by Tom Van Dyke
I find John Adams confusing at best---and make that confused---in his dabblings in theology, and I've previously called him a twit and a ninny when it comes to these things. An opinion I've not been led to change, mind you: I find his understanding shallow when it comes to his tourism of other religions, a fragment from the Greeks here, a page from the Hindus there, and he's not particularly incisive when it comes to the Christian religion, with which he was most familiar.
Neither do I think Adams' and Jefferson's letters [frequently to each other] after they left public life are particularly relevant to our studies, a) because these ex-presidents were out of the game and b) because their letters were private.
But I'd like to look at a letter I recently ran across from Adams to Dr. Benjamin Rush [who himself got Adams and Jefferson writing to each other again after a long estrangement]: first, because some folks think Adams' thoughts are important, and second because I think this letter might be typical of general attitudes toward Christianity back in those days, and probably our own days as well.
"Shallow" would be too pejorative, but what Jefferson called the "pillow of ignorance" in his younger and wiser days before he too decided to become a theological "expert" fits here: that most of us don't worry much about what can't be known about God or Jesus or whatever, although we have a dim awareness---seeing through a glass darkly, as an evangelist once put it---about answering the most immediate philosophical question, How Should Man Live?
JOHN ADAMS' LETTER TO BENJAMIN RUSH
JANUARY 21, 1810
"[Thomas Paine's] political writings, I am singular enough to believe, have done more harm than his irreligious ones. He understood neither government nor religion."
Oh, my. For John Adams to say Paine didn't understand religion, well, we might compare the color of their kettles, but let's move on. Paine, of course, was the author of The Age of Reason, which trashed the Bible and religion in general, and for which he got trashed by just about everyone in America in return.
"From a malignant heart he wrote virulent declamations, which the enthusiastic fury of the times intimidated all men, even Mr. Burke, from answering as he ought."
Wow. A "malignant heart," and one that could intimidate even the best of men like Edmund Burke. A sage observation, although perhaps Christian charity and the quality of mercy might have tempered what would have been Burke's just response.
"[Paine's] deism, as it appears to me, has promoted rather than retarded the cause of revolution in America, and indeed in Europe."
This would be 1810, not 1776. I don't think Adams means this as praise: Revolution would be a bad thing, and therefore deism, too, at least Paine's deism. By this time, Paine had made his way to revolutionary France, where he was thrown in prison as an agitator. President Washington let his "malignant heart" stew there. [And oh!, you should know about Thomas Paine, revolutionary France, and President George Washington. What a drama!] But back to the action:
His [Paine's] billingsgate, stolen from Blount's Oracles of Reason, from Bolingbroke., Voltaire, Berenger, &c.,
Paine's not even a visionary, he's a mere plagiarist in John Adams' eyes. Voltaire, of course is just the type of "Enlightenment" figure whose hostility to Christianity was ill-received in the new United States, as Adams ills that hostility:
"...will never discredit Christianity, which will hold its ground in some degree as long as human nature shall have any thing moral or intellectual left in it."
Ah. Christianity comports with human nature, then, or at least what is best in man. This is an important point, as "natural law" acknowledges human nature, and is also "the law written on man's heart," as the aforementioned evangelist [OK, OK---it was Paul, who wrote the Epistles in the Bible] also noted.
"The Christian religion, as I understand it, is the brightness of the glory and the express portrait of the character of the eternal, self-existent, independent, benevolent, all powerful and all merciful creator, preserver, and father of the universe, the first good, first perfect, and first fair. It will last as long as the world."
All John Adams is saying here is that Christian teaching [religion] reflects the true nature of God. That's nice, but as a tourist of other religions, Adams often says the same thing about them, too. So let's continue:
Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation, could ever have discovered or invented it.
Aha. Just one sentence later, our eureka moment! What is essentially Christian could only have come from God, and only by direct revelation!
I mean, why would "the law of nature" oblige you to "turn the other cheek?" That's crazy, man. Dogs that do that become bottom dog, not Top Dog, and that's only if he doesn't get eaten by his fellows.
This is where the "law of nature" as expressed by Thomas Hobbes comes in, the view that life is nasty, brutish and short and that man enters into the "social contract" of government mostly out of a fear of violent death. Or one might enter into the "social contract" to preserve his "right" of hedonism!
Adams is arguing anything but.
"Ask me not, then, whether I am a Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow-disciple with them all."
How ecumenical of John Adams here, but why not?
I think we find him at his most honest here, and probably pretty close to many of us in 2009---content to sleep on the "pillow of ignorance," but we still have to get up in the morning, look at ourselves in the mirror, then go face the world.
After reading so many of John Adams' letters expressing his theological doubts and explorations but still seeking a universality of religious truth, I was a bit surprised to run across this. But it jibes/vibes/chimes with all of his other writings. Just because a man doubts and inquires and explores beyond his self-drawn boundaries, that should never be taken that he abandoned his home.
"Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good," said that aforementioned evangelist. "Breathe," Paul might well have said to equal effect, because that's how man, armed with free will, seems to be wired.
My opinion of John Adams as theological dilettante and poseur has been moderated by looking at this letter. And if Thomas Paine could intimidate even the estimable Edmund Burke, we should not doubt that the vociferious skeptic Thomas Jefferson could intimidate John Adams, and we might read their correspondence with that in mind. After all, Jefferson had once cut off his correspondence with this same Benjamin Rush over just who Jesus was. [Rush was what we might call an "ecumenical" Christian himself, a little of this, a little of that, but still recognizably Christian.]
And so, Adams never wrote to Jefferson like he does here to Rush; Jefferson was quite clear that he considered Jesus a philosopher, perhaps the greatest moral philosopher of all time, but still just a philosopher. But at least on one day in 1810, Adams states the belief that Jesus' moral philosophy came from God, not man.
As we try to get a handle on the religious landscape of the Founding, this is not a small thing.