Even posthumously, competition ensues

Books, scholars keep Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards in public eye

Sunday, June 29, 2003

— One was a preacher, the other everything but. One believed we were sinners suspended over a cauldron of fire, the other championed "the virtuous heretic." One spent his latter years as a missionary among Indians, the other flirted with the ladies of Paris.

Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin. Contemporaries of the 18th century. Exemplars of rival streams of American thought and competitors still for the public's attention.

Edwards, the model of the colonial man of God, was born 300 years ago this October. He is featured in a major new biography, George M. Marsden's "Jonathan Edwards," and his tricentennial will be marked by church conferences throughout the country and a symposium at the Library of Congress.

Franklin, the model of the colonial man of flesh, was born three years after Edwards and is the subject of one of the year's most anticipated biographies: Walter Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life." Simon & Schuster is publishing the book this summer, giving it a first printing of 150,000 and sending the author on a cross-country tour that will run well into the fall.

"The visions Franklin and Edwards had for America are still being fought out today," says Isaacson, the former chairman of CNN whose other books include a biography of Henry Kissinger.

"Franklin's was based on tolerance, pluralism, pragmatism and genial, middle-class values. Edwards' vision was based on religious faith and fervor, a deep commitment to a soulful existence and aspiration to a more exalted morality than Main Street ethics."

Different spirits

Edwards was born in East Windsor, Conn., son of a Calvinist minister and the only boy among 11 siblings. Gifted intellectually and passionate at heart, he graduated top of his class from Yale University and by his mid-20s, he had assumed the pastorship at the First Church of Northampton in Massachusetts.

"He did have a crisis of faith in college," says Marsden, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. "He was very well read on the Enlightenment, which questions traditional beliefs, and he went through a time when he had deep doubts. But he came out believing more strongly than ever and wrote a grand refutation of the kind of modern, rationalistic thought the Enlightenment called for."

What Edwards resisted, Franklin embraced. Franklin was a happily modern man, believing that people themselves were a source of good and that happiness could be found on Earth.

Franklin was born in Boston, but as a young man fled for the more secular confines of Philadelphia. By his early 20s, he had established his own printing office and soon ran his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.

No record exists of Franklin and Edwards ever meeting, but they did have a mutual friend: George Whitefield, a leading evangelical preacher.

In 1739, Franklin attended a Whitefield revival meeting in Philadelphia and, ever resourceful, realized there was a market for such a man. He published Whitefield's sermons and journals, selling thousands of copies even as he resisted Whitefield's efforts to lead him toward a more spiritual life.

Popular revolution

There apparently cannot be too many books about Franklin. Two years ago, H.W. Brands' "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A year ago, Edmund Morgan's "Benjamin Franklin" was a best seller and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle prize. A biography by Carl Van Doren, published in 1938, remains in print and is highly regarded.

In the past few years, Franklin has been the subject of a children's book, "How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning"; a business book, "Ben Franklin's 12 Rules of Management"; and a humor compilation: "The Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin." Franklin's autobiography has been reissued twice in the past three years and will come out again this fall as a companion to Isaacson's book.

Publishers have faith the market can handle all that Franklin because of two factors: The man himself, the most humorous and earthy of America's founders, and the market for books relating to the American Revolution, as demonstrated by David McCullough's million-selling "John Adams."

Revolutionary era books keep coming. Simon & Schuster had a recent best seller with Evan Thomas' biography of John Paul Jones. Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt, recently published short biographies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. McCullough is working on a book about 1776.

But Edwards remains a far more specialized taste. Yale University Press, which published Morgan's Franklin book, has given Marsden's biography a small first printing of 10,000. Compilations of Edwards' writings and other related works are coming out this year, but none are from the major New York publishers.

The most popular book associated with Edwards isn't even about him, but about David Brainerd, a family friend and missionary who "gave himself, heart, soul, and mind, and strength," Edwards wrote.

Brainerd's devotion came at the expense of his health and he died young, at age 29, in 1747. Soon after, Edwards compiled his diaries into "An Account of the Life of David Brainerd," which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was long essential reading for missionaries.