The Franklin Effect

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin recounts the following snapshot of his father’s strategic hospitality.

“At his table [my father] liked to have, as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table.”

Many have tried to sound the depths of Ben Franklin’s soul to find some key that will explain how such an illustrious example of academic excellence could have been produced in the backwaters of our early American colonies. Here was a world-class philosopher and statesman! His experiments, most notably with his kite in the thunderstorm, and his many inventions, from the Franklin stove to the lightning rod, are very well known. His civic innovations in Philadelphia, founding the first lending library and the first volunteer fire department, have been honored in every elementary school textbook. His contributions to the Continental Congress and later to the Constitutional Convention rank him among our greatest Founding Fathers. He was also our nation’s first Postmaster General, which might add a new twist to the popular idea of “going postal.” Finally, his humble appeal to his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention to kneel in prayer to God for His help in breaking through the political gridlock inspires us that he must have been a God-fearing man, at least in his old age.

Unfortunately, the preponderance of the record reveals a great man caught up in the philosophical and religious liberalism of his day. Franklin rejected the faith of his fathers, to be what the Puritans called a “civil man,” meaning a top-notch worldling—a really nice sinner. He continued to believe in God, but in his own way, and certainly not in the way revealed in the Bible. Jesus Christ was not his Lord or Savior. So, with all his brilliance, he was lost for eternity.

But you could never find a more interesting or more likable man.

The idea I would like to propose is that Benjamin Franklin was, at least in part, a product of the power of companionship, and especially of the companionship engineered by his father through strategic, manly hospitality.

Notice that his father’s choice of guests and topics of conversation were affected by his desire for his children’s minds to be improved. The table talk was intended to turn each youngster’s mind to what was good, just, and prudent–not a bad purpose. Notice also that the children would get caught up in the discussions to such an extent that little notice was taken of what was on the table. A feast of ideas was spread in such a way as to overshadow the normal fare. This is the way “real men” have guests. There was no obsession with the folding of the napkins or even how impressive the food would be. It was simply, “Here’s the grub. Have a drink. Now what do you think about that fellow Tom Paine?”

This kind of hospitality can be a key to successful homeschooling today. We overlook the potential of having interesting guests over for dinner. Even when we do have guests, we neglect our responsibility to guide the conversation toward what will be of value to our children. We certainly take more care for the “victuals” than for the discussion. So, how can we turn things around a bit and get more of the positive aspects of the Franklin Effect?

One place to start might be to look at what our children are already interested in and ask ourselves, “Who do we know who could fan the flames of this child’s delight?” If your child loves horses, why not have an equestrian over for dinner (even if he does eat like a horse!). And if you child has a budding interest in art, why not entertain a local artist? If music is high on your list of values, attend the symphony, and invite a friendly violinist or two over for supper. People love to talk about what they do. They also enjoy sowing the seeds of their delight in the hearts and minds of a new generation.

Many will remember when my son Joshua started New Attitude magazine. It ran for three years and had quite an impact. The fact is it began as a cool project in the last year of his homeschooling. But an interesting detail in the story is that Joel Belz of WORLD Magazine was our dinner guest some time prior to Josh’s big idea taking shape. Joel’s stories about growing up as the son of a pastor who bravely bought a small printing press and made his sons all learn how to run it, brought the sound of the press running and the smell of the ink right into our living room. Joel went on to study journalism and to launch many Christian publications. Somehow, writing and editing and publishing a magazine for homeschooled teens did not seem so unrealistic after having dined with a real magazine publisher.

Now, Mr. Beltz is a godly man, reformed in his faith and zealous for the souls of the next generation. His influence on Josh, and on me, was a real gift from God. It would have been different, I am sure, if he had been the publisher of secular comic books for fun and profit. The power of companionship in hospitality cuts both ways. “Those who walk (or eat) with the wise become wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (Proverbs 13:20). Later in the process, men like Randy Alcorn, Michael Farris, Chris Klicka, and others fanned Joshua’s excitement with their own stories and examples. But simple hospitality played a big part in bringing it all together.

The potential for this strategy goes far beyond mere academics. What do you think would happen if more of us began to host missionaries in our homes? Our children might catch a vision for serving God in nations around the globe. Host an evangelist, and watch a passion for souls take root in your hearts. Host an author, and notice how your teens begin to dream of writing their first article or book. It is all the power of companionship working through hospitality.

Some conference organizers have asked me why I request to stay in the home of a family when I travel and speak for their state home school conferences. Why not just stay in a nice hotel? The reason is that by staying in homes, I get to meet a lot of homeschooled adolescents and teens who, to be candid, are often in various stages of boredom with their homeschooling. I like to change that.

Where there is no vision, the people (including home school students) perish. Discipline without direction is drudgery. But discipline with clear and passionate direction is a delight. And delight is the rocket fuel in every attempt at excellence. I enjoy stirring the ashes for embers of delight in a home school student’s heart. Sometimes I get to plant a seed of vision of what could be done with all the extra time a home school lifestyle provides. I want to do for others what men like Joel Beltz do for my children when they visit.

It is not a perfect panacea. Not all guests make good companions. Ben Franklin may have been led away from God by one of his father’s guests. We do not really know. But we do see the power that companionship and hospitality had in Franklin’s full and productive life, even if he did not come to Christ. God help us as parents to “prove all things and hold fast that which is good.”