on May 8, 2006
After reading this book quite carefully, I had to scratch my head in bemused wonder when I encountered the reviewer's words "the desiccating tone is one of technical scholarship that may turn off casual readers looking for a narrative history of this hot-button issue." The tone is not one of "technical scholarship" at all. Nor is the prose at all dry. More accurate, I think, to say that this book is well informed by a lifetime of reading in American religious history and is hence as judicious and balanced in its judgments as anyone could possibly hope for; in its tone, then, it is not "technical" but well informed. And the style is not desiccated (!) but instead warm and welcoming. The book is written in clear, well-crafted sentences devoid of academic jargon and pretentiousness: prose that consistently keeps the reader in mind, indeed welcomes them.
For example, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers begins with a chapter called "Religion in the American Colonies in 1770": a topic that could seem dry but which, in Holmes's hands, becomes a richly appealing account, a well-narrated story of what a visitor to this country would have encountered in 1770 up and down the Atlantic Seaboard--a surprisingly variegated landscape of religions.
The succeeding chapters provide all that the beginning inquirer would want to know about the religious beliefs not only of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al., but also of the wives and daughters of the Founding Fathers. There are surprises here as well. Holmes carefully and clearly delineates the differences between a Deist and an orthodox Christian--and the gradations between these two religious stances.
Beyond everything else, this book is a terrific introduction to American religion. The fact that it leaves one wishing to explore further the relationship between religious belief and American statesmanship is all to the good. This study also fills in a gap created by the hyper-attention paid of late to the religious beliefs of the enigmatic "Re-founding" Father Abraham Lincoln. Highly recommended!
on November 1, 2006
The "Faiths of the Founding Fathers" by David L Holmes is a treasure that should be read by all Americans who are interested in what the founding generation believed regarding religion and faith. It is hard to imagine that the individual faiths of the founding generation should be such a contentious issue but they are. All one has to do to prove this is to search on Amazon and see just how many books that one can find on this issue alone.
The book has a wealth of information but it is presented in an easy to read format that will appeal to lay readers and professionals alike. Unlike many books on the subject, it is short, sweet and to the point. However, it must be noted that Holmes does something that is quite strange with his book.
He actually focuses on the theological beliefs of the founding generation. Far too many books claim to focus on what the founders believed but only put forth a few pages on the subject and then move onto their real goal which is to state a political position and then claim the founders would agree with them.
Holmes does not fall into this all too common trap but instead begins with a focus on early American theological beliefs and then continues by focusing on the primary founders of the United States. In this way he lays out what the founders, their wives, their children and the country in general believed in regards to the theological. Thus, he maintains the focus on their faith where it should be.
What we learn is that the founding fathers and mothers were complex people that cannot easily be defined yet so many try to do so. This book shows why easy definitions are incorrect and that such ploys should be avoided. To accomplish this task, he uses primary, secondary and tertiary religious sources in the proper fashion. When he gives a quote he cites the source and places it within its proper context. When no information is available he lets this be known rather than fill in the blanks with personal opinion. This creates a book that gives an honest and evidence-based portrayal of what the founders believed.
Why is this book important to read? Simple, there are extremists on the right and left that have utilized historic revisionism to push their political agendas and they do this by twisting the founder's beliefs into something that will backup their political claims. This has lead to a general confusion in regards to what the founders actually believed.
The secondary importance of this book lies in its focus on the Enlightenment religion of Deism. In truth, there are very few books regarding the richness and diversity of Deism in early America and the important role that it played in founding the USA. Most books use a few sentences to state that Deism was a belief in a God that created and then abandoned the universe. This "definition" was the creation of preachers during the Second Great Awakening to damage the theology of Deism that had become popular among the educated.
Holmes devotes more than just a few sentences to the subject of Deism. He devotes 3 chapters to the subject and goes into detail how diverse Deism was among its adherents and that it had its own sects just as Christianity did and does. Despite what many believe, Deism was (and is) a faith that is rich with diversity and is not the "God who abandoned" religion that has been put forth for far too many years.
He breaks down the belief of the founders into three categories which are Non-Christian Deism, Christian Deism and Orthodox Christianity. He then goes into where each of the founders would be placed in this scheme and why. He covers such historical figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams, James Madison, Samuel Adams, John Jay and Patrick Henry. He also talks about their wives and children.
This book is for you if you are interested in what the founders believed and want honest (historical) information. This book in fun to read regardless of your religious beliefs and should not offend anyone. This is a great book and a great read. Enjoy.
on September 7, 2006
First of all, I should point out that I am an Evangelical Christian. I suppose that some Fundamentalists might get upset over a book like this because Holmes calls a spade a spade. He comes across as not having an agenda, either from a Christian or secular humanist point of view. As he points out, many of the Founding Fathers were Deist/Unitarian. At the same time, there were important Founding Fathers whom Holmes proves should be considered Evangelical Christian (i.e. Samuel Adams, John Jay) along with a number of the Fathers' wives. Whether or not these Founding Fathers were Evangelicals, what I think is important is that this country was founded on religious principles, even if they were not conservative in their theology.
