The Religious Odd Couple
Frugal Benjamin Franklin, in his Autobiography, wrote, “I happened … to attend one of his [George Whitefield’s] sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me.”
The collection was for Whitefield’s Georgia orphanage, which Franklin thought ill-planned, and he had told Whitefield so, to no avail. Thus for some time he had refused to give to it.
At this sermon, though, Franklin said, “I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that, and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”
The experience convinced Franklin that Whitefield was an orator who could attract and sway huge crowds. It also was a memorable moment in what was to become a lifelong friendship between two men who were a religious odd couple.
At first theirs was a simple business relationship. To Franklin, Whitefield was a powerful salesman, capable of overcoming even an avowed skeptic’s sales resistance. Franklin disliked Whitefield’s Calvinism, but he thought Whitefield would be good business. Franklin was locked in competition with his printing rival, Andrew Bradford, and he saw that publishing the popular Whitefield would be a business coup.
As for Whitefield, he wanted to make use of the American press, just as he had effectively exploited the English press for two years, advertising his services in newspapers and seeing scores of titles published there.
We don’t know who originated the agreement, but in November 1739, Franklin advised readers of his Pennsylvania Gazette, “The Reverend Mr. Whitefield having given me copies of his journals and sermons with leave to print the same, I propose to publish them with all expedition.”
Six months later, Franklin announced the first volume. Unlike earlier subscription publications he had promoted, this one was oversubscribed. Whitefield later informed a London correspondent that his journals and sermons were “bought off exceedingly” in America. He triumphantly announced that his printed works were “now in the hands of thousands in these parts.”
Still, Franklin and Whitefield were clearly on opposite ends of the theological spectrum. As Franklin affirmed in his creed, religion consisted primarily of good works. As for theology, he did not speculate on the subject and harbored doubts about the divinity of Jesus. Whitefield, on the other hand, believed that God alone wrought salvation in people’s souls and that conversion was nothing short of a spiritual new birth.
An incident in 1740 illustrates their religious differences. Franklin invited the evangelist to stay in his home when he visited Philadelphia. In his acceptance, Whitefield referred to Franklin’s invitation as a “kind offer for Christ’s sake.” Franklin retorted, “Don’t let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.”
Yet the two men became friends for some thirty years. In a letter to his brother, John, written after the Great Awakening, Franklin said of Whitefield, “He is a good man and I love him.” They may have found each other useful, but they also developed an affectionate bond, and business alone cannot explain it.
In the 1500s and early 1600s, the word friend sometimes meant a “loved one” and other times a “sponsor”—someone who could help you or with whom you could safely do business. By the 1750s, friend had assumed its modern meaning. Samuel Johnson defined it as “one who supports you and comforts you while others do not.” Though brought together by a joint venture, Franklin and Whitefield moved from a friendship of sponsors to one of mutual trust.
Their correspondence reveals an increasing affection over the ensuing years of Whitefield’s life, even after Franklin had left the printing business. In a 1740 letter, Whitefield saluted Franklin formally as “Dear Mr. Franklin.” By 1748, Whitefield’s correspondence indicated even more affection: in one letter Whitefield saluted Franklin, “My Dear Mr. Franklin” and signed it, “your most affectionate, obliged friend and servant.”
Whitefield admired his friend. In a letter of 1752, he told Franklin with delight how London had reacted to his experiments with electricity: “I find that you grow more and more famous in the learned world.” In many letters Whitefield expressed his respect for Franklin’s erudition by addressing him as “my dear Doctor.”
Franklin’s correspondence also reflects a deepening friendship. In the 1740s, he opened his letters with a formal “Dear Sir.” By the 1760s, he saluted Whitefield as “Dear Friend.” Further, he responded graciously and warmly to the evangelist’s continued concern for his soul, a significant change from his earlier attitude. By 1764, he could write, “Your frequently repeated Wishes and Prayers for my Eternal as well as temporal Happiness are very obliging. I can only thank you for them, and offer you mine in return.”
Friends in the “Last Act”
One of Franklin’s last letters to Whitefield best reveals the warmth and depth of the two men’s friendship. Near 50 and growing more aware of his mortality, Franklin shared with the evangelist a dream for his last years: “Life, like a dramatic piece, should … finish handsomely. Being now in the last act, I began to cast about for something fit to end with.”
His vision was a joint venture: “I sometimes wish, that you and I were jointly employ’d by the Crown to settle a colony on the Ohio … to settle in that fine country a strong body of religious and industrious people!” He concluded, “Might it not greatly facilitate the introduction of pure religion among the heathen, if we could, by such a colony, show them a better sample of Christians than they commonly see in our Indian traders?”
Whitefield’s reply has not survived, but he must have been touched that Franklin not only wanted him as a partner but entrusted him to produce a “better sample of Christians.”
In his last surviving letter to Franklin, Whitefield turned his thoughts to friendship beyond the grave. On the eve of his final departure for America in 1769, Whitefield wrote Franklin, expressing his hope that he and his friend would “be in that happy number of those who in the midst of the tremendous final blaze shall cry Amen.” Whitefield died in 1770, however, without witnessing his friend’s conversion.
Though they occupied different theological worlds, Franklin and Whitefield found common ground in promoting revivals. They were both convinced that print could expand audiences and reach strangers at great distances. Their joint venture succeeded. The subscription publication was profitable: Franklin made money; Whitefield gained souls.
And two men became friends.
Dr. Frank Lambert is assistant professor of history at Purdue University and author of The Commercialization of Religion: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770 (Princeton, 1993). An expanded version of this article appeared in the July 1993 William and Mary Quarterly.
Copyright © 1993 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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