It was in 1957 when The Jewish Forum in New York printed a small forty-one page hardcover book titled “The Religion of Benjamin Franklin.” The author was prominent Manhattan physician Dr. Harry Cohen, who dedicated his book to his friend Eleanor Roosevelt, who, “by her life, had enriched the world.”
Dr. Harry Cohen himself had made a gigantic contribution to mankind. He was a distinguished surgeon, writer, historian, civic leader, philanthropist and, above all, a humanitarian. He was a Life Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and of the American College of Surgeons. He was also a Fellow of the International College of Surgeons and a Diplomat of the International Board of Surgery.
Dr. Cohen was the author of several books of history, including “Simon Bolivar and the Conquest and Liberation of South America.” He was a founder of a medical school in Israel, and the International Medical Editor of “Who’s Who in World Jewry.” He was the recipient of honors from almost every country in the world, including special blessings from the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII.
This scarce and remarkable little book by Dr. Harry Cohen gives us a rare and insightful look into the religious struggle and ultimate faith of another giant of our colonial past; Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin has long been one of my most admired colonial American personalities. He was many things: a printer, writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, civic leader, and diplomat. He is best known as the only Founding Father who signed all three documents that freed America from Britain. Franklin is also credited with helping to draft the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. He negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Independence War against Britain. Quite a litany of accomplishments given his modest beginnings.
Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706, the 10th son of the 17 children of a man who made soap and candles, one of the lowliest of the artisan crafts. In an age that privileged the firstborn son, Franklin was, as he tartly noted in his autobiography, “the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back.” He learned to read very early and had one year in grammar school and another under a private teacher, but his formal education ended at age 10. At 12 he was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. His mastery of the printer’s trade, of which he was proud to the end of his life, was achieved between 1718 and 1723. In the same period he read tirelessly and taught himself to write effectively.
Franklin ran away in 1723, heading for Philadelphia where he worked for the printer Sam Keimer. After traveling to London in 1724 to continue learning his trade as a journeyman printer, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726. By 1730, he had established himself as an independent master printer. He quickly became not only the most prominent printer in the colonies, but the man who shaped and defined colonial and revolutionary Philadelphia. He was a leader of the Junto, an elite group of intellectuals who were at the core of Philadelphia politics and cultural life for some time and who became the basis for the American Philosophical Society.
Franklin was involved in many public projects. He was instrumental in the improvement of the lighting and paving of Philadelphia and in the organization of a police force, fire companies, Pennsylvania Hospital, the Library Company of Philadelphia, as well as the Academy and College of Philadelphia.
He also became a key political leader at many levels. In 1736 he was chosen clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, which position he held until 1751. In 1737 he was made Postmaster at Philadelphia. In 1754 he was sent to the Albany Convention where he submitted a plan for colonial unity and was put in charge of the northwestern frontier of the province by the governor. Twice he was sent to London as agent for the Assembly.
With the outbreak of the Revolution, Franklin was sent as commissioner to France and in 1781 was on the commission to make peace with Great Britain. Franklin was a member of the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a framer of both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. He also served as the American Ambassador to France.
Consider the era in which Franklin lived, the era of Europe’s severe religious laws, laws that drove hundreds and thousands to settle here led by such men as William Penn and Roger Williams. Even here in America, religious practices were rigidly enforced, witch-hunts were carried out, Catholics were unwelcome, and where scattered throughout all of the thirteen colonies there were only 2,500 Jewish families. Within this era, we can begin to appreciate the greatness of Benjamin Franklin who in every way championed the cause of religious freedom throughout his entire life.
Born to a religious family of pious Puritans, the family attended the Old South Church, the most liberal Puritan congregation in Boston, where Benjamin was baptized in 1706.
Franklin later deserted the Presbyterian Church in favor of the Episcopal. He had a pew in Christ Church from 1760 until his death in 1790, but rarely attended it. It was the same pew that George Washington had also occupied.
Franklin was not an ardent adherent of any church. He found much to criticize in many of them but he continued to be a pew holder. He had profound respect for religion as religion, but he had a half amused, half irritated feeling over the non-essentials that divided men into sects. He was no sectarian. His attitude was singularly universal.
He was deeply concerned over the religious intolerance that existed in many places in the Colonies. People who had come to America to avoid religious persecution turned on others of different faiths. In various communities Quakers had been hanged, dissenters burned at the stake, Jews and Catholics deprived of the right to vote and own property, and liberal revivalists refused a place to preach.
Franklin formulated a presentation of his beliefs and published them in 1728. It did not mention many of the Puritan ideas regarding salvation, the divinity of Jesus, or indeed much religious dogma. He clarified himself as a deist in his 1771 autobiography, although still considered himself a Christian. He retained a strong faith in a God as the wellspring of morality and goodness in man, and as a providential actor in history responsible for American independence. Franklin believed in God and prayed to him. He frequently remarked: “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself.”
Near the end of his career, Franklin received a letter from Dr. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, of later fame, who referred to Franklin as the “American Moses.” This letter cheered him considerably. It read in part: “While I am writing to the Philosopher and a friend, I cannot forget that I am also writing to the greatest statesman of the present or perhaps any century, who spread the contagion of Liberty among his countrymen; and like the greatest man of all antiquity, the leader of the Jews, delivered them from the House of Bondage and the scourge of oppression.”
Benjamin Franklin summarized his faith in the first paragraph of a lengthy letter written on March 9, 1790, only six weeks before he died. It was in answer to a letter from Ezra Stiles, then President of Yale University, who had requested a portrait of Franklin to be hung at Yale. The letter also requested a statement regarding Franklin’s religious belief. Franklin replied: “You desire to know something of my religion. It is the first time that I have been questioned about it. But I cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavor in a few words to gratify it. Here is my creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe, that He governs it by His Providence. That He ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them, as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.”
Benjamin Franklin died from a pleuritic attack at his home in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790. He was age 84 at the time of his death. Approximately 20,000 people attended the funeral of the man who was called, “the harmonious human multitude.” Never before or since has there been such an interment in Philadelphia in which every clergyman, parson, priest, and rabbi in the city led the funeral cortege. He was buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground on April 21, 1790.
Always proud of his success as a master printer and publisher, Franklin wrote what he hoped would be his own epitaph: “The body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer; like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, and stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be wholly lost: for it will, as he believed, appear once more, in a new and more perfect edition, corrected and amended by the Author.”
Franklin’s actual grave, however, as he specified in his final will, simply reads “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.
On January 20, 1960, Dr. Harry Cohen presented a personalized copy of his little book about the faith of Benjamin Franklin to another friend, noted United Nations Correspondent David Horowitz. Cohen knew that Horowitz, also the founder of “United Israel World Union,” was also a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and had frequently corresponded with her. It was this personal Horowitz copy of Cohen’s book, now an archived treasure, which provided the primary source material for this story.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. An author, historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.