Franklin and Emerson’s use of Religious Rhetoric

By July 22, 2008

America has often been described as a Christian nation, and whatever currency the title holds presently, it was certainly applicable during the first century and a half of the nation’s life. This is not to say that it was not a Christian nation before 1776 or 1789, as it indeed was, nor does this imply that the Founding Fathers held orthodox Christian beliefs, as many of them did not, but it does suggest that the United States was born and nurtured in a thoroughly Christian religious environment. It was a religiously unique nation Tocqueville found in the early nineteenth century: “America is still the country in the world where the Christian religion has retained the greatest real power over people’s souls?”[1] Although, at least for Perry Miller, Tocqueville’s writings on religion in Democracy in America were “probably the least perceptive [writings] he ever wrote,” Tocqueville’s misunderstanding of the complexity of America’s religious environment do not undercut his commentary on the nation as a whole.[2] Tocqueville’s observation leads one to ask, how much power, if any, did the Christian religion hold over exceptional individuals such as Benjamin Franklin or Ralph Waldo Emerson? Their differences represent the complex nature of succeeding in America, but can we extract important connections through examining religion’s role, or its lack thereof, in their lives and legacies?

It is possible to overstate religion’s impact on these Americans, but Christianity, broadly speaking, provides a meaningful framework through which we can examine certain aspects of their successes. At times religion may have informed the way they lived their lives, or perhaps more often, the way they lived their lives informed their views of religion. They all came in contact with Calvinist doctrine, including original sin, human depravity, and the problem of evil, and they responded variously to these beliefs and the questions they raised. There is no doubt Calvinist doctrine was, with seasons of revival, declining in its power over American Christians throughout the nineteenth century. In some cases, as with early nineteenth-century Christian Restorationist movements, groups were indeed reacting against the Calvinist beliefs their Puritan ancestors left them. In different ways, Franklin and Emerson responded negatively to the idea that humans were naturally evil, or that evil, whatever it was, necessarily and independently had any deep hold on humankind. Similarly, and perhaps more to the point, they strayed from the mainstream American views about God. Thus, the following analysis attempts to discern the characteristics, virtues, and perceived religious beliefs which influenced or were shaped by their decisions and lifestyle.

Who’s God and Whose God: Benjamin Franklin on Particular Providence
Benjamin Franklin’s status as a successful American is undoubted, but to what can we attribute his success, and does religion fit into the conclusion? There are both similarities and differences in how he won while living, and how he has continued to win in American minds for nearly two centuries. Franklin’s ability to understand people and their desires seems key to his mortal success. Perhaps equally important was his capacity to speak for people, whether they were Pennsylvanians or Americans. In some cases this may have meant sacrificing what Franklin really wanted, or what he really believed, but as he stated he was a reasonable person and consequently, maybe it was not much of a sacrifice. With regard to religion, and belief in God specifically, Franklin did indeed withhold some of his thoughts, partly because he thought the public would find them uninteresting. In some of Franklin’s metaphysical writings, he critiqued both deistic and orthodox Christian explanations of God, but to some extent tempered his promotion of his ideas.

Franklin’s spiritual journey is marked by change, and for all his comical commentary, he was serious about religion in some sense. As Jerry Weinberger noted, “Franklin moved from agnostic and almost atheistic immorality to pragmatic morality and pragmatic religion.”[3] Weinberger stated that Franklin’s metaphysical writings both argued for and against a “particular providence”–the notion that God intervenes in human affairs. In 1725 Franklin published his most famous metaphysical piece, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, “a radical Deist treatise” that mocks even the Deist belief that all human experience (including what we normally call evil) is just and good because an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God is perfectly just. In summarizing this work, Weinberger suggested that for Franklin, “There will be no persuasive defense of God’s wisdom, goodness, and power without an equally persuasive account of particular providence,”[4] i.e., “if God must be just, then he cannot be all-powerful.”[5] As noted in his autobiography, Franklin felt the publication of this work was an error, and he claimed to have burned copies of it.[6] It is unsure why he did so, but it seems obvious that he was worried about public reception and comprehension, although whether he was worried they would or would not understand, or both, is hard to say.

