Edwards and Franklin (Pt. 4)

Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin lived in an era marked by change. People’s view of the natural world was changing, people’s views on religion and theology were changing, and people’s views on the nature of authority and government were really changing. Both men grew up in a particular tradition and they had to navigate their ways between their traditions and these changes. As we saw last time, Edwards and Franklin navigated this challenge in very different ways. This time we turn to another way in which Edwards and Franklin were different – their views on virtue.

Jonathan and Benjamin on Virtue

Both of these men were (mildly) obsessed with becoming virtuous people. Although their desires to become virtuous people had different motivations, Franklin was self-motivated and (at times) Edwards was motivated by a love for God, the way they pursed growing in virtue is quite similar.

Benjamin Franklin set before himself a list of virtues that he wished to attain:

  • Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation
  • Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; Avoid trifling Conversation.
  • Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  • Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  • Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Jonathan Edwards also has a famous set of resolutions, by which he resolved to read over every day of the week:

  • Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great whatsoever.
  • Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the forementioned things.
  • Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • Resolved, when I think of my Theorem in Divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if Circumstances don’t hinder.
  • Resolved, to maintain the strictest Temperance in eating and drinking.
  • Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive my self to grow in the Knowledge of the same.
  • Resolved, never to speak any Thing that is Ridiculous, or Matter of Laughter on the Lord’s day.

As you see both of these men were very organized and diligent when it came to the project of becoming virtuous people, however the difference between them lies in their motivations. Franklin’s virtues were designed for self-fulfillment, it was essentially a self-help project. Edwards’ list of resolutions was designed to help him subordinate himself to God’s will. Franklin lived in light of what was most pragmatic, and tacked Jesus on at the end of his list (alongside Socrates). Edwards tried to live all of life in light of God, the gospel, and eternity. He had God at the center of his list, and more importantly of his life. Yes Edwards struggled to keep them and yes they became legalistic at times, but when it became legalistic he recognized it for the legalism that it was. There is nothing wrong with writing out a “change project,” especially if you are a Christian, but ultimately we have to realize that real and lasting change comes only through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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