The Unauthorized Investigator's Guide to
The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints

Lesson 4

Franklin's Thoughts on Morality and Religion

Benjamin Franklin was raised a Presbyterian. Early in life he found some of some of the dogmas of that faith to be unintelligible and others doubtful. Having more important things to do, early in life he went inactive in that church. He did have some religious beliefs. He believed that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man and that all crime would be punished and all virtue rewarded--either in this life or the next. He found those fundamental beliefs in all religions in colonial America and thus had a measure of respect for all of them. For him, the purpose of religion was to inspire and promote morality. To various degrees every religion did that, so he avoided discourse that might lessen the good opinion others might have of their religion.

The reason he respected some religions more than others was this. He found in all of these religions, mixed with tendency to inspire and promote morality, dogmas that did not inspire or promote morality, but rather divided people and made them unfriendly towards each other. He found the sermons of his own Presbyterian preacher (in 1730) to be very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, because his sermons focused on the polemic arguments and explanations of Presbyterian dogmas, without a single mention of moral principles. The apparent object of the sermon was to make the listeners good Presbyterians rather than good citizens.

Even though he disliked going to church he did contribute to it financially. His preacher regularly visited him and admonished him to attend the church services. Franklin occasionally went, once for a stretch of 5 Sundays in a row. One week, the sermon was Philippians 4:8, the scripture alluded to in the 13th Article of Faith:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

When he heard that this scripture would be the topic for the sermon Franklin was quite excited--finally a sermon that could not miss having at least something about morality! The preacher went on to say that Paul was talking only about the following 5 things in this verse:

1. Keep the Sabbath Day holy.

2. Diligently read the scriptures.

3. Always attend church meetings.

4. Partake of the sacrament.

5. Pay tithing.

Franklin said that the things on this list might be good things, but that they weren't the kind of things he expected from this verse. The preacher had taken a verse about how to be a good human being, and effectively rewrote it to be about how to be a good Presbyterian. Franklin was left in a state of despair and disgust and resolved never to attend the sermons of this preacher again.

Why do I relate this story here? Because I believe Franklin is a great role model for how to evaluate religion. As you engage in the LDS Church's mission to perfect the saints, be vigilant as to the nature of what they are telling you to do. Do you find the sermons dry, uninteresting, and unedifying? Or do they inspire you to be a better human being? Are they trying to mold you into being a good person, or are they trying to mold you into being a good Mormon?

Just as Franklin found studying at home to be a better use of his Sundays than going to church, we should think about what is the best use of our time and money. Think about the opportunity cost of your participation in the church. Does the 10% you pay to the undisclosed books of the church squeeze out your ability to pay off your debt, save for the future, and contribute to charity? Would the time you spend at church meetings be better spent doing something else?



If you have a question or would like to discuss these topics, I suggest that you go to a Mormon-related bulletin board (here are some recommendations). If you'd like to contact me with comments or feedback, you may send an email to