From Publishers Weekly
In demystifying what has been argument fodder for over 200 years, religion scholar Holmes (A Brief History of the Episcopal Church; A Nation Mourns) sorts through the carefully constructed (and ambiguous or contradictory) versions of the personal beliefs the United States's founding fathers presented to the outside world to present a sound case for what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others did or didn't do on Sundays. Holmes's subjects were acutely sensitive both to the dangers of state-sponsored religion as well as their reputations as leaders and went to what might seem like absurd lengths to cloak their religious leanings (Washington, for instance, rarely mentions church in his journals and, when he did attend, would leave service prior to communion), making Holmes's research and conclusions feats of deduction based on clues gleaned from letters, government documents, second- and third-hand accounts and educated speculation about motivations. Despite its strong points (including a wonderful epilogue on the religious beliefs of presidents from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush), the desiccating tone is one of technical scholarship that may turn off casual readers looking for a narrative history of this hot-button issue.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Against the Religious Right's insistence that the Founding Fathers were conventional Christians, Holmes pits facts about religion and religious language in late colonial and early republican America. He doesn't consider all the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution, and he concedes that private convictions are ultimately unknowable. Hence, his evidence is partial and circumstantial. Yet his argument is very persuasive. After precis of religion in the colonies circa 1770, the Anglican tradition in America, and deism, which was then at the height of its influence, he turns to Franklin and the first five presidents, inspecting their church attendance, observance of sacraments, and the terms they used to refer to the deity and religion. All six seem more deistic than orthodox; that is, they inclined against the Trinity and other supernatural concepts. To point up their practical deism, Holmes invokes the contrasting orthodoxy of the presidents' wives and daughters (Abigail Adams, however, was as deistic as John) and three other founders (Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay). A modest but definite triumph of temperate historical argumentation. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved