Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Adams and the "Awful Blasphemy" Quote

I got an email from Joe Talmadge, a physicist at UW-Madison on the context of the following letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson which features the "awful blasphemy" quote that is sometimes/often repeated.

Recently I came across this quote from John Adams and I am genuinely puzzled as to what it means.

It's from Adams' letter to Jefferson, January 22, 1825.

"Your university is a noble employment in your old age and your ardor for its success does you honor but I do not approve of your sending to Europe for tutors and professors. I do believe there are sufficient scholars in America to fill your professorships and tutorships with more active ingenuity and independent minds than you can bring from Europe. The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices both ecclesiastical and temporal which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschell's universe, came down to this little ball to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world."

I know who Herschel and Newton are, but I am puzzled what Adams is driving at. Here are a few questions:

1- What "great Principle" is Adams talking about?
2- How would Adams characterize Newton's and Hershel's universe?
3- I presume that "this little ball" is the Earth. How did this "great Principle" come down to the Earth.
4- Why in the world would it be "spit upon by Jews"? How would Adams characterize Jewish theology?
5- What prejudices does Adams perceive of Europeans, that they are so tainted with?
6- Am I wrong in perceiving that Adams is sympathetic with Newton and Hershel?
Then why would Europeans be so opposed to their ideas? Why would American scholars be more sympathetic?
7- What "awful blasphemy" is Adams talking about?
8- What is "liberal science"? As opposed to ....?

I'm not sure how to answer all 8 questions (perhaps I'll let my readers do some of the work for me). However, I always assumed the "awful blasphemy" refers to the Trinity, because many other scholars read the passage that way. And apparently (?) Adams is worried that the Europeans Jefferson is trying to recruit will be too orthodox? I would have thought Adams -- a more moderate unitarian than Jefferson -- might be worried that Jefferson's European recruits would be too deistic. But it seems Adams is going in the other direction.

I don't know anything about Hershel but Adams and company loved Issac Newton (one of the first Enlightenment figures) and the rational scientific unitarian Christianity that Newton stood for.

The reader followed up with two other messages:

What I find puzzling is that if "awful blasphemy" refers to the Trinity, then it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the sentence before it. To me it appears he is contrasting the boundless universe of Newton and Herschel to a worldview that focuses only on what is happening on the Earth. Maybe I'm just not seeing how the Trinity folds into this. And why would Jews spit on this view? Did Jews of his time have a more expansive view of the universe? I can't imagine so. If the blasphemy was about the Trinity, then yes, Jews wouldn't agree with a Trinitarian view of religion. But they would reject all of Christian doctrine anyway --- why just pick on the Trinity? The whole thing is quite puzzling to me.


Going back to the quote, "They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschell's universe, came down to this little ball to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world."

William Herschel
was a brilliant astronomer and musician. But he had his quirks. One of them was his belief that the universe was full of life -- that life existed even on the surface of the sun.

Could Adams be possibly saying that Europeans believe that in this great and infinite universe brimming with life everywhere, god, the great principle which made all this, picked of all places this little speck of dust, Earth, that lies in the great vastness, to send his son to be spit upon by Jews? The blasphemy is the concept that god would pick this one spot to show up in mortal form. And until this blasphemy is removed, the progress of science will be hindered.

I admit that this is far-fetched, doesn't accord with anything else I know of Adams, but yet it seems to be an explanation that makes sense (to me) based on what I'm reading. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Honestly I don't know other than it seems J. Adams is ranting about disagreements he had with orthodox Christians in Europe. Doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and Eternal Damnation really rubbed Adams the wrong way.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Interesting, although only academically. Adams had one face for Jefferson, and another in his address to the West Point cadets in 1821, where he praised them not only as Americans, but as Christians as well. [Scroll down to the index in your link provided.]

BTW, I could find no reply from Jefferson, to this January 1825 letter, or any letter from Jefferson to Adams ever again, although they both didn't die until July 4, 1826. But it just might be I'm not turning anything up on google.

Jon, as for the "blasphemy," I'd certainly read it as Jesus or the Trinity. There was also a belief [I believe shared by Newton and many un-orthodox] that Christ existed before time itself.

I did run across this, which might at least give you a lead in following up this question. I trust you'll report back if you find anything further.