Another metaphysical work, the Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion (cir. 1728)–Franklin’s purported personal code of worship—“presumes a just but less-than-all-powerful God.”[7] This piece, like the Dissertation, is comic in its mockery of the conclusion that because the Supreme Being is beyond the need of worship, and man naturally must worship an unseen power, the Supreme Being created a good and powerful God to worship. In Franklin’s argument for particular providence he uses the primary rationalist argument against particular providence. Perhaps it was this sort of discussion which, as noted in his autobiography, had led others to call him an infidel and an atheist.[8] Consequently, it is not surprising he composed Articles of Belief for personal use. Franklin reaffirmed his “radical” beliefs in an address, “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World” (1732). Again, Franklin critiques Christians and also Deists who “want God to be infinitely good and thus necessarily just–they want God’s power to be bound by the demands of justice.”[9] Thus, from 1725 to 1732 the young Franklin was interested in critiquing a society that believed in a perfectly just God despite the abundance of pain. Franklin believed original sin was a horrible fraud, but he did find evil in the world, and thought Christianity’s all-powerful God to be an undeserving object of worship.[10] Franklin proceeded to give up metaphysical speculations as he became “disgusted by the great uncertainty of metaphysical reasoning.”[11] Perhaps an increasingly diplomatic and political Franklin also found his metaphysical attempts inconvenient, especially as he became a spokesman for a people who’s religious sentiments were often based in the omnipotent God he critiqued. Thus, prudence was central to Franklin’s success in dealing with theology.

Franklin’s success is found, at least to some extent, in his conscious cosmopolitan universality. Franklin was both a nationalist, and an internationalist. His fame among European nations increased Americans’ interests in claiming him as one of their own. In a similar way, because Franklin filled so many roles, such as printer, public servant, politician, diplomat, and scientist, among others, many different groups have found Franklin accessible, and consequently have utilized his words. For example, in the film A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation, the climatic scene shows a venerable Benjamin Franklin address the constitutional convention:

I’ve 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 who build it. I firmly believe this–and I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and Bye word down to future Ages.

While his earlier writings suggest that Franklin did believe that a “God governs in the Affairs of Men,” it is almost certain that his god was not the same god of the people for which he spoke, then and now. A More Perfect Union, produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), evidences the ways in which Franklin has been and is used. For Mormons, Franklin’s words give weight to their belief that America is a “promised land” and that the Constitution is a sacred document. Franklin wins, in part, because he continues to help other people, with different interests, win. In other words, many people continue to use Franklin as a spokesman for their cherished ideas or beliefs.

Is the Problem of Evil a Problem? Ralph Waldo Emerson on Evil and Sin
At the start of the recently LDS-produced film, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, the narrator quotes relevant lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address:

Men have come to speak of the revelation as long ago given and done, as if God were dead. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake..The need was never greater of new revelation than now.[12]

This carefully redacted quote, or set of quotes, employs the words of a universally respected American (Emerson), to set the stage of the Mormon restoration story, and the revelation of God through Joseph Smith. Emerson, like Franklin, is quoted and cited by myriad organizations, religious and otherwise, seemingly in all and through all, a “transparent eyeball.” [13] Yet, Emerson’s usefulness today does not always directly correspond with his successful life. Mormonism, which grew and gained form in Emerson’s America, was not the new revelation Emerson spoke of, and the God Emerson revealed was not the anthropomorphic being Joseph Smith described. Thus, Emerson’s transcendent presence in Americans minds is in some ways very different from his mortal success.

