Celebrating 17 years

Franklin’s Youthful Dissertation on Free Will:
Deism Arrives in America

Deism arose in Europe before it arrived in the British colonies of North America. By the first half of the eighteenth century, however, its arrival was anticipated, as was its possible impact on mainstream religions. Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards attempted to minimize its impact by showing how elements of Enlightened thinking, from which deism sprang, were compatible with mainstream Protestant theology. But by mid-century many began to see it as a threat. Deism became a reality in British America by the 1760s, and it remained a major concern through what we term the Era of the American Revolution or the Age of the Founding Fathers, roughly from the 1760s through the 1820s.

Deists, proponents of what is often referred to as a “religion of nature,” grew out of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, natural philosophy, and experience. It challenged the long-held view that God played a direct and immanent role in the world. Instead, they maintained that God created the world and the immutable and absolute natural laws by which the world is governed. Deists did not deny the existence of God, but they were critical of any literal acceptance of revealed religion, or divine revelation, especially its more miraculous or supernatural elements which seemed inconsistent with natural law. Few were explicitly anti-Christian, but they denounced what figures such as Jefferson and Adams criticized as “priestcraft” and “corrupted revelation that had changed a pure gospel of Jesus into a combination of superstition, knavery, and hypocrisy.” [1]

Deists believed that God was “a benevolent, if distant, creator, whose revelation was nature and whose truths were revealed through the use of human reason.” Proof of God’s existence and even His divine character, they insisted, could be found in God’s creation (proof from design) and God as the first cause (cosmological proof). And given God’s existence, man was obliged to worship Him and strive to be virtuous as far as his use of reason applied to God’s creation and laws of nature could determine, most holding out for eternal rewards and punishment. [2] As Kerry Walters has put it: To deists, “traditional and empirical investigation of nature … is the basis of ‘true theology.’” [3]

As Franklin Baumer and others have argued, “it is almost impossible to understand the religious skepticism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment without reference to [the] ‘new nature’ which was constructed by Galileo, Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, and Robert Boyle, among others, in the seventeenth century.” [4] Their story lies beyond the scope of this essay, but it requires us to recognize that none of these leading figures saw any reason for their study of the “new nature” to abandon their Christian faith. For many seventeenth-century scientists, their work was seen as improving our knowledge of the natural world, which would in turn provide them with the opportunity to further reveal the glory of God’s creation. Seen in this light, Baumer has written, the “study of nature was as much a religious activity as attending church or reading the Bible,” [5] and there could be no inconsistency between the knowledge gained from both if properly understood.

Deism among the Founding Fathers

Frank Lambert has argued that “the significance of the Enlightenment and deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” [6] Deism influenced the beliefs of several of America’s Founding Fathers. Although few were pure deists or of like mind with others on all counts, most would have concurred with the definition offered above. They were concerned with morality and preserving the social order in the new republic. They did not see the churches as necessary to that end for themselves, but some harbored doubts concerning the need for the churches among the general population. [7] They continued to believe that religion, even organized religion, played a role in controlling human behavior, and they maintained memberships in mainstream Protestant churches.

Among those Founding Fathers most commonly identified as among the most moderate of deists was Benjamin Franklin. As Edwin Gaustad has written, Franklin “sought conciliation and mediation most of his life on that well-trampled battleground of theology.” [8] And clearly that was the case, when one focuses on his more mature, adult years. A closer examination of Franklin’s youth, however, suggests that his more moderate – even accommodating position in terms of religion – came only with time and even then had its occasional lapses. The best known example of Franklin’s public challenges of traditional, revealed religion in his more mature years is his outspoken position in the Reverend Samuel Hemphill affair in Philadelphia’s Presbyterian Church of which he was a member. In that affair, he defended the more liberal minister, Hemphill, against his more orthodox critics referring to the latter as “Rev. Asses” and “grave and dull Animals.” But that is a subject on which I have already written in his journal. [9]

My focus in this essay is on Franklin’s youth and his religious struggles, and in particular on one incident which is not widely known, except among serious Franklin scholars, and even they have spent little time on it, as it is not consistent with the larger opus of Franklin’s work. As is well known, Franklin was born and raised in a still largely Calvinist Boston, and his father intended his son to become a minister. Instead, Franklin apprenticed as a printer with his brother James’ at The New England Courant.

