Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Ben Franklin v. Thomas Paine

Ben Franklin is one of those Founders most likely to be thought of as a “deist.” Now, perhaps that term, in some sense, describes Franklin’s creed, but not in the same sense that it describes Thomas Paine’s.

At American Creation Tom Van Dyke has a good post on why Franklin was not a “deist” as that term is commonly understood. I’m going to feature a letter of Ben Franklin’s where he criticizes the Bible and compare it to Thomas Paine’s biblical criticism. This comparison should show the difference between Paine’s deism and Franklin’s theology which arguably should not be termed “deism” but something else [though it’s certainly not orthodox Trinitarian Christianity].

Franklin’s letter is to John Calder, Augt. 21. 1784. The context is Franklin discusses his disagreement with a clause in PA’s then existing constitution which required “Members of Assembly” to declare their belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible. Franklin, as acting governor of PA, eventually saw the offending religious test removed and replaced with one that required simple belief in “God and a future state of rewards and punishments.”

As you will see, in the letter Franklin complains about PA’s religious test, in part, because he himself couldn’t pass it. As he wrote to Calder:

I agreed with you in Sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the Clause in our Constitution, which required the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it was given by divine Inspiration, had better have been omitted….To which I may now add, that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib’d to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole.

By the way how goes on the Unitarian Church in Essex Street? and the honest Minister of it, is he comfortably supported?

Notice that Franklin doesn’t slam the Bible in its entirely, just certain “parts” of it he sees as impossible to have been given by divine inspiration. Indeed, Franklin intimates his acceptance of at least *some* revelation by speaking of a particular “Unitarian Church” and its “honest minister” in positive terms. Those “Unitarian Churches,” just beginning to gain the strength to come out of the closet and challenge “the orthodox,” weren’t slamming the Bible in toto the way we will see Paine doing; but they weren’t proclaiming it the inerrant, infallible Word of God either. Rather, they took a more “enlightened” approach to the good book.

Now, here is the way Thomas Paine approached the Bible. From “The Age of Reason”:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.

I think in reading the two approaches, we see both Franklin and Paine disbelieved the Bible was the inerrant, infallible Word of God. However, the difference between the two is that there was enough in the Bible with which Paine disagreed that he wrote off the entire Bible, disbelieving that any of it was divinely inspired. But Franklin did not “renounce the whole” as Paine did.


  1. #1 Bob Johnson
    January 17, 2009

    Great post! I’m glad to see people are finally starting to talk about Deism.

    There is no question that Thomas Paine was a strong Deist. His outstanding book, The Age of Reason, makes his Deism very clear. Also, his essays and letters ( http://www.deism.com/paine.htm ) show the same Deism as his book.

    I think Ben Franklin was a Deist, but he was also a political leader and diplomat so he had to measure his words and couldn’t be as open and blunt as Tom Paine and Ethan Allen were. Ethan Allen wrote the great book Reason: The Only Oracle of Man.

    Regarding Deists not believing in the influence of Providence, this does not hold for all Deists. Some Deists like George Washington believed in an active but inscrutable Providence. Today in the World Union of Deists, there are Deists who believe there is no influence from Providence in human affairs and there are some who do believe in Providential influence. The only two requirements to be a Deist is to believe by the application of your God-given reason on the laws/designs in Nature that those designs presuppose a Designer and that you reject the unreasonable, various and contradictory claims to divine revelation made by the various and competing “revealed” religions. ( http://www.deism.com/deism_defined.htm )

    Progress! Bob Johnson

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