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The Faiths of the Founding Fathers

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Overview


It is not uncommon to hear Christians argue that America was founded as a Christian nation. But how true is this claim?
In this compact book, David L. Holmes offers a clear, concise and illuminating look at the spiritual beliefs of our founding fathers. He begins with an informative account of the religious culture of the late colonial era, surveying the religious groups in each colony. In particular, he sheds light on the various forms of Deism that flourished in America, highlighting the profound influence this intellectual movement had on the founding generation. Holmes then examines the individual beliefs of a variety of men and women who loom large in our national history. He finds that some, like Martha Washington, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson's daughters, held orthodox Christian views. But many of the most influential figures, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, and James Monroe, were believers of a different stripe. Respectful of Christianity, they admired the ethics of Jesus, and believed that religion could play a beneficial role in society. But they tended to deny the divinity of Christ, and a few seem to have been agnostic about the very existence of God. Although the founding fathers were religious men, Holmes shows that it was a faith quite unlike the Christianity of today's evangelicals. Holmes concludes by examining the role of religion in the lives of the presidents since World War II and by reflecting on the evangelical resurgence that helped fuel the reelection of George W. Bush.
An intriguing look at a neglected aspect of our history, the book will appeal to American history buffs as well as to anyone concerned about the role of religion in American culture.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Holmes's book is a model of accesible scholarship, and though it addresses a controversial topic, it actually generates more light than heat. --Christian Century

"This is a valuable little book. It effectively challenges claims coming from both sides of the culture wars by providing a better understanding of both the various Founder's beliefs and the religious environment in which they lived." --Houston Chronicle

"Holmes offers exceptionally insightful guidelines for judging the faith of the founding fathers.... Read this elegant book."--New York Times Book Review

"Quite simply, this is the best and most clearly presented statement regarding the religious beliefs of America's founders that I have read."--Richard T. Hughes, author of Myths America Lives By

"Concise and smart.... What we come away with is a portrait of a group of men who were products of the Enlightenment and, as such, wanted above all to make faith and reason match up."--Washington Post

"A timely book that summarizes the views of the Founders and places them in proper historical context.... While the author believes that the founders' theological beliefs contain valuable lessons for contemporary society, he cautions against going too far when trying to place 18th-century views and practices into a modern context.... A first-rate guide to the past."--Claude Marx, Washington Times

"In The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David L. Holmes confronts a great many later myths about the religious views of the revolutionary generation. One of the many excellent features of the book is that it gives neither aid nor comfort to either side in the modern culture wars. Holmes rejects simplistic views that America was created as an explicitly 'Christian Nation,' while at the same time challenging those who imagine the Founders as rigid secularists. Instead of polemic, Holmes gives us an admirably balanced and scholarly portrait of a very diverse spiritual landscape."--Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

"The Faiths of the Founding Fathers sticks closely to the sources. When it discusses such matters as the possible return of James Madison to Christian orthodoxy in old age, it clearly labels its supposition as speculation. Its chapter on the religion of James Monroe is especially illuminating. And I agree with the book's overall assessment that the Founders were Deist-like, but not exactly."--Mark A. Noll, author of America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln


"This brief, highly readable and responsible work of scholarship will serve as a fine antidote to the pious mythology which often passes for history on this subject." --Peter W. Williams, author of America's Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century

"An illuminating study.... Paints a balanced portrait of the various forms of Deism that existed in the minds of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and James Monroe, among others. Surveying the religious beliefs and mainline churches of the groups that settled the American Colonies, Holmes argues that the Founders respected the religious convictions of their time--an idea that conflicts with the prevailing belief that the first five presidents tended to deny the divinity of God and often followed the path of reason."--Library Journal

"Historians owe a great debt to David Holmes for laying out the Founders' religious beliefs and practices so clearly and meticulously, and for showing how significant the influence of Deism was in American prior to the upsurge in evangelicalism known as the Second Great Awakening." --H-Net Reviews


"[W]ell written, readable, and concise. Its accessible nature makes it an excellent book for undergraduates." --Journal of Faith and the Academy