The two clashed over Benjamin’s anonymously published “Dogood Papers,” which appeared in a series under the pen-name, Silence Dogood, a Boston housewife. Dogood satirized Calvinist doctrines and social mores, raising the ire of many readers with declaration such as: “It is the obligation of all good citizens to criticize hypocritical clergy.” [10] When it became known that Silence Dogood was actually the younger Franklin, Benjamin promptly left Boston, explaining that “my indiscrete disputations about religion began to make me pointed at with horror by good people as an infidel or atheist.” [11] He elaborated in his Autobiography:

My parents had early given me religious impressions and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books that I read [while still working in his brother’s print shop], I began to doubt of Revelation itself…. Some books against Deism fell into my hands …. [the unintended consequence of which was that] the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations. I soon became a thorough Deist. [12]

Franklin moved to Philadelphia in 1723, where he joined and maintained membership in the city’s Presbyterian Church, close of akin to his New England religious heritage. In his Autobiography, he explained his measured commitment:

Although I early absented myself from pubic assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and governed it by his providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter …. Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. [13]

Two years after his arrival in Philadelphia, while still only nineteen years old, Franklin moved to London to expand his knowledge of the printing trade, which he continued to pursue in Philadelphia. He took up residence in an area known as Little Britain, which was not only a center for printers but also a gathering place for leading, and largely liberal, political and religious thinkers of the day – including deists. It would be a fair assumption to make that Franklin, who was already disposed in that direction, fell under their influence. Indeed in the coming months Franklin would publish the most radical religious tract of his life, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain (1725). Our concern in this essay is with his treatment of liberty and necessity, which constitutes the first half of his essay.

Franklin’s Dissertation

Franklin set the stage for his Dissertation by opening with an excerpt from John Dryden’s poem, “Oedipus” (1679), which points to the limits of man’s knowledge of the laws which propel him to act and therefore of the ability to judge the liberty and necessity of his actions:

Whatever is, is in its Causes just
Since all Things are by Fate; but purblind Man
Sees but a part o’ th’ Chain, the nearest Link,
His Eyes not carrying to the equal Beam
That poises all above.

In a common structure of the day, Franklin addressed his dissertation to a “Mr. J. R.” and explains that it is in response to “J. R.’s” request that he is presenting his “thoughts on the general State of Things in the Universe.” In a rather arrogant manner, Franklin adds that he knows his “Scheme will be liable to many Objections from a less discerning Reader than yourself [J.R.]; but it is not design’d for those who can’t understand it.” [14]

The half of Franklin’s Dissertation with which we are concerned, “Of Liberty and Necessity,” is brief and can be presented summarily by simply ordering his basic propositions and arguments from those propositions. He opened with two propositions, which, he explained, are “asserted” by almost every “sect” and therefore to be granted and to serve as the “Foundation” of his argument:

“There is said to be a First Mover, who is called God, Maker of the Universe.”

“He is said to be all-wise, all good, all powerful.”

From those propositions, Franklin reasoned that if God is “all good, whatsoever He doth must be good.” If God is all-wise, “whatsoever He doth must be wise.” If God is all-powerful, “there can be nothing either existing or acting in the Universe against or without his Consent; and what He consents to must be good, because He is good; therefore Evil doth not exist.”

So why is there evil? Franklin explained that “there are both Things and Actions to which we give the Name of Evil,” theft and murder, for example. But such things are “not in reality” evils as they cannot be “contrary to the Will of the Almighty.” That would be “to suppose him not almighty; or that Something (the Cause of Evil) is more mighty than the Almighty,” which contradicts Franklin’s previous propositions. Further, to deny any Thing or Action, which he consents to the existence of, to be good, is to run contrary to his “Attributes of Wisdom and Goodness.”

Franklin anticipated the classical argument for the existence of evil based on permissive or perceptive will, or that all things that happen in the world are either the result of God’s action or with his permission that they be done. He took issue with the distinction between doing and permitting. He countered that if God permits, but does not cause, something to be done, “it is because he wants either Power or Inclination to hinder it.” If he wants power, then he cannot be almighty. If he wants inclination, “it must be either because He is not good, or the Action is not evil (for all Evil is contrary to the Essence of infinite Goodness).” As, once again, the former is contrary to previously accepted propositions concerning the nature of God, the latter must be true. Franklin dismissed those who would argue that perhaps “God permits evil Actions to be done, for wise Ends and Purposes,” by simply arguing that “whatever an infinitely good God hath wise Ends in suffering to be, must be good, is thereby made good, and cannot be otherwise.”

