William & Mary

Founding Fathers Were Primarily Deists, Holmes Says

After more than 40 years of religious study, Professor David Holmes says the dominant lesson of his research is that each of us, far more than we know, is the product of our religious background and training.

The religious scholar and William and Mary professor is the author of numerous books. He spoke recently about his latest work, Faith of the Founding Fathers, at the Williamsburg Regional Library. In the book, Holmes examines the religious environments that shaped these men and the ways in which they expressed their faith. They, too, the author said, were products of their religious environments.

During his talk, Holmes detailed the beliefs and influences of the founders of this nation, including George Washington, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. The predominant theology of the early Colonial period was Deism, the idea that God created the world but then had no further role in its functioning, Holmes explained to the audience.

“It’s wrong to see [Washington] as other than a Christian,” Holmes said. He added that the best description of Jefferson’s religion was Unitarian while noting the author of the Declaration of Independence called the concept of the Trinity “Greek arithmetic.”

For Jefferson, there were no miracles, according to Holmes, who said that the third U.S. president removed all human embellishments from his Bible, including the miracle stories. “Jefferson was never an Anglican,” Holmes added.

In the main, openly talking about religion was not good form, a fact that made piecing together their beliefs challenging, the author told the audience.

Monroe, Holmes said, was silent on the topic. He was so private about his faith that it was not mentioned in any of three eulogies given for this American hero upon his death.

Holmes described the Founding Fathers as “remarkable, even noble men” who respected the teachings of Jesus, whose beliefs were far from atheistic and who, except for maybe Monroe, believed in a life after death. Yet, he noted that their thinking may not be what Christians today expect. “These men fit the category of men of faith,” he said, “though that faith is different from the faith of most Christians today.”