Sunday, September 13, 2009

Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield

Some time ago I picked up a small paperback edition of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin at Barnes and Noble. It is a part of a series published by that same company under the heading "The Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading". Another I have in that series is Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

In chapter eight of my edition (chapter ten of the on-line edition) I ran across Franklin's experiences with and thoughts about the Rev. George Whitefield. Whitefield was an evangelical Calvinist whom God used to proclaim the gospel during the period now known as the Great Awakening. He was a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards and the Wesley brothers and along with the Wesley brothers is considered a founder of the modern Methodist church.

This chapter was so interesting to me that I decided to provide excerpts here along with my thoughts. I hope it will be worth your time.

The first excerpt begins now:

"In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refus'd him their pulpits, and he was oblig'd to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admir'd and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils."
It takes only a general knowledge of Mr. Whitefield's life and preaching to confirm that he was completely orthodox in his theology. What, then, led the church leaders of his day to reject him their pulpits as is reported by Franklin? I speculate it was his methodology which may have been a bit unorthodox to their sensibilities. Or it may have been due to a bit of jealousy, a malady to which many preachers seem to be susceptible. If anyone reading this has a thought, or some clarity to add, I would love to hear from you in the comments section.

I have to laugh at Franklin, though I admire much of his thinking, when I read his viewpoint on the content of Whitefield's preaching. Franklin was a very self-righteous individual, as his autobiography expresses so well. Though he was brought up Presbyterian, he openly questioned many of the tenets of that faith that he had been taught as a child. His personal theology, as expressed in this autobiography, seems a bit ironic to me. He confesses that he could not accept the Christian doctrines on "God's eternal decrees, election, reprobation, so forth", yet he finally settles upon the idea, based purely on his own reasoning, of a God who is benevolent, expects virtue of his creatures, judges sin either in this life or the next, and works providentially in the lives of men. To believe in God's providence, but not in his eternal decree seems inconsistent to me, but somehow seemed consistent to him. I would surmise that this is due to the fact that Franklin was more concerned about personal virtue than about theology itself, viewing the latter as less important. His complaint, for example, about the local Presbyterin minister, whom he supported financially but not with his attendance or other assistance, was that this man seemed to be more interested in making his congregants good Presbyterians than good citizens.

As I said, Franklin was a self-righteous man, believing himself to be responsible for living as virtuous a life as possible, but believing this chiefly because his saw (properly) that a virtuous life was the key to attaining as much personal happiness as possible. To Franklin, a virtuous life was a good life was a happy life and a citizenry armed with this knowledge would lead to the best possible society. Thus, Franklin's gospel was the gospel of virtuous living, attainable by anyone who set his mind to it. Innate to this belief was a belief in the inherent goodness and ability of man to be virtuous. His own personal experiences, as related in a previous chapter to this one, would seem to belie this, nevertheless he perseveres.

All of this leads me to chortle at his reaction to Whitefield's proclamation of the gospel, the foundation of which is that man is inherently wicked. At this point Whitefield and Franklin lock horns and are, sadly, never reconciled. Look, again, at Franklin's assessment of Whitefield's declaration of human depravity:
". . . notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils."
Yet, in this same autobiography, we find that his personal experiences in seeking to obtain moral perfection taught him that (a) he was far less virtuous than he had at first thought, that (b) the struggle for virtue was made more difficult by his own reason which constantly sought to make excuses for his not being as virtuous as he, at other times, wished to be, and (c) that he never was able to arrive at perfection, it being what he found to be an impossible task.

Franklin's view of the human condition was that man was inherently good and should seek to attain as virtuous a life as possible because this was the road to a better life and society. The Christian viewpoint, however, is that man is inherently evil, that unless God supernaturally intervenes he will remain so, and that true virtue can only be obtained through faith in God's grace, because of the finished work of Christ at Calvary. Franklin leaves men dependent upon themselves for goodness and happiness while Whitefield points them to dependence upon God for the same.

Perhaps I shall continue this line of posting and try to get something up more than once a month.