The Former Baptist Pastor Who Popularized Ben Franklin’s Electrical Experiments

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James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America offers a remarkable account of Ebenezer Kinnersley, a Baptist pastor who lost his Philadelphia church position due to his opposition to the Great Awakening. Kinnersley then improbably became the greatest popularizer of Ben Franklin’s discoveries in electricity.

Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th-century revivals. As a 3-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job.

Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados).

The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them.

Kinnersley, contemptuous of religious enthusiasm and superstition, proclaimed that his shows were subduing fearful apprehensions of electricity and lightning, and bringing them into the realm of rational understanding. “Another miracle! the ignorant would say,” Kinnersley scoffed. But now through Franklin’s experiments, “the mystery was understood.” Yet Kinnersley did not see himself as undermining faith with science. Instead, he paired the de-mystifying of nature with greater worship of God. Scientific knowledge leads us “to the First Cause,” he wrote, “by refining, enlarging, and exalting our ideas of the great author and God of Nature.”

For many believing scientists, knowledge has continued to produce doxology. But in Kinnersley’s popularization of Franklin, we can see tangible ways in which a former pastor also helped open new opportunities to believe that the natural world is all there is. Divine mysteries, the secular rationalist says, will all eventually dissipate before the bright sun of science.

I also discuss Kinnersley, Franklin, and the religious implications of Franklin’s experiments in my biography Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017).

This post originally appeared at the Anxious Bench blog, Patheos.

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