Every so often we come across a friendship that is truly unique. The affection that Benjamin Franklin, scientist and humanist, and George Whitefield, evangelical Anglican preacher and evangelist, had for each other, was one of these.
Sadly, they did not meet at a level of faith. Whitefield constantly challenged Franklin to believe in Christ but the rational scientist resisted. However they met at the level of human respect. Franklin respected Whitefield’s intelligence and desire to improve the world in which he lived. In one letter Franklin suggested that they move to Ohio together (in 1756), away from the constraints of the East Coast and set up a new society there – “A strong body of religious and industrious people.” Dallimore Vol. 2 p448.
Franklin was amazed by Whitefield’s oratory and ability to speak to huge crowds. On one occasion he estimated that Whitefield was speaking to a crowd of 30,000.
Even though Franklin disagreed with the siting of Whitefield’s orphanage in Georgia, in time he came to support the project both financially and through his newspaper.
Whitefield also admired Franklin as a thinker and man of action. Aside from faith, he recognised in Franklin a kindred spirit. Both were prepared to be scorned and ridiculed rather than compromise their values. Franklin, in reply to his sister who was concerned for his reputation, said that when, from a distance, you see boys throwing stones at a tree, you can be assured it is laden with fruit. In other words, receiving slander, libel and ridicule are evidence that the recipient is holding onto treasures.
In 1763 Whitefield even wrote to Franklin of his concerns regarding the growing tension in the relationship between the U.K. and the American colonies. It is clear that they were open with each other on all topics, from faith to politics.
These friendships in public life seem to be rare today. Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air to see an agnostic evolutionist scientist have a respectful and lasting friendship with a conservative evangelical. This would certainly be an example of how discussions and debates could be held – without the vitriol and character assassination which is all too prevalent from both sides.