Denison Forum – Did Benjamin Franklin’s personal religion help him achieve “moral perfection”?

As a Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in winning America’s independence and framing our constitution. 

He was also an inventor. He didn’t invent electricity, but he invented the lightning rod. His other inventions included bifocals, the Franklin stove, and the $100 bill—not really. 

You might not realize it, but Ben Franklin even invented his own personal religion. 

Benjamin Franklin’s personal religion

Franklin was raised in a Puritan Presbyterian family and was baptized at an early age. Based upon his writings, it’s clear that he was a God-fearing man. However, in his adult years, he seldom attended church and he viewed Jesus as a great moral teacher, like Socrates. But he didn’t believe that Jesus was God in the flesh. 

When Benjamin Franklin was a young adult, he established his own religious system to be a good moral person. In his autobiography, he wrote: “It was about this time [age twenty] I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time. . . . As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.”

Franklin’s thirteen “moral habitudes”

Franklin enumerated thirteen moral qualities that he tried to attain. He called these his “moral habitudes” (a cross between a habit and an attitude). They included temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. 

Franklin took his personal religion seriously. He had a little book with his thirteen moral qualities written down the left side. Then he had seven columns for the seven days of the week. He would judge himself and, if he failed or needed improvement, he would make a mark in that column. Each week he would erase the marks and start over. He soon found that there were so many marks that erasing them tore a hole in the page! He got a new book, and, when a page would fill up with marks against his plan, he would tear that page out and start over. 

Failing at perfection

Later in life when he wrote his autobiography, he reflected on the failure of his system: “I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it. . . . In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself. . . . For, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Ben Franklin was a wise, powerful individual. However, he admitted that he failed to live a life of perfect moral purity. He could have saved himself a lot of frustration and paper if he had applied Galatians 2:20 to his life. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”  

We can never achieve moral perfection ourselves. There is only one person who ever lived a perfect life: his name is Jesus, and he lives in those who have placed their faith in him.

Instead of inventing thirteen moral habitudes, we already have God’s list. Galatians 5:22 describes nine character qualities that Jesus was to live out through us: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” 

But you don’t have to create a checklist and make a daily mark when you try to live up to those character qualities. Those nine words simply describe the personality of Jesus. 

As you surrender to Jesus living in you, he energizes those qualities in your life.

Dr. David O. Dykes served as pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas before retiring on September 1, 2021. He is the author of 21 books, including three action-packed novels, writing as David Orlo; all are available on Amazon. He is currently booking speaking engagements and can be reached at dod75701[at]

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