“Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.”
Ben Franklin says in his Autobiography that he was deeply influenced by Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good. Wow.
In the early years of this republic, it would be a chore to find two human souls more different than those two . Cotton Mather was the child of theological giants, as predestined as any Calvinist ever was to take up the heavy lifting of the learned divines from whose loins he’d sprung. No one else in American literature is quite as sober as Cotton Mather, but then who’s looking?
Ben Franklin, on the other hand, was anything but sober, which doesn’t mean to imply he hit the bottle. Witty, urbane, sophisticated, Franklin the ambassador was the first American to charm European courts. A new Franklin biography claims that the entire Autobiography needs to be read, as Emily Dickinson might say it, “at a slant.” Franklin is, this new bio argues, tongue-in-cheek throughout. You really can’t always believe him.
I never dared to think that was true, even though I smelled it in the many times I’ve been through Franklin’s Autobiography as a teacher. I always had this odd sense of him pulling my leg.
That’s heresy, I know. When pols fight, they always reverence “the founders,” those sagacious bewigged men whose brilliant energy churned out the Constitution. Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, John Hancock, George Washington are American saints. And Franklin?—my word, he wrote the Declaration, igniting all the fireworks. And we can’t take him seriously?
That is heresy.
Still, I’ve always suspected he was more cunning than we like to think him. So was he lying when he said that the imminently pious Cotton Mather was so influential in the life of a man who couldn’t have been less of a Puritan?
Don’t know. But I’m happy to read that I’m not the only one who’s thought Franklin was scratching out his life story with a wink and a smile.
Franklin liked Mather, he says, because Mather taught him morality, and the entire Autobiography, begun as a moral lesson to his son, proposes to teach his son to be good—if we can believe him. I’m not sure.
But Franklin’s moral urgings, unlike Cotton Mather’s, promise that the way to wealth and happiness is sobriety and industry. Franklin tells his son that if he wants to get ahead in life, he should do so as his father had: take a good strong hold of his own blessed bootstraps and pulling the boots on himself: do it yourself and do it well.
That’s not what David says—David, remember, whose hands were too bloody for God’s own approval. And it’s not what Cotton Mather would have said either.
Doing good and living well are not a matter of bootstraps. David says God almighty promises that turning away from evil and doing good instead means a long and blessed life in the land.
There is a third party in the cause/effect sequence in this promise, and that third party, the creator of heaven and earth, isn’t talking about bootstraps. He’s talking instead about obedience.