Franklin, The Freethinker
by Joseph Lewis
from Atheism and Other Addresses
|Address delivered January 17, 1925 by Joseph Lewis at the banquet of the Freethinkers' Society of New York, at the Hotel Astor, New York City. -- Also over Radio Station WGBS.|
We meet to-night to celebrate the memory of one of the most illustrious men of the human race, and one of the grandest benefactors of mankind who ever "touched this bank and shoal of time."
No character in all the world was as many-sided as this great genius who did so much for the progress and development of the race, and who played so major a part in the establishment of our Republic.
The energies of this patriot, philosopher, inventor, discoverer, scientist and humanitarian knew no bounds, and he loved life not for itself alone, but for the usefulness he could render mankind through living. Hardly a spot on the face of the earth has not been benefited for his having lived.
This all-embracing genius was not divinely conceived, nor miraculously born. His parentage is authentically recorded, and as an infant he was not found in the bulrushes; and yet, if there ever was a "Moses," the symbol of a divine lawgiver with a message from the God of the Universe (if there be one), his name was Benjamin Franklin!
His code of morals is far superior to the broken tablets of Sinai. And despite the fact that Benjamin Franklin was a child of "God-fearing" parents, he was born an infidel, a heretic and a skeptic. He was born on Sunday! The first word uttered was a cry of blasphemy, a thundering defiance to Jehovah, and a challenge to the superstitious of his day. For in Franklin's day to be born on Sunday meant to have been conceived on Sunday, and no such desecration should be made of the Sabbath, which belonged wholly and exclusively to the Lord. The Lord's Day Alliance of that time should have been more vigilant in the day of Franklin's parents.
He was the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations, and you can easily perceive with what precision was this man sent to defy the God of his day.
Although given a strict religious training in his childhood, with much thought devoted to preparing him for the ministry, fortunately we find Franklin in his early manhood frequenting a club of Freethinkers. Once emancipated from the narrowness and bigotry of religious dogma, his heart and mind were free for the love of mankind.
The great fault with the human race is not lack of love, but misdirected love. Nearly all the wealth, energy, and intellect of the world have been squandered upon religion. So much love was given to "God" that there was none left for the human family. To fear God and appease his anger by worshipping him was believed to be the highest duty of man in those days.
Franklin's endeavors were not to lessen that love which springs eternal in the human heart, but to direct it from the sky to the earth. Were humanity loved with but half the zeal that has been bestowed upon "The Prince of the Power of the Air," the human family would not be in its present desperate plight. Hatred, bigotry and prejudice would long since have vanished from the human mind. The problems of disease, dissension and war would have long since been solved. Happiness would now be reigning upon the earth, and injustice would be as rare as is justice to-day. The question of buttoning the collar in front or behind would be material fit only for the comic sheet.
Since Sunday was the day Franklin chose for his appearance upon earth, he very early in life made it his business to devote that day to reading and writing and the cultivation of his intellect. Sundays, he said, were too precious to be wasted on prayer meetings when they could be used for mental culture. Was a fairer exchange ever made? And yet Franklin was not without his reason for not attending Sunday services of the church. Franklin did not do things without a reason, and a good and sufficient reason at that; and so he gives us his reasons for not attending church services.
"The Discourses of the preachers," he said, "were chiefly arguments of explanation of the peculiar doctrines of their sects," and these doctrines he found to be "dry, uninteresting, and unedifying; not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced." In fact, he said: "the aim seemed to be rather to make us good Presbyterians [that was the creed of his parents] than good citizens."
Franklin believed in good works rather than in worship. "Revealed religion," he said, "had no weight with me"; and here he makes the vital distinction between religion and morals, when he said "truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man are of the utmost importance to the felicity of life." The church is concerned with making good adherents to the creed, and not in making good citizens. Morality is concerned with good citizenship.
Franklin states further, that religion does not tend to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, but serves principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another. "Serving God," says Poor Richard, "is doing good to man, but praying is thought an easier serving, and therefore most generally chosen."
