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England, by Robert Boyle for the purpose of having discourses delivered to prove the truth of Christianity. Franklin read some of these sermons when he was only fifteen years old, and was very much interested in the attacks made in them on the deists, the forerunners of the modern Unitarians. He thought that the arguments of the deists which were quoted to be refuted were much stronger than the attempts to refute them.
Shaftesbury and Collins were the most famous deistical writers of that time. Their books were in effect a denial of the miraculous part of Christianity, and whoever accepted their arguments was left with a belief only in God and the immortality of the soul, with Christianity a code of morals and beautiful sentiments instead of a revealed religion. From reading quotations from these authors Franklin was soon led to read their works entire, and they profoundly interested him. Like their successors, the Unitarians, they were full of religious liberty and liberal, broad ideas on all subjects, and Franklin's mind tended by nature in that direction.
It seems that Franklin's brother James was also a liberal. He had been employed to print a little newspaper, called the Boston Gazette, and when this work was taken from him, he started a newspaper of his own, called the New England Courant. His apprentice, Benjamin, delivered copies of it to the subscribers, and before long began to write for it.
The Courant, under the guidance of James Franklin and his friends, devoted itself to ridiculing the
government and religion of Massachusetts. A description of it, supposed to have been written by Cotton Mather, tells us that it was “full-freighted with nonsense, unmanliness, raillery, profaneness, immorality, arrogance, calumnies, lies, contradictions, and what not, all tending to quarrels and divisions and to debauch and corrupt the minds and manners of New England." Among other things, the Courant, as Increase Mather informs us, was guilty of saying that “if the ministers of God approve of a thing, it is a sign it is of the devil ; which is a horrid thing to be related."
Its printer and editor was warned that he would soon, though a young man, have to appear before the judgmentseat of God to answer for things so vile and abominable.
Some of the Puritan ministers, under the lead of Cotton Mather, were at that time trying to introduce inoculation as a preventive of small-pox, and for this the Courant attacked them. It attempted to make a sensation out of everything. Increase Mather boasted that he had ceased to take it. To which the Courant replied that it was true he was no longer a subscriber, but that he sent his grandson every week to buy it. It was a sensational journal, and probably the first of its kind in this country. People bought and read it for the sake of its audacity. It was an instance of liberalism gone mad and degenerated into mere radicalism and negation.
Some of the articles attributed to Franklin, and which were in all probability written by him, were
violent attacks on Harvard College, setting forth the worthlessness of its stupid graduates, nearly all of whom went into the Church, which is described as a temple of ambition and fraud controlled by money.
There is a touch of what would now be called Socialism or Populism in these articles, and it is not surprising to find the author of them afterwards writing a pamphlet in favor of an inflated paper currency.
The government of Massachusetts allowed the Courant to run its wicked course for about a year, and then fell upon it, imprisoning James Franklin for a month in the common jail. Benjamin conducted the journal during the imprisonment of his brother, who was not released until he had humbly apologized. The Courant then went on, and was worse than ever, until an order of council was issued forbidding its publication, because it had mocked religion, brought the Holy Scriptures into contempt, and profanely abused the faithful ministers of God, as well as His Majesty's government and the government of the province.
The friends of James Franklin met and decided that they would evade the order of council. James would no longer print the paper, but it should be issued in the name of Benjamin. So Benjamin's papers of apprenticeship were cancelled, lest it should be said that James was still publishing the paper through his apprentice. And, in order to retain Benjamin's services, James secured from him secret articles of apprenticeship. A little essay on “Hat Honor” which appeared in the Courant soon after
wards is supposed to have been written by Benjamin and is certainly in his style.
“ In old Time it was no disrespect for Men and Women to be called by their own Names : Adam was never called Master Adam ; we never read of Noah Esquire, Lot Knight and Baronet, nor the Right Honourable Abraham, Viscount of Mesopotamia, Baron of Canaan; no, no, they were plain Men, honest Country Grasiers, that took care of their Families and Flocks. Moses was a great Prophet, and Aaron a priest of the Lord ; but we never read of the Reverend Moses, nor the Right Reverend Father in God Aaron, by Divine Providence, Lord Arch-Bishop of Israel ; Thou never sawest Madam Rebecca in the Bible, my Lady Rachel : nor Mary, tho' a Princess of the Blood after the death of Joseph, called the Princess Dowager of Nazareth.”
This was funny, irreverent, and reckless, and shows a mind entirely out of sympathy with its surroundings. In after years Franklin wrote several humorous parodies on the Scriptures, but none that was quite so shocking to religious people as this
The Courant, however, was not again molested; but Franklin quarrelled with his brother James, and was severely beaten by him. Feeling that James dare not make public the secret articles of apprenticeship, he resolved to leave him, and was soon on his way to Philadelphia, as has been already related.
He had been at war with the religion of his native province, and, though not yet eighteen years old, had written most violent attacks upon it. It is not likely that he would have prospered if he had remained in Boston, for the majority of the people were against him and he was entirely out of sympathy with the prevailing tone of thought. He would have become
a social outcast devoted to mere abuse and negation. A hundred years afterwards the little party of deists who gave support to the Courant increased so rapidly that their opinions, under the name of Unitarianism, became the most influential religion of Massachusetts.* If Franklin had been born in that later time he would doubtless have grown and flourished on his native soil along with Emerson and Channing, Lowell and Holmes, and with them have risen to greatness. But previous to the Revolution his superb faculties, which required the utmost liberty for their expansion, would have been starved and stunted in the atmosphere of intolerance and repression which prevailed in Massachusetts.
After he left Boston, his dislike for the religion of that place, and, indeed, for all revealed religion, seems to have increased. In London we find him writing the pamphlet “Liberty and Necessity," described in the previous chapter, and adopting what was in effect the position of Voltaire, -namely, an admission of the existence of some sort of God, but a denial of the immortality of the soul. He went even beyond Voltaire in holding that, inasmuch as God was omnipotent and all-wise, and had created the universe, whatever existed must be right, and vice and virtue were empty distinctions.
I have already told how this pamphlet brought him to the notice of a certain Dr. Lyons, who had himself written a sceptical book, and who introduced Franklin to other philosophers of the same sort who
* Men, Women, and Manners in Colonial Times, vol. i. p. 222.