Sunday, January 30, 2011

Another Recycled Post on John Adams' Unitarianism

I know this is a little low-brow but it's fun.

It's strange, you mention the term "Unitarian" and everyone assumes today's Unitarian-Universalist church. The term simply means denial of the Trinity. America's key Founders and today's UUs are "unitarians" according to a genus that also captures, among others, the Jehovah's Witnesses who believe in an odd version of the Arian hersey.

So when I said "John Adams was a Unitarian," the pious Reverend who responded to me immediately thought I was arguing JA was like today's UUs, not a claim I was making.

Over the next few months I want to further explore the "Christian-unitarian-universalism" (what Gregg Frazer terms "theistic rationalism") of the folks who influenced the "key Founders." Yes, we've explored the beliefs of the key Founders to death (and we will continue to beat the dead horse). But there are still things that, for instance, Samuel Clarke or Isaac Newton (and many others) said that we haven't explored. Those men were "Christian-unitarian-universalists." Does that term work? Can we hear that term without thinking it a contradiction in terms? When we say "they were 'Christian unitarian-universalists'" can we imagine that term without imagining Clarke, Newton, et al. joining a present day UU church? Or would they have indeed joined today's UUs, were they alive?

That said, on to my recycled post:

It's funny. See this thread on worldmagblog, which illustrates that stubbornness is intractable in human nature. Someone possesses an erroneous assumption. They are given more than adequate evidence refuting the assumption. Yet, they stubbornly refuse to let go of their error.

In this case, it's a fellow named Joel Mark who assumed that John Adams was an orthodox Christian, and not a Unitarian, was shown overwhelming evidence to the contrary, complete with references to primary sources, yet still refuses to let go of the notion that Adams was a traditional minded Christian. In one comment directed at me, he wrote:

Jon Rowe,

You are flat out wrong....John Adams was NOT a Unitarian. That was never how he identified himself or was identified and the Unitarians were not even around in Massachusetts or America in his prime years.

You are unreliable on this matter. maybe its just that your sources are poor. But you are wrong.

He further asks for "smoking gun" evidence demonstrating that Adams identified himself as a Unitarian. Ye ask, and ye shall receive. Here is Adams himself on the matter:

I thank you for your favour of the 10th and the pamphlet enclosed, "American Unitarianism." I have turned over its leaves and have found nothing that was not familiarly known to me.

In the preface Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old age. Sixty five years ago my own minister the Reverend Samuel Bryant, Dr. Johnathan Mayhew of the west Church in Boston, the Reverend Mr. Shute of Hingham, the Reverend John Brown of Cohasset & perhaps equal to all if not above all the Reverend Mr. Gay of Hingham were Unitarians. Among the Laity how many could I name, Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesman, farmers!

-- John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, May 15, 1815. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress.


We Unitarians, one of whom I have had the Honour to be, for more than sixty Years, do not indulge our Malignity in profane Cursing and Swearing, against you Calvinists; one of whom I know not how long you have been. You and I, once saw Calvin and Arius, on the Plafond of the Cathedral of St. John the Second in Spain roasting in the Flames of Hell. We Unitarians do not delight in thinking that Plato and Cicero, Tacitus Quintilian Plyny and even Diderot, are sweltering under the scalding drops of divine Vengeance, for all Eternity.

-- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816, Ibid, reel 430.

These quotations are featured in James H. Hutson's fine book of quotations, pp. 220-221.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Because Unitarians were non-Trinitarian, and Arian, they would believe in humans being united in their diverse views of religion.

Then the question becomes history/politics, which grounds faith instead of philosophical speculation, which affirms only the historical/political faiths of "Abraham" . OR we affirm the development of cultures in affirming the history of traditions.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

One way of viewing 'unitarianism" is really political/diplomacy in understanding the political situation of "Palestine" and Judiasm. The other is affirming multi-culturalism, which undermines the grounding needed in politics/government.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The grounding Americans have is the Constitution, which allows for diverse views of faith. The ptoblem then becomes how we uphold liberty and diversity, when exclusive claims that undermine Constitutional government undermines "liberty and justice for all"...

Mark Hall said...


Not to detract you from your quest, but I wonder if it is accurate to say America's key Founders were unitarians under the definition you give above. I am not sure there is much evidence to support this claim.

Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin,and Tom Paine left clear evidence that, at least at some points of their lives, they were unitarians (although the first three were very careful to keep their views private). But which other civic leader left such evidence? Ethan Allen, certainly, he played little role in American politics and is hardly a "key" founder.

I am not aware of any clear evidence that other key men often put in this category (e.g. Madison, Washington, and Hamilton) were unitarians. The passage by Madison in the post before this one, it seems to me, may simply be acknowledging the limitations of the human mind.

Note that the founders who left clear evidence of unitarianism all spent significant time in Europe (Franklin spent half of the last 25 years of his life there, and Paine, the British born Quaker, spent the vast majority of his life there). If we turn from this very select fraternity and consider most American founders, even limiting our scope to important founders such as Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, Roger Sherman, William Paterson, Oliver Ellsworth, John Jay, Elias Boudinot...and the list goes on and on, I see virtually no evidence of unitarians and, in many cases, much evidence of a commitment to orthodox Christianity.

I know I have written this sort of thing before. One major purpose is to find additional evidence of unitarianism, or deism, or theistic rationalism, among civic leaders in the founding era. If anyone has such evidence, I would love to see it. I am particularly interested in clear statements, not speculation that because someone did not regularly attend church, write about Jesus Christ, etc. that he was a unitarian.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Hi Mark,

I think you are right that Paine and Allen were not "key Founders." I also think, for them the label "deist" (as opposed to unitarian or theistic rationalist) is accurate.

We may say something similar about Elihu Palmer (who went through a variety of faiths, but I think accurate to say he journeyed from orthodox Christianity to Deism).

I think you are right about the "orthodox" Founders you listed, though admittedly, I haven't had time to check every one of them (I'm currently looking into Oliver Ellsworth and know nothing of William Paterson). But I see them as more 2nd tier Founders.

Madison, Washington, and Hamilton before the end of his life are, no question, left fewer smoking guns than the others.

I still think there is good reason to categorize all of them as unitarian or non-Trinitarian by implication as you once put it to me. The absence of speaking in clear Trinitarian terms, both publicly and privately, etc.

With Washington, his systematic avoidance of communion. With Madison, George Ticknor's first hand testimony that Madison was a self conscious unitarian.

I also see the "Great Spirit" talk of GW, JM and TJ to the Natives telling of some significant degree of religious liberality for the day. I'm not sure how compatible that talk is with orthodox Christianity.

There are some other lesser known Founders like William Livingston and Timothy Pickering I've found to be unitarians. But admittedly, it's difficult to find out exactly what they believed without a meticulous examination of evidence, much of which does not or may not exist.

Mark D. said...

First, from my limited reading on the subject, Unitarians at the time of the Founding tended to be far more conservative than is generally understood. Abigail Adams, for example, was certainly a Unitarian as was her husband, but in her letters she demonstrates a strong commitment to the idea that the Bible is divine revelation. John Adams certainly didn't believe that all religions were equally valid -- he has left us a trove of anti-Catholic remarks that indicate quite clearly that he didn't think highly of Catholicism.

As for Hamilton, who was mentioned in this comment thread, he wasn't religious at all for most of his life, as far as anyone can tell. After the death of his son Philip in a duel, Hamilton became markedly more religious and from all accounts it was orthodox Nicene Protestantism that he affirmed. On his deathbed after being shot by Aaron Burr, Hamilton repeatedly sought holy communion, first from a Presbyterian minister and then from an Episcopal one.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It sounds like you guys would love to "peg" someone to a Christian commitment of some kind, so that they could be useful to the Church and the "outliers"....First it was communalism, then it was philosophy via Catholicism, then it was Unitarianism, now it is Bible, as Divine revelation...

So what is it? Law and individual liberties, Philosophy and Tradition, Group Identifiers and Boundaries, Text and Interpretation?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Law and individual liberties covers the disciplines of Constitutional government, political theory, legal theory.

Philosophy and Tradition is based on theology and history of traditions (Church history).

Group Identifiers and Boundaries is based on sociological and pscyhological theories.

And Text and Interpretation is based on many factors...depending on how one understands literature or revelation.

As literature, texts are understood in literary theory, myth and meaning making, hero identifiers, while revelation is understood in pscyhological science as reader response and projection or cultural studies of one's nation/culture and family or origin...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Text as literature is also understood in linguistic studies as to cultural value and understanding....