The charge that unbelief is without an incentive to good actions is refuted by Franklin himself. When the preacher Whitefield visited America, he found himself without lodging, and the good Franklin offered him the hospitality of his home.
Referring to Whitefield's acceptance, Franklin writes: "He replied that, if I made that offer for Christ's sake, I should not miss a reward. And I returned, 'Don't let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ's sake, but for your sake.'"
The preacher Whitefield often prayed for his host's conversion, but "never," said Franklin, "had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard."
Morality was always the important thing to Franklin's mind and anything that tended to promote morality received his hearty support. Perhaps it was for this reason that he so often criticized religion.
Although Franklin avoided churchgoing, there were times when he attended church, and his experiences are well worth noting. After following a crowd of people on a Sunday morning, he was led into the great meeting house of the Quakers. "There," he said, "I sat down among them, and, looking around awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy through labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to arouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia."
No one can object to the church being put to such a use; and were all churches converted into lodging houses, their benefit to society would be increased manyfold.
On another occasion, Franklin was attracted to church by a young preacher named Hamphill, whose sermons, Franklin said, we not of the dogmatic kind, but "inculcated strongly the practice of virtue or good works." The older clergymen of that time were vociferous in their denunciation of the strange young preacher, and branded his appearance as a "dreadful plot laid by Satan to root Christianity out of the world," asserting that his eloquence attracted only "Freethinkers, Deists, and nothings." Needless to say clergymen were not more liberal then than they are now, and the young preacher was tried for heresy and convicted. It is interesting to note that the only clergyman who commanded the attention of Franklin was so liberal in his views that he was put out of the Church.
Church disputes were prevalent in Franklin's day just as they are in our time, and will continue to be until the church abandons its false premise. On this point Franklin said: "Each party abuses the other; the profane and the infidel believe both sides, and enjoy the fray; the reputation of religion in general suffers and its enemies are ready to say, not what was said in primitive times, 'Behold how these Christians love one another,' but 'Mark how these Christians hate one another!' Indeed, when religious people quarrel about religion, or hungry people quarrel about victuals, it looks as if they had not much of either among them."
Franklin thought that "original sin" was a detestable doctrine, and his idea of the Sabbath may be summarized by his reference to his partner, a Mr. Keimer: "Keimer wore his beard long, because Moses has somewhere said, 'Thou shalt not mar the corners of thy beard.' He likewise observed the Sabbath; and these were with him two very essential points. I disliked them both."
And when Franklin was in Paris this observation struck him very forcibly, and in a letter to a friend he wrote: "When I traveled in Flanders I thought of your excessively strict observation of Sunday, and that a man could hardly travel on that day among you upon his lawful occasions without hazard of punishment, while where I was everyone traveled, if he pleased, or diverted himself in any other way, and in the afternoon both high and low went to the play or the opera, where there was plenty of singing, fiddling, and dancing. I looked around for God's judgments, but saw no sign of them. The cities were built and full of inhabitants, the market filled with plenty, the people well favored and well clothed, the fields well tilled, the cattle fat and strong, the fences, houses and windows all in repair, and no 'old tenor' anywhere in the country; which would make one almost suspect that the Deity was not so angry at that offense as a New England justice."
These words of Franklin should be engraved upon fine parchment, suitably framed, and presented to the Lord's Day Alliance.
Franklin's complete emancipation from the superstitions of his day came about when, as he said, "Some volumes against Deism fell into my hands. They were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's lecture. It happened that they produced on me an effect the opposite of what was intended by the writer; for the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be refuted, appealed to me much more forcibly than the refutation itself. In a word I soon became a thorough Deist." The word "Deist" of Franklin's day has its exact counterpart in the word "Freethinker" to-day. And how many thousands of our leading men and women have been emancipated as a result of theologians quoting Freethought arguments in an endeavor to answer them?
We cannot overlook the influence exercised upon Franklin's mind by his association with that little club of Freethinkers with which he came in contact early in life. The discussions he heard there opened his mind to see both sides of a controversy; they taught him to use reason as his guide.
