Benjamin Franklin

A Boston Childhood

Franklin never became a minister because his family simply could not afford the cost of educating him. It is difficult to guess how Franklin felt about this. He may have liked being a minister, since he enjoyed reading and writing. However, his Autobiography gives us the sense that, even at a young age, Franklin was not particularly religious.

Though Franklin may not have been a Puritan at heart, his origins in a Puritan society are obvious. He believed, as did many Puritans at that time, that it was important to be honest and diligent, to work hard and to always try to be a good person. While plenty of people still believe in these things today, the Puritans really believed in them. They lived simply, devoting most of their energy into doing the things they hoped would please God. Franklin did the same things–working hard and helping others, for instance–but he did them less to honor God than to succeed in the world. This is a subtle but important difference: whereas earlier Puritans believed that man's fate was predetermined, the Puritans of Franklin's time increasingly came to believe that–as Franklin later put it–"God helps them that help themselves." Franklin echoes this message in his autobiography, making what was originally a religious idea into a secular one.

Franklin's drive to improve himself was very Puritan, even if his basic goal was not. For example, as a young apprentice in his brother's printing shop, Franklin bought a copy of the Spectator, a literary magazine popular at the time. In his Autobiography he tells how he spend hours studying the magazine, outlining the essays and rewriting them in his own words. By doing this he taught himself how to write well–a skill that would help make him famous. While devout Puritan youths learned to read and write in order to study and debate the scriptures, Franklin used his skills to influence people.