20 August 2009

Washington, Adams, Jesus

Jesus is benevolence personified, an example for all men.
John Adams
How significant was Christianity to the American Revolution? To the Constitutional Convention, and to the Constitution? How significant were Christianity and Biblical precepts to the practice of government by members of the revolutionary generation?

These questions concerning the influence of Jesus Christ in America derive from broader questions.

What principles of philosophy were central to the ideas of government embraced by the men that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, and that governed the the incipient nation that emerged? Who influenced the Founders, as we have come to call this group of men? How did they derive our system of government from their influences?

Entire careers are built on these historical questions. Historians pursue answers; politicians embrace or denounce their interpretations; pundits proclaim their conclusions.

A Patriot's History of the United States (2004) by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen offers:
Many of his biographers trumpeted Washington's faith, and a famous painting captures the colonial general praying in a snowy wood, but if Washington had any personal belief in Jesus Christ, he kept it well hidden. Like Franklin, Washington tended toward Deism, a general belief in a detached and impersonal God who plays no role in human affairs.
Schweikart and Allen, 130
Washington's successor as President brought a different faith into the Executive office (our standard metonymy, the White House, becomes available for the first time in the administration of Thomas Jefferson).
A brilliant attorney, patriot organizer, and Revolutionary diplomat, Adams exuded all the doctrinal religion missing in Washington, to the point of being pious to a fault. ... Adams brought a sense of the sacred to government that Washington lacked, placing before the nation an unwavering moral compass that refused compromise.
Schweikart and Allen, 131
There is a tendency to use labels among some who inquire into the faith of the men that wrote our founding documents and that served in the government thus established. John Adams was a Christian, and a Calvinist at that. Benjamin Franklin was a Deist. Thomas Jefferson was a Theist, or perhaps an Atheist, according to Abigail Adams and others who wish to embrace, condemn, or mourn his philosophy. These labels become points of contention; questioning their accuracy foments debate that drives scholars back into the archive, their place of refuge.

These labels illuminate and obfuscate. They might shed light on the beliefs of a man or woman. Although John Adams may have wavered in his faith during his later years, his wife Abigail remained devout. There is no question that James Madison considered a career in the ministry. That his family was Episcopal,* but sent him to a Presbyterian college is easily established. The influence of John Calvin's idea of total depravity upon Madison's concepts of government is less clear and open to debate.

John Adams was the child of New England Puritanism. He was "pious to a fault," Schweikart and Allen explain. His devout faith or his abrasive personality isolated him among his peers at the Second Continental Congress. The Declaration of Independence was his idea, but it would have been rejected if he proposed it. Some delegates voted against whatever Adams put forth. In order to circumvent this animosity, Adams worked behind the scenes, prompting other men to put forth his ideas as if they were their own.

Some historians consider John Adams the worst President in U.S. history, surpassed in infamy only by George W. Bush (stay with me conservative readers, please--assessments of Bush are not yet history). Schweikart and Allen, although they do not shrink from assessing his failures, credit him with "establishing the presidency as a moral, as well as a political, position" (131). Richard Nixon was a crook; Jimmy Carter was a morally grounded incompetent; George W. Bush was born again; William Jefferson Clinton was a morally bankrupt philanderer. All these assertions, whether accurate or not, stand on the foundation of John Adams' moral leadership, upon the rock of his faith.

Researching Patriots

When I read A Patriots History of the United States, or most any other book for that matter, I tease the text with a set of mundane questions concerning scholarship.

How accurate are the contentions? What supporting evidence is presented? Do they accurately represent the views of those they cite? Do they quote accurately? Out of context? Who agrees with them? Who disagrees? How does this contention compare to assertions of other historians? Where does their ideology illuminate their subject? Where does it obscure?

What did John Adams have to say for himself? What did he say about his religious faith, about God, about Jesus?

The Online Library of Liberty has digitized and rendered searchable the ten volume The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author (1856), edited by Charles Francis Adams. This text seems a good enough place to begin, so I entered God into the search box only to learn that search terms must have at least four letters. Jesus was more productive. The name of Jesus appears twenty-eight times in these ten volumes.

