Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Religion

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And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all Humility to acknowledge, that I owe the mention'd Happiness of my past Life to his kind Providence, which led me to the Means I us'd and gave them Success. (1.2)

Franklin plays it safe here by openly acknowledging God, just to make sure no one thinks that the fact he doesn't go to church makes him a non-believer. Quite the opposite. This kind of language strikes a pious and virtuous note right out of the gate: there's nothing more humble than chalking your success up to God.

My Parents had early given me religious Impressions, and brought me through my Childhood piously in the Dissenting Way. But I was scarce 15 when, after doubting by turns of several Points as I found them disputed in the different Books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. (1.88)

This is a pretty brave thing for Franklin to say. After all, some people have been hanged or burned for less than saying flat out that they have "doubt[s] of Revelation." This statement shows confidence about any potential repercussions to this statement and provides evidence (reading material) for why he has these doubts in the first place.

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; […] new Places of worship were continually wanted, and […] my Mite for such purpose, whatever might be the Sect, was never refused. (2.38)

This is pretty open-minded for an eighteenth-century guy. Franklin doesn't get into any fights about whose religion is better or worse, and he openly and generously gives to all religious causes that need help.

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. (2.39)

Franklin is talking here about the gap between private virtue and public appearances. While church services really aren't for him, he doesn't mind providing them for other people. Since he thinks public services seem proper and useful, he has no problem contributing to the Presbyterian minister's salary, even though you'd never catch him listening to the sermons.

O Powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! Increase in me that Wisdom which discovers my truest Interests; Strengthen my Resolutions to perform what that Wisdom dictates. (2.48)

In contrast to Franklin's numerous comments about not believing in organized religion or attending church services, it's refreshing to hear him speak about his beliefs, which are important to him. This example of a prayer Franklin wrote is an interesting mixture of piety and praise for God with realistic interest in self-betterment.

It will be remark'd that, tho' my Scheme was not wholly without Religion there was in it no Mark of any of the distinguishing Tenets of any particular Sect. (2.54)

Throughout the book, Franklin is pointing out the difference between religion as belief, religion as virtue, and religion as specified by sect (denomination). Also, while Franklin says there's no "mark" of any other "sect" in his plan, we could argue that there are signs of his extremely particular belief system, which almost counts as its own, individualized kind of organized religion. What we're trying to say is, even when you're trying not to participate in organized religion, you ended in something that's organized, if only by virtue of its refusal to be organized as something else.

[God] ought to be worshiped by Adoration, Prayer and Thanksgiving.
But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man. […]
And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice either here or hereafter. (3.4)

In another of Franklin's prayers, he presents some pretty traditional-sounding Christian beliefs: that God should be worshipped through prayer and thanks, and that people's actions in life will have consequences either in heaven or on earth. Franklin's prayer is notable, though, for the way it prioritizes doing good works for other people as the most important way of serving God, showing it as even more important than prayer or traditional worship.

I stuck by him, however, as I rather approv'd his giving us good Sermons compos'd by others, than bad ones of his own Manufacture; tho' the latter was the Practice of our common Teachers. (3.10)

Franklin has a different system of judgment than most: because this guy is preaching the kinds of ideas Franklin approves of, he doesn't care that Hemphill is really giving other people's sermons. Even though we treat copying and plagiarism as sins today, Franklin treats that as way less important than the big ideas that are being conveyed in those unoriginal sermons. It pushes us to ask what we consider more important: originality or goodness.

It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners of our Inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about Religion, it seem'd 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. (3.20)

While Franklin isn't a churchgoer or an advocate for any particular religious sect – except his own, non-sect beliefs – he's open-minded enough to still consider people's beliefs in religion a good thing and support them in his society. His use of the word "wonderful" here is really interesting, too. While it can mean awesome or great, it can also mean miraculous or amazing. This religious fervor is, in a way, a miracle.

My being many Years in the Assembly, the Majority of which were constantly Quakers, gave me frequent Opportunities of seeing the Embarrassment given them by their Principle against War, whenever Application was made to them by Order of the Crown to grant Aids for military Purposes. (3.39)

Here we come against one reason why Franklin may react so strongly against forms of organized religion: he disagrees with how aspects of some faith systems can interfere with what he sees as necessary life needs. Because Quakers are pacifists, it's against their beliefs to vote for or support military offenses or militia preparation. While Franklin values their right to their beliefs, he stresses the impracticality of pacifism in a situation like the colonists' during the French and Indian War, when not preparing properly for battle could lead to all their deaths.

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