Thursday, April 29, 2010

On John Adams: "This Awful Blasphemy," Extraterrestrials [no lie!], and the Jews too

And a little at the end
on John Quincy Adams
by Tom Van Dyke

American Creation contributor Jonathan Rowe recently received an inquiry from a nuclear fusion scientist about a puzzling quote from John Adams:

It's from John Adams' letter to Thomas Jefferson of January 22, 1825, when the two ex-presidents were both octogenians.

"Your university [of Virginia]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."

Our esteemed commenter JL Bell replies:

Looks to me like the “awful blasphemy” isn’t exactly the Trinity but the Incarnation—the idea that Jesus was [born] 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).

That's solid. But what of the rest? What the hell is Adams on about this time?

Adams' diary, April 24, 1756:

"...all the unnumbered Worlds that revolve round the fixt Stars are inhabited, as well as this Globe of Earth."

Aha. He's talking some serious E.T. here.

No, really---some serious ET, and it's not surprising.

The extraterrestrial thing had been in the air for at least a century. Life on other worlds would completely blow orthodox Christianity out of the water, or so men like John Adams believed.

The 18th century was a time of transition for the West, from a Christianized culture to a secularized culture. Deism, standing midway between Christianity and atheism, was the religion of transition.

To be more exact, deism was the religion of the Newtonians. At the end of the 17th century, Newton had used the materialist atomism, ultimately rooted in the thought of Epicurus and Lucretius, as a foundation for his geometrical account of nature. As a result, the closest Newton could come to Christianity was deism, in which a distant god created the atoms and gave them an initial shove. The Incarnation was simply jettisoned as cosmologically incompatible and therefore irrelevant.

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."

There's an irony there, that Adams is being as dogmatic about life on other worlds as those he condemns. But that's typical of Adams---as with his own unitarianism, his life's studies tended toward the confirmation of his earlier-in-life prejudices rather than a questioning of them. He left his "free inquiry" for ideas he'd already rejected, the ones he accepted were left unexamined.

But that's John Adams. In attempting to understand him as he understood himself, it seemed too sophisticated for him to be aware of ├śrsted's proof of electro-magnetism or the influence of Kant and Schelling's philosophy on him.

On the other hand, it seemed too foolish for even John Adams to flatly exclude Trinitarians from being able to do good science. But in this one area, because of the theological forces aligned at that time, his criticism would be apt: Few if any European orthodox were open to a universe without the Incarnation at the center of it. There is no meaning or purpose to life without Christ.

As for Adams' speaking of the Jews "spitting on" Jesus, it has to be understood in terms of Adams' own non-Trinitarian Christianity, known as "unitarianism."

He wasn't a bigot, really, nor was he being hostile to the Jews here really. He was writing to Jefferson, who spoke of the Jews less kindly, and John Adams was more than a bit of a chameleon to his audiences.

Most interesting is a letter to a prominent Jew, Mordacai Noah, which reveals a bit of Adams' theological [if not sectarian] agenda, a commercial for Adams' own brand of Christianity, non-Trinitarian "Unitarian Christianity," which I feel comfortable putting under the umbrella of the clumsy term "Judeo-Christianity" in describing the God of the Founding:

I believe [that] . . . once restored to an independent government & no longer persecuted they [the Jews] would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character & possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians for your Jehovah is our Jehovah & your God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is our God.

Add a little non-divine Jesus to Judaism, not be bigoted toward Jews for "spitting on Jesus," and we're all just one big happy "liberal" Unitarian Christian family.

That was John Adams, especially in his later life, after his public life. In the same year as this letter---all the sound and fury of his presidency, signifying nothing---and Adams himself described it that way, as a tale told by an idiot---had faded away from relevance and importance.

What was left, what Adams is saying here at the end of his 80th decade is that he's pretty deaf, denies he gives much of a damn whether his son John Quincy wins the upcoming Electoral College controversy that's been thrown into the House of Representatives, [still] hates religious authoritarianism, thinks the Jews might be OK with a little [but too much] of Christianizing [but need some Zionism], and he believes in E.T.

