¶ … Self-Made Man and the Recipient of Divine Grace:
Benjamin Franklin vs. Jonathan Edwards
Despite the fact that both Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards are honored as two of the greatest authors of colonial America, they could not be more different in their ideological orientations. Edwards (1703-1758) is perhaps most famous for penning the image of the human soul as a spider in the hand of a merciful God, suspended above the flames of hell in his sermon "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." All human beings, Edwards implied in his image, were essentially fallen beings. A true Puritan, Edwards believed there was no way for hard work to win divine favor; one could only hope to be the recipient of divine grace. In contrast, Franklin (1706-1790), despite living during roughly the same time period as Edwards, was the consummate self-made man. As well as being credited as one of the most important Founding Fathers of the new nation, Franklin is also remembered for creating the persona of Poor Richard, the author of Poor Richard's Almanac, who stressed that 'God helps those who help themselves.'
In his 1734 sermon entitled "A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine" Edwards stresses how such insight is bestowed solely by the divine will upon humanity, not by human engineering. In his exposition of a short exchange between Jesus and Peter, Edwards in the first words of the sermon, Edwards states the following: Jesus' words to Peter, he says, imply that Jesus is saying that "thou art distinguishingly happy. Others are blinded, and have dark and deluded apprehensions…none of them thinking right, all of them misled. Happy art thou, that art so distinguished as to know the truth in this matter. 2. The evidence of this his happiness declared; viz., that God, and he only, had revealed it to him. This is an evidence of his being blessed (Edwards, "A Divine and Supernatural Light"). In short, even Peter only received the insight of Jesus' ability to save souls through divine grace, not intellectual insights or because Peter was particularly 'good.' (Interestingly enough, though, Edwards seems extremely confident in his ability to say what Jesus truly meant in his words to this apostle, despite his insistence upon innate human fallibility in all things). Edwards also makes a sharp distinction over the course of the sermon between revelations of flesh and blood, which he regards as inherently false, versus revelations of the spirit,...
Edwards views what as divine as inherently removed from the world, and thus true spirituality comes solely through the medium of God. The world is to be despised as transient and merely providing pleasure, while God is eternal.
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography tells a far different story about the relationship between the human and divine. First and foremost, some context is needed for the Autobiography: although its title suggests a factual account of Franklin's life, it is actually a document of very self-conscious 'fashioning' of Franklin as a man who has literally pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, one of the first documents in American literature to suggest that this was possible. Franklin, as a young man, ran away from indentured servitude under the thumb of his elder brother to make his fortune in Philadelphia. Although his formal schooling ended when he was just a child, in the Autobiography Franklin explains how he taught himself basic arithmetic and literature through hard work and study. Franklin portrays himself as beginning anew with only three puffy rolls to his name to eat: from literally nothing, he begins a publishing empire.
For Edwards, the new American landscape, separate from Europe, enabled Americans to see religion clearly, shorn of the ideas of 'Popery' which suggested that human beings could create their own salvation through the bureaucratic institutions of a church, by doing good, and making great things with human genius. Franklin, on the other hand, viewed the innovations he spawned as inexorably linked to his spiritual development. He viewed perfection on earth as a distinct possibility, provided one was willing to work hard. The confidence he gained in commerce spilled over to the confidence he felt about his moral rectitude, as stated directly in the Autobiography: "It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving…
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