Professor Holmes, as he was known to generations of William & Mary students, always had a story to tell. “Incidentally,” he would say when a conversation prompted a recollection, then launch into an animated anecdote or history lesson that frequently left the professor in stitches – and his interlocutor genuinely enlightened. Holmes was intellectual,
inquisitive, and gregarious, brandishing his wry humor til the end. He died at age 90 in Williamsburg, VA, on April 29, 2023.
Holmes, a nationally recognized church historian, will be remembered as one of William & Mary’s “greats” – an eminently knowledgeable and inspired lecturer, possessed with a drive to advise and a penchant for pranks. His legendary 46-year tenure permitted him to teach more than one generation within a family of alumni. He authored numerous books – including The Faiths of the Founding Fathers and, most recently, Glimpses of a Public Ivy: 50 Years of William & Mary – and won many teaching awards, including the College’s highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. Holmes, who received his doctorate in Religious Studies from Princeton and studied
theology at Duke Divinity and at Union Theological Seminary, was sometimes asked whether he had considered ordination for the ministry. He opined that college teaching was a religious calling for him.
Professor Holmes’ students were challenged with more than the usual exams and papers. He became known for dividing his classes into small groups, each of which would together study, visit and write about locations in Virginia – a colonial church, an abandoned early settlement, or perhaps the churches and architecture of a small Victorian town. He personally graded exams and papers; an “A” from Holmes was very well-earned. He knew his students as individuals, freely providing guidance that extended beyond their college and even graduate education.
Holmes proudly revived the Bishop Madison Society – William & Mary’s “Skull and Bones” – which was founded in 1812 by a group of luminary alumni to host lectures, debates, and social interaction among students, faculty and alumni. He relished meeting new people and learning their life stories, unpacking with incisive questions what made them tick.
At his retirement speech in 2011, Holmes urged us “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.”
David Lynn Holmes was born Aug. 28, 1932, in Detroit, Michigan. His father, also David L. Holmes, served as Athletic Director at Detroit’s Wayne State University. His “fast-minded” mother, Hazel Jean Madden Holmes, was a high school math teacher. After graduating from Michigan State University, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served two years active duty and then in the reserves while pursuing his Master’s in English at Columbia. He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Carolyn Coggin Holmes; by daughter Henley Holmes Vazquez, son-in-law Xabier Vazquez, and their children, Kai, Nicolas, and Nola; by his daughter Catesby Coggin Holmes and husband Gregory David Morril, and their daughter, Madden; by his nephew, Keith David Wunderlich, and wife, Mary; and by numerous Michigan cousins.
If Professor David L. Holmes has departed this life, then where has he gone? He concluded a lecture given for the Bishop Madison Society in March 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 memorial celebration of life is planned for Saturday, July 15 at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in Williamsburg at 1 p.m. William & Mary’s Swem Library maintains a rich collection of the writings, lectures, and correspondence of Professor Holmes.
In lieu of flowers, 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 accepted through https://impact.wm.edu/holmes.