Dispatches from the Creation Wars

John Adams & the other Key Founders

The Liberty Fund recently uploaded a great deal of John Adams’ personal writings. I think Adams is important because he is recognized as quite a mainstream and conservative figure among the Founding Fathers. The 1800 Presidential election against Jefferson was quite “tumultuous,” as one book put it. The forces of “religious correctness” sided with the “Christian” Adams against the “infidel” Jefferson who was suspected of being a strict deist if not an atheist. That dynamic colors our perception (or misperception) of their religion to this day.

The irony is Adams wasn’t nearly as “orthodox” as his Christian supporters thought and Jefferson wasn’t as deistic or atheistic. They shared a religious creed that was remarkably similar on the basics. It wasn’t quite deism and wasn’t quite orthodox Christianity, but something in between. We could call it “Christian-Deism,” “unitarianism” (though not Unitarianism) or “theistic rationalism.” That such divergent figures as Jefferson and Adams agreed on their personal religious creed demonstrates how mainstream it probably was among the Founding Fathers.

In this post at American Creation I reproduced a great deal of Adams’ original writings from the Liberty Fund, focusing on Joseph Priestley, the figure who mentored Jefferson’s and Adams’ theological views. I show Adams at his most heterodox.

For instance, in his letter to Thomas Jefferson, 4 October, 1813, Adams writes:

θεμις was the goddess of honesty, justice, decency, and right; the wife of Jove, another name for Juno. She presided over all oracles, deliberations, and councils. She commanded all mortals to pray to Jupiter for all lawful benefits and blessings. Now, is not this (so far forth) the essence of Christian devotion? Is not this Christian piety? Is it not an acknowledgment of the existence of a Supreme Being, of his universal Providence, of a righteous administration of the government of the universe? And what can Jews, Christians, or Mahometans do more?…

[...]

Alexander appears to have behaved to the Jews as Napoleon did to the Mahometans in the pyramid of Grand Cairo. Ptolemy, the greatest of his generals, and a greater man than himself, was so impressed with what he learned in Judea, that he employed seventy learned men to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, nearly three hundred years before Christ. He sent learned men to collect books from all nations, and deposited them in the Alexandrian library. Will any man make me believe that Cæsar, that Pompey, that Cicero, that Seneca, that Tacitus, that Dionysius Halicarnassensis, that Plutarch, had never seen or heard of the Septuagint? Why might not Cleanthes have seen the Septuagint? The curiosity of Pompey to see the interior of the temple shows that the system of the Jews was become an object of speculation. It is impossible to believe that the Septuagint was unknown and unheard of by Greeks or Romans at that time, at least by the great generals, orators, historians, philosophers, and statesmen, who looked through the then known world for information of every thing. On the other hand, how do we know how much Moses, Samuel, Joshua, David, Solomon, and Esdras, Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah learned in Babylon, Egypt, and Persia? The destruction of the library at Alexandria is all the answer we can obtain to these questions. I believe that Jews, Grecians, Romans, and Christians all conspired or connived at that savage catastrophe.

My friend and co-blogger Tom Van Dyke objected to Adams’ theology, as above represented, as “mainstream” when he wrote:

As for John Adams’ post-presidential theological musings, they’re not mainstream, they’re sophomoric and asinine. I haven’t even bothered to refute his clippings of a quote here and a paragraph there because of their lack of intellectual rigor.

When he writes [to Thomas Jefferson, October 4, 1813],

“θεμις was the goddess of honesty, justice, decency, and right; the wife of Jove, another name for Juno. She presided over all oracles, deliberations, and councils. She commanded all mortals to pray to Jupiter for all lawful benefits and blessings. Now, is not this (so far forth) the essence of Christian devotion?”

I think, no, it’s not the “essence,” rigidly biased ideological reductionism. For one, the Greco-Roman vision of the afterlife as the dull gray Hades has nothing to do with the Christian heaven or the beatific vision. I could go on, but Adams is irrelevant anyway, and often laughable. His theory about the religious wisdom of the ancients being destroyed by some churchly cabal is the stuff of cranks, not mainstream Founding religious thought.

I might agree that the above quoted material contains idiosyncratic theological musings that were Adams’ own (especially the conspiracy theory stuff that sounds right out of The DaVinci Code as is Adams’ denial of Jesus’ divinity). However, denying or ignoring the Trinity and related orthodox doctrines and positing that the “end” of religion was virtue (as opposed being saved through Christ’s atonement) and as such if the ends are met, the means don’t matter, was quite mainstream for the Founders. As such all good people are “Christians,” even atheists. As Adams put it:

“I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

Skeptics may have problems with the fact that Adams and company were religious to begin with. However, their personal creed which also serves as America’s Founding “civil religion” took “religion” and “Christianity” and turned it into a generic moralizing creed. As the uber-orthodox evangelical scholar Dr. Gregg Frazer has noted, evangelicals/fundamentalists believe that the biblical God hates generic moralizing religion (because, they argue, it cannot save). And this in turn is why evangelicals should not accept the key Founders (at minimum Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, G. Morris, Wilson, and Hamilton until the very end of his life) as “Christians.” And that’s part of the reason why he offers a new term for their creed: theistic rationalism. There is also strong reason on historical grounds to deny the Founding Fathers the label “Christian”: Every single established Church in the late 18th Century except the Quakers held to an orthodox creed that traced its roots to the Nicene Creed.

Finally, for fun, here’s Adams mocking the Nicene Creed:

“The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage.”

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.