That's John Adams, folks.

I hope y'all will permit me to enter my own opinion of Mr. John Adams here, after all much frankly painful and careful and close reading of his writings---his own tale of his life and beliefs are those of an idiot told by an idiot. He was a good man, but a smallish man, not a great man---first clinging to his cousin Samuel Adams' coattails in igniting the American Revolution, then to George Washington's. When he was on his own, he destroyed Washington's Federalist party with his pettiness and the tyranny of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which permitted little political dissent, and downright made it illegal.

The American public couldn't wait to be done with him. Even his own party couldn't wait to be done with him, barely opposing Jefferson's takeover of the government.

Still, I like John Adams, irritating as he was to most everybody. We have that much in common, anywayz. But give me his son John Quincy anyday, who returned to the House of Representatives after he won, then lost, the presidency [yes, he won the election controversy of 1825, only to lose to Andrew Jackson in the rematch of 1830]; the John Quincy Adams who argued Amistad.

In that, John Adams truly fulfilled the American Dream: The father raised a better man than he. No higher praise could be given to any man.

[Or woman either, Abigail Adams. It takes two. But Abigail is yet another story, and she earns her own place in the history of America in her own right...]


Joe Talmadge said...

Thanks to all for the very interesting and intelligent discussion. I learned a lot.

If I can ask another question about the Adams quote, what do you think a "temporal" prejudice is?

Mark D. said...

On a related note, the early Mormons believed quite strongly in life on other planets. Brigham Young, I believe, taught on the subject. Perhaps some of our LDS readers could provide some additional background on this point?

Phil Johnson said...

Notwithstanding the entire article, I'm still stuck on "that Principle", "this boundless universe", and "this little ball".
First, did John Adams actually capitalize "Principle" in his original writing? If he did, then, perhaps he did use the wrong spelling. But, maybe not. ??
The entire quote makes me think of Thomas Paine and what he had to say about life within the universe. I have read that Paine had quite a bit of communication with most of the Founding Fathers if not all of them.
If we take Paine into consideration, maybe we'll get some additional takes.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Mr. Talmadge. I read "temporal" as merely "the powers that be," ecclesiastical or simply religious types who would oppose scientific conclusions based on theological grounds.

Of course, as previously noted, Adams had no scientific evidence for his belief in life on other worlds either, yet accused others of prejudice.

bpabbott said...

Re: "temporal"

I think Tom is on the right track.

Temporality is a term often used in philosophy in talking about the way time is. The traditional mode of temporality is a linear procession of past, present, future.

The temporal power of the [ecclesiastical authorities is their political and governmental activity as leaders of their religious establishments], as distinguished from their spiritual and pastoral activity, which [is sometimes called] eternal power, to contrast it with the Church's secular power, that is, power exercised within time rather than in eternity.

Perhaps Adams is saying that the Europeans are too quick/willing to confuse the Church's temporal opinions/actions/power with the eternal opinions/actions/power of God.

Joe Talmadge said...

Interesting... I, of course, was way off on another interpretation, which given the context and the times couldn't possibly be true. This is probably off-topic, but if you indulge me for a moment, I'll make my point. When I read something like "temporal prejudice", I link it to a profound underpinning of physics -- the concept of point of view invariance. The equations of physics cannot depend on your point of view. In particular, there is no special point of view with respect to space and time. Look up Noether's theorem, if you want to know more. So, for example, the lack of a "temporal prejudice" leads directly to conservation of energy. The lack of a "spatial prejudice" leads to conservation of momentum. Lack of "space-time prejudice" leads to special relativity.

I wouldn't even bring this up, but it's Adams who is referring to Newton and Herschel in the quote. Now, Emily Noether and Albert Einstein came much later than Adams, but Newton, Leibniz, Lagrange knew all about conserved quantities in physics.