A little more than a hundred years later, another band of Freethinkers were again to give to the world an invaluable contribution when it freed the mind of Abraham Lincoln from the superstitions of religion and stirred him to the needs and want of humanity. And perhaps in our own band of Freethinkers there is a Franklin or a Lincoln in the making.
Although not yet eighteen years of age, says one of his biographers, Franklin began to write vigorous attacks against religion. And when the opportunity presented itself to assist his brother in publishing a paper called the New England Courant, the pen that was destined to be read and admired the world over poured its satire upon the miserable and degrading superstitions of Puritanism. Although his brother was jailed for the blasphemies, for which no doubt Benjamin was responsible, Franklin continued with his assaults upon the stupidities of his time.
In humor, Franklin found one of his most effective weapons against religion. And oh, how deadly is humor to religion! Joy is a child of Satan. His most successful hoax was the composition of a satire of the fifty-first chapter of Genesis. In the language of the Bible he wrote out a parable against persecution, and committed it to memory. Then, whenever the question of religion was discussed, he would very solemnly open the Bible and seemingly begin to read -- to the mystification and ultimate confusion of his opponents.
Piqued and stung by the constant lashing and ridicule heaped upon them by this unusual young man, the clergy sought protection from further attacks.
No less a personage than Cotton Mather was prompted to pay this tribute to Franklin's courage and daring: The New England Courant, he declared, was "full-freighted with nonsense, unmanliness, raillery, profaneness, immorality, arrogance, calumnies, lies, contradictions, and what not, all tending to quarrels and division and to debauch and corrupt the minds and manners of New England.
Coming from a man of the mentality of Cotton Mather, I consider this the greatest tribute that was ever paid to Franklin. And yet I doubt very much whether some of the clergymen of to-day have advanced intellectually very much further than this Puritan divine.
To prove the charges against this blasphemous paper and bring about its suppression, Increase Mather quotes this statement from its pages:
"If ministers of God approve of a thing, it is a sign it is of the devil; which is a hard thing to be related."
Franklin may have written this merely as a piece of satire, but many a true word is spoken in jest.
Even Harvard College was not free from Franklin's attacks. For he wrote that most of the graduates, whom he characterized as stupid, went into the Church which he described as a temple of Ambition and Fraud, controlled by money.
This virile paper was finally suppressed, "because it mocked religion, brought the Holy Scriptures into contempt and profanely abused the faithful ministers of God."
Franklin was a prophet of far more accuracy than the Apostles of Doom of his day, and although he was not a divinely appointed representative of God, who can deny he did not possess supernatural prophetic powers in his prediction:
"Of the Fruits of the Earth."
"I find this will be a plentiful year of all manner of good things, to those who have enough; but the Orange Trees in Greenland will go near to fare the worse for the Cold. As for Oats, they'll be a great Help to Horses."
Much awe and reverence are inspired by the so-called miracle of Christ and Peter walking upon the water; but it is not generally known that Franklin was capable of sleeping upon the water. He records this miraculous performance himself in the following note:
"I went at noon in the Martin salt-water bath, and, floating on my back, fell asleep, and slept near an hour by my watch without sinking or turning! a thing I never did before and should have hardly thought possible. Water is the easiest bed that can be."
Persecution did not deter Franklin from his criticism of the Bible nor of religion in general. In an essay on "Toleration" note with what force he states the truth:
"If we look back into history for the character of the present sects of Christianity, we shall find that few have not in their turn been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves in England and America."
All of which merely emphasizes the fact that Religious Liberty is safe only in the hands of the Freethinker, whose philosophy of freedom of thought is expressed by Thomas Paine in the words, "He who would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression." Religious sects differ about interpretation; the minority use the arguments of liberalism to justify their existence; but history proves, as Franklin so pungently puts it, that when minorities become the majorities and possess the power, dogmatism overshadows the principles of Liberty which permitted their existence, and they in turn become the persecutors of others and are as tyrannical with their powers as those who previously endeavored to force them to conformity.
