Was John Adams a Christian?

a8345-adamsIn light of the recent Twitter debate between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby on the religion of Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would call your attention to a blog post from my friend Matthew Hunter.

I don’t know if Hunter was aware of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate when he wrote this, but his post about John Adams clearly comes down on the Haselby side.  Adams may have thought he was a Christian, but his rejection of the Christian doctrine of the trinity makes it difficult to label him as one.  Adams may have said he was a Christian, but he was not.

So how do we interpret Adams’s religion? Do we take Adams’s word for it?  Or do we interpret Adams’s faith in light of the history of Christian orthodoxy?  As I said several times in the midst of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate, the former is a a historical issue and the latter is a theological issue.  This does not mean that these two ways of understanding of the world cannot speak to one another.  In fact, some interdisciplinary thinkers like Hunter might argue that they should be speaking to one another.

In the end, Hunter is correct about at least one thing.  When we  point out that Adams’s beliefs were unorthodox we set the record straight for the Christian nationalists who want to use the second president’s supposed Christian beliefs to promote a political agenda in the present.  John Adams may have been a Christian, but I am guessing that David Barton would not want to have him on the elder board of his church.

Here is a taste of Hunter’s post:

This is a hard post to write, because suggesting any sort of gulf that favors the scholarly view is going to be tainted with a certain elitism that smacks of the sort of gulf represented above, where a semi-divine historical person presides over the terrestrial mess of mortals. There are things that they know that mere mortals cannot know. And you know that scholars are not semi-divine. Nevertheless, a gulf exists. I write this as someone whose academic training was a blend of history, social sciences and theology, so I am not strictly “a historian,” though the American founding does factor into my work.

The gulf I have in mind was brought back to the forefront of my mind when Susan Lim, a reputable Christian historian at Biola recently wrote an article about religion and the Founding Fathers for Christianity Today. Lim wrote,

“Washington’s successor, John Adams, was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian. As David McCullough recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Adams regularly boasted of his Puritan ancestry, sometimes bordered on legalism (he often refused to travel on the Sabbath), and occasionally cast stones against those he deemed less spiritual than himself. For example, Adams made it a point to highlight Jefferson’s nontraditional religious convictions when they both vied for the presidency.”

This surprised me, because I believed it was fairly well established that Adams was basically a U/unitarian (did not believe in the Trinity) unlike the Puritans, though he may have remained in Puritan Congregationalist churches. I wrote the following email to Susan (actually, I emailed “Dr. Lim” who graciously told me to call her Susan):

“I have no doubt that Adams was a man of faith and may have valued his Puritan heritage, but it seems to me that we have it pretty decisively in his own words that he was a Unitarian and (perhaps a bit more ambiguously) that he also had serious reservations about the incarnation. I appreciate the fact that there is some disagreement on this, but it mostly seems to come from American Filiopietists with political agendas.  I’m not sure how you say that he was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian.” I guess I can sort of spin this in a way, but I think it is liable to mislead many readers.”

Susan responded: “No doubt, the term “Puritan” is a messy one.  I shy away from it in my research.  I used it here because I assume that the majority of the readers aren’t academics, and the term “Congregational” won’t resonate with as many readers.  Puritanism has come to mean so many things to so many people; and as I’m sure you know, many of the social constructs of Puritanism were made in the 19th C (largely through fiction) to comment on Victorian society (by using Puritans as actors).  Or, as Mencken wrote, that Puritanism is thought of as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.  Of course we know that this obviously doesn’t do the Puritans justice.  What I meant was that John Adams hailed from a Puritan/Congregational family, and remained committed to his Congregational church.  Yes, that church (along with many other  Congregationalist churches) moved towards Unitarianism by the mid-18th C, but I didn’t want to go into the development of Congregationalism (or Puritanism, if you will) here.”

Note that if this is true, Adams was in the advance guard of a group of Puritan Congregationalists who rejected the the doctrine of the Trinity that had defined Christian Orthodoxy for around 1400 years. At the time, many/most U/unitarians did consider themselves Christians and their services of worship would have resembled Trinitarian Puritans’ services a great deal. Susan Lim is a knowledgeable scholar. She also possesses the virtue of inclusion in her approach to John Adams and Christianity (something many contemporary Christians could learn from). I don’t believe she was trying to fool anyone. However, I still think this way of writing about things plays into the hands of those who have a political agenda and are also much sloppier in their characterizations of the faith of the founders. 

Read the rest here.

One thought on “Was John Adams a Christian?

  1. As I said several times in the midst of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate, the former is a a historical issue and the latter is a theological issue.

    Although in private he claimed to have been a unitarian as early as [iirc] 1751, the historical question is of the public man John Adams. As we see in a thanksgiving proclamation of 1798, President Adams’ formulation is quite orthodox and trinitarian enough for the unsuspecting.

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=65661

    …”that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction…

    Even if Jesus isn’t God, he’s still got the Holy Spirit in there, so two out of three ain’t bad. 😉

    see also

    http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/02/who-were-unitarians.html

    where we see that Founding-era unitarians saw Jesus as more than just a man or prophet.

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