Why Ben Franklin Quit Church Attendance

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is one of the most well-known names among America’s founding fathers.  However, what is little known among Americans today is his insightful Autobiography. This monograph, which he began when he turned 65 years of age (1771), may give more insight into Franklin’s life than any other document he produced including Poor Richard’s Almanac. What interests me most is Franklin’s comments about his spiritual life.  Let me share with you a few of his thoughts, which may encourage us today to be Word-centered believers (Matthew 4:4).

Franklin’s Autobiography reveals why he was disinterested in church attendance.  While he maintained membership in the Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia by paying yearly dues, he rarely attended the Sunday services. One pastor of this church (unnamed by Franklin) pestered him enough to make a commitment to attend five consecutive Sundays. Franklin writes that this pastor was not a good preacher, being “very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying since not a single moral principle was inculcated . . . [and his] aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.” To prove his point, Franklin referred to one Sunday in which the pastor took his text from Philippians 4:8. He writes, “I imagined, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But the preacher confined himself to five points only: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the Holy Scripture. 3. Attending the public worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacraments. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers.” Franklin noted that these are fine things to consider, “but they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text.” Therefore he said, “I was disgusted and attended his preaching no more.”

Though Franklin determined not to attend church, he was captured by the ideal of morality and decided to develop his own “code of virtues” by which to live. He writes, “I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He states that since he believed he knew “what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”  He came to the conclusion that there are 13 virtues he must follow that would help him to “imitate Jesus and Socrates.” He took a small notebook and allotted one page per virtue – from “temperance” being the first to “humility” being the thirteenth. Across the top of the page, he wrote each day of the week; and underneath he would place a black mark on the day he did not keep that virtue. He concluded that his life was like a garden – one will never “eradicate all the bad herbs at once” – but as one continually works to eradicate the bad, one will have the pleasure of seeing progress of the good. He arose every morning at 5:00 a.m. and retired at 1 a.m., and he sought to account for each hour of the day as he determined to pattern his life after his code of virtues.

There is much to admire in Franklin’s Autobiography. What saddens my heart is that he sought moral perfection rather than Jesus Christ. When he was asked to attend church, the text of Scripture was never developed, and Jesus was not exalted. Franklin left the worship service continuing his own moral pursuit. What if Franklin heard the text preached and saw Christ exalted by the text made clear when he attended those five consecutive church services? I know that this is only a hypothetical question, but it does emphasize the importance of clear Bible exposition. To all of us who will be preaching and teaching God’s truth this week, I echo Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the Word!”

This article is from the "Truth from the Agora" section of the Exposition, VBTS's monthly e-bulletin authored by President Daniel Davey. Click HERE to sign-up to receive the Exposition each month.

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