The philosophy of Freethought is the principle of the open mind. Difference of opinion and the unbound avenue of investigation are essential to its existence. It gives the same right to change an opinion as to accept one, and respects the honest conclusions of others. Is it any wonder, then, that the Freethinker Franklin could travel from one country to another and be respected by all the differing sects? He looked with understanding and sympathy upon them all.
Franklin knew the importance of placing all religions upon the same basis, and when he laid down this premise it was one of the soundest pieces of political advice that this great statesman gave to the world in his vast volume of political philosophy.
He said: "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil powers, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."
If the exemption of church property continues to be granted in this country, a problem of no mean dimensions will have to be faced before many years have passed. Franklin never gave a better warning nor sounder advice than when he made that statement.
"To exempt the church from taxation," says Ingersoll, "is to pay part of the priest's salary."
Let us resolve now, in the name and memory of the great Franklin, to wage a relentless war upon this unjust taxation of the people. Let us inscribe on our banner: "Equal rights for all, special privileges to none."
The fame of Franklin, having spread far and wide for the blessings his genius had brought to the people, prompted many communities to do honor to his name. One particular community in the State of Massachusetts decided to name their town after him. And, as they also wished to build a steeple to their church, they asked him to make a contribution toward the bell. In a letter to Richard Price, of England, a well-known infidel of that time, Franklin thus sets forth his views:
"My nephew, Mr. Williams, will have the honor of delivering you this line. It is to request from you a list of books, to the value of twenty-five pounds, such as are most proper to inculcate sound religion and good government. A town in the State of Massachusetts having done me the honor of naming itself after me, and proposing to build a steeple to their meeting house if I would give them a bell, I have advised the sparing themselves the expense of a steeple, for the present, and that they would accept the books instead of a bell, sense being preferred to sound."
And remember that Dr. Price, the infidel, was the one whom Franklin instructed to select the books that would be most conducive to "sound religion and good government."
On another occasion, while traveling to Europe with his son, his ship encountered a storm at sea, and was saved from shipwreck through the fortunate existence of a lighthouse. In writing to his wife of this experience, Franklin said: "If I were a Catholic, on my arrival home I would ask subscriptions to build a church, but being an unbeliever, will raise the money to build a lighthouse instead."
While speaking of England and Franklin's association with that country, I must not forget to mention that while there Franklin was seen regularly at a coffee house, the haven of Freethinkers.
It was at this coffee house that he met a young man who was desirous of making his acquaintance -- a young man whose name was Thomas Paine. And if Franklin did nothing else to entitle him to the everlasting gratitude of the American people, the letter of introduction which he gave Paine, with the advice that he come to the American shores to make his home, would be sufficient.
And in discussing Thomas Paine and the religious convictions of Benjamin Franklin I would be remiss in my duty if I failed to make mention of the fraud perpetrated upon the honored names of both of these illustrious men.
It is claimed by some religious zealots, that before publishing his immortal Age of Reason Paine showed the manuscript to Franklin to get his opinion of it. And Franklin is said to have written Paine a rather lengthy letter, in which he advised him against the publication of the book. The letter was supposed to have been found among the effects of Franklin after his death and had been captioned, "Don't Unchain the Tiger." The sense of the letter is, that if people are so bad with religion they will be worse without it.
Since it is frequently necessary to refute the lies that have so often been woven around our great men, in order to get a true estimate of them, it is needful to expose this falsehood that a true conception of Franklin and Paine may be made plain to all, and at the same time expose the mendacity and the desperate ends to which the religious forces will go to vilify the name of one and falsify the words of another in order to accomplish their vicious ends.
I doubt that Franklin ever wrote that letter, or, if he did, that it was intended for Paine. The letter is addressed to no one, and superscribed by no one. And does anyone believe that if Franklin really wrote that letter he would not have signed it? Franklin was accused of many things by the enemies of his day, but cowardice was not one of them And how could Franklin condemn in another the very things he had himself been doing? Did not Franklin attack religion at every opportunity? And are not the sentiments contained in the Age of Reason identical with the thoughts expressed by Franklin?
