Last week, I received an email from Gregg Frazer asking me to quit accusing him of lying and accusing me in turn of being guilty of libel. You can decide for yourself whether or not I have actually proven that he lied in his speech, but the main reason that I am sharing this is that my response to Gregg's email conveys some facts about Benjamin Franklin that historians often fail to consider. The quote which Gregg used to launch his criticism of the “key founders” is one that is frequently misunderstood, and I suspect that my response will prove to be beneficial to those studying the beliefs of our founders.
The statement that Gregg made and which I claimed was a lie was this:
Now, first of all, I want to point out “Jesus of Nazareth.” That was a way of emphasizing the humanity of Jesus. They didn’t talk about Jesus Christ. They didn’t talk about Christ. It was just Jesus or Jesus of Nazareth to emphasize His humanity.
In Gregg’s email, his primary defense against my charge was to claim that “‘lying’ involves intent" (emphasis his), and that he had no intent to deceive his listeners. He also said that his statement that the key founders “didn’t talk about Christ” was an “off the cuff” remark. He then admitted that I was correct in pointing out that his “key founders” did use the name of Christ in reference to Jesus, and he offered the following justification for his remarks:
The point is that I am persuaded that these printings of the word “Christ” do not reflect their normal/routine/general usage and that they do not reflect their belief in Jesus as “the Christ” (which is the point I was making in my presentation comment); and, therefore, I was not lying when I made the comment (emphasis his).
Gregg then proceeded to offer some explanations for some of the instances of the founders using the name of Christ claiming, for example, that Benjamin Franklin “was using the language of the judges he was trying to influence” when he referred to Jesus as Christ in his defense of Samuel Hemphill and that “in NONE of these examples do they refer to Jesus as ‘the Christ’” (emphasis his). He then offered a parting shot at my intelligence by saying that he didn’t expect me “to be impressed with the kinds of evidence that impress a historian,” and he closed his letter with a plea that I maintain a civil and Christian tone in my public writings.
My full response is provided below. Once again, I am not sharing this to belittle Gregg in any way. It's just that his comments provide an excellent example of an oft repeated claim about Benjamin Franklin that is completely false.
Thank you for taking to time to write and explain your reasoning behind your statements. I appreciate your willingness to contact me directly, and I hope that we can resolve this issue in a calm and peaceable manner. I have accused you of lying, and you have accused me of libel. Those are both very bold accusations, and it is encouraging to see that you recognize the seriousness of those charges. Now, you have presented a defense against my charge of lying, and I would appreciate the opportunity to defend myself against your counter charge of libel.
As I'm sure you are aware, one of the legally recognized defenses against the charge of libel is that the supposedly libelous statement is essentially true. The statement does not have to be completely true in every minor detail in order for this defense to be applicable. It needs only to be true on the whole, or true in essence. As such, I am not going to respond to every claim that you made in your defense. That is not to say that I agree with you in any of them. I am simply setting them aside as points which are not necessary for my defense, and I am focusing rather on the essential point which proves that I am not guilty of libel in this case.
First, let me point out that the statement from your lecture which I claimed to be a lie was not an "off the cuff" comment. You have made essentially the same statement in every presentation that I have heard you give on this topic over the past two years. It may, perhaps, have been an "off the cuff" remark in the first of those presentations, but its repetition at the exact same point in multiple lectures over a two year period plainly indicates that it was a planned component of the lecture which I cited.
Second, the occasion upon which you made your claim about the key founders emphasizing the humanity of Jesus was the use of the phrase "Jesus of Nazareth" in Franklin's letter to Ezra Stiles. According to your claim, this "was a way of emphasizing the humanity of Jesus." But surely you are not so ignorant of Franklin's letter that you actually believe that to be true. Did you not take the time to read the letter from Ezra Stiles to which Franklin was responding? In that letter, Dr. Stiles wrote:
"I wish to know the Opinion of my venerable Friend concerning JESUS of Nazareth. He will not impute this to Impertinence or improper Curiosity, in one, who for so many years, has continued to love, estimate, and reverence his Abilities and literary Character, with an Ardor and Affection bordering on Adoration. If I have said too much let the Request be blotted out, and be no more: and yet I shall never cease to wish you that happy Imortality which I believe Jesus alone has purchased for the virtuous and truely good of every religious Denomination in Christendom, and for those of every Age, Nation and Mythology, who reverence the Deity and are filled with Integrity, Righteousness and Benevolence."