What I liked about this book is that Holmes made individual examinations of some of the most important founders, including the first five presidents and Benjamin Franklin. I'm not going to say that I'm a huge history buff of the 18th century, but the stories told by Holmes easily kept my attention. His writing style is very scholarly yet very easy to read. The layperson is not going to have to spend large amounts of time with a dictionary in hand because Holmes is not that kind of a writer.
Finally, I'd like to explain how I bought this book in the first place. I was at Monticello and saw this in the bookstore. I spent several minutes looking through it, paying special attention to the section on Jefferson. Less than a week later, I was in Williamsburg, VA (where Holmes is currently employed) standing in the Episcopal church near The College of William and Mary where Jefferson had a church box toward the front of the church. I asked the female volunteers of this liberal church about Jefferson. When they told me that Jefferson was a Christian, I used some of Holmes' information to show how Jefferson was probably a Deist or possibly a Unitarian. They denied this information and proceeded to give me a letter to the editor of a local newspaper explaining that Jefferson claimed to be a Christian. According to them, Jefferson should therefore be considered a Christian. This made no sense, I explained, because anyone can claim to be a "Christian," but the proof is in the pudding. Thus, I decided I needed to purchase this book and read it so that, if the situation ever came up again, I could point to a book published by Oxford University Press that would show the truth.
on June 28, 2006
'The Faiths of the Founding Fathers' by David Holmes is simply the best book that I have read in years. It fully complements works by the famed historians Joseph Ellis and David McCullough.
Holmes' book begins by surveying the religious landscape in the mid- and late 18th century. He then takes a closer look at the personal theology of the men most instrumental in the founding of the US: Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Madison, Monroe, etc. What is more, he also writes about their daughters and wives. These short biopics serve to remind us that leading politicians were not merely influenced by wars and rulers and philosophy and literature, but also by their personal religious beliefs.
Historians will appreciate Holmes' use of primary source material (eg, Franklin's epitaph) and detailed endnotes.
In sum, this book is well-researched, well written, engaging, and comprehensive. I highly recommend it to all reader audiences.
The louder and better-financed religious sects in our nation are eager to claim it as a Christian country whose Founding Fathers were all good Christians and founded the nation on biblical principles. It does not matter that the Bible can tell us little about the revolutionary ideas that government should protect freedom of speech, press, or assembly, for instance, which were among the real founding principles of the new nation. Leaders of current Christian evangelical churches are happy to have people believe that the founders were, well, Christian evangelicals. That this is not the case is not news to anyone who studies the issue, and perhaps _The Faiths of the Founding Fathers_ (Oxford University Press) by David L. Holmes won't make an impression on those bent on misrepresenting the beliefs of the founders. Nonetheless, it is a useful summary of what we can know, and what we cannot, about the personal and sometimes private religious ideas of some of the most famous names in American history. It would be a good idea for those who are intent on instilling more religion into our government to take note that many of the men who founded it had misgivings about central issues in Christianity.
There are six founders getting their own chapters in Holmes's book: Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. All of them had been influenced by the ideas of Deism, a school of religious thought that grew out of the same Enlightenment that brought forth our principles of government. In general, Deists perceived a harmony in nature that revealed the existence of a deity, a "Supreme Architect" (one of their favored phrases for this being) who had set the universe running and then had withdrawn to let it go. Some Deists rejected the Bible as mere superstition, and others, while rejecting the divinity of Jesus, had profound respect for his moral teachings; this was the view of most of the founders profiled here. Holmes gives a useful summary for students of history who want to examine the beliefs of those in America at the nation's beginning. Did the individual attend church regularly? Was he confirmed? Did he take Communion? Does he use traditional Christian terms for the deity, or broader Deistic ones? As Holmes, a professor of religious studies, says, "An examination of history cannot capture the inner faith of any man," but an examination of such questions can serve to place subjects into categories such as Non-Christian Deism (Paine and Ethan Allen), Christian Deism (Washington and Jefferson), or Orthodox Christian (Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams). For many of the less well known signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, their categories may never be well known. The most famous of the founders, however, the ones profiled here, left a sufficient paper trail or first-hand contact with others, and most of them are somewhere in the Deist spectrum. It must be said that there is nothing surprising in Holmes's account, as this has been the judgment of historians for many decades, but his criteria for examining these leaders are useful.