Library Journal
In this short but dynamic study, we are thrust back to 1770s America to look at the culture and religion of six of the Founding Fathers. Holmes (religious studies, Coll. of William and Mary; A Brief History of the Episcopal Church) paints a balanced portrait of the various forms of Deism that existed in the minds of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and James Monroe, among others. Surveying the religious beliefs and mainline churches of the groups that settled the American Colonies, Holmes argues that the Founders respected the religious convictions of their time-an idea that conflicts with the prevailing belief that the first five presidents tended to deny the divinity of God and often followed the path of reason. Holmes's research leads him to argue that history texts need to represent the Founders as Christians who may have attended a Baptist, Presbyterian, or Episcopal church depending on their location and that the adherence to simple virtue and morality was more important to them than adherence to any particular set of doctrines. Finally, Holmes concludes that the strong connection to church professed by recent presidents is quite unlike the practices of our Founding Fathers. An illuminating study, this is recommended reading for American historians and religious scholars.-L. Kriz, West Des Moines P.L., IA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195300925
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 229,557
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David L. Holmes is Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, A Nation Mourns, other books, and numerous articles.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2006

    Thorough and Revealing Exploration of the Founding Fathers

    Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David Holmes immediately establishes itself as a more scholarly work than Jon Meacham¿s more contemporary fare, The American Gospel. The language, writing style, and historical overview set a confident tone early on with a detailed look at the various churches and religion groups that were scattered around the original Colonies. Holmes guides the reader as if he was giving a religious tour of colonial America. Several pages are devoted to explaining the Anglican traditions in America and one of the most in-depth treatments of Deism I¿ve ever seen in a book. As the title suggests, Holmes focuses intensely on the religious faiths of six principle founding figures: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Holmes carefully describes the religious upbringing of each figure, the nature and extent of their church attendance, (even noting which particular churches they attended), as well as key religious opinions or writings they made. Logically, Holmes uses the actual actions and works of the Founders to judge their religion opinions and not merely the associations they kept on paper or in public. Holmes also examines the religion traditions and participating of the Founder¿s wives and families for further clues to the faiths of the Founding Fathers. In a later chapter in the book, Holmes also provides a concise summary of his findings. Finally, Holmes go on to profile modern presidents such as Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. Holmes's book provides a level of detail to this topic that no other book provides. I highly recommend it.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2006

    Simply the best book that I have read in years

    '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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2010

    Interesting and Easy Read

    An incredibly fascinating read. This book will certainly catch your attention and hold it. Holmes does a fairly good job explaining the different sects of Christianity at the time of the Revolution. The amount of information he gives about different people and belief systems is somewhat inconsistent, but everything he does provide is presented well. It seems that he is a bit biased-he wants to make the point that the Founders were not heavily influenced by Christianity. This is generally correct, but at times it feels as though he is trying to force it down your throat, rather than present the facts and let the reader decide for himself. All in all though certainly a worthwhile purchase--especially for some of the great quotes he throws in.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2006

    Religious Leanings of the Founders Calmly Explained

    The Faiths of the Founding Fathers has enriched my life. I fancied myself knowledgeable about American history until reading this book. I needed that humbling and enlightening experience. David L. Holmes calmly explains the religious climate of the Founders' age, then he methodically examines the religious leanings of key figures--as well as those of their immediate family members. I can now appreciate the complexity and the evolution of their beliefs as well as the range of religious views held in that distant era. If you want to learn more about the religious inclinations of the Founders, then buy this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2006

    so many faiths back then

    This book should be required reading for every high schooler in the US. Our founding fathers were not die hard trinitarians who shoved transubstantion down the throats of their associates! I never new this, my respect for these men who managed to put the early documents of our country together through cooperation and mutual tolerance has hit new highs! I was also unaware that Catholics were not the majority, or at least one of the main groups. They dominate everything today, to the extent that censureship has returned with the Da Vinci Code, one of a long list of books banned by the Papists starting with Thomas Paynes Common Sense if I remember correctly. So many faiths merged from back then. So many groups changed. This book was truely eye opening. Easy reading and fun, I recommend this book to all of those who want to know the truth in an era of mixed religious views in America. Paul Swanson

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2012

    Very Informative

    Easy to read account of what the founding fathers did and did not intend. When acquintances try to expound what the founding fathers intended you can set them straight!

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  • Posted December 14, 2011

    Exactly what I was looking for

    I am not a historian or a theologian. But I was curious where the founding fathers would stand on the "under God" debate. This book steps me through the Christian sects of the land in the 18th century and makes a convincing argument for the founding fathers being very modern (for the time) deists. Like so many research projects, it raised more questions in my mind than it answered, but I now feel pretty educated on the subject. Also, if you like history, you will find this a really fun and easy read.

    And I apologize for that sentence ending in the title.

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