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Benjamin Franklin, Lighthouses, and Churches

Posted by sbh on Monday, 23 August 2010

Did Benjamin Franklin write

Lighthouses are more useful than churches

in Poor Richard’s Almanack, as claimed in the 1997 book Texas iconoclast, Maury Maverick Jr. (pp.110-111)?


This (pseudo-)quotation has been circulating since at least 1997, and possibly since the 1960s or 1970s, but it is not found in Franklin’s works. Sometimes it is given as “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches” or “A lighthouse is more useful than a church,” but no form is authentic.

This is probably intended as a summary of something Franklin is said to have written to his wife on 17 July 1757 after a narrow escape from shipwreck off the English coast. This letter appears to have been lost, but an excerpt appears in a footnote on p. 133 of the 1818 edition of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin:

The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.

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