That religion was important to the Founders, no one can doubt; even the Deists among them had faith, and many were in favor of Christian teachings as ethical examples. They were interested in good behavior and good works, and did not think that, say, an orthodox reliance on miracles was vital for moral behavior or good citizenship. The intellectual remove of Deism from more emotive religion was one of the reasons that we got no state religion, and refused (even before the Bill of Rights) to allow religious requirements for public office. Holmes's book is no diatribe against current Christian fundamentalists, but it is perhaps too much to hope that it might make such fundamentalists a little more humble in their efforts to make our country into a Christian one, and our founders into evangelicals.
on April 6, 2006
I disagree with the Publisher's Weekly review. I've read excerpts from The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, and I would not describe Holmes's prose style as anything approaching dry. Yes, scholars will appreciate the depth of research and detail in this book, but casual readers like myself will also enjoy learning a bit more about how religion and presidential politics have mixed in the past and the present--a timely topic indeed.
on February 7, 2007
I found this book by David L. Holmes to be superbly written, researched and presented. The author not only present a clear understanding of religious situation of the colonies prior to the Revolution but afterward as well. The main asset of this book lies in his understanding of how Deism as a religious and theological thought, influenced the acts, actions, political behavior and personal behavior of Ben Franklins, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monore and James Madison.
Another service this book provides is that the author have a clear and logical understanding of Deism and explained to the reader in a clear and logical way that is easy to understand. He also explained how you can tell if one is a Deist by the language, mannerism and behavior when discussing religious matter. The author made it clear that while these men were born Christian, they didn't embrace Christianity as mature adults and ironic, some of them return the fold as they lay dying.
The book also point that one gift these men gave the American nation which was most reflective of their Deist faith was the concept of separation of Church and State. They defeated all efforts by the new nation to create Christianity as a state religion and ensure that religion and government stay out of each other's way.
These men who were Deist, ironically did not push this thought onto their families. The book also dealt with families of these men and come up with the fact that most of them were rise and remains as orthodox Christians.
The book briefly covered the religious lives of three regular Christians who supported our founding fathers, John Jay, Samuel Adams and Elias Boudinot.
The Epilogue proves to be quite interesting since the author discussed the faiths of our past presidents from Gerald R. Ford to George W. Bush. The mass difference between these men from each others truly reflect a true labyrinth of Christianity that is being practice in this nation today.
This book come well recommended and almost a standard mandatory reading material for any American interested in our nation's history. The book also serves as a warning against any revisionist thoughts by some in our country who wishes believe that men who founded our nation were some sort of religious fanatics or die-hard Christians.
on June 18, 2006
As a layman in the field of history, I nevertheless found this book organized and written very well, definitely not dessicating and technical scholarship. Dr. Holmes' hypotheses are clearly expressed and supported by his research, not by suppositions or preconceived notions. The philosophical/moral issues of today are many and complicated. It is impossible for one to categorically state how a historical person would
have assessed and handled them and I was glad to not see him fall into that trap. What he does present is a solid history of the divisions present in Christianity at the founding of the U.S., the prevailing evidence as to the religious practices of the most influential politicians of that era, and what effect these practices had on matters such as freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State.
on November 7, 2006
I just finished reading the book "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers." I won't repeat what other reviewers have said, except to say that I felt the author laid out his research in a very easy to understand manner. This book helped me understand why there is such controversy around this topic. A person can point to one item out of many, such as church membership, participation or non-participation in church activities, and a person's actions, and draw the desired conclusion concerning whether a person is a Christian and/or religious. But the author examines all of these points and comes to a very sound conclusion regarding the people in question.
I enjoyed the book, and found it to be both informative and enlightening.
on June 15, 2006
When considering the faith of the founders of the U.S, it is easy to rely on half-truths and assumptions. David Holmes dispels a lot of myths in his well-researched book which uses historical documentation, personal letters, and observations of conduct in order to describe the various beliefs which the early patriots espoused. He begins by describing the religious movements of the 18th. century which influenced our founders. One interesting point he makes is that 9 of the original colonies had government-sponsored churches, a practice which the country quickly abandoned when the colonies united into a nation. Although many of the people he describes, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, were brought up in orthodox Christian churches, such as Episcopal and Congregational, they were later influenced by the Deist movement which opposed many orthodox Christian views. He describes some interesting practices, such as the fact that George Washington would leave Anglican services before participating in communion, despite the fact that his wife Martha would stay for the sacrament. This is only one example of an early political wife who stayed true to her orthodox upbringing despite the Deist leanings of her husband. Holmes concludes his book with a brief description of modern-day presidents and their religious beliefs which bear much more scrutiny than the founding fathers' did. In writing this book Holmes displays an impartiality which is fitting for an historian, and which makes it all the more believable.