Benjamin Franklin & the Great Awakening
Modern revisionists of American history tend to depict the country’s founders as a collection of atheists, agnostics, and Deists with little or no interest in God or the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth! The truth is that the nation emerged out of a great Spiritual Awakening and all the founders, to one degree or another, were impacted by this Awakening. In fact, a recent ten-year project to discover where the founding fathers got their ideas for America’s founding documents, found that by far the single most cited authority in their writings was the Bible.
The impact of the Great Awakening (1726-1760) on the founding of America is nowhere more evident than in the life of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) who is widely considered to be one of the least religious of the founding fathers and a Deist. It is true that in his early years he did entertain Deistic views about God and the Bible. However, his religious sentiments and views changed through the years attributable, no doubt, to his exposure to the Great Awakening and his friendship with George Whitefield, the most famous preacher of the Awakening.
Franklin first met Whitefield in 1739 when Whitefield arrived in Philadelphia on a preaching tour along the eastern seaboard. Franklin was astounded at the impact of Whitefield’s preaching on the populace and 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. 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.
Although he preached to the masses, Whitefield knew the power of personal, friendship evangelism and he went out of his way to be a friend to Franklin, even asking Franklin if he could stay in his home when visiting Philadelphia. He also hired Franklin, a printer, to print and distribute his Journal and sought Franklin’s advice in business affairs such as the establishment of an orphanage in Georgia. Franklin welcomed Whitefield into his home, attended his meetings and even contributed financially to his ministry. In his Autobiography Franklin refers to Whitefield as “a perfectly honest man” and describes their friendship as being “sincere on both sides, which lasted till his death.” It is obvious that, in spite of their differences, their friendship ran deep.
In his Autobiography, Franklin acknowledges that Whitefield often prayed for his conversion and admits that Whitefield did not live to see his prayers answered. There is evidence, nonetheless, that Franklin did come to know the Savior that Whitefield so often spoke to him about.
We know that Franklin became an avid reader of the Bible and often attended church, depending on who was preaching. In a letter to his daughter he spoke to her about “the necessity and duty of attending church.” After a voyage to England in 1757, during which the ship almost crashed at midnight into a small rocky island in the Atlantic, Franklin wrote a letter to his wife in which he said;
The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received. If I were a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should, on this occasion, vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light house.
The most telling example of the impact of Whitefield and the Awakening on Franklin came on June 28, 1787, seventeen years after Whitefield’s death. Franklin was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the convention was about to be suspended because of unresolved dissension. It was a very critical moment. Franklin, now 81 years of age, rose to his feet and chided those present for their neglect of prayer and then called upon them to pray and ask God's blessings on their deliberations. He addressed the Convention president, George Washington, with these words.
How has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly appealing to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible to danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard and they were graciously answered. I have lived, sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this. I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of heaven and its blessing on our deliberation being held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business.
Franklin’s words (which were not the words of a Deist) were heeded. One writer has said that, “An atmosphere of reconciliation seemed to descend over the convention hall.” Petty grievances and local interests were laid aside and the delegates went on to complete their task of formulating the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. I think Whitefield must have smiled and all heaven with him.
Whether Franklin ever accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior in the modern evangelical sense, is still questionable. But what is without question is the fact Franklin was profoundly impacted by the Great Awakening and, as a result, he gave up his Deistic views and accepted the fact that the God of the Bible is a personal, caring God who answers prayer. He obviously held to a Christian world view and believed the morals taught by Jesus and the New Testament to be the greatest moral teachings the world has ever known. Such is the legacy of one of the least religious founders of the United States of America.
This truth about Franklin adds credibility to the statement of one of the more religious founders, Patrick Henry, who declared, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This article was derived from America’s Revival Heritage by Eddie L. Hyatt, available from Amazon and from http://www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.