of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”
– Benjamin Franklin
This particular quotation above has been used in many works since the 1970s that seek to remind Americans of our religious heritage. 1 In fact, David used it in the Myth of Separation (1989), but around 1995, when he was preparing Original Intent and was unable to find this quote in any primary source, he stopped using it and WallBuilders put it on our “Unconfirmed Quotations” list. But we are now able to report that we have found an early primary source that does attribute the core of this quotation to Franklin.
Before we get to the quote, we would remind readers that in the early 1990s, David challenged historical writers on all sides of the debate over religion in the Founding Era to stop relying on secondary sources and quotations from later Eras and to instead utilize original sources. As an act of good faith, David went through his earlier works and not only removed quotations that could not be verified from original sources, he publicly announced them on WallBuilders’ website. Although many people, including several respected academics, have told him that they admire his honesty and transparency, others have attempted to use this practice against him. For instance, in a recent critique of David’s work, Professor Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College writes:
Having been confronted over the use of false quotes, Barton was forced to acknowledge their illegitimacy in some way on his website. There, he describes them as “unconfirmed” – as if there is some doubt about their legitimacy. In a computer age with search capabilities, we know that these quotes are false – the fact that they are listed as “unconfirmed” reflects a stubborn attempt to hold onto them and to suggest to followers that they might be true. That is made worse by the fact that under these “unconfirmed” quotes are paragraphs maintaining that the bogus quote is something that the person might have said. 2
So much for honesty and transparency.
As we clearly state in our piece “Taking on the Critics”, we were not confronted by any individual or group about these quotes. To the contrary, we were the first to step forward and challenge all sides in the historical debate over religion in the Founding to “raise the bar” and use only quotations that could be verified by primary sources.
Calling these unconfirmed quotes “bogus” implies that they were simply made up by David. Yet each and every one of them can be found in reputable secondary sources such as George Bancroft’s A History of the United States (1866).
Frazer suggests that David and WallBuilders live in a fantasy world where they stubbornly engage in wishful thinking that these unconfirmed quotations are accurate. He ignores the fact that we have been able to confirm numerous of these quotations. We clearly list and document this fact.
With respect to the above quotation from Franklin, David originally cited it to works from the 1970s (see footnote 1 above). But in searching backwards to find a primary source, he found it in George Bancroft’s 1866 History of the United States, which stated:
He [Franklin] remarked to those in Paris who learned of him the secret of statesmanship: “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.” 3
This is no insignificant source, for Bancroft is considered “The Father of American History.” He is most famous for his thorough, systematic history of the nation published in ten volumes from 1854-1878). David did not simply make this quote up. It appeared in one of the greatest histories of the United States ever written! But, adhering to his own standards, he stopped using it until it could be confirmed in an original source. As noted, above, we have found such a source.
Here is its context: Franklin had been sent by America as an ambassador to France in 1776, a position in which he served until 1785. He was highly beloved by the French, and he offered them many useful and friendly recommendations including political advice to those who would listen. 4 Shortly after Franklin’s death in 1790, Jacques Mallet Du Pan, a French journalist and leader, published his historical memoirs, in which he reported:
Franklin often told his disciples in Paris that whoever should introduce the principles of primitive Christianity into the political state would change the whole order of society. 5
While this 1793 work does not contain the word for word quotation so often cited today, it clearly communicates the main ideas in the quotation. One reason for the difference may be because the work was written in French, so there may be some variations in how a particular translator renders that statement into English. 6
It may be objected that a second-hand account of what someone said is not as reliable, say, a letter clearly penned by Franklin in which he writes the same quotation. We agree. And yet students of the American founding repeatedly utilize such sources. For instance, speeches made in the Federal Convention of 1787 are regularly quoted as if they were directly spoken by particular delegates, although in most (but not all) cases what is being quoted is Madison’s notes of the speeches.
Those who wish to deny America’s Christian heritage will undoubtedly brush off Du Pan’s account of Franklin’s views. Yet those interested in an accurate account of religion in the American Founding cannot afford to be so dismissive of this intriguing find.
1. See, for example, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1977), p. 370; Stephen McDowell, America’s Providential History (Charlottesville, VA: Providence Foundation, 1989), p. 1;William Federer, America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (Coppell, TX: Fame Publishing, Inc., 1994), p. 246; Martin H. Manser, Westminster Collection of Christian Quotations (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2001), p. 31; Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought, Scott J. Hammond, Kevin r. Hardwick, Howard L. Lubert, editors (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), Vol. II, p. 228.
2. From a written review on David Barton and WallBuilders conducted by Dr. Gregg Frazer at the request of Dr. Jay Richards. That written critique was subsequently passed on to David Barton on August 13, 2012, by the Rev. James Robison, who had received it from Jay Richards.
4. See, for example, Benjamin Franklin, Two Tracts: Information to Those Who Would Remove to America. And, Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America (London: 1784), pp. 3-24, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America.”
6. The original reads: “Francklin répéta plus d une fois à ses Paris que celui qui transporteroit état politique les principes du christianisme changeroit la face de la société.” Jacques Mallet du Pan, Considerations sur la nature de la revolution de France (Londres, 1793), 28.