Benjamin Franklin and the Presbyterians

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One of the most fascinating characters in colonial America is Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). His relationship with Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church of his day is also extraordinarily complex. He claimed in his Autobiography to have been raised "Presbyterian" in Boston, but the Old South Church in which he was baptized and raised was Congregational. (Franklin characteristically did not distinguish between Calvinististic Congregationalism and Presbyterianism.) He thought little of the doctrines of election, describing them as "unintelligible." As a youth, he had a memorable encounter with Cotton Mather (Congregational). His favorite book was John Bunyan's (Baptist) The Pilgrim's Progress. He was a great fan of George Whitefield as well, initially, although his feelings cooled towards Whitefield later on as the latter came to embrace the Log College men.

When he first came to Philadelphia in 1723, he attended a local Quaker meeting house; later he half-heartedly (for Franklin, attending church five Sabbaths in a row was a major achievement) attended the ministry of Jedediah Andrews at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. But as conflicts arose in the following decade over the ministry of assistant pastor Samuel Hemphill, who was expelled by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1735, Franklin defended Hemphill, and left the Presbyterian church he was attending (though he continued to financially support it). As editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette and as publisher, Franklin used the tools at his disposal to critique what he disliked about the Presbyterian church. The year 1735 saw him publish A Defence Of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill's Observations: or, an Answer to the Vindication of the Reverend Commission; and his Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians. In both of these works, he was more concerned to justify a focus on external morality over fidelity to Biblical and Confessional doctrine. In his controversies with the Presbyterians, he famously described using a vulgar term (see Joseph S. Moore, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, p. 39); and he also famously referred to his opponents as "zealous Presbyterians" (letter dated January 9, 1760; also in his Autobiography; see Melvin H. Buxbaum, Benjamin Franklin and the Zealous Presbyterians), writing and publishing works both favorable towards and critical of the Covenanter theology of Alexander Craighead, the Great Awakening, and the Log College men. (Franklin once caused Gilbert Tennent's congregation to move, and declined a request from Tennent for financial assistance, though Franklin did give Tennent "free advice as to the best method of seeking contributions" (Milton J. Coalter, Jr., Gilbert Tennent, Son of Thunder: A Case Study of Continental Pietism's Impact on the First Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies, p. 139.)) Franklin became a Deist in his youth. Beginning in 1731, Franklin was also a Freemason, achieving the rank of Grand Master in 1734, and ultimately, Venerable Master. John Adams, himself a long-time Unitarian, described him thus: "The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker." 

Interestingly, the first treatise published in America to denounce the monarch of Great Britain a tyrant (King Charles II) -- excepting an anonymous 1743 pamphlet said to be written by Alexander Craighead, which was condemned by the Synod of Philadelphia and of which no copy now remains -- was the 1743 Renewal of the Scottish National Covenant and Solemn League and Covenant, which was also work of Alexander Craighead, and which Benjamin Franklin published in 1744 and 1748. It is also said that Craighead, who went on from Pennsylvania to pastor the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina until his death in 1766, inspired the writing of the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which preceded the 1776 Declaration of Independence, of which Benjamin Franklin served on the committee which authored it. Franklin abhorred Craighead's zealous Presbyterianism and would have viewed his brand of Presbyterianism as ecclesiastical and civil tyranny, but came to embrace a zeal for independence from Great Britain, not dissimilar from Craighead, on grounds of rejecting the Crown's civil tyranny.

And yet...from Franklin's own printing press, he published the following by some noted Presbyterian writers, including some available to read here at Log College Press (and some that we hope to add): Ralph Erskine, Gospel Sonnets (1740); Josiah Smith, The Character, Preaching, &c of the Rev. George Whitefield (1740); Samuel Finley (1715-1766)Letter to a Friend, Concerning Mr. Whitefield (1740), Christ Triumphing and Satan Raging (1741), Clear Light Put Out in Obscure Darkness (1743); Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), Remarks Upon a Protestation to the Synod of Philadelphia (1741), A Sermon Upon Justification (1741), Brotherly Love Recommended by the Argument of the Love of Christ (1748), The Late Association for Defense Farther Encouraged (1748); Alexander Craighead (1707-1766), A Discourse Concerning the Covenants (1742), The Reasons of Mr. Alexander Craighead's Receding from the Present Judicatures of this Church, Together With Its Constitution (1743), Renewal of the Covenants, National and Solemn League (1744, 1748); Samuel Davies (1723-1761), A Sermon Preached Before the Reverend Presbytery of New-Castle (1753); Samuel Jacob Blair (1712-1751), The Doctrine of Predestination (1754); Henry Scougal, a German-language edition of his The Life of God in the Soul of Man (1756); and quite a few other Presbyterian works, such as the Westminster Standards (1745).

How to explain his general dislike of and active opposition towards "zealous Presbyterians" while at the same time his willingness to publish many works by such as would fit that description? One must be careful to avoid a simplistic answer to a question involving a man of such complexities as we find in Benjamin Franklin. For example, Franklin, despite his opposition to Gilbert Tennent's views, published several of his works, including a 1747 sermon defending the lawfulness of defensive wars, which must have carried some weight with the man who later designed and proposed a Great Seal for the United States, which contained a scene from Exodus and the words "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." But it is hard to argue with Joseph Moore's remark that the controversies within American Presbyterianism in the 1740s and 1750s caused Franklin to be "elated" because, for a secular printer, "they...were good for business" (Founding Sins, p. 39). And we can be thankful in the providence of God to have many of these works still around today, including those at Log College Press.