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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

Print Price: $28.99

240 pp.


Publication date:
February 2006

Imprint: OUP US

The Faiths of the Founding Fathers

David L. Holmes

It is not uncommon to hear Christians argue that America was founded as a Christian nation. But how true is this claim?
In this compact book, David L. Holmes offers a clear, concise and illuminating look at the spiritual beliefs of our founding fathers. He begins with an informative account of the religious culture of the late colonial era, surveying the religious groups in each colony. In particular, he sheds light on the various forms of Deism that flourished in America, highlighting the profound influence this intellectual movement had on the founding generation. Holmes then examines the individual beliefs of a variety of men and women who loom large in our national history. He finds that some, like Martha Washington, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson's daughters, held orthodox Christian views. But many of the most influential figures, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, and James Monroe, were believers of a different stripe. Respectful of Christianity, they admired the ethics of Jesus, and believed that religion could play a beneficial role in society. But they tended to deny the divinity of Christ, and a few seem to have been agnostic about the very existence of God. Although the founding fathers were religious men, Holmes shows that it was a faith quite unlike the Christianity of today's evangelicals. Holmes concludes by examining the role of religion in the lives of the presidents since World War II and by reflecting on the evangelical resurgence that helped fuel the reelection of George W. Bush.
An intriguing look at a neglected aspect of our history, the book will appeal to American history buffs as well as to anyone concerned about the role of religion in American culture.


  • "Holmes's book is a model of accesible scholarship, and though it addresses a controversial topic, it actually generates more light than heat. --Christian Century
  • "This is a valuable little book. It effectively challenges claims coming from both sides of the culture wars by providing a better understanding of both the various Founder's beliefs and the religious environment in which they lived." --Houston Chronicle
  • "Holmes offers exceptionally insightful guidelines for judging the faith of the founding fathers.... Read this elegant book."--New York Times Book Review
  • "Quite simply, this is the best and most clearly presented statement regarding the religious beliefs of America's founders that I have read."--Richard T. Hughes, author of Myths America Lives By
  • "Concise and smart.... What we come away with is a portrait of a group of men who were products of the Enlightenment and, as such, wanted above all to make faith and reason match up."--Washington Post
  • "In The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David L. Holmes confronts a great many later myths about the religious views of the revolutionary generation. One of the many excellent features of the book is that it gives neither aid nor comfort to either side in the modern culture wars. Holmes rejects simplistic views that America was created as an explicitly 'Christian Nation,' while at the same time challenging those who imagine the Founders as rigid secularists. Instead of polemic, Holmes gives us an admirably balanced and scholarly portrait of a very diverse spiritual landscape."--Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity
  • "A timely book that summarizes the views of the Founders and places them in proper historical context.... 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.... A first-rate guide to the past."--Claude Marx, Washington Times
  • "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers sticks closely to the sources. When it discusses such matters as the possible return of James Madison to Christian orthodoxy in old age, it clearly labels its supposition as speculation. Its chapter on the religion of James Monroe is especially illuminating. And I agree with the book's overall assessment that the Founders were Deist-like, but not exactly."--Mark A. Noll, author of America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
  • "This brief, highly readable and responsible work of scholarship will serve as a fine antidote to the pious mythology which often passes for history on this subject." --Peter W. Williams, author of America's Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century
  • "An illuminating study.... Paints a balanced portrait of the various forms of Deism that existed in the minds of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and James Monroe, among others. Surveying the religious beliefs and mainline churches of the groups that settled the American Colonies, Holmes argues that the Founders respected the religious convictions of their time--an idea that conflicts with the prevailing belief that the first five presidents tended to deny the divinity of God and often followed the path of reason."--Library Journal

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David L. Holmes is Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, A Nation Mourns, other books, and numerous articles.

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Special Features

  • A fascinating introduction to the little known and often surprising religious beliefs of America's founding fathers