Thomas Kidd is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. This interview is based on his new book Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Ben Franklin?
TK: This book is a sort of follow-up to my 2014 biography of George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the eighteenth century. Franklin was the key publisher of Whitefield’s journals and sermons in America, but they also became close friends. They were two of the biggest celebrities in the Anglo-American world, yet the faiths of the evangelical Whitefield and the “thorough deist” Franklin would seem to have been worlds apart.
In researching Franklin’s religious journey, however, I came to believe that Franklin’s Puritan background exercised a major influence on his adult life. Although Franklin maintained doubts about basic Christian beliefs, the deep imprint made by his parents’ piety and his thorough knowledge of the King James Bible hardly dissipated when he discovered deism as a teenager.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Ben Franklin?
TK: Franklin arguably represented the American epitome of the “Enlightenment,” with his scientific discoveries, incessant charitable projects, and worldly-wise skepticism. But as Franklin’s long life proceeded, his skepticism was restrained by the weight of his Puritan background, by ongoing relationships with evangelicals like Whitefield and Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom, and by the seemingly providential events of the American Revolution.
JF: Why do we need to read Ben Franklin?
TK: If all we know of Franklin’s religion is the Autobiography’s description of how he jettisoned his parents’ faith and became a deist, we miss the extraordinary religious depth of his life and writings. Franklin not only published a great deal of religious material as a printer, but even as an author he seems to have published more on religious topics than any other eighteenth-century American layperson. Some of Franklin’s writing on religion, especially in the 1730s, displayed an amazing sophistication and polemical edge, even on complex topics like the imputed righteousness of Christ.
JF: You are a very productive scholar. Any writing tips for us mere mortals?
TK: I frequently write about productivity and the writing process in my weekly newsletters. The advice I keep coming back to, however, is the importance of making daily writing progress, even if it is only a couple hundred words. Writers get in trouble when they let their projects languish for weeks and months at a time.
JF: What is your next project?
TK: I am writing a two-volume American History textbook for B&H Academic, which (Lord willing) should be out by 2019.
JF: Thanks, Tommy!