You justified ignoring Franklin's references to Christ in his Hemphill pamphlets on the basis that Franklin was using language which would be acceptable to Hemphill's judges. Surely then, you must have recognized that Franklin was responding to Dr. Stiles by using the very same phraseology in which the question had been asked. If these words are an indication of heresy, then it is Dr. Stiles that you should be accusing rather than Franklin.
Perhaps you actually were ignorant of Dr. Stiles' letter. It is not often published, although it is featured in Bigelow's 1881 and 1884 editions of "The Life of Benjamin Franklin" as well as Dexter's "Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles" and the 1818 edition of "The Annual Register." But perhaps these are not the kind of sources which impress historians, and it may be that you were completely unaware of them. In such a case, I would gladly revise my article to indicate that you were ignorant of contradictory evidence rather than guilty of lying in at least this one aspect of your statement.
Third, you made it very clear in your response that you are persuaded that Franklin's use of the name of Christ does not reflect his "normal/routine/general usage" and that it does not reflect his "belief in Jesus as ‘the Christ.’” You also said that this is the point which you were attempting to make in your presentation and not that Franklin never used the name of Christ at all. Now, it may be true that you are persuaded of the truth of that claim, but the level of ignorance which that would require you to maintain is almost unfathomable.
In searching through Franklin's writings, I found fourteen instances in which Franklin referred to Jesus in addition to the very large collection of references found in his Hemphill pamphlets. Of those fourteen, Franklin used only the name "Christ" in nine of them; he used the name "Jesus Christ" in another two, and in one, he used the title of “the Messiah.” I have only found two occasions in all of Franklin's writings in which he did not refer to Jesus as either Christ or Messiah. One of those two was the letter to Ezra Stiles in which he merely repeated Dr. Stiles' use of the term "Jesus of Nazareth," and the other was Franklin's reference to the humility of Jesus in his list of virtues. Thus, there are only two instances, in which he did not use the name of “Christ” or “Messiah” when he was referring to Jesus, and from these two occurrences, you have drawn the conclusion that Franklin's numerous references to Christ do not reflect his "normal/routine/general usage." I'm sorry, Gregg, but I find it very difficult to accept that you really are so ignorant of your subject matter as to find such an argument to be persuasive.
As for your claim that Franklin did not use the name of Christ in reference to Jesus as the Messiah, let me point you to a letter that Franklin wrote to the editor of the Federal Gazette. In that letter, Franklin made the following statement:
“It appears farther from the same inestimable History, that when, after many Ages, that Constitution was become old and much abus’d, and an Amendment of it was propos’d, the Populace, as they had accus’d Moses of the Ambition of making himself a Prince, and cry’d out Stone him, stone him, so, excited by their High Priests and Scribes, they exclaim’d against the Messiah, that he aim’d at becoming King of the Jews, and cry’d out Crucify him, Crucify him, From all which we may gather, that popular Opposition to a public Measure is no Proof of its Impropriety, even tho’ the Opposition be excited and headed by Men of Distinction.”
And in his “Letter to a Friend in the Country,” Franklin wrote:
“It rather appears, that nothing more was required of these new Converts, but that they should acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the Messiah promised by the Prophets, the Son of God; and that they should to the best of their Power, act agreeable to his Precepts, and obey his Laws.”
Then in his “Almanack” for 1742, Franklin wrote:
“A sober Diet makes a Man die without Pain; it maintains the Senses in Vigour; it mitigates the Violence of Passions and Affections. It preserves the Memory, it helps the Understanding, it allays the Heat of Lust; it brings a Man to a Consideration of his latter End; it makes the Body a fit Tabernacle for the Lord to dwell in; which makes us happy in this World, and eternally happy in the World to come, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.”
Clearly, Franklin was not one of those people for whom, as you phrased it, “‘Christ’ is simply Jesus’ last name.”
As you can see, I think that I have a fairly decent defense against the charge of libel. You made a planned and prepared statement that was undeniably false, and your only possible defense against the charge of lying is to claim an astounding amount of ignorance about the very subject matter of which you are presenting yourself as an expert. However, I am willing to change the title and the content of my article to reflect what you consider to be a more Christian tone on the condition that you publicly admit to error in regards to Franklin’s use of the name of Christ. Such an admission would go a long way toward convincing me that you really were innocently ignorant and not intentionally lying.
On the other hand, I am equally willing to leave my article as it is but attach your email to it to allow my readers to consider your defense for themselves. I am certain that they are quite capable of drawing the correct conclusion if they are presented with both sides of the argument.
Thank you again for contacting me directly. I am looking forward to your next response.
Yours in Christ,
To learn more about the errors that I have found in Gregg's claims about the founding fathers, check out my $.99 eBook The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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