaim the truth all the louder so long as we proclaim it with charity and love.

A perfect example of the problem of the religion of reason and how it can be unreasonable is seen in Ben Franklin’s following quote: “I grew fond of her company, and, being at that time under no religious restraint, and presuming upon my importance to her, I attempted familiarities (another erratum) which she repuls'd with a proper resentment.” Ben Franklin had a son out of wedlock and attempted to have relations with a married woman, but his reasoning did not see these acts as morally wrong. Instead, he saw them as religious restraints which did not fit in with his desired lifestyle. Of course when his advancement on the woman backfired on him, he was regretful but this regret was more due to the end result than the action itself.

I very much enjoyed reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I learned much more about the man and now understand a little bit better about the mindset of the people at that time in history. I have learned that Ben Franklin’s curiosity led him to some of the most amazing discoveries, but it also led him to stray away from a belief in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. He developed his own personal religion based on reason and a list of virtues. These virtues if carried out are good in and of themselves, but a good deed lacks it’s effect if the intent is not also for the right reasons. The American citizen and the human race have benefited from many of Benjamin Franklin’s discoveries. He was also critical in securing our country’s independence and although he himself was a deist, he understood the importance of religion and saw the good effects religion had on people. He along with our other founders place the highest importance on every person’s right to freedom of religion and for that I am very grateful. Benjamin Franklin may not have been a perfect example of how to live a Christian life, but he was undoubtedly a great American. If you have any interest in American history or the insights and life of one of the countries founders, I highly recommend this book.

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