Thursday, August 20, 2009

Was John Adams a Conspiracy Nut?

John Adams considered himself a "Christian," believed in an active God, denied virtually every tenet of Trinitarian orthodoxy, yet still believed the Christian religion was a "revelation" (i.e., God speaking to man). Yet, he denied the infallibility of the Bible and thought it had been corrupted.

When giving his reasons for why he believed the Bible was an errant, corrupted text, Adams goes off on a conspiracy tangent. As he wrote to Jefferson July 9, 1813:

No sooner has one party discovered or invented any amelioration of the condition of man, or the order of society than the opposite party belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it. Records are destroyed. Histories are annihilated or interpolated or prohibited; sometimes by Popes, sometimes by Emperors, sometimes by aristocratical, and sometimes by democratical assemblies, and sometimes by mobs.

Aristotle wrote the history and description of eighteen hundred republics which existed before his time. Cicero wrote two volumes of discourses on government, which, perhaps, were worth all the rest of his works. The works of Livy and Tacitus, &c., that are lost, would be more interesting than all that remain. Fifty gospels have been destroyed. Where are St. Luke’s world of books that were written?

If you ask my opinion, who has committed all the havoc? I will answer you candidly. Ecclesiastical and imperial despotisms have done it to conceal their frauds.

Why are the histories of all nations, more ancient than the Christian era, lost? Who destroyed the Alexandrian library? I believe that Christian priests, Jewish rabbis, Grecian sages, and Roman emperors, had as great a hand in it as Turks and Mahometans. Democrats, rebels, and Jacobins, when they possess a momentary power, have shown a disposition both to destroy and to forge records, as Vandatical as priests and despots. Such has been and such is the world we live in.

And the following is from an interesting letter to F.A. Vanderkemp Dec. 27, 1816:

Jesus is benevolence personified, an example for all men. Dupuis has made no alteration in my opinions of the Christian religion, in its primitive purity and simplicity, which I have entertained for more than sixty years. It is the religion of reason, equity, and love; it is the religion of the head and of the heart.


Christianity, you will say, was a fresh revelation. I will not deny this. As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed? How has it happened that all the fine arts, architecture, painting, sculpture, statuary, music, poetry, and oratory, have been prostituted, from the creation of the world, to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud?

The eighteenth century had the honor to discover that Ocellus of Lucania, Timæus of Locris, Aristotle, Tacitus, Quintilian, and Pliny, were in the right. The philosophy of Frederic, Catharine, Buffon, De la Lande, Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, d’Holbach, and Dupuis, appears to me to be no more nor less than the philosophy of those ancient men of science and letters, whose speculations came principally from India, Egypt, Chaldea, and Phœnicia. A consolatory discovery, to be sure! Let it once be revealed or demonstrated that there is no future state, and my advice to every man, woman, and child would be, as our existence would be in our own power, to take opium. For, I am certain, there is nothing in this world worth living for but hope, and every hope will fail us, if the last hope, that of a future state, is extinguished.

You should read the entirety of both letters for more context. I excerpted what I thought was important to get Adams' view of "Christianity."


James Stripes said...

I find it serendipitous that the estimable Jonathan Rowe and I both quote from the same Adams letter on the same day. I quoted slightly different parts in "Washington, Adams, Jesus" over at Patriots and Peoples.

Adams' views of Christianity don't easily fit into, or in opposition to, the main lines of thinking today. His views strike me as complex, nuanced, and fluid.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, as you once called him, Jon---DaVinci Code Adams.

He kept his musings private for very good reason.

Mark D. said...

And keep in mind that much of the "corrupted Gospel" musings fit into a broader conspiracy-oriented view of Roman Catholicism that was prevalent in overwhelmingly Protestant Anglo-America at the time. Catholicphobia, while blissfully underground for much of the early Republic, was a prominent feature of late colonial life. Look at the paranoid rantings of many in the founding period about Quebec and its Catholic menace being so close to the colonies and one gets a flavor of how public and virulent the anti-Catholic feelings of the time were. It was only once the revolutionary leadership decided that they wanted to see if they could get Quebec to join them in revolt against Britain that the anti-Catholic rhetoric started to go underground. Some leaders, Washington for example, worked to build a more religiously tolerant public square once he became president, but many of the founders privately maintained either ambivalent or hostile views of Catholicism.

So, that made it easy to buy into the idea of a vast ecclesiastical conspiracy was working to obscure and corrupt the pure teachings of Jesus. That idea was simply in the air at the time, part and parcel of the cultural Protestantism that was largely regnent in the Anglosphere then.

James Stripes said...

