/ Nathan Eshelman

To Franklin: What About Jesus?

Benjamin Franklin had many acquaintances that were ministers and clergy of various "sects" as he would call them. He was raised as a Presbyterian and even pulled his grandson from a Roman Catholic school in France so that he could attend Geneva Academy in Switzerland that he may be "a Presbyterian" in his thinking.

In 1790, one month before his death at the age of 85, he had a conversation with the president of Yale College, Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. Stiles was a congregationalist minister in the American Puritan tradition as well as an intellectual on par with Franklin.

Stiles pressed Franklin on his religious beliefs and got this response: "I believe in one God, the creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children."

Stiles, unimpressed with this response, pressed further asking him where he stood on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Franklin, by far, one of, or the, most famous man in America; as well as famous in England in France, had a most peculiar response. Franklin had rubbed shoulders with all the thinkers, philosophers, famous pastors, and Christian intellectuals of his day and yet his response to Stiles was, "It is the first time I have been questioned upon it." He would go on to say that he has "some doubts as to [Jesus's] divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it."

Now surely Franklin had heard the gospel preached. He despised the sermons of his local Presbyterian minister saying that he made men to be good Presbyterians rather than good citizens. He also had a long-standing friendship with Anglican minister, Rev. George Whitefield, often conducting studies on sound at his outdoor sermons.

So Franklin had heard the claims of Christ publicly and from the pulpit. But Stiles's question was personal rather than public.

Where does Jesus Christ fit within your system, Dr. Franklin?

And it was the first remembrance in 85 years of the question being asked. Where is Jesus Christ in your thinking? Dr. Franklin was confronted personally with the question that separated the intellectualism of Yale's Dr. Stiles and Pennsylvania's Dr. Franklin. Where is Jesus Christ in your system?

Maybe you assume that your acquaintances have been asked about Jesus Christ and their response would be, like Franklin's, that "it was the first time I have been questioned upon it."

Franklin died six weeks after this conversation. Why did this conversation take so long in the life of one of early America's great thinkers and practitioners?

Nathan Eshelman

Nathan Eshelman

Pastor in Orlando, studied at Puritan Reformed Theological & Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminaries. One of the chambermen on the podcast The Jerusalem Chamber. Married to Lydia with 5 children.

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