The scattered references to Jesus across Adams' writing vary in their focus, but appear in the author's autobiography, as well as his letters. There is one instance in a critically important text for considering his philosophy of government in the years leading up to the Revolution: "A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law" (1865). Of those that settled America, and their resistance to residual feudalism, Adams offered:
They knew that government was a plain, simple, intelligible thing, founded in nature and reason, and quite comprehensible by common sense. They detested all the base services and servile dependencies of the feudal system. They knew that no such unworthy dependencies took place in the ancient seats of liberty, the republics of Greece and Rome; and they thought all such slavish subordinations were equally inconsistent with the constitution of human nature and that religious liberty with which Jesus had made them free.
The Works of John Adams, vol 3, 454
This passage does not speak to Adams' personal faith, but it demonstrates part of his understanding of the faith of his forebears.

We learn more of a personal nature from a batch of letters to several friends, including Thomas Jefferson. During the winter 1816-1817 Adams' reading included Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle (The Origin of All Worships) by Charles François Dupuis, published in twelve volumes in 1795 and in an abridged version in 1798. Adams, if I read his letters correctly, first read the twelve volumes, then borrowed Jefferson's copy of the abridgment and read that.

Dupuis rejected the notion of revelation, even comparing Jesus to a ghost.
We shall therefore not investigate, whether the Christian religion is a revealed religion. None but dunces will believe in revealed ideas and in ghosts. The philosophy of our days has made too much progress, in order to be obliged to enter into a dissertation on the communications of the Deity with man, excepting those, which are made by the light of reason and by the contemplation of Nature.
Charles François Dupuis, The Origin of All Religious Worship (1872 [1798]), 216
Adams did not agree with Dupuis, but confessed that he lacked the time or knowledge of the world's mythologies to write the necessary rejoinder. He did consider Dupuis more stimulating than his other reading that winter. He told Jefferson that Dupuis offered more novelty.
I must acknowledge, however, that I have found in Dupuis more ideas that were new to me, than in all the others. My conclusion from all of them is universal toleration. Is there any work extant so well calculated to discredit corruptions and impostures in religion as Dupuis?
Adams to Jefferson, 12 December 1816
The lessons he derives include both the need for purification of Christianity and tolerance of beliefs. Dupuis does not persuade him of his thesis that Christianity derives from ancient worship of the sun, but the text provokes inquiry into "superstition and fraud" that weave themselves into Christian faith. Adams letter two days after Christmas 1816 to Francis Adrian van der Kemp sums up the major themes, and provides the text for my epigraph above.
Jesus is benevolence personified, an example for all men. Dupuis has made no alteration in my opinions of the Christian religion, in its primitive purity and simplicity, which I have entertained for more than sixty years. It is the religion of reason, equity, and love; it is the religion of the head and of the heart. ...

How could that nation preserve its creed among the monstrous theologies of all the other nations of the earth? Revelation, you will say, and especial Providence; and I will not contradict you, for I cannot say with Dupuis that a revelation is impossible or improbable.

Christianity, you will say, was a fresh revelation. I will not deny this. As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed? How has it happened that all the fine arts, architecture, painting, sculpture, statuary, music, poetry, and oratory, have been prostituted, from the creation of the world, to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud?
John Adams to F. A. Vanderkemp, 27 December 1816
Searching for Jesus in the writings of John Adams does not fully answer the question, but it provides a framework for inquisitive reading.

*This word is employed in John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (1987), 94 ff. However, for the time leading up to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church in America remained Anglican. The creation of the Episcopal denomination is part of the process of separation from England. In the context above, the word Episcopal strikes me as anachronistic. On the other hand, calling Madison Anglican might connote questions concerning his patriotism. See "Calvin and the Constitution" for more concerning Eidsmoe's views of Madison, and some links concerning Calvin's influence.


Jonathan Rowe also quotes from Adams letter to F.A. van der Kemp in a post for American Creation that is cross-posted on his own blog.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Coincidence? Or is it part of Jung's cosmic unconsciousness?


Great post.

James Stripes said...

Part of one, neither, and both.

The truth is more mundane. You write about such things often at American Creation; I read many of these posts. Last month at American Creation and some other blogs, notices concerning and arguments regarding the significance of John Calvin's 500th birthday stimulated investigations that led me to be reading John Adams. The letter that we both quote happens to be among those that most illuminate the thinking of Adams. That we both happened to be writing about Adams and faith (coincidence) rendered it probable that we would both quote from the same letter (scholarship).

That's my rough guess, anyway. Thanks.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP