As I mentioned yesterday, despite the Federalist Party’s portrayal of John Adams as a better Christian than Thomas Jefferson, the two men’s faiths were rather similar. Neither believed in the divinity of Jesus, but both admired Jesus’s teachings. Both men heartily distrusted religious hierarchies.
Pinning down Adams’s beliefs further can be difficult because he was a difficult man. On 28 Aug 1811 he wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush:
I agree with you in Sentiment that Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free Government, but of social felicity under all Governments and in all the Combinations of human Society.Yet the following year, in the same letter I quoted on Thursday, Adams told Rush:
I agree with you, there is a Germ of Religion in human Nature so strong, that whenever an order of Men can persuade the People by flattery or Terror, that they have Salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, Violence or Usurpation.Adams’s statements on religion also tended to be personal. Not in the sense that, as Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Rather, personal in the sense that Adams often thought he was being personally and unfairly attacked—he even took that as a sign of his virtue. He therefore spent a lot of ink refuting what he thought others might say about him.
Here, for example, is more context for the quotation above about how he saw “Religion and Virtue” as fundamental:
I agree with you in Sentiment that Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free Government, but of social felicity under all Governments and in all the Combinations of human Society. But if I should inculcate this doctrine in my Will, I should be charged with Hypocrisy and a desire to conciliate the good will of the Clergy towards my Family as I was charged by Dr. [Joseph] Priestley and his Friend [Thomas] Cooper and by Quakers, Baptists and I know not how many other sects, for instituting a National Fast, for even common Civility to the Clergy, and for being a Church going animal. . . .As you can see, this letter was almost all about how the many enemies of John Adams would distort whatever he said, so he was best off saying nothing. We have to dig beneath his self-pitying declarations to find out how he viewed religion, as opposed to how he suspected or hoped people viewed him.
If I should inculcate those “National, Social, domestic and religious virtues” you recommend, I should be suspected and charged with an hypocritical, Machiavilian, Jesuitical, Pharisaical attempt to promote a national establishment of Presbyterianism in America, whereas I would as soon establish the Episcopal Church, and almost as soon the Catholic Church. . . .
If I should recommend the Sanctification of the Sabbath like a divine, or even only a regular attendance on publick Worship as a means of moral Instruction and Social Improvement like a Phylosopher or Statesman, I should be charged with vain ostentation again, and a selfish desire to revive the Remembrance of my own Punctuality in this Respect, for it is notorious enough that I have been a Church going animal for seventy six years i.e. from the Cradle; and this has been alledged as one Proof of my Hypocrisy.
One detail I find notable is Adams’s distinction between two ways of recommending going to church: “the Sanctification of the Sabbath,” as ministers would have it, and “regular attendance on publick Worship as a means of moral Instruction and Social Improvement like a Phylosopher or Statesman.” Which was the basis for his own behavior? Which did he recommend for other people?