David L. Holmes. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 225 pages.
There is great debate about the piety of the nation’s founders. There are those who claim that ours is a Christian nation and that the founders – with perhaps the exception of Thomas Jefferson -- were pious Christians. On the other side of the coin there are those who insist that the nation was as pluralist as today and that the Founders were to the man (yes they were men) non-Christian Deists. In large part this debate has political implications, for it is a debate about how great a separation there is between church and state.
Historian David L. Holmes, himself an Episcopalian, takes on the task of faithfully laying out the views and practices of the Founding Generation of Americans. He begins with a survey of the state of religion in America circa 1770. We learn that New England is Congregationalist, the Middle Colonies more mixed, and the South having originally a more Episcopal establishment. The educational establishments were by and large religious, from the Congregationalist Harvard and Yale to the Episcopal William and Mary and King’s College (Columbia), from Presbyterian Princeton to Baptist oriented Brown. It is in these institutions that most of the Founding Fathers were educated, but as we read we discover that there were other influences, influences of the Enlightenment such as Free Masonry that also proved influential.
The center-piece of the book is a series of chapters that explore the religious beliefs and practices of Benjamin Franklin and the first five presidents. All six of these figures valued religion, but were by any measure Deists. The stories of Washington’s piety were created whole-cloth following his death. What is interesting is that Monroe was the least religious of the early Presidents. He was by affiliation Episcopalian, but his writings and speeches say little religion. The wives, on the other hand, were for the most part much more pious than their husbands. The one major exception was Abigail Adams who shared her husband’s strong Unitarianism. But Martha Washington and other wives and first daughters tended toward orthodoxy – a reality explained in part by education, social circles, expectations, and the fact that there was no woman’s version of the Deist infused Freemasonry to be had.
That these leading figures were not orthodox does not mean that none of the Founding Generation was Orthodox. Indeed there were a number of leading patriots who were extremely orthodox, ranging from Patrick Henry to Samuel Adams. Holmes devotes one chapter to the lives and practices of three orthodox founders, Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay. Jay was especially conservative theologically, but this did not keep them from embracing the revolutionary spirit. Indeed, Samuel Adams was considered the “Father of the American Revolution.”
With these contrasting stories, the question is: How do we discern who is orthodox and who is not? In what is, I believe, the most important contribution of the book, Holmes offers four tests to distinguish a Deist from an Orthodox Christian. Holmes divides the Founders into three categories – non-Christian Deist, Christian Deist, and Orthodox Christian, and by considering these four tests we are better able to place the Founders in their proper category.
The four “tests” are as follows:
- Examine the actions of the founders in the area of religion. Do they belong to a church? Attend church? Serve on governing boards? By itself this criteria offers little help, for Jefferson and other Deistic founders held roles of importance in their churches. But, the more active, the more likely one was to be orthodox.
- Reception of “ordinances” or sacraments. While baptism is not a good marker – they likely did not have a choice in the matter (infant baptism being the predominant mode) and the baptism of children could have been done at the behest of wives, but other ordinances such as confirmation (which was available among Episcopalians in the colonies after the appointment of the first bishops in the 1780s), and reception of the Lord’s Supper were more telling. Deists tended to shy away from both sacraments, believing them expressions of superstition. Many Deists, such as Jefferson and Washington, would either avoid Eucharistic Sundays or leave prior to the celebration of the sacrament.
- Dimension of Religious Inactivity versus Activity. Few thorough-going Deists took an active role in Christian rituals, and Deistic Christians were less observant and active than orthodox ones. In other words, Deistic Christians would participate in more passive forms of Christian life such as listening to sermons, but tended to avoid active expressions such as being confirmed or receiving communion. It is noticeable that Jefferson left out the Last Supper from his retelling of the Gospels.
- The Use of Religious Language. The way God was referred to and the use of distinctly Christian language can be gauged from the writings and speeches of the Founders. Some like Monroe hardly even mention God or religion. It is almost totally absent from his public expressions. Words like Providence, Creator, and Nature’s God were used by non-Christian Deists like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen (though Allen was even more radical than Paine). Deistic Christians would make use of the same terms, but they tended to add modifiers such as “Merciful Providence” or “Divine Goodness,” and they were more likely to speak of Jesus – even if not in orthodox Christian ways. Positive references to the Trinity and use of terms such as savior and redeemer would be found only among the orthodox.
With these guidelines, we can discern that a Thomas Paine or an Ethan Allen was a non-Christian Deist (though Allen may have been an atheist). Franklin, Washington, and the other presidents considered, were Christian Deists. Among the orthodox were Henry, Adams, Martha Washington, and Jay. The lesson is that while Protestant Christianity was dominant, a goodly number of the Founding Generation – at least among the men – were not Orthodox partisans.
What we can say, Holmes insists, is that the Founding Generation as a rule did believe in divine providence and life after death, putting them in a different place from the more radical forms of Deism. But, they were by and large Deists of some form, and as Holmes writes, it would have been more surprising if they had become “evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Scandinavian Lutherans, or Orthodox Jews” (164). Deism was the dominant philosophical perspective among educated males of the day.
What is true of the Founders is not true today. From Gerald Ford to the present, a period surveyed in the “Epilogue” of the book, the Presidents have made their religious professions quite public. Indeed, many have courted the religious vote. That the current election cycle is so filled with religious rhetoric would have surprised the Founders, but it seems to be expected today – in spite of our supposed secularism. The religious beliefs and practices of each President beginning with Ford, is explored in this final chapter, That they might use religion for political ends is acknowledged, but for most the professions have been sincere.
With the religious rhetoric growing louder and more divisive, this relatively brief and very readable book is just the tonic we need to attend to. Note well that the title of this book is not “The Faith of the Founding Fathers,” but the “Faiths of the Founding Fathers.” There is not one faith perspective or style that covers them all – and in a time of religious turmoil that pluralism needs to be recognized. This tonic will then, if properly digested, offer an important perspective not just on the past, but on the present situation as well. This is then, a must read book for the upcoming election cycle.