At first glance, the friendship that developed between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield would seem improbable at best and more likely a work of ironic historical fiction. Yet, the bond that developed between two of the eighteenth century’s most colorful figures was one that was genuine, and probably not as conflicted as one might initially assume.
Americans today are very familiar with the image of Franklin and his importance to the founding of the United States. As an author, publisher, thinker, politician, inventor, and statesman, Franklin’s contributions to American life, culture, and thinking are all but impossible to calculate. De-spite the fact that Franklin’s parents had in his words, “brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way,” he would also recall that, “I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself . . . I soon became a thorough Deist.”1Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ed. Frank Woodworth Pine (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916), 111. By the time that Whitefield stepped foot in America in the late 1730s, Franklin had an illegitimate son, a common-law marriage to a woman named Deborah Reed, and was beginning to develop a reputation as a womanizer.
By the time that Whitefield made his second trip to America in 1739, he was a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. His childhood had done little to predict a famous religious celebrity. Whitefield’s father passed away when he was two, and he described himself as a child as,
“So brutish as to hate instruction and used purposely to shun all opportunities of receiving it. I soon gave pregnant proofs of an impudent temper. Lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting, I was much addicted to, even when very young. Sometimes I used to curse, if not swear. Stealing from my mother I thought no theft at all, and used to make no scruple of taking money out of her pockets before she was up. I have frequently betrayed my trust, and have more than once spent money I took in the house in buying fruit, tarts, &c., to satisfy my sensual appetite. Numbers of Sabbaths have I broken, and generally used to behave myself very irreverently in God’s sanctuary. Much money have I spent in plays, and in the common amusements of the age. Cards and reading romances were my heart’s delight.”2The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Volume XXVII (London: Charles Knight And Co., 1833), 341.
In spite of humble beginnings and his obvious Calvinistic sense of depravity, after his graduation from Oxford, Whitefield had help-ed to found the Methodist movement and had been largely responsible for beginning the movement that would become known as the First Great Awakening.
Whitefield’s trip to America in 1739 was heralded by the press of the American colonies, not the least of which was the Pennsylvania Gazette, owned and operated by Benjamin Franklin.3Pennsylvania Gazette, November 8, 1739. The young, blue-eyed evangelist, just shy of twenty-five years of age, had scarcely set foot in the colonies before he went to work on one of his first projects in the new world—an orphanage for the colony of Georgia. In fact, the same November 8 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette that heralded the coming of the famous preacher also contained an advertisement of a sale that would be held at Whitefield’s house of “Goods: Being the Benefactions of Charitable People In England, towards Building an Orphan-House In Georgia.”4Pennsylvania Gazette, November 8, 1739.
Franklin described his opinion of the problems in this most southern of British colonies, “The settlement of that province had lately been begun, but, instead of being made with hardy, industrious husbandmen, accustomed to labor, the only people fit for such an enterprise, it was with families of broken shop-keepers and other insolvent debtors, many of indolent and idle habits, taken out of the jails, who, being set down in the woods, unqualified for clearing land, and unable to endure the hardships of a new settlement, perished in numbers, leaving many helpless children unprovided for.”5Franklin, Autobiography, 193. These two giants of the eighteenth century agreed on the need to do something about the orphans of Georgia, but they disagreed about the solution.
Whitefield wrote to Harman Verelst, accountant for the Georgia Trustees, in 1740 explaining his plan, “The building of this Orphan House I find will be of great service to the colony in general. It prevents many leaving the place and I believe will be an encouragement for others to come over.” The trustees of Georgia might have been pleased with the Reverend’s designs, but Franklin was not. In his autobiography, written near the end of his life, Franklin recalled his feelings on the matter, “I did not disapprove of the design, but, as Georgia was then destitute of materials and workmen, and it was proposed to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here, and brought the children to it.”6Franklin, Autobiography, 194.
Franklin advised Whitefield of his thoughts on the orphanage, but Whitefield, for his own reasons, ignored Franklin’s judgment and went ahead as planned. His wisdom spurned, Franklin attended an open-air sermon for which Whitefield was so famous, resolute in his determination not to donate any funds towards the project when a collection was taken. Soon, however, his fortitude weakened, “I silently resolved he should get nothing from me, I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”7Franklin, Autobiography, 194.
Despite their differences of opinion over the location of the orphan house, the two men managed to strike up quite a friendship. Every relationship requires something in common and these men most definitely had at least two very big things in common: publishing and the desire for a responsible citizenry.
