Thursday, August 27, 2009

John Adams on Sam Adams' Religion

I found this today while carefully examining some of John Adams' letters on googlebooks. The letter is to TO WILLIAM TUDOR, 5 June, 1817.

You say, Mr. S. Adams "had too much sternness and pious bigotry." A man in his situation and circumstances must possess a large fund of sternness of stuff, or he will soon be annihilated. His piety ought not to be objected to him, or any other man. His bigotry, if he had any, was a fault; but he certainly had not more than Governor Hutchinson and Secretary Oliver, who, I know from personal conversation, were as stanch Trinitarians and Calvinists as he was, and treated all Arians and Arminians with more contempt and scorn than he ever did. Mr. Adams lived and conversed freely with all sectarians, in philosophy and divinity. He never imposed his creed on any one, or endeavored to make proselytes to his religious opinions. He was as far from sentencing any man to perdition, who differed from him, as Mr. Holley, Dr. Kirkland, or Dr. Freeman. If he was a Calvinist, a Calvinist he had been educated, and so had been all his ancestors for two hundred years. He had been, from his childhood, too much devoted to politics to be a profound student in metaphysics and theology, or to make extensive researches or deep investigations into such subjects. Nor had any other man attempted it, in this nation, in that age, if any one has attempted it since. Mr. Adams was an original — sui generis, sui juris. The variety of human characters is infinite. Nature seems to delight in showing the inexhaustibility of her resources. There never were two men alike, from the first man to the last, any more than two pebbles or two peas.

That sheds light on the kind of orthodox Trinitarian Christians who could well get along with deistic, unitarian, and rationalistic Founding Fathers.


J. L. Bell said...

In reading this letter, we must be aware of two tendencies in John Adams's later correspondence.

1) Especially in the letters to Tudor, his major theme was the importance and virtue of his heroes among the New England Patriots, including his cousin Samuel and James Otis (he got Tudor to write Otis's biography). He usually put those men in the best possible light, and showed none of the irritation with them that he had expressed back in his diaries of the 1770s. And he continued to criticize Loyalists like Hutchinson and Oliver.

2) Those letters often make me suspect that the way to get the older John Adams to say anything would have been to suggest the opposite idea to him. He was always denying and arguing with his correspondent's propositions. Had Tudor suggested that Samuel Adams was open-minded, would John Adams have said he wasn't really? We'll never know.

From Samuel Adams's own writings, we know that he supported the New England establishment, wanted to preserve the region's theocratic laws against theater and work or travel on Sundays, and attacked Catholics as untrustworthy on their face. He recruited young people to Patriot activism at psalm-singing schools, tying the cause to the majority religion.

On the other hand, in Boston Samuel Adams worked closely for years with deist Dr. Thomas Young. At Congress he realized that he'd gotten (along with the rest of the region) a reputation for religious bigotry, and took steps to tamp it down. I suspect that the need to forge alliances loosened up Samuel Adams's religious prejudices over time, especially when he was away from Boston and no longer in the majority.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice stuff, mr. Bell, and thank you. I shall keep JAdams' unreliability as a correspondent in mind, although I've never been a great admirer.

As for SAdams' political ecumenicism---per a letter by John Adams in 1774---it seems to have come out early on, at the first [?] meeting of the Continental Congress.

"When the Congress met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina because we were so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, that we could not join in the same act of worship.

Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said, "that he was no bigot; and could hear a Prayer from any gentleman of Piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his Country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche` deserved that character and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche' an Episcopal clergy man, might be desired to read Prayers to Congress tomorrow morning." The motion was seconded, and passed in the affirmative. Mr. Randolph, our president waited on Mr. Duche` and received for answer, that if his health would permit, he certainly would.

Accordingly next morning he appeared with his clerk and in his pontificals, and read several Prayers in the established form and then read the Psalter for the seventh day of September which was the 35th Psalm. You must remember this was the next morning after we had heard the rumor of the horrible cannonade of Boston, "it seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning."

After this, Mr Duche` unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into extemporary Prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present. I must confess I never heard a better Prayer, one so well pronounced. Episcopalian as he is, Dr. Cooper himself never prayed with such fervor, such order, such correctness, and pathos, and in language so elegant and sublime for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, especially the town of Boston. It had excellent effect upon every body here. I must beg you to read the Psalm. Here was a scene worthy of the printers art. It was in Carpenter's Hall, in Philadelphia, a building which still survives, that the devoted individuals met to whom this service was read. Washington was kneeling there, and Henry, Randolph, Rutledge, Lee, and Jay, and by their side there stood bowed in reverence, the Puritan Patriots of New England, who at that moment had reason to believe that an armed soldiery was wasting their humble households. It was believed that Boston had been bombarded and destroyed. They prayed fervently "for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston", and who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to Heaven for Divine interposition and aid. "It was enough", says Mr. Adams to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave Pacific Quakers of Philadelphia." - Letter to Abigail Adams, September 7, 1774

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks much for your info and insights Mr. Bell!