J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Challenges of Pinning John Adams Down on Religion

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. . . .

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.
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.

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?

4 comments:

Chris said...

Let me ask you, when Adams and other Founders spoke about "virtue," did they not mean that a people with religion, whatever it was, were virtuous? They were believers in natural law and knew that only a republic with a virtuous, hence, a religious population, would endure, correct?

J. L. Bell said...

If Adams believed that virtue and religion were synonymous, then he needn’t have written of both qualities in the quote at top.

Adams and other Founders admired the heroes of the Roman republic because of their virtue, yet viewed that culture’s religion as a collection of superstitions. Most expressed similar thoughts about more recent individuals of other faiths which they viewed as misleading or misled—they felt those individuals were still virtuous.

So where did that leave the relationship of virtue and religion? Was one necessary for the other? Did they support each other if religion could lead to “fraud, Violence or Usurpation,” as Adams wrote? Was religion necessary to inspire the common people to virtue, though gentlemen might not need it?

I think the Founders found many answers to those questions. Some, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, put great weight on the value of religion. Others, like Paine and Young, saw much less value in organized religion while remaining theists. And some, such as Adams and Washington, kept their views fairly private and/or made apparently contradictory statements as they worked on those questions.

Mr Punch said...

"... Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free Government, but of social felicity...."

But in the Massachusetts Constitution (Part 2, Ch. 5, Sec 2) we find: "Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as Virtue, generally diffused among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties...."

So maybe not the only foundations. Rush, IIRC, was back to being pretty religious by 1811, and Adams may have been trying (no doubt with some difficulty) to be agreeable.

J. L. Bell said...

Rush was more vocal about the value of traditional British-American religious beliefs than either Adams or Jefferson, whom he was working to reconcile at this point. Yet Adams managed to “agree" with Rush on both the statements quoted up top, even though they point in contrary directions.

As for the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, Adams was the principal drafter, but I never take that as an expression of his own religious views. He was a lawyer writing for a client, a politician writing for the public. And the language was up for reworking by others. On the other hand, Adams probably did more drafts of that document than of a personal letter, so it may represent more considered ideas.