Author David L. Holmes examines what is known about the religious beliefs of some of the “founding fathers” of the United States. Specifically, those examined include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin — in other words, the first five presidents and Franklin. There are also very short vignettes of Ethan Allen, Abigail Adams, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay (and a few “wives and daughters” of the founding fathers), not to mention the Epilogue, which gives some details of later presidents, from Gerald Ford through George W. Bush.
◊ What I Liked Least About It
The book did not feel like a cohesive whole to me. In fact, the chapters felt like separate essays that had later been compiled into this volume. I got this impression due to unnecessary repetition of various phrases or facts. If indeed they were separate short works at one time, I think the resulting compilation should have been better edited to cull the overlapping parts.
I also thought it was poorly organized: the author didn’t state his thesis until page 134, so the reader feels lost early on. The first chapter explores the various churches and religious sentiments of the colonies, with no introduction or prologue to explain where he’s going with it.
◊ What I Liked Most About It
Perhaps most of all, I liked the author’s intent to be factual and honest — it was a voyage of discovery rather than persuasion. This is in contrast to the usual opposing sides: the religious right claiming all the founders were die-hard Christians and others claiming they were all deists or skeptics. It gets old, easily spotting the cherry-picked quotes that seem to support one side or the other.
Holmes refers to this discussion in chapter 12, quoting snippets from both sides and concluding:
Instead of attempting to color the founding fathers with his own ideology, he came up with a system to help classify them into three categories: orthodox Christians, Deistic Christians, and Deistic non-Christians. He notes their use of “religious language” (which differs between Deists and orthodox Christians), their likelihood to attend religious services, and whether or not they accepted confirmation or communion.
And, unlike other writers, Holmes cautions: “readers should keep in mind that one person can never quite know the inner faith of another person”. This is important in our time, when various factions keep attempting to claim historical figures for their side.
If I had to rate the book, I would give it three-stars on Amazon’s five-star scale, or six stars on a ten-star scale. Pluses: it wasn’t long or hard to read, it seemed factual and well-researched, and it was relatively free of the author’s opinion. Minuses: it gave the impression of being poorly organized and possibly a collection of essays that hadn’t been edited to comprise a whole.
As for the idea of arguing over the faiths of the founding fathers…
For me, personally, it is of little value to debate the religions of the founding fathers. The information is either there or it isn’t. In some cases, papers were intentionally destroyed. In other cases, the person in question rarely wrote about their religion in definitive terms. If there aren’t enough clues, we shouldn’t assume. When there are plenty of clues, all we have to do is look at them.
If Thomas Jefferson once said something that sounded like he was a Christian and another time said something that sounded like something else, then we must consider both. Did he change his mind at some point? Was one utterance more honest and open than another? (People often believe one thing when alone but profess something different when in specific company.) Who was the audience for each? And so on.
Assigning religions to people of the past based on today’s viewpoint is unhelpful as well. For one thing, Christian denominations have proliferated greatly in the intervening years, and the views of most of them have changed over time. Saying an early president was an Episcopalian isn’t the same as saying he’s like today’s Episcopalians. Because today’s Episcopal Church is led by a woman, something that wasn’t allowed in the 1700s. Today’s Episcopal church ordains gays and lesbians, and calls racism “a sin”.
Further, no one in the 1700s had heard of Charles Darwin or the theory of evolution through natural selection, which eventually became accepted as scientific fact and is now even taught in mainstream churches. Advances in historical and scientific knowledge have changed the way many in the world think about religion and the supernatural. Advances in global communication have changed how aware we are of other religious viewpoints in other parts of the world.
As L.P. Hartley said: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”