In the 16th century, Puritans in New England practiced a very strict religion that emphasized predestination, original sin, and salvation. Benjamin Franklin, who grew up in a Puritan household in Boston two hundred years later, rejected these ideas in favor of his own virtues as he searched for moral perfection. Franklin’s perception of God and human nature vastly differs from the Puritan perception, yet both have similar underlying concepts. Franklin does not believe in a Christian God like Puritans do, but they both strive to achieve perfection, albeit for different reasons.
The Puritans core values include predestination and original sin while Franklin believes in Deism. Puritans believe in an Almighty Christian God who rules with the ideas of predestination and original sin. Predestination is the concept that God determines if a person will go to heaven or hell even before birth. However, the Puritans still try to do good on Earth because your good deeds cannot save you, but sinning will send you to hell (Wigglesworth 4). Even if God determines a person will go to heaven, acts of evil can change their destination to hell. Original sin relates to Adam and Eve, explaining that all people are sinners no matter what because of Adam and Eve’s first sin in the Garden of Eden. This idea means “all people are born sinners” (Winthrop 1). By believing in an Almighty God, Puritans believe in an afterlife and they believe that if they go to heaven, it was because of God’s grace rather than something they actually did on Earth. Franklin, however, believes in Deism. A deist believes “that there is a god, but not a Christian God; Jesus was a wise man and the Bible mostly fables” (Franklin 6). Franklin believes a God exists, just not the same God that the Puritans worship. Along with this belief comes Franklin’s belief that the afterlife does not exist. By believing in the absence of an afterlife, Franklin rules out that a person’s actions matter in terms of salvation. Predestination and original sin do not matter if the afterlife does not exist.
Franklin and Puritans do not share many concepts concerning God, although they do value similar ideals. Most of Franklin’s major beliefs about God completely contradict Puritan beliefs. However, both Franklin and Puritans place high value on concepts such as hard work, chastity and humility. Puritans value hard work because it shows God that they want to be saved. Franklin values hard work because hard work leads to success. Puritans believe in chastity because the Bible warns against sexual promiscuity. Franklin includes chastity in his thirteen virtues because he does not want sex to damage his reputation or distract him. Franklin’s idea of humility resembles the Puritan view of humility most closely; Franklin wants to “imitate Jesus and Socrates” while the Puritans only want to imitate Jesus (Franklin 13). Franklin included humility because he did not want to appear proud or arrogant in conversations. All of Franklin’s thirteen virtues resemble Puritan values without the religious connotation. Franklin uses ideas that guide the Puritans toward God in order to guide himself to success. By removing religion from the values, these virtues become ideas towards a good life instead of heaven.
Franklin does not believe in an afterlife, yet he still tries to achieve moral perfection. Franklin readily admits that “Revelation [God] had indeed no weight with me” (Franklin 9). He does not believe in God’s word or an afterlife. However he does think that “certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it” but that “these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us” (Franklin 9). He also believes the reverse, that good actions might not be good just because they were “commanded them” but because that these actions were “commanded because they were beneficial to us” (Franklin 9). Franklin thinks that the virtues that Puritans follow might be commanded just because they are good things to follow, not because God says so. Puritans try to achieve moral perfection because they want to be saved. Franklin follows his thirteen virtues in order to achieve “moral perfection” because while he does not believe in salvation, he still believes perfection is something to strive for (Franklin 12). Franklin wants to achieve this because he values character in life. Just because he does not believe that good character will help him for the afterlife does not mean that it is not worth achieving. While Franklin is not Christian, he still believes in the Christian value of perfection.
