book report: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by Holmes (2006)


David Holmes contends in his book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, that our first few presidents of the United States were not orthodox Christians, but probably deists. I think he has done an excellent job of making his case but in a poorly organized fashion. All of his chapters are excellent, but I wish they were shifted around some. He starts the book by describing the religious trends in the american colonies, then focuses on the Anglican church and Deism. He launches off from the deism chapter and looks at the writings, speeches, letters, and actions of various revolutionary leaders: Franklin, Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and their wives and daughters. After all this does he provide a "Layperson's guide to distinguishing a deist from an orthodox Christian." In this chapter he lists his method for evaluating an historical figures faith. This is an excellent chapter that should have been put before an evaluation of any figure.

First he distinguishes between levels of orthodoxy.

Then he offers his criteria of evaluation.
  • Devout Christians would be more likely to go to church.
  • Baptism. Since the men could not refuse baptism as infants, did they baptize their children?
  • Confirmation: The decision of the adult believer to reaffirm their baptismal vows, conferring on them full church membership, something never done by Washington or Madison.
  • Holy Communion: "That earthly bread and wine could in some way become the body and the blood of Christ vexed founders such as Jefferson and Adams. Their correspondence often employed the derogatory term 'hocus-pocus'..." p.137. Washington might never have taken communion. He always left the church service, as many deistic Anglicans did before that part of the service. Jefferson made his own bible in which he cut out all the supernatural stuff, including the Last Supper.
  • Religious language. The deist used terms about God like "Providence" or "Nature's God." But the orthodox Christians spoke of a "Savior," "Redeemer" and affirmed the Trinity.
He then gives quick examples from the previous data presented how some fell across the spectrum
Non-Christian Deist: Ethan Allen
Christian Deist: Washington, Abigail Adams
orthodox Christian: Patrick Henry

He then devotes a chapter to three easily identifiable orthodox Christians among the founding fathers: Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay.

If he had moved his "Layperson" chapter up to the front after an introduction to the religious milieu of the colonies and interleaved the orthodox men in with the unorthodox, the contrast would have been more stark.

I think an important thread he picks up but does not follow for long is the influence of Freemasonry on these men. It comes up in the chapter on the wives and daughters. He talks about the relative orthodoxy of the women compared to the men and offers a few reasons why.
  • Masonic lodges, which were deistic and had many founding fathers as members, were closed to women
  • Colleges, which were embracing desim, were also closed to women.
  • Deism does not address suffering, in a time where child mortality was so high.
  • Deism did not account for the "abundant mystery of life" p. 111
  • Mothers raised the children and "may simply have thought that the Judeo-Christian tradition and Sundays devoted to churchgoing gave a better preparation for life than the rationality of Deism." p. 112
  • Church provided "a place where women could socialize with each other and with the larger world. Men encountered more of such opportunities during ht week." p.112

This quote about Freemasonry jumped out to me.
...Deism spread in colonial America concurrently with Freemasonry. After the introduction of Freemasonry into the colonies in Philadelphia in 1731, the Masons had several dozen lodges in the colonies by the time of the Revolution...Like the Deists, the Masons taught a natural religion where the "Grand Architect" or "Architect of the Universe" was a God of nature identified with natural laws. p.110
In contrast, Samuel Adams opposed Freemasonry. Freemasonry in American history is now a topic I'm interested in learning more about. I remember reading about anti-Mason political parties. So what is a conservative Christian to do when they learn that George Washington was a Freemason and Christian Deist who was never witnessed praying alone in Valley Forge (p. 70), and was proclaimed a deist by contemporaries after his death (p.163). It means that God can work through any nation and any leader, see Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonia in the Old Testament story of Daniel. It makes more sense to me and less embarrassing to me as a Christian that my country that abused Native Americans and enslaved them as well as Africans is not a Christian nation, but a Christian-influenced nation which was formed out of love for freedom.
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