Last month the world celebrated the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth.
The image that most Americans have of Franklin--the chubby, old gentleman with flowing gray locks on the side of his head and bald on top--belies the truth about the man. During his lifetime, Franklin was universally regarded as THE foremost scientist of his day, as well as one of the world’s most influential moral and political philosophers. Three hundred years later, one can not read any serious study on Enlightenment philosophy (or 18th century philosophy in general) that doesn’t include copious references to and quotes from the philosophic writings of Benjamin Franklin. He is also generally regarded as the first American to become an international celebrity. Rulers, politicians, artists and philosophers throughout Europe were eager to make his acquaintance, to be seen publicly with him and to hear his opinions on important topics.
One of the subjects that Franklin spent much time and energy exploring was that of theology….and the conclusions he drew regarding the nature of God and eternity could lead one to ask…
WAS BENJAMIN FRANKLIN THE FIRST MORMON?
In his recent book “The Faith of Our Fathers,” renowned historian, Alf J. Mapp, Jr., explores the religious beliefs of America’s Founding Fathers. Mapp demonstrates the falsity of the popular myth that America’s Founders were devout orthodox Christians. Most were advocates of Enlightenment philosophy, rejecting many traditional religious notions regarding faith and advocating rational thought, the scientific method and the Natural Rights of the individual. In wrestling with orthodox Christianity and traditional monotheism, many Founding Fathers rejected key Christian doctrines and sought to reconcile ethics, morality and theology with critical rational thought and the science of their day.
Being in the forefront of the American Enlightenment, the teenaged Franklin embraced Atheism. But, as Mapp reports, Franklin later rejected Atheism and constructed a radical theology that will sound familiar to anyone who has studied Mormonism and the later Nauvoo-era theology of Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt.
Regarding Benjamin Franklin’s religious beliefs, Mapp writes:
“That Franklin should have been an adolescent atheist is not surprising. Many precocious youngsters pass through a stage of atheism, sometimes on the way to a satisfying faith. But many people will be surprised to learn that Franklin at the age of twenty-two, after much reading of scientific literature and conversations with London savants declared his belief in a plurality of gods.
“Franklin was so serious in his polytheism that he composed a creed, headed ‘First Principles,’ which he called his ‘little liturgy.’ It was the central constituent of his ‘Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion.’ He sounds like a monotheist when his creed begins with words: ‘I believe thee is one Supreme most perfect Being.’ But the implication changed radically when that Being is identified in the same sentence as ‘Author and Father of the Gods themselves.’
“In words that seem an anticipation of space-age science fiction, Franklin says,
“‘When I stretch my imagination through and beyond our system of planets, beyond the visible fixed stars themselves into that space that is every way infinites, and conceive it filled with suns like ours, each with a chorus of worlds forever moving around him, then this little ball on which we moves seems, even in my narrow imagination, to be almost nothing, and myself less than nothing, and of no sort of consequence.’
“Franklin then envisions a Supreme Being very different from the Christian God whose ‘eye is on the sparrow.’ He says,
“‘..since it is impossible for me to have any positive clear idea of that which is infinite and incomprehensible. I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that he is even INFINITELY ABOVE IT.’
“…Here he introduced a starling idea:
“‘I conceive then that the Infinite has created many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to Men, who can better conceive his perfections than we, and return him a more rational and glorious praise. As among men the praise of the ignorant or of children is not regarded by the ingenious painter or architect, who is rather honored and pleased by the approbation of wise men and artists.
“‘It may be that these created Gods are immortal, or it may be that, after many ages, they are changed, and others supply their places.
‘Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceedingly wise, and good, and very powerful; and that each has made for himself one glorious sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable system of planets.
“‘It is that particular wise and good God who is the Author and Owner of our system that I propose for the object of my praise and admiration.’….
“The chief radical element in Franklin’s thought was the supposition that the God who had created our solar system was subordinate to a still greater Deity. The concept of coexistent gods of differing powers was common to many primitive tribes and had even existed in Israel, Greece and Rome in periods of considerable cultural achievements…Nevertheless, the concept of the ruler of our solar system as the creation and servant of a greater God was a strange one indeed to be advanced by an eighteenth-century Anglo-American. Contemporary theologians discussed the possibility of inhabited worlds other than Earth but envisioned them as the work of the same Creator….Though he had proposed that the Supreme God remained aloof from human affairs, he had held that subordinate gods took an active interest in events in their individual worlds…In 1773, when Franklin was sixty-seven years old, he agreed with a Welsh philosopher that there might be a multiplicity of deities in separate spheres.” ( See “The Faith of Our Fathers,” by Alf J. Mapp, Jr., [Rowen & Littlefield Publishers: New York & Oxford, 2003] pp. 22-25, 320 )
In his King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith constructed a theology on the immortality of the human spirit. First he rejected outright the doctrines of Creationism and Annihilation, teaching that all matter was uncreated and eternal. He then reasoned that the human spirit was composed of this uncreated, eternal matter. Since matter could not be created or annihilated, Joseph reasoned that the matter from which the spirit was organized must have existed prior to birth and will continue to exist after death. In this way he reasoned the human spirit or mind was eternal and “co-equal” with God.
Compare this line of reasoning with the following thoughts of Benjamin Franklin regarding the immorality of the human spirit and the nature of God‘s creative acts:
“When I observe that there is great frugality, as well as wisdom, in his works, since he [God] has been evidently sparing of both labor and materials; for by the various wonderful inventions of propagation, he has provided for the continual peopling of his world with plants and animals, without being at the trouble of repeated new creations; and by the natural reduction of compound substances to their original elements, capable of being employed in new compositions, he had prevented the necessity of creating new matter; so that the earth, water, air, and perhaps, fire, which being compounded from wood, do, when the wood is dissolved, return, and again become air, earth, fore and water; I say, that, when I see nothing is annihilated, and not even a drop of water wasted, I cannot suspect the annihilation of souls, or believe, that he will suffer the daily waste of millions of minds ready made that now exist, and put himself in the continual trouble of making new ones. This finding myself to exist in the World, I believe I shall, in some shape or other, always exist.” (“The Faith of Our Fathers,” p.40 )
SO WAS BENJAMIN FRANKLIN THE WORLD’S FIRST MORMON?
The answer, of course, is no. Did Franklin’s writing on influence Joseph Smith and other early Mormons? There is absolutely no evidence that Joseph or any of the early Mormon theologians were ever familiar with Franklin’s personal theology.
Nevertheless Joseph Smith and the first generation of Mormon leaders and theologians were born and came of age during the period called the American Enlightenment ( 1765-1815)--a period in which American thinking and beliefs were shaped by Benjamin Franklin and other philosophers in his camp. (Indeed, the religious revivals that swept through the region of Palmyra, New York during the 1820’s--and against which Mormonism was originally born as a reaction--were efforts on the part of the established Christian clergy to undercut the ideas and effects of Enlightenment rationalism.)
While other Mormon traditions tend to ignore the role that society had in inspiring Joseph Smith and insist that a supernatural explanation must be given, Reform Mormonism welcomes the study of the culture and society which influenced and inspired Joseph Smith and early Mormons. If it were somehow proven that Joseph Smith had read Franklin’s writings, thought them reasonable and used them as the source of his later ideas and doctrines, Reform Mormons would have no problem with this whatsoever.
The truth of any doctrine or idea is to be found in its relationship to objective existence and to human nature as it is; the value of any doctrine or idea is determined by its potential influence on the Eternal Progression of the individual Therefore Reform Mormons accept all proven truth--regardless of who advocates it.
REFORM MORMON THOUGHT
“All truth can be circumscribed into one great whole.”
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