Puritans believe that God intervenes in their daily lives in order to make them better Christians. Rowlandson thinks God put her through the adversity of being captured by Indians to show her “the vanity of these outward things” (Rowlandson 8). She even feels grateful that “the Lord had his time to scourge and chasten” her (Rowlandson 8). Instead of being mad at God for putting her in a horrible situation, Rowlandson feels like a better person and thanks God for the chance to grow. Puritans believe that God gives them their misfortunes and sufferings because they have sinned. This belief leads them to blame themselves for sinning and then to try to become better people. Rowlandson blames herself for God putting her in this situation because of the “Sabbaths I had lost and misspent, and how evilly I had walked in God’s sight” (Rowlandson 3). Similarly, Dane skips church to go see a friend, and an insect stings him. The insect sting “was taken by the providence of God” for his sin (Dane 4). To alleviate the pain, Dane prays and promises to be a better Christian and the wound heals. Dane puts the blame on himself and believes that God punishes him in order to keep him on a good path.
On the other hand, Franklin believes that God most likely does not interact with the world. In Franklin’s autobiography, when he discusses major events in his life, he does not mention God or God’s influence. When negative event occur in Franklin’s life, he does not think God intervened to teach him. Likewise, when things go well in Franklin’s life, he does not thank God. He just believes that his hard work and dedication finally pays off. Instead of saying Providence affects him, he states, “the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me” (Franklin 9). Franklin does not instantly believe that Providence saves him; he leaves his salvation open to other options. That uncertainty and uncaring of what his salvation comes from differs from the Puritans automatic belief in God’s Providence.
Although Franklin is a Deist, his ideas about Deism differ from other Deist beliefs. Franklin’s Puritan roots affect his ideas of Deism. Because Franklin grew up in a Puritan household, he still values many Christian beliefs, leading to his creation of the thirteen virtues. By placing value on Christian ideals, Franklin differentiates himself from many other Deists, who are not pro-Christian. Franklin also differs from other Deists because he believes in the power of religion, more specifically, Christianity. He understands the value that organized religion has in society. As people began to follow Mr. Whitefield during the Great Awakening, Franklin thought the change in “the manners of our inhabitants” was wonderful (Franklin 19). Franklin recognizes that people work better and focus more when they have strong religious beliefs. Because of this, Franklin still attends church and contributes to the collections, something other Deists do not do. Franklin wrote “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain” only a few years after he became a Deist. However, he realizes that while this doctrine “might be true, was not very useful” because society would not accept it (Franklin 9). By accepting that his Deist doctrine is not very useful, Franklin merges his Deist beliefs with some Christian beliefs. Because of this, he ends up with the thirteen virtues and a different take on Deism than most Deists, which was more applicable at the time.
Franklin’s beliefs come from a combination of his Christian upbringing, his Deist conversion, and his observations of society while Puritan beliefs stem directly from the Bible. His parents gave him “religious impressions” and raised him “piously in the Dissenting way” (Franklin 5). This childhood upbringing in a very Christian household gives Franklin a healthy respect for Christian virtues. When Franklin converts to Deism, he rejects many Christian ideas about salvation and God, but keeps ideas about how to achieve perfection. Deism allows Franklin to look at the virtues Christians value in a non-theological way. By stripping the religious aspects from the virtues, Franklin creates his guide to moral perfection. He still believes moral perfection is worth achieving partially because he was raised to believe in it, but also because moral perfection leads to success and respect. Many of Franklin’s practices change because of his observations of society. When Franklin realizes that his Deist dissertation is not well received, he combines his Deist views with his Christian views. He even changes his thirteen virtues when a “Quaker friend” tells him that people think he is proud (Franklin 15). Franklin allows his religious values to change whenever the need arises, in order to perfect his beliefs and virtues. Puritans believe in God because the Bible says so. Christianity has been around for thousands of years and is the major religion in England and the United States. The Puritans follow Christianity because they are brought up to believe in it, the Bible says to, and because a majority of people are Christian.
Franklin and Puritans share a common goal of moral perfection, even though their religious views differ. While the reasons they try to achieve perfection differ, they use similar values as a guide. Puritans strive for perfection in order to achieve salvation while Franklin strives for perfection in order to be a good person. Franklin takes Puritan values and goals and strips them of their religious elements. Franklin uses Christian ideas to create his own moral guide and religious beliefs as he tries to achieve perfection, while Puritans follow the strict guidelines set by the Bible in order to reach the same goal.
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