Could a more vicious piece of propaganda be circulated to discredit two of the greatest men of America just because they were unorthodox in religion, disbelievers in the inspiration of the Bible, and doubters of the divinity of Christ?
But another important point concerning this letter, and perhaps the most important of all, is this: Franklin is supposed to have written this letter in 1786. Paine did not write the Age of Reason until 1793, when he was confined in the Luxembourg prison in Paris. Franklin died in 1790, three years before the Age of Reason was published! Moreover, Paine specifically states that "I follow the rule I began with Common Sense, that is, to consult nobody, nor let anybody see what I write till it appears publicly." With these facts before us how is it possible that this letter, supposedly written by Franklin, referred to the Age of Reason.
This letter that Franklin is supposed to have written to Paine brings to mind the charge made concerning Ingersoll and his profligate son.
An all too pious clergyman had stated that Ingersoll's son, bred in a home of Infidelity, had gone insane, and had died in an insane asylum; to which Ingersoll replied; "My son was not a profligate; he was never insane, he did not die in an asylum; in face, I never had a son."
And then again, how can such a letter be representative of Franklin's convictions, when at the age of eighty, but three years before his death, he wrote to a correspondent in England, in which he asks to be remembered "affectionately to good Dr. Price and the honest heretic, Dr. Priestly," and continues:
"I do not call him honest by way of distinction, for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude, or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of their virtues, as that would give advantage to their enemies; and they have not, like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however, mistake me. It is not, my good friends, to heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, it is his honesty that has brought upon his head the character of a heretic."
Few of us to-day can fully realize the mental night that darkened the world in Franklin's time. Witchcraft was everywhere dominant. Every conceivable superstition held sway over the minds of the people. The most horrible crimes were committed in the name of religion. Cotton and Increase Mather were the intellects who ruled. And although the great souls who lived before Franklin had broken to some degree the tyrannical power of priest and king, and here and there the monsters of religion had been driven from the face of the earth, the winds, the rain, the storm, the sunshine and the seasons were still believed to be the caprices of God. And even though you were not burned at the stake for disbelieving the inspiration of the Bible, the wrath of God would yet fall upon you at Judgment Day. The cringing mass was awed into submission by warnings from above. Was not thunder the voice of God: and did not lightning reveal his anger and strike many dead?
But in 1752, on the banks of the Schuylkill River, came one of the most significant triumphs for the liberation of man. Benjamin Franklin, through his successful experiment with the kite, discovered the true nature of electricity, tore the mask from the face of Jehovah, and freed the heavens of a hideous monster.
The thunderbolt was no longer the manifestation of God's anger, nor the lightning of his wrath. The mind of man was completely emancipated from the fear of God.
It is difficult to realize the complete revolution this discovery made upon the human race, or how far it was responsible for the triumphs of the nineteenth century. With it Franklin's fame, already world-wide, was intensified into universal approbation.
The only dissenting voice was that of the clergy. They feared with their whole being, and rightly, too, the consequences of his achievement -- the lightning rod. They roundly termed it the "heretical rod" and refused to desecrate their churches with it, although as a consequence God particularly singled them out for destruction. Prayer, supplication and the ringing of bells were the methods they employed to forestall the lightning or to calm the rising flood.
The clergy of that day, not unlike some to-day, could not reconcile their calling with the impious work of an "arch infidel." There has always been hesitancy in accepting the achievements of the leaders and pioneers of progress, and always because it was in conflict with "God's word."
History is but a continuous narrative of the steps of progress, each one of which the Church has bitterly contested.
Franklin's "Heretical Rod" has been a mighty instrument for the liberation and progress of man. It has released us from the terror of the Unknown, and the debt the world owes this infidel is greater than it can pay.
After a life so full of good works, so resplendent with achievements, so crowded with accomplishments, and so marked with unselfishness, this grand man, grander than all the saints, honored the world over and loved by his countrymen as their father, "shuffled off his mortal coil"; and, although he wrote an epitaph for his tomb, what more appropriate and fitting could be said of this great Freethinker than those words of Shakespeare:
"The elements were
so mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man.'"