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Many Americans and historians abroad consider The United States’ founding and independence to be closely associated with religious reasons and purposes. This is true of course, but Protestant and Puritan ideologies were not the only things affecting the newborn country’s independence in 1776. While most of its Founding Fathers were of the Puritan faith and background, some of its key revolutionaries were in fact of a different, often overlooked, religion: Deism. These faiths did not often disagree while on the subject of founding a country, but they certainly did when the notions of God and human nature were concerned. One avid Deist, Benjamin Franklin, repented from Puritanism to Deism and wrote several pieces on his religion. Puritans such as John Winthrop and Michael Wigglesworth also wrote of their faith and how it affected their daily lives and thinking. Puritans and Deists had very different views on the nature of God, human nature and its origins, and the relationship between the two.
One major difference between the Puritan and Deist doctrines was that of the Character (or nature) of God. For the Deists, they believed that God was “all-wise, all-good, all powerful” (Franklin, 26). One major reason Deists believed and developed this fundamental doctrine was the use of critical thinking or reason. Benjamin Franklin, the major Deist this paper will discuss, had a clear logical thinking path from which he rarely deviated. This logical thinking led him while a teenager to renounce Puritan beliefs. As a boy who sought knowledge in books, he found some who led him to believe in a different God, one who was a Universal God, and not just a Christian God. He wrote A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, in which he laid out a step-by-step logical argument of why God was good and why evil did not exist: “I. There is said to be a First Mover, who is called GOD, Maker of the Universe. II. He is said to be all-wise, all-good, all powerful. III. If He is all-good, whatsoever He doth must be goodâ€¦. [V.] what He [God] consents to must be good, because He is good; therefore Evil doth not exist” (Franklin, 26). Franklin goes on to say that everything God does can only be, and will only be “good” and that evil, which does not exist, cannot be permitted by God if it did exist: “But this [God permitting evil for a wise “end”] Objection destroys itself; for whatever an infinitely good God hath wise Ends in suffering to be, must be good, is thereby made good, and cannot be otherwise” (Franklin, 26-27). Franklin would later on slightly recant this idea, saying that his doctrine of no evil “was not very useful” (Franklin, 29). Franklin’s God was universal, the epitome and definition of good, and could not create or tolerate any kind of evil.
While Franklin was convinced that the nature of his God was nothing but good, the Puritans believed something quite the contrary. The Puritan beliefs of God can be seen in writings and historical accounts: they wrote and viewed the nature of God as vengeful and wrathful- a Harbinger of justice and punishment. Michael Wigglesworth, who authored the then famous poem, “The Day of Doom,” wrote that the Son of God came “to judge both Quick and Dead” (Wigglesworth, 3) on the Day of Judgment. In his poem, Wigglesworth implies that only a few will escape (by grace) the wrath and be united with God, the rest being doomed to eternal judgment and torment in Hell. (This idea of predestination will be discussed in detail later.) John Dane, another Puritan, symbolically attributed God’s wrath to two separate occasions with a bee sting, which symbolized Dane’s sin and Christ on the cross. “â€¦it struck my finger, and water and blood [symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ] came out of itâ€¦God would find me out” (Dane, 9). However, the Puritans did not believe God was completely bad, since they wrote of his loving care and providence in times of need and spiritual weakness. In her memoirs, Mary Rowlandson recognized God’s blessings through her captivity. She considers the attack and captivity to be God’s punishment, but also sees his protection and help through her survival: “the wonderful goodness of God to me, in preserving me soâ€¦ that [I] did not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life” (Rowlandson, 16). The Puritans’ view of the nature of God is almost like that of a bipolar father, providing for his children when they most need it, but having indignation for any small error.
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Similar to his view on God, Franklin’s view on human nature was that all humans were the incarnation of God created by God. According to Franklin’s doctrinal logic, since God is good, all of His creations must be basically good; basically we do not have a sin nature (or inheritance) at birth. “If a Creature is made by God, it must depend upon God, and receive all its Power from Himâ€¦because He is Good; therefore a Creature can do nothing but what is good” (Franklin, 27). Franklin goes on to refute the idea of concentrating on an afterlife. He argues that because our bodies will experience Pleasure and Pain (complete opposites) in equal amounts in this life, there is no point to having an afterlife, or being able to recall a previous life. “But since Pain naturally and infallibly produces a Pleasure in proportion to it, every individual Creature must, in any State of Life, have an equal Quantity of each, so that there is not, on that Account, any Occasion for a future Adjustment [afterlife]” (Franklin, 28). (This belief is direct contrast with the Puritan thinking that this life is a time of punishment that will soon end with constant pleasure in union with God, if we should be so fortunate to receive God’s grace.)