Franklin shifted the focus of his attention at this point from good and evil to liberty and necessity. Building on his earlier propositions concerning the nature of God, he posited that “if a Creature is made by God, it must depend upon God, and receive all its Power from Him; with which Power the Creature can do nothing contrary to the Will of God.” Further, the creature can only do good, once again, because God is almighty and good and nothing can be done contrary to his will or that is not good. Franklin allowed that men may act in such manner that may be considered evil, cause pain to others, and even incur punishment, but again, such actions cannot be actually evil or displeasing to God.

This led Franklin to consider the inevitable conclusion from what he has reasoned thus far, that man is limited in his actions – being able only to do such things as God would have him do, and not being able to refuse doing what God would have him do, whereupon Franklin declared: “then he [man] can have no such Thing as Liberty or Free-will.” In a consistently deistic perspective, Franklin wrote that “as Man is a Part of this great Machine, the Universe, his regular Acting is requisite to the regular moving of the whole,” which is not always known to us. Taking us back to the Dryden verse with which he opened, Franklin explained that in order for us to know what is best to be done, we need to know “all of the intricate Consequences of every Action with respect to the general Order and Scheme of the Universe, both present and future.” Because such knowledge is incomprehensible to anyone but God, the omniscient one, man has but “one Chance to ten thousand to hit on the right Action.” Therefore we are “perpetually blundering in the Dark,” and we would continually choose the wrong course of action if our actions were not “over-rul’d and govern’d by an all-wise Providence.”

Franklin explained: “All the heavenly Bodies, the Stars and Planets, are regulated with the utmost Wisdom! And can we suppose less Care to be taken in the Order of the moral than in the natural System? It is as if an ingenious Artificier, having fram’d a curious Machine or Clock, and put its many intricate Wheels and Powers in such a Dependence on one another, that the whole might move in the most exact Order and Regularity, had nevertheless plac’d in it several other Wheels endu’d with an independent Self-Motion, but ignorant of the general Interest of the Clock; and these would every now and then be moving wrong, disordering the true Movement, and making continual Work for the Mender; which might better be prevented, by depriving them of that Power of Self-Motion, and placing them in a Dependence on the regular Part of the Clock.” And, he concluded, if there is no such thing as free will for men, “there can be neither Merit nor Demerit” among men and “therefore every Creature must be equally esteem’d by the Creator.”

Edwin Gaustad has described Franklin’s Dissertation as asserting that “in this world there is much necessity, hardly any liberty, and virtually no point to religion.” [15] Kerry Walters has argued that it provided for “a forbidding Newtonian-inspired mechanism that left little room for God and none for human freedom.” [16] At the time Franklin wrote this essay, he would have agreed with both observations. What he had written, be believed, was consistently drawn from his contemporary liberal Christian theologians’ view of the universe and its divine origins and the demonstrated existence of God. Where Franklin parted company, and went beyond the pale of even his fellow deists, was in taking his mechanistic view of the world to the extent where man no longer could be seen as having free will and thereby even responsibility for his actions – that evil does not exist and that someone cannot be condemned or praised for his actions, because all actions are willed by God and necessarily good.

Even in the text of his Dissertation, Franklin admitted that his conclusions would meet with “many objections” and “prove mortifying and distasteful,” as they would be seen at “bring[ing] ourselves down to Equality with the Beasts of the Field! with the meanest part of Creation!” Further, he came to believe that his denial of free will and moral accountability would legitimize license. That he could not accept, no matter how solid the internal logic as it failed the test of observation and utility – both equally important to deists, including Franklin. As Steven Waldman has put it, Franklin’s theology emphasized the cultivation of virtue: “God wants us to be happy, and to be happy, we must be good.” [17] Human agency and moral accountability must remain. As a result, Franklin began immediately to retreat to a more moderate deist position – that with which we associate him today. He expressed regrets over its publication – calling it one of the “errata” of his life -- and he tried to suppress its distribution and to recover as many copies of Dissertation as possible. [18]

Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1726 and two years later, in 1728, at the ripe old age of Twenty-two, wrote a memorandum entitled “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion,” in which he articulated his reconsidered thoughts on God and human nature. They included:

“I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being….”