Emerson’s religious views, specifically those that address human capability, provide interesting insights into his achievements in a progression-based early nineteenth-century context. Emerson believed that the various self-identified Christians failed to grasp true Christianity in their emphasis on the depravity of humankind and redemption through a perfected Christ and an inerrant Bible.[14] Emerson found salvation not in biblical texts or historic figures, but rather in the human soul.[15] As biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr. noted, Emerson held “a belief not so much in pantheism as hypertheism, a declaration of the divinity of the human.”[16] Some have argued that early Christian heretics Arius and Pelagius, who deemphasized Christ’s oneness with God and focused on the human capability to choose good independently, were predecessors to Emerson.[17] Richardson described Emerson as an “Erasmian-Arminian,” further emphasizing Emerson’s focus on tolerance, belief in free will, reform, and love of learning.[18] Emerson’s emphasis on human possibility correlates to his denouncement of human depravity and corresponding Calvinist doctrines.

Emerson was never aligned with Calvinism and for him evil was swallowed up in possibility.[19] In F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance he addressed Emerson and evil.[20] In his summary of Emerson’s philosophy, Matthiessen presented Emerson’s seemingly innocent stance in the words of Henry James, Sr. who found Emerson “unconscious of evil.” This did not mean Emerson was apathetic, quite the opposite, but as a transcendentalist he could not find corruption in man. Matthiessen placed Emerson’s optimism in mankind and disenchantment with evil within the context of Jacksonian America. He believed there was too much evidence in Emerson’s writings to adopt the view that he was unconscious of evil, but his “prevailing tone” emphasized man’s grandeur, and played down sin’s terror. In analyzing Emerson’s polemic against tragedy in literature, Matthiessen wrote that “[Emerson] knew that tragedy consists in division, and he was always striving for reconciliation.”[21]

Emerson spoke of sin and evil, and at times, perhaps unwittingly, he and American Christians used the terms in similar ways. Yet, when he specifically addressed Calvinist conceptions of evil in his essay on “Spiritual Laws,” he clearly denounced evil as an independent force: “Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like. These never presented a practical difficulty to any man, “never darkened across any man’s road, who did not go out of his way to seek them.”[22] Thus, for Emerson, human depravity and sin seem to be fables, for “The only sin,” as he wrote in “Circles,” “is [self-]limitation.”[23] While Emerson frequently mentioned the existence of good and evil, of opposites, his view was not Manichaeistic–good and evil exist independently–but evil may exist in human actions, though individuals are not inherently sinful. In his “Divinity School Address,” Emerson placed virtue, a “rapid intrinsic energy,” at the heart of human action, good or evil: “By it [inner virtue], a man is made the Providence to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is always known,” and “Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.”[24] So, while Emerson believed in types of evil, sin, heaven, hell, and Providence, his definitions and understandings of such were far different from the explanations of contemporary Christian theology. Consequently, a nation bent on progress found Emerson’s ideas on human capacity attractive and liberating, while Christian abolitionists readily accepted his denunciations of slavery as evil.

Whatever Christianity’s role in (positively or negatively) shaping the life philosophies of Franklin and Emerson, it is certainly relevant to the language they employed to promulgate their views, as well as their reception among both contemporary and descendant Americans. Franklin explored particular providence in his early comic writings, but due to metaphysical uncertainties he discarded the topic, and yet at the Constitutional Convention he firmly argued for particular providence with a keen awareness of his audience and those for whom he spoke. Emerson frequently used religious language, but he redefined key terms Christianity laid claim to, and utilized them to emphasize human capacity and divinity in an age that emphasized individual progress. When Christianity influenced their ideas and ideals, especially and perhaps only with regards their religious thought, it seems they were responding to, or reacting against, specific Calvinist doctrines.

Franklin and Emerson either grew up in religious households which emphasized God’s omnipotence and human depravity, usually tied to original sin. Consequently, it is no surprise that they reacted against or responded to these fundamental Calvinist doctrines. Franklin struggled with the notion that God was omnipotent and omnibenevolent when the world he supposedly created is full of pain. Franklin believed original sin was a fraud, while Emerson called it a disease. For Emerson, the source of human weakness is not in depravity, but in the erroneous belief that we cannot live as Christ did; the human is divine. Their views and reactions highlight the persistent role of Calvinist doctrine in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but they also illuminate Franklin and Emerson’s capacity, and even virtue, to relate with and to the American public, then and now.