Deists and Puritans had very different views on human nature. For the Puritans, human nature was wretched and unredeemable through good works. For Franklin, humans are good and capable of improvement. He said that life is worthless without improvement. This improvement, or practice of virtues, was an integral part of Franklin’s daily routine. He concentrated on the practice and retrospect of virtues not only to try to achieve moral perfection, but also to better himself financially: “I from thence considered industry [a Franklin virtue] as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction” (Franklin, 32). But for the Puritans, human nature was a sin nature, inherited from Adam, and passed down unbroken from generation to generation – we had no chance of starting with a clean slate, it was already tainted. The Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop made this very clear to his audience in 1645: “â€¦our nature is now corrupt (because all people are sinners)â€¦[our nature] is common to man with beasts and other creatures” (Winthrop, 1). The puritans believed strongly, as Wigglesworth explain in “The Day of Doom,” that all humans were deserving of Hell. They thought of Hell not as their punishment from God, but as their punishment for sin nature, and they thought God’s grace to save some as an unnecessary mercy. Opposite of this belief, Franklin believed that humans were able to achieve a better moral standard. Eventually Franklin even resorted to daily prayer, although Catholic in nature. He “thought it right and necessary to solicit his assistance for obtaining it [wisdom]; to this end I formed the following little prayer” (Franklin, 34).
Contradictory to the Deist view of human nature, the Puritans thought life could not get better, and the doctrine of predestination did not help their morale either. They strongly believed in predestination, the belief that God already knew and commanded that some souls would perish (even the infantile or mentally incapacitated) and some souls would be saved – humans had no choice in the matter. There was no hope; God commanded sin and damnation. Salvation was not merit-based, but ” ‘your bad works would damn you’ ” (Wigglesworth, 4). John Dane thought of his nature as being so bad that to end his life [he did not, fortunately] would be better than to continue living in sin: “I ought of two evils to choose the least; and that it was a greater evil to live and to sin against God than to kill myself” (Dane, 11). Franklin, however, invented many things throughout his life solely for the betterment of mankind, just as he thought a person’s life could be improved. He reflected on his attempt at individual perfection: “I wasâ€¦a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it” (Franklin, 34). For Franklin, the human nature could use a tune up, but was not flawed from conception and things could only get better. The Puritans saw only a lose-lose situation, for all of their efforts of attaining merit were forfeit: living was sinning; and sin is our nature.
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The Puritans and Deists also had very different views on the relationship between God and human nature. For the Puritans, it was a cycle of wrath and punishment. God was wrathful because the creation he made, mankind, became tainted and sinful through inherited sinful nature. Thomas Shepard, an English minister, said that the human heart (nature) was full of “atheism, sodomy, blasphemy, murder, whoredom, adultery, witchcraft, buggeryâ€¦Your best duties are tainted, poisoned, mingled with some sin, and therefore are most odious in the eyes of a holy God” (Wigglesworth, 4). Since the Puritans believed in this type of sin nature, of course it made sense that their holy God would want to punish and rid them of such bad behavior – God was wrathful because of their sin. Deists also believed in a cyclic sort of relationship between God and human nature, but their cycle ran the opposite route. They believed human nature was basically good because a good God created it. It was like a skilled watchmaker letting his work shine without his constant watchful eye and tiny tools; he (the watchmaker) was good, therefore his good work did not need constant assistance – it could be released as a well-oiled machine.
After viewing the evidence and doctrines of Deist and Puritan views, it is very perplexing to think that such differences could lead to a declaration of independence and constitution, both with a religious backdrop. The Puritans believed in a wrathful God who punished people for their flawed human nature that He created and encouraged (sin caused by God). On the contrary, the Deists believed in an “all-good” God who let his good creations with a good human nature be out from under His constant control. But we know that even through these differences the men on both sides remained mostly civil and friendly to each other. For instance, Benjamin Franklin was a good friend of George Whitfield. He gave to his ministries on several occasions and vouched for his character even though they “had no religious connection” (Franklin, 40). However civil they might have been to one another, we still can clearly see that Puritans and Deists had very different views on the nature of God, human nature, and their relationship.
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