What I got out of this quote was that clearly Adams was a man of high intelligence who thought deeply about the issues of his time. Like the other founders, he was a man, sometimes flawed, sometimes insightful.

Would it be fair to say that this part of Adams, which comes closest to outright Deism, is not in accord with what is usually thought about the man? Is it that he is writing Jefferson (who, I realize was not a Deist) or was this the thoughts of a man in his last year of life, intent on doing his best to figure it all out before the inevitable?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Joe, it's my opinion that Adams was an intellectual dilettante if not a ninny. I see no evidence in his writings that indicates he understood science anywhere near the level you give him credit for.

As for Adams' "deism," I would say he's more of a "Unitarian Christian" than Jefferson ever was, far more a creature of his times and place, Boston around the turn of the 19th century. For instance, his view of the Jews:

It has please[d] the Providence of the ‘first Cause,’ the Universal Cause [phrases by which Adams’ defined God], that Abraham should give Religion, not only to the Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest Part of the Modern civilized World."

I have trouble imagining Jefferson saying something so orthodox. When Jefferson opines that Jesus corrected the deism of the Jews, he does not credit divine providence, only Jesus as a philosopher.

Here's a bit on the prevailing "Unitarian Christianity" of Adams' time & place. I do not think Adams accepted all of it, but he was in that zone.

Joe Talmadge said...


I'm a little slow to respond, but what you wrote made me curious about why Jefferson thought Jews were deists. The best I could make out was from Jefferson's letter to Waterhouse, June 26, 1822

"The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.

1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.

2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.

3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself; is the sum of religion.

These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews."

and then there is the letter to Rush, April 21, 1803, which is what you are quoting from apparently,

"1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of His attributes and government.

2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.

3. The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.

4.He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted or disbelieved by the Jews, and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct."

Also, from that same letter, there is this,

"II. Jews.

1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.

2. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree."

I find this confusing. What's Jefferson's beef with Jews? Apparently he doesn't like the god of the OT. What Jews might consider just punishment wrought by god, Jefferson thinks this concept of god is too degrading. Jefferson seems to be big on "peace, charity and love to our fellow men". What were the "imperfect" ethics of the Jews? Jefferson doesn't say.

It's an astonishing concept to me that one would consider Jews deists since there are immediate consequences to one's actions by the OT god. God is definitely not removing himself from the affairs of man, which I think is integral to the concept of deism.

The other beef Jefferson seems to have with Jews is, to him, they lack a belief in the afterlife. That makes Jews deistic? Strange.

One of the many reasons I never though of Jefferson as a deist, were statements such as, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever" from his Notes on Virginia. The irony here is that this sounds more like the OT god than anything else. And clearly he is not talking about the afterlife here. Are countries judged in the afterlife? The thought doesn't even make sense.

So I'm left with the feeling that Jefferson chooses words to mean whatever he wants them to mean. And if I apply his own rules to his quote about "God is just" that makes Jefferson a deist, even though to my thinking, it makes him precisely the opposite.

Any thought to help me out here? said...

Hi, I was a Morman until I was 18. I was actually reading this article because of the link between this theory and Morman belief. Yes, Mormans actually still believe in life on other worlds. Nothing is ever said about if 'they' look like Grays or whatever but the basic belief is the following: Faithful priesthood holding men who are worthy enough will have their own world in the universe which they will populate with their many wives for all time. Essently, the highest goal of a Morman man is to become a God. Prove me wrong, this is a little known fact.

Brad Hart said...

That's not 100% accurate, Alisa. Yes, Mormons (not Mormans) hold an informal belief in life on other worlds, but there is little official doctrine on the subject.

As for "faithful priesthood holding men" having their own world with lots of wives on it, well, that's more the stuff of folklore than anything else. You see a lot of that nonsense on anti-Mormon websites. said...

Ok, I stand corrected Brad. Thanks