I am pausing a moment before I publish a long book review tonight to acknowledge the death of a dear friend of my late parents, Professor David L. Holmes. Professor Holmes taught for many years in the religion department at the College of William &Mary, where I work on staff as an Information Technology specialist. Professor Holmes and my father, George Alan Morledge, had a mutual interest in colonial churches in Virginia. They taught classes together at William & Mary, my dad being the historical architect and Professor Holmes being the church historian. As a middle-school kid, I survived several long car rides across Tidewater Virginia to visit colonial churches that would become subject matter for those Holmes-Morledge classes.
Before Professor Holmes retired from William & Mary nearly a decade ago, he and I had some spirited conversations about Christian faith. Professor Holmes grew up in an historically orthodox Christian home, but he moved theologically away in a more progressive Christian trajectory. I, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction, raised in a liberal mainline church to becoming more conservative evangelically minded. We disagreed on certain theological matters, but Professor Holmes was always gracious and kind, and his warmness was felt by the many students, including conservative evangelical believers, who enjoyed his classes.
He had once visited All Souls Church in London, England, the home parish of John Stott, perhaps one of the most influential evangelical spokespersons of the 20th century, and one of my theological heroes. Stott was not there preaching that Sunday, and unfortunately, Professor Holmes was not impressed with Stott’s stand-in replacement regarding the sermon, as the Professor recalls in a 2003 article for Anglican and Episcopal History, “Where the Trumpet Gives No Uncertain Sound.” In the Professor’s estimation to me personally, he lamented that in the sermon’s “understanding of the Bible, it sounded like something out of a far distant era.” While Professor Holmes loved the singing, the liturgical atmosphere, and friendly congregants, he could not intellectually affirm the message that he heard that day. Not having heard the sermon myself, I might definitely agree with Professor Holmes on certain points. But in the end, it may come down to the difference that I have more confidence in the overall intellectual integrity of the classic, historic, orthodox message of Christianity than Professor Holmes had.
Peggy Agouris, provost at William and Mary, wrote a wonderful remembrance of David L. Holmes’ life and service at William & Mary, and I am including portions of this remembrance below. Rest In Peace, Professor Holmes. May he be received well in Christ’s Eternal Kingdom.
I write to share the news that David Lynn Holmes (born August 28, 1932, in Detroit, Michigan), Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies, Emeritus, departed this life on April 29, 2023 at the age of 90. Professor Holmes will long be remembered as one of W&M’s “greats” – an eminently knowledgeable and inspired lecturer, possessed with wry humor and a penchant for pranks. His legendary tenure of 46 years permitted him to teach, advise and counsel more than one generation within a family of alumni……
…. Professor Holmes was greatly influenced by his late parents. He described his father, also David L. Holmes, as a “muscular Christian,” who served for many years as a revered coach and Athletic Director at Wayne State University, Michigan. His “fast-minded” mother, Hazel Jean Madden Holmes, was a math teacher at Detroit’s initial math and science high school.
Professor Holmes received his B.A. in English from Michigan State University, after having transferred there prior to his sophomore year from what he judged a more demanding university in favor of greater social pursuits. He later reflected upon this transfer experience as a missed academic opportunity, leaving him forever after committed to receiving the best possible education, first for himself and then for his students and family. Professor Holmes went on to obtain a master’s degree in English from Columbia University. He also studied theology at Duke Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary, before obtaining master’s and doctorate degrees in Religious Studies from Princeton University. When asked whether he had considered ordination for the ministry, Professor Holmes responded that college teaching had itself been a religious calling for him, providing him with the opportunity to achieve much of, if not more than, what he might have done through ordained ministry……
…. Professor Holmes was a nationally recognized American church historian. Raised as a Congregationalist, he became an Episcopalian. He considered himself “the lowest of Low Church Episcopalians”. When attending church, he delighted in singing the hymns. His knowledge of the colonial church in Virginia seemed endless. His published books include A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama. In 2022 he published his final book, a collection of vignettes about life at William & Mary entitled Glimpses of a Public Ivy: 50 Years at William & Mary.
Students taught by Professor Holmes were regularly challenged with more than the usual exams and research papers. He became known for dividing his classes into small groups, each of which would together study, visit and ultimately write about any number of locations within Virginia or its neighboring states – a colonial church, an abandoned early settlement, or perhaps the churches, architecture and culture of a small Victorian town. Professor Holmes also took interest in his students as individuals, getting to know them and freely providing advice and guidance which frequently extended beyond a student’s years of college and graduate education….
…. Professor Holmes politely declined the honorific “doctor”, believing this title should be reserved for physicians. Following a tradition of W&M’s past faculty, he insisted upon being addressed as “professor” or “mister.” Professor Holmes personally graded, with close attention, the exams and papers of his students. Any grade received by a Holmes student was the deserved grade. An “A” from Professor Holmes was very well-earned.
Fittingly, Professor Holmes has left us with guidance for our going forward. In his “Last Lecture” given on May 7, 2011, in connection with his William & Mary retirement, he offered the following closing while addressing a crowded gathering of students, faculty, administrators and alumni:
“In the years ahead, as we live our lives, let us always keep in sight the central core of our highest responsibility. Which is to love God or whatever high ideals we put in that place and to love our families and our friends and our neighbors…and to be impatient of artificialities and trivialities…and to take no notice of the evil done against us…and to be just…to be compassionate…to be kind…to be as wonderfully generous as our nature permits…to use our talents and our imagination in the service of the Good…and to refuse always to…bow…the…knee…to Baal.”
If Professor David L. Holmes has departed this life, then where has he gone? He concluded a lecture given for the Bishop Madison Society on or about March 26, 2010, with these words: “Finally, I would be hopeful about death. Throughout the years, I would live as if life continued after death – and I would not be surprised to find that it did.”…..
What do you think?