Ever fond of hoaxes, Franklin memorized the parable and “read” it aloud from Genesis, “proving” the scriptural importance of religious tolerance. One of these parables—commonly referred to as either the Parable against Persecution or as Abraham and the Stranger—is a story about the biblical patriarch Abraham. Although Franklin did not mention the second parable by a specific name, it is thought to be his Parable on Brotherly Love, also known as Chapter of the Ax from a midrashic work on Leviticus.
Franklin composed his version of the Parable against Persecution in 1755. In an era when most Englishmen could not actually read (especially from the Bible), Franklin memorized this parable and would “read” it aloud from the Book of Genesis, thus “proving” the scriptural obligation of religious tolerance to his less biblically erudite listeners.
And it came to pass after these Things, that Abraham sat in the Door of his Tent, about the going down of the Sun. And behold a Man, bowed with Age, came from the Way of the Wilderness, leaning on a Staff. And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy Feet, and tarry all Night, and thou shalt arise early on the Morrow, and go on thy Way. And the Man said, Nay, for I will abide under this Tree.
But Abraham pressed him greatly; so, he turned, and they went into the Tent; and Abraham baked unleavened Bread, and they did eat. And when Abraham saw that the Man blessed not God, he said unto him, wherefore dost thou not worship the most-high God, Creator of Heaven and Earth? And the Man answered and said, I do not worship the God thou speakest of; neither do I call upon his Name; for I have made to myself a God, which abideth always in mine House, and provideth me with all Things.
And Abraham’s Zeal was kindled against the Man; and he arose, and fell upon him, and drove him forth with Blows into the Wilderness. And at Midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, Abraham, where is the Stranger? And Abraham answered and said, Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy Name; therefore, have I driven him out from before my Face into the Wilderness. And God said, Have I born with him these hundred ninety and eight Years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his Rebellion against me, and couldst not thou, that art thyself a Sinner, bear with him one Night? And Abraham said, let not the Anger of my Lord wax hot against his Servant. Lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray Thee:
And Abraham arose and went forth into the Wilderness, and sought diligently for the Man, and found him, and returned with him to his Tent; and when he had entreated him kindly, he sent him away on the Morrow with Gifts. And God spoke again unto Abraham, saying, for this thy Sin shall thy Seed be afflicted four Hundred Years in a strange Land. But for thy Repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with Power, and with Gladness of Heart, and with much Substance.
However, not only is the Parable against Persecution not found in Genesis, it may not even be based on “an ancient Jewish tradition.” The parable as a whole has no known rabbinic source. Rather, scholars have concluded that the story reached Franklin by way of the writings of Jeremy Taylor (1657); Taylor, in turn, copied it from Georgius Gentius (1651); Gentius, for his part, attributed it to the “illustrious author Sadus,” the medieval Muslim Persian poet Saadi (1257); and Saadi began his version with: “I have heard that once…” The trail ends with Saadi.
When it was found that writers well before Franklin had told much of his parable, he was accused of plagiarism. Defending himself in the postscript of a November 2, 1789 letter to Benjamin Vaughan, Franklin wrote: “The truth is, as I think you observe, that I never published that Chapter, and never claimed more credit from it, than what related to the style, and the addition of the concluding threatening and promise.” He contended that though he had not intended to publish the parable, “it is in itself, on account of the importance of its moral, well worth being made known to all mankind.”
Franklin’s Midrash (Jewish teaching), Surah (Islamic teaching) or Parable (Christian teaching) is emblematic of the Enlightenment thinking that our Founding Fathers had for our new nation. True spiritual enlightenment does not come from dogma and orthodoxy, it comes from reasoned thought and debate. Clearly Franklin hoped to spark a little Pennsylvania “brotherly love” in his very Anglican establishment-oriented audience. In this season of Purim, remember that sometimes a careful whisper is louder than a bombastic oration.