July 3: John Adams on Religion

Our post today comes courtesy of guest author Dr. David W. Hall, pastor of the Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia. Dr. Hall’s article originally appeared in the year 2000 in the online webzine PREMISE. While certainly Adams was no Presbyterian, the subject here has obvious relevance as our nation celebrates its independence tomorrow on the 4th of July.

John Adams and Religion
by Dr. David W. Hall

Equal in importance to James Madison in arguing for independence and ratification of the constitution was John Adams, who was also equally influenced by the heritage of Calvinism. In his diary entry for February 22, 1756, Adams wrote: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law-book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! . . . In this commonwealth, no man would impair his health” with vice, but would live together in frugality, industry, “piety, love, and reverence towards Almighty God. . . . What a Utopia; what a Paradise would this be!”

In 1775, the second President of the United States attended the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The preacher on that occasion, The Reverend George Duffield (who was later targeted by the British) preached a revolutionary sermon that made quite an impression on John Adams. Adams wrote to his wife on June 11, 1775, that Duffield’s preaching was reminiscent of the fiery expositions he had been accustomed to back in Massachusetts. Duffield applied the prophecy of Isaiah 35 to America and “gave us as animating an entertainment as I ever heard. He filled and swelled the bosom of every hearer. . . . by this you will see that the clergy this way are but now beginning to engage in politics, and they engage with a fervor that will produce wonderful effects.”

Adams would later refer to himself as a “church going animal.”  By any estimation one of the most important figures for the founding of America, Adams, nevertheless, did not identify himself as a Calvinist.  Toward the end of his life, he championed anti-Trinitarian legislation, and bitterly reviled Calvinists, on occasion, as “snarling, biting” divines. However, the impress of Calvin was so deep on Adams’ predecessors that a certain Genevan fingerprint is indelibly inked on Adams’ writings. Adams believed that knowledge in general could dispel “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression.” In his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, he recognized lust for power as the root of slavery. This yearning for dominion was both the cause of much oppression and the effect of human depravity.

Rights, which Adams saw as general but not purely secular, were derived from the “great Legislator of the universe.” Human rights were squelched when human rulers wrested from the people the inalienable grants given by this great Legislator. Liberty was also derived from humanity’s Maker, and the right to knowledge came from the great Creator, certainly not from a secular basis.

Adams, his Calvinistic heritage showing even if perhaps not intended, was severe in his criticisms of Roman Catholicism. His anti-Romanism, which far exceeded that of most modern Calvinists, is seen in his widely disseminated Dissertation. In it, he spoke of the Mass as producing a “state of sordid ignorance” and leading adherents to a “religious horror” of knowledge. Elsewhere, Adams castigated episcopal government as a “ridiculous fancy of sanctified effluvia.” Moreover, he referred to the Catholic impulse as an aspect of the Antichrist and alleged that a “wicked confederacy” of tyrannical views of church and state emanated from Catholicism. In terms that were introduced by earlier Calvinists (but disavowed by later ones), Adams further excoriated that confederacy as inhibiting liberty and knowledge. Such “darkness” (or the “monkery of priests” he later called it) only ended, according to Adams, when God’s “benign providence raised up the champions who began and conducted the Reformation.” So, while not a card-carrying Calvinist, Adams at least appreciated their political contribution. Most Calvinists today view his fiery denunciations of religious hierarchicalism as an overreaction.

Further, Adams extolled the virtues of the Puritans who continued to expand liberties.  He could not have been ignorant of the Puritans’ indebtedness to Calvin and Genevan republicanism. Even if others derided the Puritans as “republican,” Adams defended them and their religious enthusiasm as undeserving of ridicule. The Puritans, Adams wrote in his Dissertation, formed a government that both respected human depravity and the dignity of human nature. They “clearly saw that popular powers must be placed as a guard, a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity.” In terms reminiscent of Samuel Rutherford, Adams asserted that rulers are “no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for the people.” Later in this Dissertation, he would urge barristers to proclaim that liberties were not the “grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts,” and in good Scottish parlance, “coequal with prerogative and coeval with government.”

Adams credited the Puritans with conspiring to “use every measure and take every precaution in their power to propagate and perpetuate knowledge.” It was the Puritan Calvinists whom Adam thanked for laying the foundations of colleges and requiring that each town provide a grammar school. Tinged with regional pride, Adams boasted of the Puritan impulse supporting education. Colleges were obligated, in his view, to spread this knowledge which would aid all of society.

