Thomas Kidd on Benjamin Franklin’s Faith
Date: July 2nd, 2017

Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s most famous Founding Fathers, and is widely regarded as being amongst the “Deist” camp when it comes to religiosity.  Prof. Thomas Kidd, a professor of history at Associate Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, joins us to discuss the life and spiritual development of Ben Franklin.  We begin with a discussion of where Franklin ended his life and why he has a reputation as being a Deist, and what Deism encompasses, particularly in the late 18th century.  We then boomerang to Franklin’s early life growing up in a very strict Calvinist/Puritan household.  The King James Bible had an immense formative impact on Ben’s life, who said in his autobiography that he read it by age five.  We talk about the relationship he had with some of his siblings including Jane Mecon and James, under who he worked as an apprentice in the printing business.  Prof. Kidd walks us through Ben’s rebellious period in his late teens and early twenties, which took him to Philadelphia and abroad to London where he lived a very licentious life for a time.  We also talk about some of his early writings under the pseudonym Silence Dogood, a bit of a poke at the famous preacher Cotton Mather, but one that also showed some degree of reverence for the Christian preacher as well.  Franklin never received much of a formal education despite being very smart.  Tommy speculates that Ben was removed from formal schooling as his parents start to suspect that his contact with educational institutions made him more skeptical of Christianity.  We see how this plays a role in his attitude towards college, including a particular view towards Harvard (which we reveal in the podcast).  Upon returning from London, we learn about how Franklin’s religiosity and experience with religious diversity gives him a more mature view, forming what Dr. Kidd terms a “doctrinal-less moralist Christianity.”  We talk about how religion is laced throughout his most famous writings in Poor Richard’s Almanac and how well he knew the King James Bible, better than many of the more orthodox Christians at the time.  The other major influence on Franklin’s development was his relationship with George Whitefield, which first started as a business partnership (as religious tracts and hymnals were popular sellers for printers at the time), and then later becomes a personal friendship.  Tommy talks about how the two had numerous respectful conversations over their theological differences.  We finish our discussion with Franklin’s later life approaching the US Revolutionary War and Constitutional Convention and how the notion of God’s Providence began to play a larger role in his thinking.  Prof. Kidd ends our discussion with some reflections on why understanding Franklin’s religion remains salient for our contemporary understanding of society. Recorded: May 29, 2017

RELATED LINKS

Prof. Thomas Kidd’s bio at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and Department of History.

Prof. Thomas Kidd’s Twitter feed and blog, The Anxious Bench (with other historians).

Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, by Thomas Kidd.

American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths, by Thomas Kidd.

Baptists in America: A History, by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins.

George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, by Thomas Kidd.

Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, by Thomas Kidd.

God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, by Thomas Kidd.

The First Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, by Thomas Kidd.

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Daniel Dreisbach on Religious Rhetoric in the Founding Era.

Should Christians Have Fought in the US Revolutionary War? A Debate.

Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.

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