Jonathan Rowe said...

"John Adams certainly didn't believe that all religions were equally valid ..."

I don't think the unitarianism of JA thought all religions as EQUALLY valid; however I think they did think all religions VALID ways to God.

The Trinity, Roman Catholic and Calvinist dogmas were all, according to said creed, pernicious irrationalities.

Yet, beneath that JA, TJ, BF, etc. could find common ground with the orthodox on Providence, a future state of rewards and punishments, the superiority of Jesus' moral example, and biblical narratives which they believed supported republican virtue.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

As as has been stated on this blog more than once, the FF didn't publicly deny "Christian ortthodoxy', Why was that? Because of the "noble lie"? Or so that political expediency could be assured, without "offending the conservative conscience"?

I don't think that any citizen should be "used" by a government or anyone else! Determining another's life is not equality before law....because those "in the know" are not blind to what their outcomes are....their goals are intentiional...This is injustice, not justice.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As as has been stated on this blog more than once, the FF didn't publicly deny "Christian ortthodoxy', Why was that? Because of the "noble lie"? Or so that political expediency could be assured, without "offending the conservative conscience"?

I think it's the latter. They were coming out of an era where it was not just illegal to deny the Trinity but where you could be EXECUTED for so doing.

They were delivering to future generations religious liberty. Orthodox Christianity was still socially, and to a lesser extent legally entrenched at the state level. As I see it, the FFs couldn't deliver a system where one could be an open, loud mouthed anti-Trinitarian in the late 18th Cen. America without also sending society in convulsions like what happened in France. But that Unitarianism could "come out of the closet" as it were in the early 19th Cen. was a direct result -- the fruits of the work of America's Founders. And here's where I think the secret unitarianism of America's Founders (the leading lights who we mentioned, who may have been, admittedly, a minority of them) matters, where it, again, bore fruit.

Or perhaps it is just a function of being "founded" on theological dissidence -- political Protestantism if you will.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Or perhaps it is just a function of being "founded" on theological dissidence -- political Protestantism if you will.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Or perhaps it is just a function of being "founded" on theological dissidence -- political Protestantism if you will.


Isn't that America in a nutshell? We weren't founded on religious zeal, but critical ideals. And these ideals framed our Constitution!

Jason Pappas said...

By 1816, when Adams wrote that letter, unitarianism was quite fashionable around Boston and even established at Harvard. Adams says he's been a unitarian for 60 years. Are there earlier entries to his diary that confirms this or hint at this?

Apparently his son is a Calvinist. Had they not talked about religion before this letter?

Jonathan Rowe said...

JQA vacillated between unitarianism and Calvinism his entire adult life. I think he ended up a unitarian.

If you look at Adams' early letters in the 1750s you see a few where he criticizes the Trinity and other orthodox doctrines. I think one from that era calls the Trinity an "awful blasphemy."

Tom Van Dyke said...

I've found the Unitarian Universalist website to be exemplary in its honesty.

It does appear that later in life, JQA went more unitarian. However, he was vigorously opposed to the direction Emerson was taking it, "transcendental" and "free-thinking" as opposed to biblical.

A fascinating footnote to history, a debate on the Trinity between Samuel Adams and William Ellery Channing!


In 1815, at the height of the controversy, Adams concluded that the Calvinist Samuel Adams had bested William Ellery Channing, the Unitarians' leader, in a debate on the doctrine of the Trinity. Then a year later, when in an exchange of letters his father good-naturedly drew him into a theological debate, the junior Adams revealed that, while not approving their intolerance, he tended to follow the doctrines of the Trinitarians and Calvinists; moreover, that he wanted no part of Unitarianism. He suggested that his father read a sermon on the divinity of Christ by a Bishop Massilon, "after which be a Socinian if you can."

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks guys for the info (and links). Just the open debate between father and son is impressive!

Let me ask in passing, does it make any difference to the Founding that many of the key leaders were less than orthodox in their religious beliefs? It certainly is interesting as a personal note. I just wondered what is at stake for those on different sides of the debate.

Mark Hall said...

Not to belabor the point, but if "unitarian" means "denial of the Trinity" then in order to label someone a unitarian shouldn't we have evidence that they denied the trinity?