The man who grew up a Puritan and became a Deist, and the ruffian who became a staunch Calvinist were both interested in putting the written sermons of Whitefield down on paper. Whitefield saw in publishing another avenue by which he might continue to promote the gospel, and Franklin saw an opportunity to sell more subscriptions and so he was only too happy to oblige. As one historian put it, the net result of the joint publishing venture was that, “Franklin made money, Whitefield gained souls, and the two men became friends.”8Frank Lambert, “Subscribing for Profits and Piety: The Friendship of Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield,” The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. 50, No. 3, (July, 1993), 548
The written word, at least in the opinion of Franklin, however, was not as kind to his friend as that of the spoken word. Whitefield was an overpowering orator, and, in many ways, attending his sermons was as much a spectacle as it was an endeavor in spiritual fervor. Wistfully, Franklin recalled the rather different impact that the published sermons made:
“His writing and printing from time to time gave great advantage to his enemies; unguarded expressions, and even erroneous opinions, delivered in preaching, might have been afterwards explain’d or qualified by supposing others that might have accompanied them, or they might have been deny’d; but litera scripta manet. Critics attack’d his writings violently, and with so much appearance of reason as to diminish the number of his votaries and prevent their en-crease; so that I am of opinion if he had never written any thing, he would have left behind him a much more numerous and important sect, and his reputation might in that case have been still growing, even after his death.”9Franklin, Autobiography, 198.
In many ways Franklin was the ideal person to publish Whitefield; the men were fond of one another and Franklin was often one of the thousands in attendance of the great minister’s thundering sermons. As with almost everything, particularly things faith-related, Franklin viewed the whole experience almost entirely scientific. The inventor in Franklin, combined with his abundant curiosity, gave birth to a novel experiment testing the efficacy of Whitefield’s loud voice as well the truthfulness of reports that claimed that he had preached to tens of thousands of people at one time in the fields of England. One day while at the back of a large crowd which had gathered to hear Whitefield in Philadelphia, Franklin began to walk backwards until he could no longer hear the sermon. From there he calculated a semicircle and, estimating two square feet per person, he calculated, at least to his own curiosity, that Whitefield could be heard by as many as 30,000 people.10Franklin, Autobiography, 196-197.
The man who would become one of America’s Founding Father’s might have been a periodic attend-ee of Whitefield’s sermons, he might have contributed to projects for which he too saw a need, but on the issue of a personal faith the two men most definitely di-verged—not that the Calvinist preacher did not do his best to convert the self-proclaimed Deist. On several occasions in the correspondence between the two Whitefield appealed to Franklin to come to faith in Christ. Interestingly, these appeals show that Whitefield, though unsuccessful in his attempts, seems to have understood the basic scientific nature of his friend. Early on in their acquaintance Whitefield reached out to the rational side of Franklin telling him in a letter, “I do not despair of your seeing the reasonableness of christianity. [sic] Apply to God; be willing to do the divine will, and you shall know it.”11George Whitefield, Letter from Whitefield to Franklin, Nov. 26, 1740. A Select Collection of Letters of the late George Whitefield, M.A. Volume I. (London, 1772), 226.
A dozen years later Whitefield was still at work at-tempting to persuade the skeptic, and again used much the same formula:
“As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth. It is a most important, interesting study, and when mastered, will richly answer and repay you for all you (sic) pains. One at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that without it, ‘we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’ You will excuse this freedom. I must have Aliquid Christi [anything of Christ] in all my letters. I am yet a willing pilgrim for his great name sake, and I trust a blessing attends my poor feeble labours.”12Ibid., Vol. II, Aug. 17, 1752, 440.
These were just two of Whitefield’s offerings to Franklin regarding the gospel, but the “reasonableness” of the preacher’s faith was never to be shared by the scientist. As Franklin recalled, “He us’d, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death.”13Franklin, Autobiography, 196.
In many ways Franklin’s terminology of these two men’s camaraderie as a “civil friendship,” might be the most telling. These two men had common civil interests which might have provided the basis for their friendship that began with publishing.
In July of 1756 a fifty year-old Franklin had no realization of the events that would occur two decades hence. At that point in his life he was a man accomplished in many fields: publishing, science, philosophy, and even music, but he still felt that his life needed a dramatic grand conclusion “being in the last Act.”14Benjamin Franklin, Letter from Franklin to Whitefield, July 2, 1756. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III, January 1, 1745 through June 30, 1750. Ed. by Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1961). The solution that he wished for was that he and Whitefield could be sent by the crown of England to settle a colony on the Ohio River. Though he realized the odds were against such a venture, he still longed to make a permanent mark on society: “What a glorious Thing it would be, to settle in that fine Country a large Strong Body of Religious and Industrious People! . . . In such an Enterprize I could spend the Remainder of Life with Pleasure; and I firmly believe God would bless us with Success, if we undertook it with a sincere Regard to his Honour, the Service of our gracious King, and (which is the same thing) the Publick Good.”15Ibid. There is no record of Whitefield’s re-sponse to Franklin’s dream.