Mark is essentially correct ('though I'm not certain paranoid is quite the right term for their animosity towards Canada--and it would be interesting to compare eighteenth century rants about Catholicism in Canada with twenty-first century perceptions of their health care system, but I'm rambling). Adams certainly blamed "Popery" and Jesuits for many of the perceived corruptions.

In an earlier letter to Van der Kemp, he said concerning Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d'Argens:

He labors to destroy the credibility of the whole Bible, and all the evidence of a future state, and all this for the sake of establishing the infallibility of the Pope and the church, the necessity of forbidding the Bible to the people, and placing all religion in grace, and its offspring, faith. Among all the disciples of Loyola, I never read a more perfect Jesuit. He is a complete exemplification of Condorcet’s “precious confessions,” as you called them. You speak of his “superficial reflections.” I have not found them. They are all deep, and aiming at the same end, a complete system of Antichristianity.
Adams to F.A. Van der Kemp, 13 July 1815

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jesuits in particular were despised.

But go figure:

Some questioned the wisdom of creating a see at Boston because of the tiny Catholic population and the dearth of priests. Not that Catholicism was entirely foreign in the territory of the new diocese. Jesuit missionaries had made notable accomplishments in Maine and New England’s proto-martyr, Father Sebastian Rale, SJ lost his life serving the area’s indigenous peoples. However fear of papists and especially of Jesuits had led to the enactment of anti-priest laws in the Bay Colony as early as 1647 and New England, especially Boston, remained inhospitable venues for Roman Catholics and priests up to and throughout the time of the American Revolution.

Holy Cross Church and Parish

Established in 1788, the first Holy Cross church served the entirety of the New England parish and was located on School Street, directly across from Boston’s Old City Hall. When the congregation outgrew this church a new one was built with ecumenical support on Franklin Street. The parishioners provided the greatest portion, while a committee of local Protestants headed by John Adams contributed a significant amount, followed by substantial donations from Catholics abroad.

Mark D. said...

Well, the Jesuits were the ones that tried to re-convert England to the Catholic faith. They were associated -- rightly or wrongly -- with all the various plots (Gunpowder Plot, etc.). So, saying "Jesuits" to many in the 18th century Anglosphere would be like saying "Federalist Society" or "NRA" to a group of Democrats today -- it's a shorthand way of saying, "everything we don't like."

And James, the paranoia was over Catholicism -- the fear of Quebec was only relevant in so far as it gave a ground for the anti-Catholicism. Why was Quebec bad? Because it was filled with the French! Why were the French bad? Because they were Catholic! It was only when the revolutionaries needed the French -- both in Quebec and in France itself -- for help that their rhetoric cooled. But that was easy, because the rhetoric itself was never based on ethnicity, it was based on religion. The French weren't hated because they were French, they were hated because they were Catholic.

As for the health care debate, that's a bit off topic...

J. L. Bell said...

Conspiracy theories were very much part of Adams's thinking, whether it was the general British distrust of Rome, the Whig distrust of the royal government, or Adams's original ideas about the "Essex Junto."

Eighteenth-century politics was awash in conspiracy theories, in large part because political science hadn't developed many other theories to explain mass movements, changes and divisions in public opinion, and other phenomena.

J said...

His views strike me as complex, nuanced, and fluid.

Au contraire. Adams' writing tends to be conclusionary--as with the generalizations in the above passage. He enjoys making grand pronouncements, and often sounds colloquial and yankee-like (even compared to Franklin or Jefferson, not exactly a Swift or a Hume in terms of eloquence).

When Adams' defended the Brits accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, he called some in the crowd .... the n-word, or "teagues," etc.--teague being derogatory scottish slang for irish-gangsters or something.

I would agree he sounds a bit like a crackpot conspiracist, sort of Robert Bork like--if not Rush Limbaugh circa 1780 or so.

Tom Van Dyke said...

...great American patriots all.

J said...

Rush Limbaugh's no Patriot. He's a fat, loud Bozo dressed as Uncle Sam.

Even moderates who value intelligent debate and discussion should object to Limbaugh-Speak, which has little to do with facts or Reason, but everything to do with defamation, logical fallacies, and rabble rousing.

Limbaugh-Speak created the backlash of DailyKOS and related sites, really--and led to Al Franken (I don't care for the freak, but he actually fact-checked Rush on a few points, and Rush lost, badly). Rush's rants against the Clintons from the late 90s were nearly if not actual seditionist.

Rush Limbaugh is no Thucydides-quoting gent like Hamilton or Adams, either. He quotes the likes of Ayn Rand, Glenn Beck, or perhaps Karl Rove.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm sure Rush was wrong on a few things. He only claims to be correct 99% of the time.

But thank you for sharing your opinion.