Of course lack of such evidence doesn't make them orthodox Christians. Do note I am not suggesting that Madison, Hamilton, and Washington were orthodox, pious men, I am simply asking for evidence to support the common claim that they were deists and/or unitarians. I don't think avoiding communion proves this. And I do think we need to be careful not to read too much into proclamations to Indian tribes, Barbary pirates, etc. And of course we must be careful of second hand accounts.

I would love to see the evidence that Livingston and Pickering were unitarians (I haven't looked into either one).


Jonathan Rowe said...

Mark wrote:

"Do note I am not suggesting that Madison, Hamilton, and Washington were orthodox, pious men, I am simply asking for evidence to support the common claim that they were deists and/or unitarians. I don't think avoiding communion proves this. And I do think we need to be careful not to read too much into proclamations to Indian tribes, Barbary pirates, etc. And of course we must be careful of second hand accounts."

With Madison, Washington and Hamilton, I would admit, there are not "smoking gun" quotations on the matter as there are with J. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin. That's why I have tried to qualify my categorization with terms like "probably."

I'll address Pickering and Livingston in my next comment.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Here is Timothy Pickering to James McHenry in 1816:

"It is more than forty years, since, with strong conviction, I renounced the Calvinistic Scheme, in which I had been educated, as utterly incompatible with the perfections of the Deity. But it was not till a later period that the doctrine of the Trinity (which I had never heard controverted in the pulpit) employed my thoughts... and induced reject this dogma, liberalise the creed of Calvin. It has since been the essential article of my faith and practice, to worship only One God, who sent his son to be Savior of the World."

Jonathan Rowe said...

It was reported that Barton Von Steuben's mocking of the Trinity got Pickering to reject the Trinity, but one of American Creation's critics claims that it was Peter S. Du Ponceau.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re William Livingston, here is something from a private letter where he slams the Athanasian Creed:

"Rev. Sir: I received your letter of the 26th of October yesterday. Since I sent a description of three of our Counties to Mr. Whittlesey, (whose death I sincerely deplore,) I have received that of one or two others, which shall be at your service, when you do me the pleasure of what you have given me the agreeable expectation,—I mean a personal visit at my Hermitage, alias Liberty Hall, in the vicinity of Elizabethtown.

"That I have received the descriptions of so few of out Counties as you mention, I now find, or at least am told, is my own fault. Although I had a number of copies made of your queries, immediately after you delivered them to me last fall and, as I thought a sufficient number to give one to each of out Council, yet some members of that Body tell me they went home without one, and that I promised to send them after the rising of the Legislature; but that they never received them. If the case be really so, (of which, however, I have not the least recollection, nor greater faith than I have in St. Athanasius!) I can atone for my neglect only by delivering them at our present sitting, and pressing those members to transmit to me their answers as speedily as possible. The Legislature expecting to adjourn next week, it is probable that I may receive them seasonably enough before your intended publication. ..."

And here is something Livingston wrote in a PUBLIC journal in the 1750s.

"I Believe, that this Creed is more intelligible than that of St. Athanasius; and that there will be no Necessity for any Bishop to write an Exposition on the Thirty Nine Articles of my faith."

Jonathan Rowe said...

There are a few other names whose deism or unitarianism we could explore as well: George Wythe, Robert Treat Paine, John Marshall and Joseph Story. These four come to mind. Story may not qualify as a "Founding Father."

Mark said...


Good stuff. Thanks.


Jonathan Rowe said...

My pleasure!


Michael Aaron Green said...

Hi, it seems no one has commented on this for a while, but I have researching this very question recently. There was a granddaughter of John and Abigail in Fishkill Landing (present-day Beacon) New York, Caroline Amelia DeWint (sometimes spelled DeWindt) who sponsored Unitarian minister visits to the area. There is a still surviving UU church in Rock Tavern, New York that traces its origins back to the DeWints and other families in the area. However, when you look at the situation of the founders, there are obvious grey areas. For one thing, the Unitarian impulse was still part of the mainstream Congregational Church and the clash didn't really break out into the open until the 1815 "pamphlet wars." And although Abigail and John clearly took the Unitarian side in the debate, they were still very tactful in dealing with others, and so there are mixed messages. Also, the emerging family leader, John Quincy Adams took a more conservative tack, and they tended to be publicly supportive of him. Hope this helps.