No matter how far Franklin might have moved from the Puritanical theology of his childhood, a cursory review of his writings reveals the remnants of ethics and ideas finding much of their origination in Calvinist Puritanism.16Max Weber in his seminal book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, quotes Franklin numerous times to illustrate his point of the influence of Protestantism upon the founding of Capitalism. The two men both had a vested interest in the development of upstanding citizens. In Franklin’s mind a religion should at the very least make improvements upon society. Much of his own disenchantment with Protestant Christianity came from his experience of this factor lacking in so many services. Jedediah Andrews, Philadelphia’s only Presbyterian pastor, frequently visited Franklin and constantly prevailed upon him to attend services. Unfortunately for Andrews, Franklin was less than impressed when he did attend, “His discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.”17Franklin, Autobiography, 144. Conversely, Whitefield was every bit as critical of the local clergy, though for more theological reasons, saying in one of his sermons, “Mere heathen morality, and not Jesus Christ, is preached in most of our churches.”18George Whitefield, Sermons on Important Subjects with a Memoir of the Author (Henry Fisher, Son, and P. Jackson. London, 1828), 282.
What Franklin found undesirable in Whitefield’s religiosity could at times be outweighed by the desirable effect it had on the citizenry. The gregarious Dr. Franklin marveled when he observed, “The extraordinary influence of his [Whitefield’s] oratory on his hearers, and how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils”19Franklin, Autobiography, 192. (emphasis his). Yet he still exclaimed, “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants.”20Ibid., 192.
Throughout his life Whitefield was a lightning rod for controversy, which was ironic since Franklin is often credited with inventing the lightning rod. His trips to America were no different, and there was a certain amount of resistance to the man and his methods. Whitefield had already perfected the art of preaching in the fields, and so when pastors refused to have him fill their pulpits, he merely moved his sermons outside.
In the world of the eighteenth-century, with no sporting events, television, movies, or few other modern amusements, if Whitefield was rained out the population of Philadelphia was far more disappointed than if the Phillies are rained out in the twenty-first century. The solution to this problem was to build a meeting house 100 feet long by 70 feet wide. The building and the grounds were entrusted to a group of trustees who were responsible for letting the building be used by any religion wanting to hold a meeting in the City of Brotherly Love. Franklin was one of those leading the way, both vocally and financially, to erect the building.21Ibid., 192.
Historians have often wrestled with the strange relationship that existed between these two men. Periodically, when Whitefield visited Philadelphia he even stayed at Franklin’s house. It can be difficult to imagine the man who so powerfully and frequently preached regarding eternal damnation and the wickedness of immorality boarding with Franklin, his common-law wife, and his illegitimate son, but that is indeed what happened.
Whitefield actually counted both Franklins among his good friends in Philadelphia. At the close of a letter in May of 1748, Whitefield told Mr. Franklin to, “Remember me to Mrs. F[ranklin], and all my dear Philadelphia friends.”22Letter from Whitefield to Franklin, May 27, 1748. A Select Collection of Letters of the Late Reverend George Whitefield, M.A. Volume II. London, 1772, pg.141-142. Interestingly, while Whitefield referred to Deborah Read as “Mrs. F,” a letter from Franklin to Whitefield a little over a year later said, “Mrs. Read, and your other friends here in general are well, and will rejoice to see you again.”23Letter from Franklin to Whitefield, July 6, 1749. The Evangelical Magazine, xi, 1803, pg. 27-28. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III, January 1, 1745 through June 30, 1750. Ed. By Leonard W. Labaree. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1961). Perhaps the two men referred to the same woman differently for no reason, or perhaps the two men were playing a bit of grammatical chess for their own ideological purposes.24A decade and a half later Franklin would send Whitefield a letter in which he said, “Mrs. Franklin presents her cordial Respects, with those of Dear Sir, Your Affectionate humble Servant.” At some point Franklin stopped referring to her as Mrs. Read, whether this was particular to Whitefield or not is unclear.
