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1735 - 1826
2nd President (1797-1801), 1st Vice President (1789-1797), Signer of the Declaration of Independence (Massachusetts)
Political Affiliation: Federalist
Religious Affiliation: Unitarian
Summary of Religious Views:
Adams was raised a Congregationalist, but ultimately rejected many fundamental doctrines of conventional Christianity, such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, becoming a Unitarian. In his youth, Adams' father urged him to become a minister, but Adams refused, considering the practice of law to be a more noble calling. Although he once referred to himself as a "church going animal," Adams' view of religion overall was rather ambivalent: He recognized the abuses, large and small, that religious belief lends itself to, but he also believed that religion could be a force for good in individual lives and in society at large. His extensive reading (especially in the classics), led him to believe that this view applied not only to Christianity, but to all religions.
Views on Religion & Politics:
Adams was aware of (and wary of) the risks, such as persecution of minorities and the temptation to wage holy wars, that an established religion poses. Nonetheless, he believed that religion, by uniting and morally guiding the people, had a role in public life.
"All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this." -- Thoughts on Government, 1776
"Statesmen my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.... The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure, than they have it now, They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies. You cannot therefore be more pleasantly, or usefully employed than in the Way of your Profession, pulling down the Strong Holds of Satan. This is not Cant, but the real sentiment of my Heart." -- letter to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776 (It should be noted that this does not refer to the U.S. Constitution, which, at the time of composition, was still more than a decade in the future. Zabdiel Adams was a cousin of John Adams & a minister.)
"I have long been settled in my opinion, that neither Philosophy, nor Religion, nor Morality, nor Wisdom, nor Interest, will ever govern nations or Parties against their Vanity, their Pride, their Resentment or Revenge, or their Avarice or Ambition. Nothing but Force and Power and Strength can restrain them." -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, 9 October 1787
"I had forgotten the custom of putting Prophets in the Stocks....It may be thought impiety by many, but I could not help wishing that the ancient practice had been continued down to more modern times and that all the Prophets at least from Peter the Hermit, to Nimrod Hews inclusively, had been confined in the Stocks and prevented from spreading so many delusions and shedding so much blood." -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, 3 May 1812
"I could express my Faith in shorter terms. He who loves the Workman and his Work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of him." -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, 18 June 1812
"I wish You could live a Year in Boston, hear their Divines, read their publications, especially the Repository. You would see how spiritual Tyranny and ecclesiastical Domination are beginning in our Country: at least struggling for birth.
"Checks and Ballances, Jefferson, however you and your Party may have derided them, are our only Security, for the progress of Mind, as well as the Security of Body. Every Species of these Christians would persecute Deists, as soon as either Sect would persecute another, if it had unchecked and unballanced Power. Nay, the Deists would persecute Christians, and Atheists would persecute Deists, with as unrelenting Cruelty, as any Christians would persecute them or one another. Know thyself, human Nature!" -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, 25 June 1813
"The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted. There can be no Scepticism, Pyrrhonism or Incredulity or Infidelity here. No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication. This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one. We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fullfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature, i.e. natures God that two and two are four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary.
"God has infinite Wisdom, goodness and power. He created the Universe. His duration is eternal ....His presence is as extensive as Space. What is Space? an infinite, spherical Vacuum. He created this Speck of Dirt and the human Species for his glory: and with the deliberate design of making nine tenths of our Species miserable forever, for his glory. This is the doctrine of Christian Theologians in general: ten to one.
"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 Vengence? Pardon me, my Maker, for these aweful Questions. My Answer to them is always ready: I believe 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, Exultation 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." -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, 14 September 1813
"We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better, to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity; than to propagate those Corruptions in europe Asia, Africa and America!" -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, 4 November 1816
"Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it,' !!! But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly [a minister and a schoolteacher, mentioned earlier in the letter]. Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell." -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817
(It is interesting to note that parts of this quotation, which seems about as clear an expression of Adams' ambivalent take on religion as could be asked for, have been used by partisans on both sides of the debate on the role of religion in the U.S. Proponents of separation of church and state often cite the first sentence, and opponents often cite the last sentence. Such out-of-context quotations fail to do justice to Adams' complex and somewhat conflicted views.)
"Oh! Lord! Do you think a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland Pennsilvania, New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would.
"Do you know that The General of the Jesuits and consequently all his Hosts have their Eyes on this Country? Do you know that the Church of England is employing more means and more Art, to propagate their demipopery among Us, than ever? Quakers, Anabaptists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Unitarians, Nothingarians in all Europe are employing understrand [underhand?] means to propagate their sectarian Systems in these States.
"The multitude and diversity of them, You will say, is our Security against them all. God grant it. But if We consider that the Presbyterians and Methodists are far more numerous and the most likely to unite; let a George Whitefield arise, with a military cast, like Mahomet, or Loyola, and what will become of all the other Sects who can never unite?" -- letter to Thomas Jefferson, 18 May 1817
"Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it,' !!! " -- Not a misquote, but a quotation out of context. Sometimes used by proponents of separation of church and state. See the following misquote and the full quotation above.
"Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell." -- Not a misquote, but a quotation out of context. Sometimes used by opponents of separation of church and state. See the preceding misquote and the full quotation above.
References, Links, & Further Reading: Books, Articles, Links
Stanley Bamberg , "A Footnote to the Political Theory of John Adams Vindiciae contra tyrannos," Premise, Vol. III, No. 7, 31 August 1996
Richard A. Samuelson, "The Midnight Appointments," White House History Journal, No. 7
Alexius Wierbinski, "John Adams: the Pragmatic Idealist," The Berkeley McNair Journal, Vol. 1, Summer 1993
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