- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006


By David L. Holmes,

Oxford University Press, $20, 209 pAGES


Religiously speaking, many of the nation’s Founders were mutts. They believed in God but had a broad range of theological beliefs and a myriad of views on the proper relationship between church and state.

Today, people of all religious persuasions look to the leaders of that era to back up their world view. The oft-stated belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation is rhetorical shorthand that does not really tell us much about how the past is relevant to modern problems.

“The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” comes to the rescue of those trying to square the past with the present. David L. Holmes, a religious studies professor at the College of William and Mary, has written a timely book that summarizes the views of the Founders and places them in proper historical context.

While all of the nation’s architects were raised as conventional Christians — mostly Episcopalians or Congregationalists — many of them came to question the core principles of their faith.

Several leaders had religious transformations and wound up as Christian Deists, who respected Jesus’ moral teachings, while not believing that he was divine. Mr. Holmes describes their religious beliefs in great detail and includes an insightful chapter on the status and demographics of religion in the American colonies during the 1770s.

George Washington attended Episcopal services for much of his life but, like many of his fellow congregants, often declined to take Holy Communion. He rarely referred publicly to God or Jesus Christ, instead preferring to talk about Providence. Mr. Holmes concludes that Mr. Washington saw Providence as the actions of a “benevolent, prescient all-powerful God’ who was “at least partially distant and impersonal.’

Mr. Holmes argues that despite the attempts of many generations of biographers to depict Mr. Washington as an Orthodox Christian, minimal historical evidence exists to back up that thesis. Mr. Holmes calls the first president a Deistic Episcopalian.

The author’s conclusion, which this writer believes to be on the mark, will no doubt rile those seeking to use Washington to bolster their argument for a closer relationship between church and state. You come away thinking that Mr. Washington was a fairly conventional believing Christian with strong religious convictions but not someone who wore his religion on his sleeve.

Mr. Holmes’ balanced and well-researched book, which relies heavily and appropriately on original sources, could reach a wider audience if his prose had a more conversational tone. One also wishes he had included a discussion of the religious views of Alexander Hamilton. Mr. Holmes’ major reference to that Founder is when he quotes Mr. Hamilton’s response to a query about why there is no reference to God in the Constitution: “We forgot.’

Thomas Jefferson’s religious views are especially interesting and eclectic. The nation’s third president went went so far as to rewrite the Bible to eliminate the prophecies and parables and focus on Jesus Christ as a moral exemplar and teacher.

“To him, Jesus was always a man,’ Mr. Holmes writes. “His view of Jesus contained no role for virgin birth, incarnation, resurrection, miracles, or adoption into divine status … (He) believed he had separated the gold from the dross in government and religion.’

Mr. Holmes also discusses the religious views of the wives and daughters of many of the Founders and concludes that most of them did not stray much from Orthodox Christian belief, with the notable exception of Abigail Adams. She was an observant Christian who shared the tendency of her husband, President John Adams, to question established religious dogma.

Those hoping to find orthodox religious beliefs among the nation’s Founders won’t come away from this book disappointed. Several early leaders, including Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams, John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice, and Continental Congress President Elias Boudinot, expressed few doubts about traditional Christian dogma.

Mr. Jay “consistently championed the authority of the Bible over the use of human reason,’ Mr. Holmes writes.

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.

That is why “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” should be seen as a first-rate guide to the past and not as fodder for those fighting modern-day political battles.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the recently-published book: “The Divided States of America.’

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