Perhaps it’s because I was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania, or perhaps it’s because everything I’ve ever read about him suggests he was delightfully unorthodox, but whatever the reason, Benjamin Franklin has always held my admiration. Probably we all like to hear echoes of ourselves in the great. It is difficult to believe that during his early rise to fame, Franklin was eclipsed by an unlikely superstar who was, of all things, an evangelist. George Whitefield, an early English Methodist, wowed the colonies with his born again message, perhaps being responsible for its appeal even today. Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher explores the unlikely friendship that sprang up between Franklin and the younger Whitefield. While cataloguing early founders’ religious lives is always problematic, Franklin was a self-described Deist, and certainly not an Evangelical. Whitefield was very into the personal relationship with Jesus idea that Franklin found, at best, simplistic.
Petersen’s book is a kind of wishful history. He wants to see Franklin and Whitefield together, often suggesting that they might have met here or there, or that they might have discussed this or that. The fact is, we have little to go on beyond the reality that the two knew and respected one another. Whitefield stayed in Franklin’s house in Philadelphia. Franklin printed and sold Whitefield’s best-seller sermons. Certainly there was a good business opportunity here. Even today the evangelical Bible market is a strong one. Savvy businessmen and women know that a good living may be had from the Good Book. You can’t read a book like The Printer and the Preacher without thinking that Whitefield and Franklin were a kind of odd couple. Franklin is remembered as a man of wit and science. Whitefield is barely remembered at all. One of the first preachers to hire a publicity manager, Whitefield was the Joel Osteen of his day, raking in the accolades for being emotional in front of salt-of-the-earth colonials. His oratory skills were legendary. Even though he is honored as one of the founders of the University of Pennsylvania, he was no scholar and has largely been relegated to an historical footnote.
Petersen’s book is a quick read. His writing is winsome in an evangelical way. He assumes the truth, or so it appears, of the evangelical position. Nevertheless, there is material to stop and ponder here. Many of the questions can never be answered: why, particularly, did Franklin and Whitefield hit it off, for example. On a more approachable level is the why of Whitefield’s faded flower verses Franklin’s perennial bloom. The message of Whitefield simply doesn’t stand up to the experience of history. Human beings—many of them born again—experience constant turmoil in their lives. Franklin, on the other hand, was the consumate pragmatist. His aphorisms are regularly mistaken for verses of the Bible. Although others would have gotten there, we largely have him to thank for our harnessing of electricity, and even the birth of a new nation. Whitefield’s spiritual descendants now rally to prevent stem cell research and the teaching of evolution. Franklin’s children, illegitimate or not, reap the benefits of the lightning rod.
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