Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian (OLD)

Freedom of Religion


John 21:20-22 and Romans 14:1-5

This holiday weekend is a great time to reflect on the blessings of Freedom of Religion. It is worth comparing our American foundation that separates church from state with the religious approaches of many other nations. As Pastor Mofid prepares to leave for Egypt, for instance, we are very aware that Christians are the minority faith in that Islamic nation. The Egyptian government months ago instituted a regulation where the pastors of Muslim mosques were assigned government approved preaching topics.  Preachers who would not abide by the assigned topic risked arrest.  

In Egypt, Christians are not free to share their faith in Jesus with their Islamic neighbors. In many such nations around the world Christians are perse­cuted for declaring their allegiance to Jesus. Christians in these countries ask their governments to provide freedom of religion. Recognizing this issue around the world helps us appreciate one of the great strengths of our nation. Let's take a moment to celebrate our American freedom of religion.

"Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds." (Romans 14:1-5)

The preschool teacher was reminding her class about patriotism on the Fourth of July. The teacher explained, "This is the holiday where we celebrate that we are all free." One boy raised his hand. When the teacher called on him he stood to his feet and announced with his hands on his hips. "I'm not free.  I'm four!"

That little boy doesn't know it yet, but he is expressing his first amendment rights. The First Amendment to our Con­stitution declares our rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble. In other words, it guaran­tees our rights to express dissenting viewpoints. We are free to disagree with each other.

As we celebrate freedom of religion this morning, let's take a moment to remember the founding father most respon­sible for this approach to church and state: Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin is the founder who gave our nation its motto, E Pluribus Unum: with our differences, we are one. Benjamin Franklin has been called an "apostle of tolerance."[1]

In 1788, Franklin was too ill to leave his bed in order to watch Philadelphia's annual Fourth of July parade.  So the city fathers arranged for the parade to pass under his window. Sitting in his bed at the window, Franklin watched as the clergy of the city of Philadelphia did something special to show their appreciation for his belief in the toleration of dif­fering religious views. The ministers of the various churches as well as the rabbi of the local synagogue linked arms as they paraded past Franklin's home. 

So what exactly did Benjamin Franklin, this "apostle of tolerance" believe as to his own faith? Was Franklin a Chris­tian or not? A quick review of Franklin's own journey of faith reminds us of the importance of Christians practicing respectful dialogue and tolerance toward others.

As a boy Benjamin Franklin left his parents' Christianity. For years he was a Deist, believing in nothing more than a distant, impersonal Creator. He didn't seem to see any need for Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. Then a young Presbyterian preacher in Philadelphia caught his interest.

Franklin in his 20's began attending the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. In particular he enjoyed the preaching of a new young associate pastor, the Reverend Samuel Hemphill. This young pastor, straight from Ireland, explained how Bible passages applied in real life. He preached less of the traditional Calvinist doctrines and more about how our daily lives reflect our faith in Jesus. The messages were not only interesting but applicable. Franklin found them refreshing and helpful. Franklin wasn't alone. Attendance rose whenever this young preacher was in the pulpit.

Unfortunately, this young preacher's success stirred up jealousy and politics in the church. Specifically, the Senior Pastor of the congregation charged the young associate with heresy. The Senior Pastor accused the young associate of preaching in such a popular way that when "free thinkers, deists, and nothings, getting a scent of him, [they] flocked to him." The Senior Pastor argued at the Presbyterian Synod that this young associate pastor was wrong for their church. By the time the church court convened, Franklin was heatedly defending the young pastor.

Over the weeks of the heresy trial Franklin printed and distributed his views about tolerance. Franklin denied the traditional Calvinist doctrine of predestination and instead argued that salvation could only be determined by the way people live their lives. As Franklin expressed it, "A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian." When the church court found the young Reverend Hemphill guilty of heresy and unanimously censured and suspended him, Franklin accused the Presbyterian pastors of "bigotry," "prejudice" and "pious fraud."

When the Reverend Hemphill left Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin broke off all ties with the Presbyterians. His spirit had been wounded by the way Christians treat each other in such doctrinal disputes. He would later declare in his own statement of faith on his death bed that while he admired Jesus of Nazareth as giving the world a moral system that was the "best the world ever saw or is likely to see," yet he felt grieved that Christianity as a religion had suffered "various corrupting changes."[2]

I wonder how many over the years, like Franklin, have rejected Christianity not because they disagree with Jesus so much as they reject the way Christians treat each other. "If that is Christianity, I don't need it!"  No wonder the Apostle Paul reminded the first followers of Jesus in Rome that it is okay to have disagreements on many of the specifics of our faith. We need to love each other in spite of our differences. How do we, as followers of Jesus, practice the grace of disagreeing without becoming disagreeable? 

Let's remember the Lord's warning to Peter. Like Peter, we are tempted to think that we can second-guess someone else's relationship with the Lord. Peter pointed at another disciple whose relationship with Jesus was different from his and asked, "But what about him?" Jesus responded, "That is between me and him. You follow me." Jesus made room for his disciples to disagree with each other.

Just as Benjamin Franklin was being drawn toward Christ, a church split sent him the other way. We would not be sur;prised if he had rejected all Christians after such a sad and hurtful disagreement. But he later found one other preacher that captured his interest. In fact, it would be the message of this preacher that would lead to the uniting of the diverse colonies, and played a major role in preparing our nation for its independence. The preacher's name was George Whitfield. Whitfield was the Billy Graham of his generation.

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin became a wealthy man primarily through publishing the sermons of George Whitfield? Just three years after he left the Presbyterian Church, Franklin became enthralled with the revival preaching of this traveling evangelist. He signed a contract to publish Whitfield's evangelistic sermons and books. In fact, during the years of 1739-1741 more than half the books Franklin published and sold were about or by Whitfield.[3]

What was it about the preaching of this revival evangelist that captured Franklin's imagination? Whitfield's central theme was the unity of God's diverse people under Jesus Christ. He refused to be lured into the doctrinal debates that separated the denominations from each other. Whitfield did not want any particular Christian denomination to become the state religion. Instead he advocated for equal treatment of the various churches. He believed the truth of Jesus would triumph if given a fair hearing. All Jesus needed was a level playing field.

Whitfield, as Franklin's friend, continued to reach out to him with the gospel. So how did Whitfield's influence play out in Franklin's life? Franklin came to believe in the personal God of the Bible who rules in the affairs of this world. One of Franklin's famous speeches at the Constitutional convention said, "The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?" He was clearly no longer a Deist. He was describing the personal God of the Bible. But what did he believe about Jesus?

On his deathbed, Franklin was asked by a minister what he believed about Jesus. One last time Franklin recited his own 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..."[4] Sounds pretty Christian, doesn't it?

When the pastor pressed Franklin as to whether or not he believed in the divinity of Jesus he answered, "As to Jesus of Nazareth... I have some doubts as to his divinity." He admitted he had never really taken the time to study it deeply in order to have an informed viewpoint. Then he commented that he soon would know the truth through his own direct encounter in the afterlife. Franklin then concluded the conversation by celebrating God's gracious goodness to him.

Now let me ask you a question. Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian? Was his deathbed statement enough to get him into heaven? Some of us would say "Yes. His reliance on God's grace and trust in a personal God are enough." Others would say "No. He never gave himself entirely to Jesus." What do you think?

The great thing about our nation is that we are free to disagree.


[1] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2003) 468.

[2] H. W. Brands, The First American: the Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Anchor Books, 2000) 707.

[3] Isaacson, 111.

[4] Brands, 707.

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