John Adams (courtesy U.S. Senate)
Some years ago I read David McCullough's biography of John Adams. As much as I enjoyed watching the HBO mini-series , the seven episodes seemed to hardly scratch the surface of his long life and complex character. I wish the series could have delved even deeper.
Long before I ever dreamed of becoming a lawyer, I was drawn to the story of how he defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. I first learned of it on one of those sleepy afternoons in history class when the teacher had us watch episodes of the t.v. series "Profiles in Courage" based on John F. Kennedy's book. Although it seemed odd that John Adams was played by someone who bore no physical resemblance to the historical figure (David McCallum, who by then was unimaginable as anyone but Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), the drama soon drew me in. I could not imagine anyone being so brave and idealistic to have defended the despised British soldiers.
What did not occur to me then, however, was to wonder about the religious beliefs or practices of John Adams. The HBO series did not really address the topic, but when Fr. Jones mentioned his Unitarianism over at The Daily Episcopalian, I started digging around. Although I could not locate my copy of the McCullough biography (which I seemed to recall having described Adams as a faithful, churchgoing Congregationalist, at least during the times he resided in Massachusetts), I found enough online to realize that first, Adams was, like many of his time, witness to the tension and divisions that arose among the Congregationalists as many resisted strict Calvinism. Many were accused of heresy, and some eventually emerged on the other side of Calvinism as either Arminians or Christian Unitarians.
Both John and Abigal Adams (the latter the daughter of an Arminian minister) were liberal in their views and, I take it, weary of the bitter disputes that arose among congregations during those times. On January 3, 1818, writing to her daughter-in-law, Louisa, Abigail wondered "when will Mankind be convinced that true Religion is from the Heart, between Man and his creator, and not the imposition of Man or creeds and tests?"
More colorfully, John Adams wrote in an 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson:
Now, my friend, can Prophecies, or miracles convince You, or Me, that infinite Benevolence, Wisdom and Power, created and preserves, for a time, innumerable millions to make them miserable, forever, for his own Glory? Wretch! What is his Glory? Is he ambitious? does he want promotion? Is he vain? tickled with Adulation? Exulting and tryumphing in his Power and the Sweetness of his Vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these Aweful Questions. My answer to them is always ready: I believe in no such Things. My Adoration of the Author of the Universe is too profound and too sincere. The Love of God and his Creation; delight, Joy, Tryumph, Exaltation in my own existence, tho' but an Atom, a molecule Organique, in the Universe, are my religion. Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if You will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is ballanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you, are Christians in my Sense of the Word.What I did not quite realize before was how, at least in New England, religion and revolutionary politics were at times intertwined. John Adams was greatly influenced by Jonathan Mayhew's 1750 sermon, "Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers." Rev. Mayhew, pastor of the West Church, was the first openly Arminian minister in New England and a strong supporter of freedom of thought and civil liberties.
It was in this context that the younger John Adams wrote his blistering A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. Here is a taste of his double-barreled attack on both secular and religious tyranny, which flows from description of the early religious settlers of New England:
But they saw clearly, that popular powers must be placed as a guard, a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity, a great and detestable system of fraud, violence, and usurpation. Their greatest concern seems to have been to establish a government of the church more consistent with the Scriptures, and a government of the state more agreeable to the dignity of human nature, than any they had seen in Europe, and to transmit such a government down to their posterity, with the means of securing and preserving it forever. To render the popular power in their new government as great and wise as their principles of theory, that is, as human nature and the Christian religion require it should be, they endeavored to remove from it as many of the feudal inequalities and dependencies as could be spared, consistently with the preservation of a mild limited monarchy. And in this they discovered the depth of their wisdom and the warmth of their friendship to human nature. But the first place is due to religion.The question of whether the Church of England should send a bishop or bishops to the British colonies was a hot issue for both political and religious reasons. Sanford Cobb's The Rise of Religious Liberty in America: A History, Chapter VIII: Colonial Bishops (available in its entirety online as part of the Classics of American Colonial History series) provides an excellent account of how complicated and difficult the issue was for both the colonists and the C of E. On the one hand, Anglicans very much needed bishops, but on the other hand, it was nearly impossible to conceive of bishops not being part of the political structure, with seats in Parliament, taxes, lands, and power like they had in England -- for either the church authorities or the soon-to-be revolutionaries in the Colonies.
They saw clearly, that of all the nonsense and delusion which had ever passed through the mind of man, none had ever been more extravagant than the notions of absolutions, indelible characters, uninterrupted successions, and the rest of those fantastical ideas, derived from the canon law, which had thrown such a glare of mystery, sanctity, reverence, and right reverend eminence and holiness, around the idea of a priest, as no mortal could deserve, and as always must, from the constitution of human nature, be dangerous in society. For this reason, they demolished the whole system of diocesan episcopacy; and, deriding, as all reasonable and impartial men must do, the ridiculous fancies of sanctified effluvia from Episcopal fingers, they established sacerdotal ordination on the foundation of the Bible and common sense. This conduct at once imposed an obligation on the whole body of the clergy to industry, virtue, piety, and learning, and rendered that whole body infinitely more independent on the civil powers, in all respects, than they could be where they were formed into a scale of subordination, from a pope down to priests and friars and confessors, — necessarily and essentially a sordid, stupid, and wretched herd, — or than they could be in any other country, where an archbishop held the place of a universal bishop, and the vicars and curates that of the ignorant, dependent, miserable rabble aforesaid, — and infinitely more sensible and learned than they could be in either.
Yet later, after the Revolution,
Adams, who had heartily opposed in the past, now, as minister of the United States in London, as heartily urged that bishops should be sent, though the urgency, of course, was only in his personal capacity. The difficulty in England arose from a sulky resentment which could not reconcile itself to the separation from the colonies. For three years Seabury, White, and Prevoost waited in England till the bishops of the English Church could recover magnanimity enough to ordain them. Finally Seabury’s patience was exhausted, and he obtained ordination at the hands of the non-juring bishop of Aberdeen. This was something of an object lesson, and the archbishop of Canterbury, seeing that the American brethren could not be excluded from ordination, at last consented with an ill grace to consecrate White and Prevoost.Sanford Cobb,The Rise of Religious Liberty in America: A History, p. 480.
So, even a terrible heretic like John Adams turned out to be of service to the Anglicans who founded the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Would that we would not forget his passion and devotion to the cause of liberty and justice for all.