Those who argue that the United States was intended to be a wholly secular nation with no official acknowledgment of God or religious principle love to hold up the Treaty of Tripoli, a document from the Adams era, that declares the United States NOT to be a "Christian nation." These same secularists, however, don't often mention the 1798 proclamation, which Mr. Adams signed, that called on the American people to observe a day of "day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer."
The proclamation reads in part:
"I...recommend...that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction."
***For the complete text of President Adams' proclamation, click here.
Adams offered this proclamation at a time when tensions were heating up with France. The President wanted peace, and would, in fact, sacrifice his presidency to achieve it. But he felt an almost irresistable pull toward war, as passions and events on both sides of the Atlantic were clearly guiding the United States to war with its former ally.
When faced with such a crisis, Adams and the Congress did what Americans have done throughout history -- turn to God and prayer in times of crisis.
While I'm not making the claim that this proclamation proves the United States was founded as an evangelical Christian nation, I do wish to point out that the American government AND people of 1798 had little problem with a national call to prayer and fasting.
What's more, the language of Adams' proclamation was very similar to that employed in previous calls for prayer, particularly during the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress and various state assemblies repeatedly urged the nation to pray.
While I do not wish for our focus to get too much into Adams' personal faith, I find it interesting that, in this proclamation, he refers to the Trinity, even alluding to Jesus as the "Redeemer." Adams himself was more aligned with Unitarianism. That he questioned the deity of Jesus and his resurrection is well documented.
Regardless of that apparent inconsistency, Adams was comfortable using Christian language and would be portrayed by his supporters as a devout Christian compared to the "atheism" of Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election. (Jefferson, of course, was no atheist, but political campaigns have always be given to exaggeration).
Whether Adams was a Trinitarian Christian or Unitarian is not material to this particular discussion, however. What should be emphasized is that Adams believed in prayer and had no problem using his position as President of the United States to call the nation to prayer.
In that sense, John Adams would be most comfortable today with our National Day of Prayer.