The Puritans in New England established a long-standing tradition of government. Noted Adams, “Kings were never had among us. Nobles we never had. Nothing hereditary ever existed . . . But governors and councils we have always had, as well as representatives. A legislature in three branches ought to be preserved, and independent judges.” Apparently, Adams attributed the origin of this republicanism to New England decades earlier—the exact time of the zenith of Calvinistic influence in the West. The “principles and feelings” of the Revolution “ought to be traced back for two hundred years, and sought in the history of the country from the first plantations in America.”

He did not shrink from speaking of “human nature, depraved as it is,” as also capable of success and virtue under the right conditions. In a 1775 letter, Adams spoke of “human nature with all its infirmities and depravities,” and then continued to affirm that it was capable of great things. Instead of the exclusion of the church from the state,  he called for the pulpits to “resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty.” He expected that such exposition would both display the “true map of man” and also safeguard civic liberties. In an April 1776 letter to Mercy Warren, Adams confided that human nature was easily corrupted, thus necessitating support “by pure religion or austere morals.” He wrote, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue], and public virtue is the only foundation for republics.”

He publicly avowed republicanism as the best government  and defined a republic as “an empire of laws, and not of men.” To further develop this expanding republicanism, Adams thought multiple assemblies (Adams also referred to the Senate with Genevan vocabulary, calling it the “Little Council.” ) were requisite to thwart human vice and ambition. After the Revolution, Adams refined his definition (in a letter to Roger Sherman) as follows: a republic is a “government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one person,” while a tyranny or despotism places all branches of power under one person. The reason behind his definition was that he understood human depravity. Power, wrote Adams, “naturally grows. Why? Because human passions are insatiable. But that power alone can grow which already is too great; that which is unchecked; that which has not equal power to control it.” Human benevolence “alone [was] not a balance for the selfish affections.” To his second cousin, Samuel, he wrote, “If there were no ignorance, error, or vice, there would be neither principles nor systems of civil or political government.”

Sounding very Calvinistic, Adams wrote, “Nature has taken effectual care of her own work. She has wrought the passions into the texture and essence of the soul, and has not left it in the power of art to destroy them.” At most, this depravity could be limited: “To regulate and not to eradicate them is the province of policy.”

As it came time to defend the Declaration of Independence, this New England “Atlas of Independence” did not consider secular forces alone, but wrote that the causes of the Declaration were justified “in the sight of God and man.” Adams wrote his wife on July 3, 1776, predicting, “It is the will of heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever.” If not, he feared earning the frown of Providence, suggesting that “solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty” be rendered in worship services in the future.

His explanation for the cause of the American Revolution is worth hearing. Adams believed that the important revolution occurred “before the war commenced.” It was, he said, “the Revolution in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” What he referred to was that American Christians no longer recognized a hereditary claim to their obedience regardless of the behavior of rulers. Romans 13 was not interpreted unconditionally any longer, and “when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority” and trending toward tyranny, Americans enshrined the Reformation mottoes that resistance to tyrants was a religious and civic duty. That “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of Americans, said Adams, “was the real American Revolution,” long before the first musket was fired.

After the Revolution, his role in drafting the Massachusetts constitution (1780) may indicate much about his views. An earlier 1778 attempt to establish religion had failed when Massachusetts representatives, including Adams, sought to tie holding civil office to Protestantism. Following that defeat, Adams and others drafted more tolerant language. Although some Massachusetts leaders in 1780 still desired a Geneva-like establishment of Protestantism, others were moving away from that view which had been practiced in Massachusetts since its founding. Adams was even so sure that the Congregationalists would not be satisfied short of an establishment of generic Protestantism that he sooner expected alteration of the celestial bodies in the solar system. In that context, a few years after the Declaration of Independence, his role in framing the Massachusetts Constitution is worth reviewing. That chapter of Adams’ public life indicates that he was far from secular Deism at the founding of America.

Adams’ first drafts included references to worship as a universal duty, and God was cast as “Supreme Being, the great Creator and preserver of the Universe.” Adams even drafted a provision (which was rejected) stipulating that no one could serve in the state House of Representatives unless a Christian. In the same document, Adams also approved of an oath, affirming belief in and profession of “the Christian religion and . . . a firm persuasion of its truth.” Moreover, the original Massachusetts Constitution also included an explicit rejection of foreign Prelates.  By 1821, this religious test was removed from the state constitution (Adams never countenanced a national establishment of religion.), and religion was disestablished in Massachusetts by 1833. However, the fact that these amendments occurred a half century after the Revolution gives pause to any who claim an exclusively secular ethos for that day.