These responses do not completely illuminate the legacies of these Americans, nor does this analysis fully explain their successes, but American Christianity provides a framework through which we can measure their mortal fame and staying power in American memory. It is quite probable that America is a less orthodox Christian country than in the days of Franklin and Emerson, and their continued success suggests that perhaps this religious framework is less revealing than other frameworks. Yet, as is evidenced with the LDS use of Franklin and Emerson, continued success is not always directly linked to mortal appeal, as their words are immortalized in ways they never meant. Thus, while these figures continue to prove important as American figures, religion also continues to utilize these individuals, and so a religious discussion remains relevant.


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London, England: Penguin Books, 2003), 340.

[2] Perry Miller, “From the Covenant to the Revival,” in The Shaping of American Religion, edited by James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 365.

[3] Jerry Weinberger, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), xii.

[4] Weinberger, 156.

[5] Weinberger, 162.

[6] Weinberger discusses the possible reasons for Franklin’s feeling that he should not have published this work. Weinberger, 6, 21-22, 138, 157-159.

[7] Weinberger, 162.

[8] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York, Simon & Shuster: 2004), 16.

[9] Weinberger, 172.

[10] For Franklin’s views on original sin see Weinberger, 280-281.

[11] Weinberger, 139.

[12] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson: Essays and Lectures, edited by Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 83, 88.

[13] Emerson, 10.

[14] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 125; Irene S.M. Makarushka, Religious Imagination and Language in Emerson and Nietzsche (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 16-17; Richard A. Grusin, Transcendentalist Hermeneutics: Institutional Authority and the Higher Criticism of the Bible (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 74-78.

[15] Richardson, 291-292.

[16] Richardson, 288.

[17] Makarushka, 21.

[18] Richardson, 291. Richardson contrasted the Erasmian-Arminian strain with the Augustinian strain and its emphasis on confession and guilt. These ideas stem further back than Calvinist doctrine, but Calvinist doctrine intimately related to Augustinian thought.

[19] Richardson, 197.

[20] F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 4.

[21] Ibid, 183-184.

[22] Emerson, 305. Similarly, in his “Lecture on the Times,” Emerson stated, “Our forefather walked in the world and went to their graves, tormented with the fear of Sin, and the terror of the Day of Judgment” (165).

[23] Emerson, 406.

[24] Emerson, 77.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. yeaaaah! I like these Emerson posts. Maybe we should have a subtitle here- “The Juvenile Instructor: Dispelling your Emersonian Mythologies.”

    Anyway, I really did like this post and the analysis of Emerson’s ideas about sin. Bravo for that “Circles” quote especially. I think that pretty much sums it up. I was also thinking about another quote…perhaps in Self-Reliance? I’d have to look it up, but to paraphase: “Evil is not the power opposite of Goodness, it is simply the absence of it.”

    In this then, he REALLY denies the idea of sin, not just in his “hypertheism” and optimism of man, but by denying its very existence!

    (I love Emerson. I would name my firstborn “Emerson” but someone here already beat me to it…::mumblestanmumblemumble…murmur even::)

    Comment by Heidi — July 22, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

  2. Ralph Waldo Harris hyphen whatever would be a good second option 🙂

    Comment by ideal name preemptor — July 22, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

  3. Or you could be like another perma here who named his kid Adam God 😉

    Comment by David G. — July 22, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  4. Ha!

    Comment by Jared T — July 22, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  5. Orrrr…like that one couple I knew, the Angels, with the daughter named “Celestial.”

    No joke.

    –end thread jack–

    Comment by Heidi — July 22, 2008 @ 3:25 pm


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