Like all good friends there were also numerous times that Whitefield or Franklin came to the ready defense of the other. Franklin received plenty of criticism as the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette for giving Whitefield an open forum. At times he made sure to point out to his readers that he gave equal time to both sides of a conflict. Despite his attempt at even-handedness, the publisher still felt obliged to print periodic criticisms of Whitefield saying during one of these, “The publishing of this, will obviate a groundless Report (injurious to that Gentleman) that Mr. Whitefield had engaged all the Printers not to print any Thing against him, lest his Doctrine and Practice should be expos’d, and the People undeceived; I shall therefore print it as I received it: And when the Publick has heard what may possibly be said in Reply, they will then judge for themselves.”25Pennsylvania Gazette, May 8, 1740.
Whitefield, too, did his part to come to Franklin’s aid whenever it was needed. In 1766, with the American colonies in a tumult over Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act, Franklin was called to Parliament to testify about the ruckus taking place in America. The Act which was passed in 1765 required all American legal documents, as well as newspapers and even playing cards, to carry a tax stamp. The amiable man in the square glasses entered the House of Commons on the defensive, and he did not enter alone—he was accompanied by none other than his friend George Whitefield. Franklin’s testimony that day was instrumental in the repeal of the Stamp Act, and Whitefield was quick to trumpet his friend’s triumph, even to those who were unhappy with Franklin, telling all who would listen, “Our worthy friend, Dr. Franklin, has gained immortal honour by his behaviour at the bar of the House. The answer was always found equal, if not superior, to the questioner. He stood unappalled, gave pleasure to his friends, and did honour to his country.”26The London Quarterly Review, Volume XXIII (London: Henry James Tresidder), 498.
Together these two men impacted the world in ways that are difficult to even calculate. Their friendship was sincere and lasted from their first meeting until Whitefield’s death in 1770. It seems to have grown after their business dealings concluded, and despite the fact that they were frequently separated by hundreds of miles, or even the Atlantic Ocean. The best reflection on the unexpected camaraderie of two of history’s most notable characters comes in a statement Franklin made to his brother John who was in London in 1747 when Whitefield arrived back in his native England from America, “I am glad to hear that Mr. Whitefield is safe arriv’d, and recover’d his Health. He is a good Man and I love him.”27Letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Franklin, Aug. 6, 1747. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume IV, April 1, 1755 through September 24, 1756. Ed. by Leonard W. Labaree. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1961).
Aaron Sharp is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and is a freelance writer from Little Elm, TX.
|Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ed. Frank Woodworth Pine (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916), 111.
|The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Volume XXVII (London: Charles Knight And Co., 1833), 341.
|Pennsylvania Gazette, November 8, 1739.
|Franklin, Autobiography, 193.
|Franklin, Autobiography, 194.
|Frank Lambert, “Subscribing for Profits and Piety: The Friendship of Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield,” The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. 50, No. 3, (July, 1993), 548
|Franklin, Autobiography, 198.
|Franklin, Autobiography, 196-197.
|George Whitefield, Letter from Whitefield to Franklin, Nov. 26, 1740. A Select Collection of Letters of the late George Whitefield, M.A. Volume I. (London, 1772), 226.
|Ibid., Vol. II, Aug. 17, 1752, 440.
|Franklin, Autobiography, 196.
|Benjamin Franklin, Letter from Franklin to Whitefield, July 2, 1756. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III, January 1, 1745 through June 30, 1750. Ed. by Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1961).
|Max Weber in his seminal book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, quotes Franklin numerous times to illustrate his point of the influence of Protestantism upon the founding of Capitalism.
|Franklin, Autobiography, 144.
|George Whitefield, Sermons on Important Subjects with a Memoir of the Author (Henry Fisher, Son, and P. Jackson. London, 1828), 282.
|Franklin, Autobiography, 192.
|Letter from Whitefield to Franklin, May 27, 1748. A Select Collection of Letters of the Late Reverend George Whitefield, M.A. Volume II. London, 1772, pg.141-142.
|Letter from Franklin to Whitefield, July 6, 1749. The Evangelical Magazine, xi, 1803, pg. 27-28. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III, January 1, 1745 through June 30, 1750. Ed. By Leonard W. Labaree. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1961).
|A decade and a half later Franklin would send Whitefield a letter in which he said, “Mrs. Franklin presents her cordial Respects, with those of Dear Sir, Your Affectionate humble Servant.” At some point Franklin stopped referring to her as Mrs. Read, whether this was particular to Whitefield or not is unclear.
|Pennsylvania Gazette, May 8, 1740.
|The London Quarterly Review, Volume XXIII (London: Henry James Tresidder), 498.
|Letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Franklin, Aug. 6, 1747. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume IV, April 1, 1755 through September 24, 1756. Ed. by Leonard W. Labaree. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1961).