Monday, July 14, 2014

On "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" by David L. Holmes *****

I came to this book after becoming familiar with Holmes's volume on the faiths of the postwar presidents. In this volume, Holmes discusses the religious beliefs of the first five presidents of the United States, as well as a set of others responsible for the foundation of our nation. He also gives background to the state of religion in the United States and the colonies during the Revolutionary period. In all, he aims to be debunk myths that have sprung up around the founding fathers with regard to their religious beliefs, enough to anger both evangelicals and some atheists. Proving exactly what the first five presidents believed, however, is perhaps more difficult than might be initially supposed. This is because we are limited by what these men left behind in their writings and by what others say about them, and these things do not necessarily speak to what went on in these men's minds.

Holmes makes the claim that the first five presidents of the United States were Deists. This claim is easily proven in the case of a man like Thomas Jefferson, whose views on religion and Christianity and fairly well known and represented in the writings that he left behind. Such a claim is a bit more difficult in the case of someone like George Washington, whose views and actions in some ways contradict such an interpretation, or someone like James Monroe, who was simply silent on religious matters.

Holmes begins by discussing the religious culture of the times. Most Americans were religious, and most were protestants of some sort. Anglicanism actually had a much larger hold on the country than I had realized, and Catholicism, which one tends to learn in school was well-founded in Maryland, actually had little hold (the leaders of Maryland were Catholic, but the people were Anglican). Unorthodox views were heavily present in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, where there tended to be greater freedom of religion. Deism was popular among the educated classes and supplanted the teachings of denominations at many of the denominationally sponsored universities during this time. Hence, the nation's leaders were often Deistic in their persuasion--or at least heavily influence by such ideas (the latter is much easier to prove than the former).

Next, Holmes moves on to the individual men. There seems little doubt that Franklin and Jefferson were Deists, though both men saw the Bible as a source of great wisdom and believe in a power that had forged the universe. Washington, however, was a churchgoer who encouraged others to go to church. Holmes sees Deistic tendencies in Washington because the man rarely talked of Jesus (he used, rather, terms Deists would more often use to talk of God, such as Grand Architect) or of personal salvation, and there is some evidence that he did not take communion. His attendance at church, furthermore, was sporadic (though his lack of attendance usually occurred when he was living in the country, far from available churches). I came away feeling like Washington could have as likely been a lukewarm Christian as a Deist. What is clear, though, is as Holmes points out, Washington's myth was rewritten by later generations to make him into a more religiously Orthodox man than he actually was.

John Adams and his wife were Unitarians. For Holmes, these seem more or less to equate with Deist. Holmes splits Deists into two camps: Christian Deists and non-Christian. As such, Adams falls into the former camp, save that Unitarians aren't technically Christians, if we are to follow the line of thinking that Christians must belief in the Trinity and other orthodox beliefs (Unitarians rejected the Trinity among other beliefs). As a Unitarian, Adams believed essentially in Arianism, the idea that Christ was a created being rather than coeternal with God from the beginning. However, unlike Jefferson, Adams believed in miracles and other various aspects of scripture. Still, Adams has as much trouble with the ideas of overly religious people as he did with overly Deistic people, such as Thomas Payne.

Madison's beliefs are a bit more difficult to fathom out, but his heavy association with Deists suggests that he leaned toward this set of beliefs, at least during the years in which he was on the political stage. Later in life, he apparently returned more toward orthodox Christianity. Monroe's silence, for Holmes, is an argument for Deistic beliefs, something I find a bit hard to buy as an argument (just because someone doesn't talk religion doesn't mean the person is fill-in-the-blank of what you want him to be). Also pointing to Monroe's possible Deist impulses was his membership in the Freemasons, an organization among with Deism was popular.

While the men may have been Deists, most of their wives, save for a few notables, fell more into the orthodox Christian camp. Holmes speculates on reasons that men made up most of the Deistic movement, while women stayed more closely aligned with churches. Holmes then turns to men who were very clearly Christian in outlook who helped forge the country: Samuel Adams and John Jay among them. He spells out how to "spot" a Deist versus a Christian. And then he closes with a chapter on our contemporary presidents. What is clear is that in the early Republic, while presidents tended to go to church (even if nonbelieving), they were not as outspoken about religion compared with the general population as our contemporary presidents are (who often espouse quite staunchly Christian beliefs in order to appeal to the electorate).

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