Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790. In the weeks leading to that day Franklin, knowing his death was imminent, had his nurse go into his attic and bring down a picture he had owned for years but kept stored in his attic. He had her place the picture at the foot of his bed. Thus, as he lay on what would become his deathbed he could keep the picture continually before his gaze.
Wouldn’t you like to know what that picture was? Fortunately for you and me, Franklin’s nurse described it. She said it was a painting of Judgment day “where the awful Judge was enthroned in glory, and giving sentence.” I don’t know who did the painting, but the scene is that pictured in Matt. 25:31-46. That passage ends this way: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It seems obvious that Ben Franklin was thinking about eternal things as he saw his death inexorably approaching. Was the picture meant to bring comfort to his soul or to bring warning to his soul? How did he view it?
We don’t know. No one knows.
But there’s a paper trail. Franklin was a prodigious writer. He had opinions on most everything, so wrote on most everything, including religion, Christianity, and theology. Because he was a printer – that is, one who printed and published his own newspaper, almanac, etc. – his opinions were printed. In those writings one can see his thoughts regarding man and the Last Judgment.
In his early 20s, within a few years after his arrival in Philadelphia, he composed a brief essay titled Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. It’s too long to quote in this space, but it is evident that Franklin is no atheist or agnostic. It begins, “I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being.” He believes in God. Franklin goes on to elaborate his conviction that God is good, that He rules over all things, is worthy of praise, and will hold men accountable for their actions. He wrote that at age 22.
Sixty two years later, a few weeks before he died, Franklin received an inquiry from Ezra Stiles the president of Yale College. Stiles knew Franklin was dying. He was a friend of Franklin’s, but was uncertain about the state of Franklin’s soul. He flattered him a bit: “You have merited and received all the Honors of the Republic of Letters; and are going to a World, where all sublunary Glories will be lost in the Glories of Imortality.” That’s a fancy way of saying, You’ve received abundant and deserved recognition here, but you’re headed for eternity where even the brightest lights of earth will be lost in the lights of glory.
Stiles makes clear his wishes for Franklin when he writes, “. . . I shall never cease to wish you that happy Imortality which I believe Jesus alone has purchased . . .” That’s a fairly clear statement of Stiles’ understanding of the Gospel, of how one is redeemed and qualified for eternal life. It seems obvious that Stiles was concerned that despite Franklin’s vast stores of knowledge and experience, in spite of all the honors Franklin has received, still Franklin might not rightly know the role Jesus plays in the great redemption story.
In Franklin’s reply, written on March 9, 1790, he states his faith concisely and precisely:
Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we 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 respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion.
I don’t think any of us would find objectionable material in Franklin’s answer. We might quibble about the notion of Justice apart from any mention of Mercy. Otherwise, what he says is really good. Unlike the Deists, Franklin had a strong sense of the providence of God. After all, he was the delegate to the Constitutional Convention who, on June 28, 1787, when affairs seem to have reached an unresolvable impasse, made a motion that the Convention take time to pray and seek God’s gracious intervention daily. His motion was not passed! Franklin was not a mere Deist. He believed in an active and intervening Deity.
Did you notice in his letter that Stiles was explicit in saying that Jesus alone had purchased the immortality to which he aspired. So, in his letter he was quite direct with Franklin, asking, “I wish to know the Opinion of my venerable Friend concerning JESUS of Nazareth.” [emphasis in the original] What will Franklin say to that?
Franklin doesn’t pull any punches. He writes that, As to Jesus of Nazareth . . . 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 have . . . some Doubts as to his Divinity. Alas, Franklin is much like Nicodemus in third chapter of John’s Gospel. He knows Jesus as a great teacher, but does not know Jesus as the Messiah and Redeemer. Thus the omission of Mercy in Franklin’s creed is all the more notable and significant.
Franklin had a long, cordial, and mutually enjoyable relationship with the great evangelist George Whitefield. They first met in 1739 and remained friends and associates until Whitefield’s death in 1770. In his autobiography Franklin writes about Whitefield’s concern for his soul: “He us’d indeed sometimes to pray for my Conversion, but never had the Satisfaction of believing that his Prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil Friendship, sincere on both Sides, and lasted to his Death.” In other words, despite 30+ years of friendship with Whitefield, Franklin avers they never shared the same faith.
So, what do you think about Ben Franklin? Why did he have that particular picture brought out of storage and placed at the foot of his bed as he lay dying? Was it to assure himself that he would receive Justice from God for his conduct in this life? Did he think his conduct merited going with “the righteous into eternal life”? Did the letter of Ezra Stiles cause Franklin to continue to ponder the role of Jesus?
We don’t know. No one knows.
The point of all this is the very question Ezra Stiles asked of Benjamin Franklin: What is your opinion concerning JESUS of Nazareth? It does matter: now and eternally.
In the Joy of the Lord,
John H.C. Niederhaus