"He us’d indeed sometimes to pray for my Conversion, but never had the Satisfaction of believing that his Prayers were heard."
Many historians have taken this statement from Franklin to mean that he refused to become a Christian, but the conversion that Whitefield preached is not necessarily the same as becoming a Christian. Whitefield taught that the only true Christians are those who have experienced a great, all encompassing change as a result of the gospel. In a sermon entitled “Repentance and Conversion,” he once said:
“They that are truly converted to Jesus, and are justified by faith in the Son of God, will take care to evidence their conversion, not only by the having grace implanted in their hearts, but by that grace diffusing itself through every faculty of the soul, and making a universal change in the whole man ... Any thing short of this is but the shadow instead of the substance ... There will be new principles, new ways, new company, new works; there will be a thorough change in the heart and life; this is conversion.” (Whitefield, 435)
And in a 1755 letter to Franklin, Whitefield advised him to “get a feeling possession of Christ.” (Epitaph, 1728) This type of experiential conversion was often referred to as “spiritual pangs,” and Whitefield was not alone in thinking that it was necessary for salvation. Thomas Watson once wrote:
“There are pangs before the birth; so before Christ be born in the heart, there are spiritual pangs ... all have not the same pangs of sorrow and humiliation, yet all have pangs. If Christ be born in thy heart, thou hast been deeply afflicted for sin. Christ is never born in the heart without pangs. Many thank God they never had any trouble of spirit, they were always quiet: a sign Christ is not yet formed in them.” (Watson, 184)
That Franklin rejected this view of conversion can be seen in his “Observations of the Proceedings against Mr. Hemphill” where he wrote:
“I may add, that whoever preaches up the absolute necessity of spiritual Pangs and Convulsions in those whose Education has been in the Ways of Piety and Vertue, and who therefore are not to pass from a State of Sin to a State of Holiness, but to go on and improve in the State wherein they already are, represent Christianity to be unworthy of its divine Author.”
As can be seen in his Hemphill pamphlets, Franklin believed that there were two different paths to faith in Christ. The first was a glorious redemption from a life of sin, and the second was the slow and steady acceptance of the gospel by those who were raised in Christian homes. The conversion of the former would evidence the kind of spectacular change that Whitefield wrote of while the conversion of the latter would seem to be just the next step in the progression of their lives. Franklin’s conversion to Christianity, though taking place in his adult years rather than in his childhood, would likely have been similar to this second type, and thus, would not have been accepted by Whitefield as a true conversion.