Could Ben Franklin Save Our General Conference?

May 30th, 2018

Question: might God’s church we call United Methodist be rescued by Benjamin Franklin? During these gloomy days when many of us are pondering the likelihood of an impending split in the denomination we love, I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography of Franklin. It had not occurred to me how his life paralleled John Wesley’s: born just two years apart, dying just one year apart, both pragmatic populizers of complex thought spanning a revolutionary century.

Isaacson reveals how we are mistaken if we think of Franklin as a jolly, playful tinkerer. He was brilliant, friends with and admired by the greatest minds of his day: Joseph Priestley, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. In politics, he led and mentored the brightest lights of early America: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.\

Here’s how he reaches out to us. When the Constitutional Convention was at a total impasse, when none of the delegates would budge on their irreconcilable differences over how to be a nation, or if to be a nation at all, Franklin tried two last-ditch ploys to save the day. The first didn’t work; the second did.

First, he made the startling, wise suggestion that they pray:

“With this convention groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, how has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”

Although many prize the piety of the Founding Fathers so highly, the fact is that idea was quickly shelved. Some offered testy rationales of why they should not have such prayer, and then others pointed out they had no budget to pay a chaplain — as if they could not pray themselves?

But second, the esteemed Franklin, older by fifteen years than the next oldest delegate, his age double the average age of all the others, rose to make an impassioned speech to the congress bent on going home the next day with no consent to the proposed constitution:

“I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

Why should others doubt their own infallibility?

“I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution. But having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.”

Then, with his usual wry humor, he told of “a certain French lady who, in a little dispute with her sister, said: ‘I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.’”

This humility, jocular and yet wise, could conceive of voting for something flawed — which, of course, all human institutions and arrangements, including our church, are. Interestingly, they were at loggerheads over whether you could have a large body (like a nation), yet with smaller, empowered decision-making entities (like states) within that larger body.

Franklin's motives intrigue me. Yes, he wanted to craft a unified nation for its own sake. But having served abroad in France and England as an ambassador for many years, he was grieved by the reaction failure and division would spark overseas:

“I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.”

The world may not care what we Methodists do in February, 2019, but if they pay attention, our cutthroat, Babel-like division will provide yet more cause for cynicism, apathy and atheism. And are we as infallible, are we as supremely right as we imagine? So very right that we simply must divide God’s church?

Perhaps the trouble is that we have not yet prayed. Yes, we’ve prayed for victory for our side, and we’ve prayed for enlightenment to dawn on the others who are so very wrong. But have we prayed as Jesus prayed, not seeking my will, but what will actually cause me discomfort and even suffering? I wonder what would unfold if we could welcome a time-travelling Franklin to the mic at General Conference to suggest we doubt our infallibility and pray? Would he be shouted down or ruled out of order? Or might we hear the wisdom, pray, and surprise ourselves, as the Constitutional Convention did, with the birth of something new, unanticipated, and lovely?

"Could Ben Franklin Save Our General Conference?" originally appeared on Rev. James Howell. Reprinted with permission.

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