The Afterlife Experiment of Benjamin Franklin

Most of the founding fathers of the United States of America were religious men—many of them held unorthodox religious beliefs, it is true, but they were still generally curious about the supernatural world. The great writer, intellectual and inventor, Benjamin Franklin was no exception.

Franklin, however, was by no means a saint; he was a man of skeptical curiosity and scandalous behavior. Even so, he had an interest in religion. He went to see (or critique) traveling preachers and even tried to force himself to adhere to a morally-perfect daily plan, including the use of charts to track his progress. In the end, Franklin decided that moral perfection was an impossible (and unenjoyable) accomplishment, and he eventually abandoned his pursuit of perfect purity. In the end, Benjamin Franklin converted to the ideas of Deism, a religious philosophy that claims that a God created reality, but that the deity halted direct contact after the act of creation.

Even though Franklin was skeptical of the different human interpretations of divinity, he still had a keen interest in the spiritual realm. This interest most clearly manifested in an interesting pact that Franklin made with a friend named Charles Osborne. The two became pals when Franklin was about 18 years old. They, and two other men, bonded over their shared interests in reading and writing. They even held poetry competitions where they judged each other’s talents. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin remembered Osborne to be an affectionate friend, but also a relentless critic when it came to judging literature and poetry.

Sometime during their friendship, Franklin and Osbourne promised each other that the one who died first would haunt the survivor and reveal secrets about the afterlife. According to Franklin, Osbourne eventually traveled to the West Indies (the Caribbean), where he became a successful lawyer. Unfortunately, Charles Osbourne died at a young age, long before Franklin’s own death, but he never fulfilled his promise to Benjamin Franklin.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Benjamin Franklin portrait by David Rent Etter (1835), modified for spookiness, [Public Domain] via National Parks Service and Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • The Autobiography and Other Writings of Benjamin Franklin, edited by Kenneth Silverman. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
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