Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Religion of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes

I love the opening quote to The Religion of the Founding Fathers.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (L.P. Hartley)

How true. I bet if you were to ask any school kid, heck, even most adults, about the country’s founders’ religious views, they would be reasonably fuzzy. After reading Mr. Holmes informative book, I’m no longer scratching my noggin.

The author looks at six Founding Fathers (Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe), most of whom had been born and baptized into “the church of Virginia.” But as the future leaders began their college studies, the philosophy of deism had gained ground among the educated classes of England and France and this would become a major influence in the formation of the principals of America, and in particular, the First Amendment.

Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that recognizes the existence of a supreme God based on human reason without reference to revelation.

Mr. Holmes writes:
The six Founding Fathers surveyed in this study appear to have been neither wholehearted deists nor orthodox Christians. They maintained their formal affiliations with Christian denominations, though none who were Anglican seemed to have become full church members. In the spirit of the times, they questioned doctrines that they believed could not be reconciled with human reason. As a result, they rejected such Christian teachings as the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus. Yet all these six Founders believed in a guiding Providence and—with the possible exception of Monroe—in a life after death. These affirmations separated them from the radical deists of their time.
The Religion of the Founding Fathers is a slim 156 pages but packs a wallop of enriching information. If you have an interest in history and religion, then this book is worth reading.

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Charles Gramlich said...

I think it's very telling when our Founding fathers' views on religion are revealed. A lot of folks seem to think that our founding fathers were relgious fanatics. Not true.

Scott D. Parker said...

Haven't read this book but it sounds like it needs to required reading for modern voters. GW wasn't a conservative in the definition of today. TJ wasn't a liberal in the definition of today. And, like you state, "they questioned." Good book to put on my history list. Thanks.

Oh, and Giant Steps...Awesome!

Barrie said...

Sounds fascinating. Especially because I keep relearning the Colony stuff when each kid hits 5th grade. This would really add something to the discussions!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, somehow the need to think we are historically embedded in the most rigid religious thinking has become important.

D.A. Riser said...

That's interesting. I wonder if the guy isn't a little biased. I can't speak to the others, but I've read quite a bit of John Adams and Benjamin Frankline, and I seem to have gleaned a different take based on their personal writings and letters.

Anyhow, I hope you don't mind, but I got this email on Thomas Jefferson yesterday that I'll paste below. It had some quotes from him that contain some parallels to today. The email:

Thomas Jefferson in some cases could be called a prophet:

When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe,
we shall become as corrupt as Europe. Thomas Jefferson

The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those
who are willing to work and give to those who would not.
Thomas Jefferson

It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.
Thomas Jefferson

I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the
government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense
of taking care of them.
Thomas Jefferson

My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results
from too much government.
Thomas Jefferson

No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.
Thomas Jefferson

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.
Thomas Jefferson

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
Thomas Jefferson

To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.
Thomas Jefferson

Very Interesting Quote

In light of the present financial crisis, it's interesting to read what Thomas Jefferson said in 1802:

'I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.'

David Cranmer said...

Charles, People see through their own prisms. It's like Republicans and Democrats both co-opting Lincoln these days.

Scott, And Nixon signed the Civil Rights bill and Clinton balanced the budget. Lots of Hmmms if we look closely… I have not listened to Giant Steps in awhile and it's really kicking some ass on the morning commute.

Barrie, Knowing your love of history, I’m certain you would enjoy it.

Patti, I will say in my limited travels, we are what I call a secular Christian country in comparison to ‘off with their heads’ of some other places.

D.A., Mr. Holmes is very meticulous and he goes into great detail in the individual chapters regarding these men. His extensive bibliography makes me think that he spent a good deal of time researching the topic. I may have been bias in my narrow review concerning the topic of deism. I'm a big fan of John Adams and have even traveled to Quincy and sat in the Adamses pew at his Unitarian church. I believe he was a God fearing man who lived his life accordingly. However, in his letters to Benjamin Rush and Jefferson he openly expresses doubts on various issues.

David Cranmer said...

And I should add your Jefferson quotes are very enlightening considering our financial mess.

D.A. Riser said...

I'd agree with you, David. Have a good weekend!

Sarah Hina said...

A great book to highlight, David. Didn't Jefferson actually pen his own interpretation of the Bible, without the miracles and such?

Deism is a religious point of view I can really appreciate. It seems inclusive, and non-judgmental.

Joshua said...

love the quote. very intersting read im guessing

David Cranmer said...

Sarah, I have the Jefferson Bible along with his other writings. I use to be a bigger fan but now realize John Adams was the better leader in almost every aspect. (That should raise some objections if anybody is still reading the comments here.)

Josh, And it's only a foreign country because we are more interested in Paris Hilton than Abigail Adams.