Some have noted that this is the 300th birthday of a truly great American, Benjamin Franklin, born on January 17, 1706. Franklin played an immensely important role in the early history of this nation. But who was Benjamin Franklin, really? Better yet, what did he believe and what difference does it make now?
Franklin was most certainly not an orthodox Christian in the confessional sense of the word. Like many of the founders he had confidence in the principles of right and wrong and most assuredly believed in a God of providence. Franklin often wrote down these principles and certain ideas he was considering at the time. He once wrote what he called "The substance of an intended creed, containing as I thought the essentials of every known religion, and being free of every thing that might shock the professors of any religion." This creed listed the following beliefs of Franklin:
That there is a God who made all things.
That he governs the world by his providence.
That he ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer and thanksgiving.
But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.
That the soul is immortal.
And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice either here or hereafter.
And in a letter to Ezra Stiles, written on March 9, 1790, Franklin added:
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble [Franklin was 84 when he wrote this letter]. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed (italics mine).
Franklin was a good friend of the famous Anglican evangelist George Whitefield, who often urged him to believe the gospel. He relates an unusual, and quite humorous, story about hearing Whitefield preach in Philadelphia to a very large crowd. When an offering was taken for Whitefield’s Georgia orphanage, Franklin gave much more than he planned because of the effect that Whitefield’s earnest appeal had upon his heart and mind.
In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer David Blankenhorn argues that Franklin’s greatest contribution to society, at least today, is the character trait of thrift. He suggests that this is "a complex idea." It means more than managing one’s finances, or merely accumulating wealth. The core idea in Franklin’s thought seems to have been "industry" (diligence) and "frugality" (conservation). The contrary ideas to these are idleness and waste.
Franklin’s idea of thrift also included the pleasure principle, rightly so, and opposed hoarding or seeking wealth simply for wealth’s sake. He saw wealth as "a pathway to humane moral values" adds Blankenhorn. This idea was progressive and broad. It was also nonpartisan and clearly formed charitable behavior.
Thrift sounds "quaint" in the modern context, says Blankenhorn, but we could do much worse than to regain it when we consider how to build true community in the modern world. Franklin’s thought, at similar points, is still worth considering. Poor Richard’s Almanac is still a good place to start.