An Inconvenient Truth for Secularists and Liberal Progressives
Today--Sunday, January 17--is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. Franklin is well-known for many things, including his inventions, his kite flying, his skepticism and his role as one of America’s most famous Founding Fathers. What is not so well-known about Franklin is that he was one of the movers and shakers who helped spread the religious awakening--known as the Great Awakening--that transformed Colonial America.
This occurred primarily through his friendship and business partnership with George Whitefield, the most famous preacher of the Awakening. Franklin and Whitefield became close friends and Franklin took on the task of printing and distributing Whitefield’s sermons and journals. He also carried reports of Whitefield’s travels and meetings in his popular paper, The Pennsylvania Gazette.
Franklin first met Whitefield in 1739 when the 24-year-old arrived in America to spread the fiery brand of evangelical-revivalism that he and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, had been preaching in England. He arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of that year and immediately attracted large crowds estimated at 10-12,000 who gathered to hear him preach in the open air from the steps of the city courthouse. The population of Philadelphia at the time is estimated to have been around 13,000.
Franklin, at the time, was a skeptical printer, having drifted away from his Christian-Puritan roots in New England and having adopted rationalistic views from the Enlightenment, particularly those known as Deism. He was eight years older than Whitefield and one of the leading and most respected citizens of the city.
Franklin was intrigued at Whitefield’s attraction to the masses and amazed at the crowds that came to hear him preach. He wrote;
The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.[i]
Franklin was obviously thrilled at what he saw and he considered the revival a positive influence on the city. He, in fact, describes the transformation of the manners of the people as “wonderful.” There is not the slightest hint of any concern or hesitation from Franklin concerning this Great Awakening.
He soon made Whitefield’s acquaintance and the two worked out an arrangement for him to publish Whitefield’s sermons and journals. I use the word “publish,” for Franklin not only printed his sermons and journals, but also promoted them and sold them. He had in place the means to do this through the two papers he published, The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac, both very popular and widely distributed.
The demand for Whitefield’s sermons and journals was obviously great for the May 22, 1740 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette carried the notice that “the whole number of names subscribed far exceeds the number of books printed. Those subscribers who have paid or who bring the money in their hands will have preference.” After Whitefield departed Philadelphia, Franklin continued to carry news of his travels and meetings in his papers, thus spreading news of the Awakening and alerting other areas of Whitefield’s arrival.
Franklin obviously played a role in Whitefield’s positive reception in New England and Boston, his city of birth. Franklin’s older brother, James, was a well-established printer in Boston and in a letter to James he told him about his revivalist friend and said, “Whitefield is a good man and I love him.” There can be little doubt that Franklin’s positive attitude toward Whitefield and the Awakening played a major role in Boston and New England giving Whitefield and the Awakening a hearty welcome. Huge crowds gathered everywhere he preached and in Boston he preached to a crowd estimated at 25,000 on the Boston Common.
Whitefield and the Great Awakening had their critics but Franklin was not one of them. He, in fact, came to Whitefield’s defense when some suggested that the offerings he collected for an orphanage in Georgia were actually going into his own pocket. In his Autobiography, written years after the fact, Franklin mentioned this criticism of Whitefield and wrote;
I, who was intimately acquainted with him, being employed in printing his Sermons and Journals, never had the least suspicion of his integrity, but am to this day decidedly of opinion that he was in all his conduct a perfectly honest man.[ii]
The friendship between Franklin and Whitefield continued for 31 years until the time of Whitefield’s death in 1770. During this time, they carried on a continual correspondence by letters in which they shared personally about their lives and goals. Whitefield also stayed in Franklin’s home on subsequent visits to Philadelphia.
An example of the depth of their friendship is demonstrated by a letter Franklin wrote to Whitefield in June of 1757 proposing that they partner together in the founding of a new Christian colony “in the Ohio.” He suggested that they settle there a “religious and industrious people” and declared that it would “greatly facilitate the introduction of pure religion” among the Native Americans in that region. Although time and circumstances did not allow the proposal to be carried out, it shows the depth of respect that Franklin had for Whitefield and his brand of evangelical-revivalism.
Franklin was in London when Whitefield died on the morning of September 30, 1770 in Newburyport, MA after preaching for several hours the day before. Because he was so well-known, condolences poured in from many quarters. When Franklin received word of his friend’s passing, he wrote;
I knew him intimately upwards of 30 years; his integrity disinterestedness, and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work, I have never seen equaled; I shall never see exceeded.
What would Franklin be be referring to in the every good work to which he refers in this eulogy? It most certainly includes Whitefield's tireless labors in traveling and preaching the Gospel throughout Colonial America. Although Whitefield was a humanitarian who raised money for orphanages in both England and America, he was known, first and foremost, for his preaching and revivalism. There is thus no question that Franklin considered the Great Awakening, produced in great part by Whitefield's tireless travels and preaching, to have been a "good work."
These facts about Franklin and his role in spreading the Great Awakening in Colonial America will not be found in the history textbooks used in today’s public schools and colleges. It is an inconvenient truth that the modern secularist chooses to ignore. But for those who love the truth and are committed to following truth wherever it leads, it is like a breath of fresh air to the soul and reminds us of the words of Jesus in John 8:32, And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.