Ben Franklin and the Speckled Ax

In this excerpt from his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin explains one of his experiences with the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia sometime in the mid-1730s, and the beginnings of his own scheme to attain moral perfection.1

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian, and tho’ some of the Dogmas of that Persuasion, such as the Eternal Decrees of God, Election, Reprobation, &c. appear’d to me unintelligible, others doubtful, & I early absented myself from the Public Assemblies of the Sect, Sunday being my Studying-Day, I never was without some religious Principles.

I never doubted, for instance, the Existence of the Deity, that he made the World, & govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man; that our Souls are immortal; and that all Crime will be punished & Virtue rewarded either here or hereafter; these I esteem’d the Essentials of every Religion, and being to be found in all the Religions we had in our Country I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of Respect as I found them more or less mix’d with other Articles which without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv’d principally to divide us & make us unfriendly to one another.

This Respect to all, with an Opinion that the worst had some good Effects, induc’d me to avoid all Discourse that might tend to lessen the good Opinion another might have of his own Religion; and as our Province increas’d in People and new Places of worship were continually wanted, & generally erected by voluntary Contribution, my Mite for such purpose, whatever might be the Sect, was never refused.

Tho’ I seldom attended any Public Worship, I had still an Opinion of its Propriety, and of its Utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual Subscription for the Support of the only Presbyterian Minister or Meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us’d to visit me sometimes as a Friend, and admonish me to attend his Administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively.

Had he been, in my Opinion, a good Preacher perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s Leisure in my Course of Study: But his Discourses were chiefly either polemic Arguments, or Explications of the peculiar Doctrines of our Sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting and unedifying, since not a single moral Principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their Aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good Citizens.

At length he took for his Text that Verse of the 4th Chapter of Philippians, “Finally, Brethren, Whatsoever Things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on those Things;” & I imagin’d, in a Sermon on such a Text, we could not miss of having some Morality: But he confin’d himself to five Points only as meant by the Apostle, viz.

  1. Keeping holy the Sabbath Day.
  2. Being diligent in Reading the Holy Scriptures.
  3. Attending duly the Public Worship.
  4. Partaking of the Sacrament.
  5. Paying a due Respect to God’s Ministers.

These might be all good Things, but as they were not the kind of good Things that I expected from that Text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his Preaching no more.

I had some Years before compos’d a little Liturgy or Form of Prayer for my own Private Use, viz. in 1728, entitled, “Articles of Belief & Acts of Religion.” I return’d to the Use of this, and went no more to the public Assemblies. My Conduct might be blameable, but I leave it without attempting farther to excuse it, my present purpose being to relate Facts, and not to make Apologies for them.

It was about this time that I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any Fault at any time; I would conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a Task of more Difficulty than I had imagined.

While my Attention was taken up in guarding against one Fault, I was often surpris’d by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention. Inclination was sometimes too strong for Reason. I concluded at length, that the mere speculative Conviction that it was our Interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our Slipping, and that the contrary Habits must be broken and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any Dependence on a steady uniform Rectitude of Conduct.

For this purpose I therefore contriv’d the following Method. In the various Enumerations of the moral Virtues I had met with in my Reading, I found the Catalogue more or less numerous, as different Writers included more or fewer Ideas under the same Name. “Temperance,” for Example, was by some confin’d to Eating & Drinking, while by others it was extended to mean the moderating every other Pleasure, Appetite, Inclination or Passion, bodily or mental, even to our Avarice & Ambition.

I propos’d to myself, for the sake of Clearness, to use rather more Names with fewer Ideas annex’d to each, than a few Names with more Ideas; and I included under Thirteen Names of Virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annex’d to each a short Precept, which fully express’d the Extent I gave to its Meaning. These Names of Virtues with their Precepts were:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to Dullness Drink not to Elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

I enter’d upon the Execution of this Plan for Self Examination, and continu’d it with occasional Intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of Faults than I had imagined, but I had the Satisfaction of seeing them diminish … This Article therefore cost me so much painful Attention & my Faults in it vex’d me so much, and I made so little Progress in Amendment, & had such frequent Relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the Attempt, and content myself with a faulty Character in that respect.

Like the Man who in buying an Ax of a Smith my neighbor, desired to have the whole of its Surface as bright as the Edge; the Smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the Wheel. He turn’d while the Smith press’d the broad Face of the Ax hard & heavily on the Stone, which made the Turning of it very fatiguing. The Man came every now & then from the Wheel to see how the Work went on; and at length would take his Ax as it was without farther Grinding. No, says the Smith, Turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by and by; as yet ’tis only speckled. Yes, says the Man; but—I think I like a speckled Ax best.

And I believe this may have been the Case with many who having for want of some such Means as I employ’d found the Difficulty of obtaining good, & breaking bad Habits, in other Points of Vice & Virtue, have given up the Struggle, & concluded that a speckled Ax was best.


1 The Portable Benjamin Franklin, ed. Larzer Ziff (New York: Penguin, 2005), KL 1708 – 1757, 1821 – 1833.

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T Howard's picture

I like Franklin, at least his writings. However, if you read a biography of Mr. Franklin, you'll discover his ax was more than just speckled.

Anyway, it appears expositional preaching was lacking even in the 18th Century. I would walk out of the church after listening to that sermon with the same disgust.

That being said, even if the sermon did get into the morality Franklin sought, it would be incomplete without the gospel. Franklin's moral experiment is proof why moralism can never replace the gospel in our preaching.

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