David L. Holmes. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Oxford University Press, 2006.
David L. Holmes teaches religious studies at the College of William and Mary. As the title suggests, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers is about the religious beliefs and practices of some of America’s founding fathers. At the same time, Holmes discusses Christianity in America (and also in England) prior to the time of the founding fathers, as well as the religious beliefs and practices of twentieth century U.S. Presidents, from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush.
Overall, according to Holmes, many of the prominent founding fathers were influenced by deism, particularly in that they tended to describe God in rather impersonal terms (i.e., providence). Some variations of deism were anti-Christianity, in that they preferred looking to reason and nature rather than revelation (the Bible) to learn about God and were skeptical about miracles. Other variations were not anti-Christian, and they were open to God being a beneficent providence in the world. George Washington was influenced by deism, yet he attended church and embraced his Christian heritage.
Holmes’ breakdown of some of the founding fathers’ stances towards religion is as follows:
—-Benjamin Franklin was a deist, yet he believed that going to church was good for promoting morality. He attended church infrequently, though.
—-George Washington was not very reflective about religion and tended to accept the Episcopalian heritage he received from his upbringing. There were seasons in which he attended church, but he tended at do so more when he was in cities, but less when he lived in Mount Vernon, since churches were not as accessible to him there. He refused to take communion, even when the pastor preached against that habit of his from the pulpit. Holmes speculates that Washington did not take communion because he took I Corinthians 11:29 seriously: Paul says there that those who eat and drink the Lord’s supper unworthily eat and drink damnation to themselves, and Washington may have felt that he was unworthy to take the Lord’s supper, due to his perfectionism.
—-John Adams was a unitarian, one who did not believe that Jesus was God. One strand of unitarianism believes that Jesus pre-existed his life on earth as a heavenly being, whereas another strand held that Jesus was a man who was rewarded by God for his faithfulness. According to Holmes, Adams adhered to the second strand.
—-Thomas Jefferson admired Christ but saw him only as a good man. Jefferson also sought to move the College of William and Mary from Christianity towards deism. When a plague hit the college, there were Christians who blamed Jefferson for bringing God’s wrath on the school.
—-Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay were Orthodox Christians rather than deists. Elias Boudinot wrote a book against Thomas Paine’s anti-Bible work, The Age of Reason, called The Age of Revelation. I found the book online. I liked Paine’s work, and I wonder if I’ll like Boudinot’s, too.
Holmes notes that many of the founding fathers’ wives were more religious, and he suggests a variety of reasons for this: women went to church to socialize, and they were more attuned to mystery and thus gravitated towards Christianity rather than the reason-oriented deism. Two interesting women Holmes profiled were Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison. Abigail Adams was reflective about religion, and she said that she rejected the Trinity because it did not make sense and was unscriptural. Dolley Madison was raised a Quaker but was booted out of that religion when she married James Madison, a non-Quaker.
This is an informative book. Holmes sifts through myths and facts, and he is quite open about what historians do not know, based on the lack of evidence.