“[T]he infinite Father expects or requires no worship or Praise from us, [as] he is … infinitely above it.”

“But since there is in all Men [who are imperfect] something like a natural Principle which inclines them to Devotion or the Worship of some unseen power ….”

“Therefore I think it seems required of me, and my Duty, as a Man, to pay Divine Regards to Something ….”

“I conceive that … he has given us Reason whereby we are capable of observing his Wisdom in the Creation, [and] he is not above caring for us, being pleased with our Praise, and offended when we slight him, or Neglect his glory.”

“I conceive for many Reasons that he is a good Being, and as I should be happy to have so wise, good and powerful a Being my Friend, let me consider in what Manner I shall make myself most acceptable to him.” [19]

Franklin’s “Articles of Belief,” Walters concludes, “can be seen as a remarkable compromise between his acceptance of the mechanistic God of the Enlightenment and his appreciation of the fact that a meaningful sensibility demands that the ways in which people think about God be psychologically fulfilling.” [20]

That Franklin held his getting religion right as so important can be attested to by the number of times he returned to the subject, continually raising new questions and refining his deistic sentiments, even accommodating orthodox tenets he rejected as a younger man. In 1732, for example, in his “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World,” Franklin allowed for divine intervention, overriding his natural laws. Franklin wrote that “Sometimes [God] interferes by his particular Providence and sets aside the Effects which would otherwise have been produced by [natural] causes.” He affirmed his belief that humans possess free will and therefore are capable of acting in such manner as to harm others, while continuing to assert that virtue was the highest form of worship, and virtue was best attained by striving to emulate nature -- God’s perfect creation. [21]

And in his extensive coverage of revivalist George Whitefield’s visit to the colonies in 1739-1740 in his Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin expressed amazement at the extraordinary influence of Whitefield’s oratory on his hearers, admitting how “wonderful” it was “to see the change soon made in the manners of those who flocked to Whitefield. “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world was growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.” [22]

It is beyond the scope of this essay to continue to trace the continued evolution of Franklin’s moderate deism, but it is interesting to note that many years after publication of his Dissertation Franklin sought to discourage a friend from publishing an anti-ecclesiastical, even antireligious, work by warning of the consequences, which would be “a great deal of Odium” drawn upon him while providing no benefit to others. “He that spits against the Wind, spits in his own Face.” [23]

And finally, it would be appropriate to reference Franklin’s final expression of his religious sentiments, written in 1790, near the end of his life, in a letter to Yale College President Ezra Stiles, who had inquired as to the “Christian convictions.” Franklin wrote:

Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs the World by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life, respect[ing] its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet them.”

He continued:

“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 now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble. 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 …. I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me to be insupportable, and even absurd.” [24]



[1] Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of the Founders: Religion and the New Nation 1776-1826. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004),94-95. See also: Daren Stalof, “Deism and the Founding of the United States”: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/deism.htm

[2] Stalof.

[3] Kerry S. Walters, Rational Infidels: The American Deists (Durango, CO: Longwood Academic Press, 1992), x.

[4] Franklin L. Baumer, Religion and the Rise of Scepticism. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1960), 79.

[5] Baumer 84.

[6] Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 161.

[7] Martin R. Marty, The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion. (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1961), 27.

[8] Gaustad, 63.

[9] Bryan Le Beau, “Franklin and the Presbyterians: Freedom of Conscience Versus the Need for Order”: http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/summer/franklin/

[10] Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. (New York: Random House, 2008), 19.

[11] Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1967), p. 12

[12] Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 55.

[13] Franklin, Autobiography (Vintage), 78-79.

[14] All quotes from Franklin’s Dissertation are from the online copy at: http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf1/m7.htm

[15] Gaustad, 63.

[16] Walters, 45.

[17] Waldman, 20.

[18] Gaustad, 63.

[19] All quotes from “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion” are from the online copy at: http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf2/articles.htm

[20] Walters, 68.

[21] Waldman, 23. All quotes from Franklin’s “On the Providence of God” are from the online text: http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf2/provdnc.htm

[22] Frank Lambert, “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 120.

[23] Quoted in Marty, 27.

[24] Letter dated March 9, 1790, quoted in The Life of Benjamin Franklin, ed. John Bigelow (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1905), III: 457-459.