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Friday, June 18, 2010

David Holmes and the Faiths of the Founding Fathers

Every once in a while a friend will ask me to recommend to them a book on the Founding Fathers and religion. Usually they will add that they have looked long and hard for a book that is objective and avoids all of the current culture war crap that the Glenn Beck/Howard Zinn/David Barton works rely on, but have been unable to find such a book. In frustration, they express their desire for an author with historical integrity who doesn't have an agenda to portray the Founders as Democrats, Republicans, Christians, atheists, etc. In addition, they want a book that is both user friendly and free of the "deep" scholarly jargon that can be so difficult to endure. Well, I am happy to report that such a book does exist!

In his book The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, author David Holmes (who is a professor of Religious Studies and William and Mary) has created a simple, concise and informative work that explains in detail, using historical context, what the beliefs of our Founders really were. Holmes uses a simple four-point litmus test to illustrate what each individual Founder said and did on the topic of religion. His four points are:

1. Church Attendance
2. Approach to the Sacraments and Ordinances
3. Level of Church Activity and Involvement
4. The Type of Religious Language Used

Holmes states that, "An examination of history cannot capture the inner faith of any man. But in the case of the Founding Fathers of the United States, readers can use these four indicators to locate the founders on the religious spectrum with some confidence." Based on these four simple points, Holmes effectively guides the reader on a journey of understanding that relies exclusively on the history of the Founders, rather than what pop-culture tells us.

Using these four criteria, Holmes states where each of the Founding Fathers rank on the religious spectrum. First off, it is important that we recognize the role that the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening played in shaping the religious beliefs of colonial America. As Daniel Walker Howe states in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book What Hath God Wrought, religious ideology, especially Christian ideology, was very different during the colonial era than it is today.
We cannot make the mistake of viewing the belief systems of America's founding generation through the lens of modern American religion...the rise of Evangelical Protestantism, Christian conservatism and a post-modern God whose role is less intrusive than our forefathers...makes any comparison to 18th century American Christianity an impossible chore to complete without immersion in the historical context.
There are, of course, many other factors than these simple four points, which shaped the individual beliefs of our Founding Fathers. These points, however, can help us see the impact of deism and Christianity on the individual. A deist would be more likely to attend church less frequently, would strongly oppose sacraments and ordinances, would have a low level of church involvement, and would use very neutral religious language when referring to deity. An orthodox Christian, however, would be the exact opposite. With that said, let's look at one example of how Holmes' four-point litmus test can help us better understand the religion of our Founders:

George Washington: Obviously George Washington is the most popular of the Founding Fathers, and there is a great deal of religious myth that surrounds him. There is perhaps more written on the religious views of Washington than any other Founding Father. His legacy has been used by secularists and religious zealots alike, in order to shape their respective agendas. But what were his religious beliefs? Here is what Holmes states:
1.) Church Attendance: Washington, though not as devout as the typical orthodox of his day, did attend church with some regularity, and as Holmes states, “held organized religion in high regard, and was known to pray privately.”

2.) Approach to the Sacraments and Ordinances: Washington was known for regularly leaving church services before any and all sacraments. Washington strictly refused to partake in any other religious ordinances.

3.) Level of Church Activity and Involvement: Washington was a vestryman in both the Anglican and Episcopal churches, but was never confirmed in any church. Washington strongly opposed any orthodox allegiance to any one church, and remained a non-ordained, non-confirmed churchgoer.

4.) Religious Language Used: Washington’s religious vernacular was mixed with Deist and Christian phrases. Though he regularly referred to deity as “Providence” and “the Grand Architect” Washington also used the words “God” and “Christ” on a regular basis as well.
So where does Holmes rank Washington? He calls him a “Christian Deist.”

Thomas Jefferson

This one is almost too easy. Thomas Jefferson attended very little church, he never participated in sacraments and ordinances, was never ordained or confirmed (in fact he believed such practices were morally reprehensible), and his religious language was VERY common for a Deist (just look at the Declaration of Independence where Jefferson uses phrases like "Providence" and "Nature's God"). Jefferson also regularly denied the divinity of Christ, but referred to him as "the greatest philosopher." In his Bible, Jefferson even removed all references to Jesus being a savior figure.

Holmes states, and I strongly agree, that Jefferson was a non-Christian Deist. This one is pretty easy.

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin is an interesting figure. He donated a large amount of money to virtually every religion in Philadelphia and even attended most of them. Franklin, however, was never confirmed, nor did he participate in sacraments and ordinances of any church. Franklin even states in his autobiography that he denies the divinity of Jesus. Holmes also calls Franklin a Deist.

So where are the Orthodox Christians? Here is just a small list:
Patrick Henry
Samuel Adams
John Jay
Martha Washington
Charles Carrol
Elias Boudinot
John Q. Adams

And Christian Deists? Here again is another small list that Holmes mentions:
George Washington
Abigail Adams
Alexander Hamilton
John Hancock

And here is Holmes's list of non-Christian Deists:
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
John Adams
Benjamin Franklin
Thomas Paine

So, if you are looking for an objective, concise and fun book on the Founding Fathers and religion, I strongly recommend The Faiths of the Founding Fathers as your starting point. It will give you a firm baseline on which to begin your study of early American religion and the founding generation. I hope you enjoy it!


WKen said...

Thanks for the tip.

I'll have to check that one out.

If nothing else, I'd always thought that John Adams was more orthodox than this ... not that I've researched it deeply or anything, but that had been my thought.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, WKen. Yeah, Adams is a bit of an anomaly. I think he was different things at different times during his life.