Learning Tolerance from Ben and George

In a post modern world devoid of Truth, the loudest voice always wins; and the shouting match has never been louder than the present. Christians and Secularists wage an ugly war against each other in which "civility" is a forgotten word. Propositional truth in a hyper-sensitive age is met with accusations of "Intolerance!" as if tolerance required full acceptance, promotion, and propagation of the other side's view.

It does not. Meet Ben and George.

Benjamin Franklin was a self-proclaimed deist, which is the belief of an impersonal God who does not interact with his creation. Franklin is most commonly known as a Founding Father of America and an elder statesman in the Constitutional Convention. He was a genius of a man who did a little bit of everything; Franklin was a: printer, scientist, inventor, politician, author...etc. More commonly today he is known for his likeness on the 100 dollar bill which in plural form can be known as "Benjamins."

George Whitefield was a Christian preacher, who believed in salvation through Jesus Christ. He believed distinctively in a "conversion experience" which was the main thrust of his sermons. The celebrity itinerant traveled from England to America 13 times throughout his life, frequently preaching to audiences in the 20, 30, and 40 thousands. The ministry of Whitefield is perhaps the largest contribution to the Great Awakening of the mid 1700s.

Thought they believed differently, Franklin and Whitefield became very good friends. The two forged a symbiotic relationship where Franklin would print Whitefield's popular sermons and writings; and where Whitefield could further propagate his gospel message. Franklin was a generous donor to Whitefield's orphanage in Atlanta, and Franklin undoubtedly grew in popularity through Whitefield's publications.

But lest you think Whitefield was quiet about his faith around Franklin to "avoid offense," think again. George Whitefield was just not that kind of guy. Thomas Kidd's recent biography of George Whitefield records frequent letters from Whitefield to Franklin urging the printer to give His life to Christ. On one such occasion Whitefield wrote: "As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries  of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new birth...One at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that without it, 'we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.'" (Kidd, 210) Obviously Whitefield never missed an opportunity.

And strange enough, Franklin did not break off all contact with Whitefield (or call him a bigot) because of how frequently Whitefield was "imposing his close-minded beliefs" on him. Franklin called Whitefield "an exemplary Christian, fine gentleman, and accomplished orator" (Kidd, 221). Franklin even defended Whitefield when there were accusations of Whitefield pocketing some extra change saying: "He was in all his conduct a perfectly honest man. And methinks my testimony in his favor ought to have the more weight, as we had no religious connection" (Kidd, 112)

Though Franklin never came to faith in Christ, he described his friendship with Whitefield as "civil friendship sincere on both sides, and lasting to his death" (Kidd, 112). That "civil friendship" may sound deceiving as Franklin once told his brother James, "Whitefield is a good man and I love him" (Kidd, 112). How could two men with different worldviews have such a strong friendship?

I believe Franklin understood that Whitefield genuinely believed the gospel message he proclaimed. Franklin realized that if someone really believed in eternity (heaven and hell and all that) it would be the loving thing to do tell people about it--frequently even. So Franklin took time to understand where Whitefield was coming from, and agreed to disagree! Imagine that.

On the other side notice we do not see Whitefield name calling Franklin, giving him the silent treatment, or punching below the belt. In Whitefield we see a legitimate love for Franklin that did not desire to merely win arguments, but desired to save his soul from hell. Whitefield clearly communicated, especially in his gospel presentation, that he cared for Franklin. And sometimes that makes all the difference. 

We could all do well to learn from our pre-revolutionary examples.

I want to encourage Christians (and we have been far from perfect in this) to learn from George Whitefield to communicate the gospel message--in all of its offense--out of a heart of love. Not argumentation. And I want to encourage you non-Christians who run across this blog to learn from Franklin, and take time to see where Christians are coming from when we fill up your news feed or try to have Spiritual conversations with you. We really believe the message we proclaim, and we feel (or should feel) it would be the most "intolerant" and hateful thing to withhold that message from someone.

And despite what our times say, remember it is okay to disagree. 

Kidd, Thomas S. George Whitefield America's Spiritual Founding Father. Yale University Press, 2014. Kindle Edition.   


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