Adams even thought in 1779 that the “only true foundation of morality” involved “the knowledge and belief of the Being of God, His providential government of the world, and of a future state of rewards and punishment,” and that the state had a moral duty to provide or support public worship. Hardly an iron curtain of separation! Such a plan was not new; from its inception Massachusetts embraced a model much like Geneva’s, complete with parishes that were established under the authority of the town council. Tithing and taxation supported the church at Massachusetts’ founding. From 1692 until 1780, each of the almost 300 townships were to have tax-funded congregationalist/Protestant ministers.

While the 1780 constitution took definite steps to shrink the role of formal establishment, in other respects it enlarged the public role of religion, and just prior to ratification, copies were ordered to be posted in town halls and read from pulpits.  The final draft from Adams would have fixed the following notions in the Massachusetts Constitution:

· Civil peace and stability depend on “piety, religion, and morality.”

· Public worship and religious instruction were the means of inculcating these essential substrata.

· Citizens were permitted to authorize their representatives to “make suitable provision . . . for the institution of the Public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.”

· Each town was responsible to elect its own teachers of religion, who were supported by public monies.

· Each branch of Christians was granted equal protection, and no denomination was elevated over another or “established by law.”

Even though this proposal from Adams did not succeed in the end, it, along with other references in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, made it clear that religion was permitted to have a large role in early American society. Religion, at least for Adams and most other founding fathers, was not an awkward stepchild sequestered only in remote basements, if permitted at all. Indeed, the religious oath, committing a civil official to “the christian religion and . . . a firm persuasion of its truth,” did survive the 1780 ratification, indicating at least that a super-majority of Massachusetts citizens after the Declaration of Independence still preserved much of their Puritan or Genevan heritage. In addition, continued support of Harvard College was specified in this same constitution, along with the notation that education “tends to the honor of God, the advantage of the christian religion, and the great benefit of this and other” states. John Witte comments that such proposals neither fostered much controversy at the time, nor have since been repealed.

That Adams was far from a secularist is obvious from his first inaugural address in March 1797, in which he proffered: “[I]f a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service—can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.” He concluded by invoking that Being who presided over justice to “continue his blessing upon this nation and its government, and give it all possible success and duration, consistent with the ends of his providence.”

Some historians speculate that Adams was willing to assume “the posture of a Puritan magistrate” to call the nation back to their covenantal obligations.  In a fast proclamation in 1798, Adams urged the nation to repent, referenced the third person of the Trinity, and called for “reformation.” The next spring, President Adams called for another fast, this time commissioning Presbyterian Ashbel Green (who played a major role in the founding of Princeton Seminary and also edited John Witherspoon’s Works), a congressional chaplain and former student of Witherspoon, to call the nation to repentance. In that address, references were made to the following theological doctrines, which if not sectarian can only reflect the consensus of the public of the day: the inspiration of Scripture, the “governing providence” of God, the omniscience of this God, the justice of God in meting rewards and punishments, and the accountability of humans to God.

Later in life, Adams may have strayed toward Deism. By 1815, he recognized a chasm between philosophical options. The great “question before the human race,” he thought, was whether to pattern life and government after a purely natural approach or to conform to religion and miracle. He believed in a future reward but not eternal punishment. Even late in life, he recognized the “fixed principle” among the founders of America, dating back to 1620, as “independence of Church and Parliament.”  While John Calvin could well have endorsed and practiced that slogan indicating a proper separation of jurisdictions, Americans at the founding differed significantly in their development of this crucial intersection.

John Witte, Jr. provides an even-handed summary of Adams’ view: “Too little religious freedom . . . is a recipe for hypocrisy and impiety. But too much religious freedom is an invitation to depravity and license. Too firm a religious establishment breeds coercion and corruption. But too little religious establishment allows secular prejudices to become constitutional prerogatives. Somewhere between these extremes, Adams believed, a society must find its balance.”

Adams, thus, was not a Calvinist, but neither could he escape the influence of Genevan models 250 years after Calvin. If the Swiss Reformer’s imprint was this longstanding with Adams, not to mention a large majority of New Englanders, then surely its impact on the founding period of America is larger than what most Americans have been taught for much of the twentieth century. 

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