Review: Benjamin Franklin - The Religious Life of a Founding Father

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Thomas S. Kidd. Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Yale University Press, 2017. Hardcover, 288 pages, $30.

John Adams once commented of his senior colleague, Benjamin Franklin, that “the Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought of him as half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker.” In composing Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, Baylor historian Thomas Kidd notes that this competition of claims on Franklin’s faith was not exclusive to his contemporaries but also marks subsequent Franklin scholarship. Eschewing dogmatic efforts to cast Franklin as either a “faithful believer” or “stone-cold atheist”—the ambiguity arising from Franklin’s own unwillingness to dogmatize—Kidd attempts to let the founding father speak for himself, presenting Franklin’s religious life and thought in all of its diversity, irony, self-contradiction, and idiosyncrasy.

Kidd makes this effort through extensive quotation of Ben Franklin’s public writings and private correspondence, making occasional reference to secondary sources at points of scholarly debate but preferring to leave these original texts largely unencumbered. Assuming a basic familiarity with Franklin’s life, the American founding, and eighteenth-century religion, Kidd is able to focus on his subject matter without becoming distracted in explaining irrelevant circumstances. At the same time, religion and religious themes are so central to Kidd’s understanding of Franklin’s life that attention to this subject lends itself to a reasonably comprehensive treatment of Benjamin Franklin’s familial, entrepreneurial, and political life as well.

Read the full review at The University Bookman.