Provost Peggy Agouris sent the following message to the campus community on May 5, 2023. – Ed.
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 is survived by his wife of 55 years, Carolyn Coggin Holmes; by his daughter, Henley Madden Holmes Vasquez and Xabier Vasquez-Gil, and their children, Sofia Holmes, Nicolas David and Nola Maria; and by his daughter, Catesby Coggin Holmes and Gregory David Morril, and their daughter, Madden Ruth Morril-Holmes. He was preceded in death by his sister, Jean Dorothy Holmes Wunderlich, but is survived by her numerous extended family members, including her son, Keith David Wunderlich and wife, Mary.
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.
Drafted into the U.S. Army, he served two years active duty and in the reserves. He was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant.
Professor Holmes began his teaching career as an instructor in English at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). He joined the faculty of William & Mary in 1965, where his subject matter transitioned from English to Religion. In 2005, Professor Holmes was named the Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies. His many teaching awards include: the Society of the Alumni Teaching Award, the Thomas A. Graves Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching, the Seven Society Award, the SCHEV Outstanding Faculty Award, and the university’s highest honor – the Thomas Jefferson Award. He retired from the W&M faculty in 2011. During his long tenure, he also taught at the University of Virginia as a visiting professor of religious studies. Post-retirement, the Professor Holmes remained in demand as a lecturer at venues ranging from colleges to churches and synagogues to public libraries.
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.
Despite the demands of teaching, writing and advising, Professor Holmes also found the time to revive and mentor the Bishop Madison Society – William & Mary’s “Skull and Bones” – which had been founded in 1812 by a group of luminary alumni as a tribute to Bishop James Madison. Bishop Madison had been the first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia. He served simultaneously as the eighth president of W&M, from 1777 until his passing in 1812. Bishop Madison was also the second cousin of President James Madison. The purpose of the Bishop Madison Society is to assist William & Mary’s welfare in every way it can – such as by sponsoring lectures, debates, and social interaction among students, faculty and alumni – and to bring W&M’s history to the attention of its current students.
Special Collections at William & Mary’s Swem Library maintains a rich and irreplaceable collection of the writings, lectures and correspondence of Professor Holmes. A review of that collection offers a welcome reminder of “Holmes-isms” often heard in his classrooms and beyond. 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.”
A service to remember and celebrate the life of Professor David Holmes will be held at historic Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, Duke of Gloucester Street, Williamsburg, VA, on Saturday, July 15, 2023, at 1:00 p.m. The family asks that memorial contributions be made to the David L. Holmes Reformation Studies and American Religious History Endowment (3447), which supports a professorship at William & Mary. Checks should be made payable to the William & Mary Foundation/Holmes at P.O. Box 1693, Williamsburg, VA 23187. Please designate the gift is in memory of David L. Holmes. Credit card payments are also accepted through https://impact.wm.edu/holmes
Related story: ‘Glimpses of a Public Ivy’: Professor emeritus snapshots 50 years at W&M