Sunday, June 26, 2011

John Adams and the Trinity

Much is made in some quarters that John Adams was a "unitarian" Christian, in other words, he didn't believe Jesus was God. This is true.

Why the "unitarian controversy" matters much to some people, I don't know. Samuel Adams, John's cousin and his virtual co-leader in the early days of the American Revolution, was a Trinitarian, and John and Sam's political theology differed not at all---so whether you believed Jesus is God or not didn't make any difference.

The other thing about John Adams' unitarianism is that it was expressed in private letters like these, after he left public life. As a public man, as president, what did America know of John Adams' "unitarianism"? The answer is, little or nothing.

President John Adams' 1798 thanksgiving proclamation explicitly recognizes God the Father, Jesus the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit:

"I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby 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..."


Bold face mine. As we see, the Father is in there, Jesus is still the "Redeemer," and the existence of the Holy Spirit is acknowledged, not denied.

Most people, whether in 1798 or in 2011, would see President Adams' proclamation as explicitly "Christian." What John Adams believed in private is of some interest, but of little importance. These days, we use the term "Judeo-Christian" to dispose of the question of whether Jesus is God or not anyway. And as we see here, in public, John Adams comes off more Christian than that, not less.

10 comments:

Pinky said...

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Don't all politicians, once they're presidential, all go along with the religious norms of society whether they honestly believe them or not?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

If they're smart, Pinky. We have a zillion quotes from John Adams acknowledging we need religion and morality to glue things together.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

I often point out that nobody really knows Ronald Reagan's personal beliefs about Christian dogma. Can't recall him mentioning Jesus Christ much, certainly not accepting him as his Lord and Savior and that stuff. Neither does it matter.

This article

http://www.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=25246

seems to round up Reagan's public statements on Jesus. Not much there. Sort of reminds you of Founders like Adams.

Mark in Spokane said...

Indeed. One other thing -- the Unitarians at the time of the Founding were far more conscious of their movement's Christian roots than the Unitarians of today usually are. One can find Unitarians from the Founding period who affirm the existence of Jesus Christ as somebody who as in some sense "divine," and one can find Unitarians who affirm the existence of the Holy Spirit. Even Jefferson in his Gospel Harmony kept in a reference to the Holy Ghost -- as I posted a while back here on this blog.

What the Unitarians of the Founding period didn't agree with with the Nicene understanding of the Trinity. But most still were self-identified Christians, and would have affirmed Jesus as Savior, etc. Abigail Adams, who was as much a Unitarian as her husband, certainly referenced Jesus as Redeemer.

craig2 said...

It would be interesting to hear how the Adams family explained the means by which a mere holy man but not God could save or redeem anyone. Especially one so rational as John boy.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Craig,

The way I understand the Socinians, Jesus redeemed by providing man with a perfect moral example that they could follow.

The Arian example is a bit different; it's more an "unorthodox" understanding of the atonement one that I have to do more work studying. Mayhew's writings may contained that answer.

Pinky said...

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Right, Jon.
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So, who can speak to the idea that it isn't merely that Jesus saves; but, that he is the sacrificial lamb required of a legal system. Further, that he was innocent of all the trumped up charges made against him. In the same sense all human beings are innocent of "Original Sin" which requires eternal condemnation. Jesus is the propitiation that appeases Jehovah's unjust anger against all human beings.
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It does seem to be the Fundamental approach to the role Jesus carried out in his crucifixion.
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Who can speak to the historical facts of this doctrinal concept?
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Jason Pappas said...

The problem with these zillion quotes is that they are of such a generic nature that they don’t elucidate the substance or role of religion and morality during the founding. That’s why there is such a debate about the founders beliefs with limited agreement.

We can’t assume their emphasis or usage of words is the same as ours. Indeed, we are divided by a common language. The more I read, the more I realize how different their thoughts and beliefs are from my fellow citizens today.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jason, I think the example of Reagan illustrates the gulf may not be so wide.

Craig2 re-asks a needed question---just what "Redeemer" meant to unitarians. [Also "Savior" and "Messiah," terms they also freely used for Jesus.] The discussion remains at the surface level until that question is addressed.

Pinky said...

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The discussion remains at the surface level until that question is addressed.
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You might be correct in your speculation here, Tom.
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But, I wonder about our ability to address the deeper question as most of us--if not all--have pretty deeply ingrained ideas about the entire subject.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

But, I wonder about our ability to address the deeper question as most of us--if not all--have pretty deeply ingrained ideas about the entire subject.

I don't have any problem, meself. I don't understand why other people do, even scholars. I was taken aback by this

http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2011/06/best-part-of-believe-is-lie.html

To me, to study say Islam or Mormonism [I'm neither] is to proceed regardless of whether it's true or false, since the scholar cannot know. In the end, we're studying people and their beliefs, not God himself.

What did "Redeemer" mean to the Adamses? That's all I want to know, just like I only want to know what Kolob means to a Mormon. My opinion of its existence is no more valuable than anyone else's.

What I will say is that I think a theist has a better shot at understanding---empathizing if you will---what a Muslim's faith means to him and his worldview than someone who thinks religion is ridiculous from the get-go.

This is not to say an atheist or agnostic couldn't empathize, but I think it's less likely.

Then again, I suppose an eyebrows-deep Christian might get angry at what he considers "false religion," but I would think such a person could only write effectively about his own sect, and then probably too sympathetically to show its warts and all.

[Empathy not being synonymous with sympathy.]