In 1820 the Danish physicist Hans Christian ├śrsted (1777–1851) discovered electro-magnetic force. In line with Schelling, ├śrsted believed that the spiritual forces of attraction and repulsion are more basic than material particles, and their laws were claimed to reign in nature as well as in society.

That's a mighty big claim, extending "natural law" as a physical Providence. Even Aquinas never went that far.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks. Newton was, as far as I know, an Arian. And many (all?) of them believe Christ the first born of God's creation, before creation of the universe or material time/space/matter and energy.

bpabbott said...

Re: 1- What "great Principle" is Adams talking about?

The sentence preceding what is quoted above gives a rather clear answer, I think.

"That there is an active principle of power in the universe, is apparent; but in what substance that active principle resides, is past our investigation. The faculties of our understanding are not adequate to penetrate the universe. Let us do our duty, which is to do as we would be done by; and that, one would think, could not be difficult, if we honestly aim at it."
[emphasis is mine]

I think Adams is essentially using the word "great principle" to symbolize God ... much in the way that Washington used "Providence".

J. L. Bell said...

Looks to me like the “awful blasphemy” isn’t exactly the Trinity but the Incarnation—the idea that Jesus was both divine and of human flesh.

Adams scoffed at the belief that the universe’s divine power (“that great Principle”) had become human (“down to this little ball”) and suffered for humanity (“spit upon by Jews“—not a metaphor for Jewish theology but an allusion to Jesus’s punishment and execution, as described in the Christian Gospels).

Against that ancient notion, Adams posed a scientific view of the universe, larger than earlier generations had imagined, based on the work of Newton and Herschel (who had died less than three years before).

As for why Adams felt European scholars would maintain the older ideas instead of progressing to “liberal science,” it’s hard to say. Did he include Britain (home of Newton and Herschel) as part of Europe? Or was he really objecting to French, Germans, Dutch, or other scholars from the continent?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well put, Mr. Bell, and seems to address the question.

I recall that the University of Virginia was considering professors from Geneva [Calvin Central], which may account for "presbyterian," although I suppose that's technically Scotland. And "episcopalian" would refer to the Church of England and none other, I believe.

Jon I found this essay on Newton's hersies quite interesting, and more subtle than just the Socinian or Arian boxes.

bpabbott said...

I read through some of Jefferson's letters to Adams.

On October 12, 1823 he begins with;

"I do not write with the ease which your letter of September the 18th supposes. Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious."

Which may be an indication of why Jefferson may not have responded.

Jefferson's next letter to Adams is dated Dec. 18. 1825.

This one begins;

"Your letters are always welcome, the last more than all others, it’s subject being one of the dearest to my heart. To my granddaughter your commendations cannot fail to be an object of high ambition, also certain passports to the good opinion of the world."

... which appears to be a reply to a letter by Adams I can't find.

In any event, Adams wrote another letter to Jefferson on the 23rd of January, 1825 (one day after the prior).

"We think ourselves possessed, or, at least, we boast that we are so, of liberty of conscience on all subjects, and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment in all cases, and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact! There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. In America it is not much better; even in our own Massachusetts, which I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true, few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution, and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them. But as long as they continue in force as laws, the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever, but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated. Adieu."
-- Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 23 January, 1825

From Adam's two letters, I'm left with the impression that liberal science implies a pursuit of science without ideological constraint. Thus, the adjective, liberal, implies a liberty in the practice of science, and should not be confused our current use of the word.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I saw that letter, Ben. 1825, and there are blasphemy laws still on the books everywhere. But we had a "Godless" Constitution and therefore America couldn't be a "Christian" nation.

This isn't adding up for me. As Barry Shain objects, under federalism, "the Founding" is the whole megillah, the US Constitution plus the laws and constitutions of the component states of the Union.

[Let it be said though, as NY v. Ruggles found, such blasphemy came more under disturbing the peace than any coercion of individual conscience, which would account for why there were so few blasphemy cases. The law wasn't enforced so much because people didn't push it to the point of disturbing the peace, an agreeable and responsible polity.]

Thx for finding the December 1825 letter. One would think Jefferson did reply to Adams' January letter. It must be out there somewheres.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, this has been fun detective work. I'll propose a theory that John Adams is talking about extraterrestrial life.

I did think of it before I ran across the below. The multiplicity of worlds with life was seen as a threat to Christianity; Herschel and Newton were open to the idea, orthodox theologians were vociferously against it.

