Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Rejection of Religion


Benjamin Franklin, without a doubt, remains one of the most successful and respected men in American history. His success, at large, can be attributed to the man’s ability to understand other people and their desires. He was also a known humanitarian with excellent ability to represent the needs of the people whether within or outside of America. The commonly known attribute was his ability to sacrifice his needs and his beliefs just to put other people’s interests first. However, is Benjamin Franklin’s success at any point related to the worship of God? With regards to religion and the belief of an existence of a supernatural being, God, Franklin was noted to withhold most of his thoughts on the matter. Some say it is because he feared that the public would find them undesirable and may lose trust in the man and his leadership style. However, some of Franklin’s writings reveal that he did critique the Orthodox and deistic teachings of Christianity that give an explanation of God.

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His journey in Christianity is that of a changing path where it is noted that, for most of his commentaries, he was deeply religious. Jerry Weinberger said that Benjamin Franklin transformed from agnostic and atheistic person to the one following pragmatic morality. His writing, as seen by Weinberger, depicts Franklin’s arguments against and for the belief of Christianity, especially where the intervention of God in human affairs was involved. In his published work on the dissertation of Liberty and Necessity, Franklin mocked the very deist belief held by Christians concerning the experience that people considered as evil to be just and planned because of the existence of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. Franklin argued that if God is just then there is no way he can be all-powerful. In his Articles of Act of Religion, Franklin purported his personal code when it comes to worship. He said that because God is a supreme being, he is beyond the need to be worshiped by people. Franklin mocked the idea of men worshipping an unseen being, a very powerful one, which they call “God,” and whom they believe to be the creator of the world and all that is in it (Aldridge). To prove his theory, Franklin used rationalist arguments to disapprove certain providences of God in world’s governance. Franklin is noted to critique Christianity and says that the religion perceives God to be ultimately good and just. He critiqued Christians in their beliefs, saying that they want God’s power to be tied by the strings of justice. By so doing, Franklin always challenged the society that believed in the existence of an all-powerful and all-just God while the society faced so many challenges and problems and pain. Despite his belief that the original sin was an example of a bad fraud, Franklin found the evil of this world and the Christian God to be an undeserving object of worship (Isaacson 77-93).

Emerson was another respected historical figure who held strong negative opinions of the religion. He viewed Christianity to be on the forefront in misconceiving him. In his writings, a reader can see a personality, struggling with matters concerning religion and Christianity. One sees in his works that Emerson was unable to set forth the symbolism of God that humans believe in. In fact, he had such troubles that he publicly acknowledged that throughout his whole life, Emerson’s attempts to express his belief of religion to the world had by far failed. Emerson questioned the authority of the church and furthermore its faith. He wrote that faith, which stands with authority, is not the true faith of God. He continued by saying that the reliance on religion has the opposite effect on faith and depicts a decline in religion, which is far too much associated with the withdrawal of the soul. Emerson opposed the Calvinists who claimed the sole authority and he thought of them as selfish, saying that they were only interested in their personal gain rather than their faith and the well-being of the church (Emerson 41-55). He wrote down wishing for salvation, but he continued to say that he would not find the same, which was still held in the Calvinist beliefs. He continued to write that God is present in every human being. He said that there is no possibility of having a unity of souls in the Over-soul but stated that there can only one source of the soul, that is God himself. He continued to oppose the common belief held by Christians and stated that nobody needs to find the source of authentic religious experience from outside, but everyone can find it within themselves and discover the salvation revealed to people by God.

Their Disagreement on the Set Principles

From his text, Benjamin Franklin spoke highly of Christianity but not always accepted all its teachings. Thus it is obvious that he was making clear that he was at loggerheads with some Christianity doctrines. One can see that Franklin believed in Jesus and appreciated the worship of God. However, he did not accept how the uncharitable and Orthodox priests were in carrying themselves and the teaching they passed to the believers. Franklin wrote, saying that he was not happy with these priests’ greater concern of outward appearance and depiction of holiness while they were rotten on the inside. In response to Franklin’s family, who showed concerned about his soul, he called the Bible the “excellent Book” and stated that religion is suffering when led with orthodoxy priests since they regard their outward appearance more important than the Christian virtue. He continued to say that he believed that the God judges people not from what they think but for what they do and recommended that people did good to each other. One sees him accepting Christianity but despising how the church of God was being conducted and how those in religious positions make certain conditions for their good and not to the glory of God.

Emerson wrote about his ideas based on philosophical believes, underlined with his conviction. Thus, he was in disagreement with the local belief held by the Church. He was himself moved by his thought on the worship of God. Assisted by nature, he was able to strike emotional chords which he used to enable his readers to understand his works. Emerson’s writing is noted to give direction, clarity, and progressive flow of ideas despite the fact that he dealt with abstract concepts. In his writing he showed that various Christians failed to understand the true Christianity as they are misguided by those in religious positions. He mentioned that the clerics mostly emphasized on the depravity of humankind and redemption via the blood of Jesus. Thus, one can see Emerson as a free thinker, with a free will and the love for learning. He noted the emphasis put on humans for possible collation when it came to denouncing of man’s depravity. His issue with the Calvinism was a wide fight as he was never aligned with their teachings. He refers them to have swallowed up evil and had unconscious evil. He was concerned with the source of human weakness, looking for a source not just in humanity’s depravity. He said it was in a belief of erroneous thinking that people cannot fully be like Jesus Christ. This is because of the common believe that human is a sinful being. However, Emerson noted that their thoughts presented what the Calvinist doctrines had taught them. Being a free thinker, Emerson said that the church is leading its beliefs in a disenchanted and unconscious evil. He denounced and compared evil with the likes of an independent force of theoretical problem. He further stated that evil and good do exist independently; however, he explained that evil and good are only shown in human actions. He said that people do not directly inherit sin, as the church believes, but can make their paths by leaving a good and holy life. By frequently using religious language, he redefined key terms that Christianity seems so much to care about and used them to explain the human divinity and capacity in an age that puts so much concern on individual progress in the Christian world. He noted that Christians, influenced by Christianity, have their ideas, and with regards to their religious beliefs and thoughts, the react and respond to them as they have been teaching for the Calvinist doctrines (Bloom 97-121).

These two are noted to uphold Christianity but question certain aspects of the same. With Benjamin Franklin, it is the belief of just and all-powerful God, yet He allowed communities to suffer despite the fact that they worship and obey Him. Franklin questioned the aspect of God as being all-powerful, which contrast with the fact that he is also just. Emerson opposed the leadership present in the church as they seemed to only be concerned with the outward cleanness while leading Christians astray. He strongly opposed Calvinist doctrines, giving vivid examples from teaching on his work, giving life examples in his texts that the people could read and understand.


Works Cited

Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Benjamin Franklin and Nature’s God. Duke Univ Pr, 1967.

Bloom, Harold. “Emerson: The American Religion.” Harold Bloom, 1985, pp. 97-121.

Emerson, Michael. “0. 1996. Through Tinted Glasses: Religion, Worldviews, and Abortion Attitudes.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 41-55.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Simon and Schuster, 2003, pp. 77-93.