While the specifics of George Washington's faith have been subject to much historical speculation, the faith of John Adams, the second President of the United States is not. Adams was raised in the Congregational tradition of New England in the context of a stoic Calvinism. And while Adams would reject Calvinist doctrine as an adult, he would always hang onto a kind of "stiff upper lip" fatalism that forced him to press on in life in difficult and tragic times.
As a young man, Adams briefly entertained the idea of entering the ministry, but decided against it as he felt he had not the temperament. In addition, he did not care for what he witnessed growing up of the frightful engines of ecclesiastical councils, of diabolical malice, and Calvinistic good nature. (1)
Adams was an avid Bible reader but he did not consider the books of the Bible to be the only divinely inspired writings. When he read a letter from his adult son, John Quincy Adams, admonishing his children to follow "the biblic rule of faith," the elder Adams responded by asking his son which Bible. There were, after all, "thirty thousand variations."
Unlike George Washington, Adams actively attended church all of his life no matter where he happened to live at the time. But he complained about preachers who were, in his word, "orthodox" in their doctrine. Adam's father-in-law was one such preacher. Prior to their marriage Abigail Adam's father had hoped she would break off her engagement to John, the young unorthodox lawyer. Such would not be the case. Even though the tension between the two men in reference to religion troubled Abigail (who seemed to retain much of her theologically traditional views throughout her life in spite of John), she managed to use the situation in humorous fashion. When the two were married, Abigail's father permitted Abigail to choose the Scripture text for his first sermon after their marriage, something he did for all of his daughters. Abigail chose the verse, "John came neither eating nor drinking, and ye say, He hath a devil." (2)
Adams' comments on specific Christian doctrines reveal that he cannot be considered as evangelical nor orthodox. Adams rejected the doctrine of original sin. "I am answerable enough for my own sins," he stated. (3) Nevertheless, unlike many of his contemporaries, Adam had less of a positive view of human nature and reason. Thomas Jefferson believed that human reason could one day solve every problem. Adams was more circumspect. He too believed in the abilities of the human intellect and he may have rejected a literal reading of Adam and Eve, but he believed that the story taught a symbolic truth about the frailties of humanity that everyone should heed. For Adams, human beings were indeed guilty of sins before God.
On the Incarnation of Christ and atonement, Adams leaves no doubt as to where he stands: An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent, omnipotent, omniscient author of this stupendous universe, suffering on a cross!!! My soul starts with horror at the idea, and it has stupefied the Christian world. It has been the source of almost all the corruptions of Christianity. (4) In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote that the doctrines of incarnation and deity of Jesus were an "aweful blasphemy." (5) Adams strong words against such orthodox doctrines were offered not only as a polemic against Protestant believers of such a stripe, but like many of his contemporaries (especially Jefferson) Adams clearly seemed to be directly targeting Catholicism, which was often mentioned in the same breath as superstition.
Adams rejected the idea of eternal damnation as counter to an all-benevolent God. He also rejected the idea of demon possession. Adams believed in revelation but stated that one did not need miracles and prophecy to demonstrate it. God's revelation was obvious in "human understanding" and in the very fabric of the universe itself.
John Adams did believe in an afterlife of some kind. When Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Adams in their old age, he expressed his wish to the second president that if he could, he would like to return to his birth and live life all over again. Adams wrote back in disagreement. He preferred to live out his days and then face whatever came next. (6) When Abigail died, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying he could not believe in a God who would create "such a species as the human" simply to live and die upon the earth.
In his personal life Adams' morality was exemplary. Indeed, Adams, like many of his "Enlightened" contemporaries reduced religion to the realm of the moral. What was important about faith was not the doctrine one believed, but how it shaped and made virtuous citizens. During his time in France he was shocked by the frivolity of the French way of life, the almost scandalous dress of the French women, and the clear sexual innuendo present in many conversations around the dinner table (though he also freely admitted that he was not immune to "the temptations of the flesh.") For Adams discipline and frugality were Christian practices. Of course, there were those who interpreted Adams' stoic temperament as proof that he was nothing more than an old "stick in the mud." But Adams could not even imagine how his own family had prospered without the moral aspects of religious faith. In a letter to Benjamin Rush dated on the 19th of July 1812, Adams wrote, What has preserved this race of Adamses in all their ramifications in such numbers, health, peace, comfort, and mediocrity? I believe it is religion, without which they would have been rakes, fops, sots, gamblers, starved with hunger, or frozen with cold, scalped by Indians, etc., etc., etc., been melted away and disappeared. (7)
Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of John Adams summarized the faith of his grandfather: He devoted himself to a very elaborate examination of the religion of all ages and nations, the results of which he committed to paper in a desultory manner. The issue of it was the formation of his theological opinions very much in the mold accepted by the Unitarians of New England. Rejecting, with the independent spirit which in early life had driven him from the ministry, the prominent doctrines of Calvinism, the trinity, the atonement, and election, he was content to settle down upon the Sermon on the Mount as a perfect code presented to men by a more than mortal teacher. (8)
The next Founder-- Thomas Jefferson.
The Faith of Our Founders #1: Introduction
The Faith of Our Founders #2: Deism
The Faith of Our Founders #3: George Washington
(1) David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
(2) Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
(3) Dean Merrill, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).
(4) Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
(5) Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford, 1976).
(6) David McCullough, John Adams.
(7) Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
(8) Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)