Deist poet laureate Alexander Pope composed "The Universal Prayer," which praised the deist god as the creator of multiple worlds and was intended by Pope to replace the all-too-provincial Lord's Prayer. The works of the archdeist Voltaire, who called himself the new Lucretius, were shot through with multiple worlds peopled by extraterrestrials. On America's own shores, Benjamin Franklin included such cosmic pluralism in his personal articles of belief, even claiming that the plurality of extraterrestrials included a plurality of gods to watch over each of the suns.

Perhaps more clearly than anyone else of the time, the deist Thomas Paine realized that the existence of a multitude of worlds (and, thus, of extraterrestrials) was entirely incompatible with Christianity: "[T]o believe that God created a plurality of worlds at least as numerous as what we call stars, renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air." For those who attempted a reconciliation of such plurality with Christianity, Paine warned that "he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either." Paine, convinced of plurality, chose deism.

Many eminent figures agreed. The existence of extra­terrestrials made belief in the particularity of Christianity an embarrassment. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley found it easy to believe in extraterrestrials but, as a consequence, "impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman." John Adams wrote to warn Thomas Jefferson against hiring anyone at the University of Virginia who holds the "awful blasphemy" that the "great Principle which has produced... Newton's universe... came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by the Jews."

See also

for more background, altho it doesn't mention Adams.

Pinky said...

To spit on the earth could be another way of saying a person lives and breathes. To decry that Jews live and breathe is pretty strong prejudice. ???
Principle=law; principal=ruler.

Pinky said...

And to speak of anyone's existence as a blasphemy is extreme.
Which tells us how difficult it is for us to get our head inside of theirs.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Principle=law; principal=ruler"

ok, but did Adams have his spell checker turned on?


Tom Van Dyke said...

Not so difficult, Pinky, with a little elbow grease---research into the times and careful reading of the original document.

JL Bell is almost certainly correct. The "blasphemy" Adams refers to here is not the existence of the Jews, it's the Incarnation.

Brad Hart said...

I'm with Mr. Bell on this one. That explanation seems to make the most sense.

Pinky said...

Good for JLBell, whoever that is.
Others have different ideas. Does that make them wrong?

bpabbott said...

Mr Bell's explanation sounds well reasoned to me.

To paraphrase Adams in his Jan 22, 1825 letter to Jefferson.

"[The Europeans all] believe that [God, who] has produced this boundless universe, [...], came down to [Earth], to be spit upon by Jews."

Pinky said...

And, to me.
Will we vote to decide what was the truth of the matter?
Or will our curiosity continue?

bpabbott said...


If you remain curious about this particular point, please continue.

Pinky said...

I'm only saying that we don't do well when we close off any further questioning by claiming we have found the final answer and we impose our "educated" guesses on the rest of society.
That's all.
Don't shut people down.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The floor remains open. Rock on.

Chris Rodda said...

Oh, this is something that I'm definitely going to have to try to look into. The only thing that comes to mind is that there was a big debate going on in Europe at the time over two competing geological theories about the creation of the earth and how old the earth really was, and I believe one of those theories came from Herschel. This was something that Jefferson mentioned in relation to the curriculum at the University of Virginia, but Jefferson decided to avoid controversy and stay away from both theories, probably since neither really had enough proof and he didn't want to unnecessarily get the religious people after him again. Could this possibly be an anti "young earth" opinion from Adams? That would certainly be interesting!

delona723 said...

Bell is correct.

As a scholar of colonial history and the founding of our nation, I have been teaching this lesser known aspect of our Founding Fathers for several years, without much company. I have found it is an insistence by many today to believe that their own views are shared by both the Principle of this universe and the Founding Fathers. Which is far from the truth.

Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and many others (search their writings and you will see) were as far apart from today's American conservative christian as the bumble bee is from the horse. Today's conservative christian is (sadly to say) very much engrossed in traditions and false assumptions about the Creator as those in that executed the Spanish Inquisition.

Those men that we claim to admire set out to create a nation separate from what is being taught in churches across our country today. However, and thankfully, it was created on the idea of freedom that includes the freedom to live in ignorance while pursuing individual happiness.

As for the concept of the Trinity - it's false and doesn't have any part in an examination of the scriptures. Adams, and most of those that believed in reason at the time, knew this. This is what he meant by suggesting Jefferson find teachers and tutors from the States. We fail to understand this passage because we today assume our brand and view of Christianity is the same as theirs.