Of Two Spirits: The Resolutions of Franklin and Edwards

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Each new year brings with it a spirit of self-reflection and resolution. Many Americans take up the noble mantle of personal improvement, and set goals that they believe will make them better family members and citizens.

The concept of “individual resolution” is not a new one. In 18th century North America, it was common for educated people to draw out these ideas in diaries and journals throughout the year. Two of the most noteworthy men to compose such lists were polymath Benjamin Franklin and New England reverend Jonathan Edwards.

As Bancroft Prize-winning historian George Marsden notes in his book A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, both Franklin and Edwards were well-known contemporaries who each left their respective imprints on the fabric of American society. As transitional figures, the men largely stood apart from others in their thinking and actions. Franklin was a prominent Enlightenment thinker who often found it difficult to completely abandon his Calvinist ties. Edwards, on the other hand, was a staunch Calvinist who sometimes adapted Enlightenment ideas to the orthodoxy of his own worldview. It is this unique dichotomy that makes Franklin and Edwards fascinating parallels of one another.

In studying these two figures, perhaps there is no better point of comparison than their respective “resolutions.” Historian George S. Claghorne writes,

Scholars have long compared Edwards’ and Benjamin Franklin’s resolutions. In addition to arguing about Edwards’ and Franklin’s respective skills and significance as autobiographers, scholars have discussed the two men as philosophers, scientists, and religious commentators. They have seen in these representative figures two sides of the Enlightenment, as well as the different patterns of the American character. 

Franklin’s resolutions in his Autobiography stand in interesting comparison with Edwards’. Both men agreed on the value of making resolutions, evaluating their effectiveness, and following them lifelong. And the resolutions show that the two were united on the importance of speaking the truth, living in moderation, helping others, and doing one’s duty. Each counseled himself (and others) to avoid sloth, make good use of time, cultivate an even temper, and pray for divine assistance; and each offers an energetic, thoughtful approach to life.      

Beyond these similarities, however, the two differ greatly, and the resolutions reflect this. Franklin was satisfied with only thirteen resolutions, while the earnest Edwards drew out his list to seventy. They also differed in spirit and purpose. Franklin represents the Age of Reason. His emphasis is on this world and the preparation of a good citizen. His “Resolutions” were brief, epigrammatic, and eclectic. Jesus and Socrates equally merited imitation. Prayers were an afterthought in Franklin’s daily practice. In contrast, Edwards remained the exemplar of Puritanism, depicting himself, along with all humans, as weak and sinful, helpless without divine intervention. Because the ultimate intention of the “Resolutions” was to produce a soul fit for eternity with God, they served as a set of practical day-to-day guidelines for achieving that end. Edwards adjured himself to study the Scriptures above all other books and to pray steadfastly; Jesus was to be trusted as Lord; God was present, personal, and primary.

For Benjamin Franklin, resolutions were not only about self-improvement, but more importantly, self-fulfillment. Designed in a “stepping stone” format, Franklin believed that the gradual mastery of each “virtue” would increase his happiness and ability to thrive in life. For Jonathan Edwards, however, resolutions were instructions and maxims that should be followed all at once. Although the abundance and specificity of these resolutions may seem overbearing (and perhaps they were), Edwards did not view them as “pious hopes, romantic dreams,” or “legalistic rules.” Rather, they were a daily window to introspection, pointing him to the sustaining strength of God who would enable him to live up to them.

Although the days of Franklin and Edwards are long in the past, it seems that the dichotomy made apparent in their resolutions is very much alive. While it is unlikely to encounter a person who has resolutions that are the same as these two men, most can nevertheless be seen in light of their legacies. Some are made in the spirit of virtue and self-fulfillment, and others are made in the spirit of introspection and dependency.

As an evangelical Christian, I hope that none of my resolutions rely on my own power or promises of a happier life. These, I believe, will result only in disappointment. Even “noble virtues,” such as the ones Franklin enumerates, can become shallow idols. Edwards instead insists that “true virtue must chiefly consist in love to God” – a factor quite beyond the capacity of the self to achieve – an issue of the heart.

Indeed, it is the heart that truly needs resolved. And it is with this quandary that all resolutions must first deal.

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