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Adams was a Godly president

Musings and Memories

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It is National Candy Corn Day. Yay! (One of my favorite candies.) It is the 303rd day of the year, and the 44th Saturday of 2021, with just 62 days left in the year.  

Our nation’s second president, John Adams, was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He was one of our country’s Founding Fathers, the first vice president of the United States and then succeeded George Washington, serving as the second US president.  

John Adams has long been a president that I was fascinated with. He was a deep thinker, a very wise man, and a very religious man, and a man full of questions and concerns and skepticism.  

His father, John Adams Sr., was a farmer, a Congregationalist deacon, a town councilman, and he was a direct descendant of Henry Adams, a Puritan who emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638.  

John Sr. wanted his son to enter the ministry, and John Jr. gave a lot of thought to that path for his life, but at age 16, Adams earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University, where he received his undergraduate degree and master’s degree.  

After graduating in 1755, at age 20, Adams studied law in the office of James Putnam, a prominent lawyer, despite his father’s wish for him to enter the ministry, and in 1758, he was admitted to the bar. In 1774, Adams served on the First Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence.  

Religion was always important to John Adams, even though he was highly skeptical of specific religious beliefs. He was the son of a church deacon and his wife’s father was a minister.  

Historian Edwin S. Gaustad wrote: “From early entries in his diary to letters written late in life, Adams composed variations on a single theme: God is so great, I am so small. Adams never doubted who was in charge of the universe, never viewed himself as master of his, or anyone’s destiny.”  

Biographer David McCullough wrote, “How close Adams came to becoming a minister he never exactly said, but most likely it was not close at all. His mother, though a pious woman, thought him unsuited for the life, for all that Deacon John wished it for him.”  

He did believe that religion was what protected and preserved his family. “I believe it is religion, without which they would have been rakes, fops, sots, gamblers, starved with hunger, frozen with cold, scalped by Indians, etc., etc., and etc., been melted away and disappeared.”  

There was a strong Puritan strain to Adams’ morality even when he strayed from the Puritans religious precepts.  

At the age of 21, Adams wrote that “this World was not designed for a lasting and a happy State, but rather for a State of moral Discipline, that we might have a fair Opportunity and continual Excitement to labour after a cheerful Resignation to all the Events of Providence, after Habits of Virtue, Self-Government, and Piety. And this Temper of mind is in our Power to acquire, and this alone can secure us against all the Adversities of Fortune, against all the Malice of men, against all the Operations of Nature.”  

As argumentative as John Adams could be, he found the clergy too ‘disputatious for his taste.’  

Adams himself recalled the conditions under which he decided to switch his intended profession from the ministry to the law: “Between the years 1751, when I entered, and 1754, when I left college, a controversy was carried on between Mr. Bryant, the minister of our parish, and some of his people, partly on account of his principles, which were called Arminian, and partly on account of his conduct, which was too gay and light, if not immoral. Ecclesiastical councils were called, and sat at my father’s house. Parties and their acrimonies arose in the church and congregation, and controversies from the press between Mr. Bryant, Mr. Niles, Mr. Porter, Mr. Bass, concerning the five points.”  

Adams wrote: “I read all these pamphlets and many other writings on the same subjects, and found myself involved in difficulties beyond my powers of decision. At the same time, I saw such a spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity, that, if I should be a priest, I must take my side, and pronounce as positively as any of them, or never get a parish, or getting it must soon leave it. Very strong doubts arose in my mind, whether I was made for the pulpit in such times, and I began to think of other professions. I perceived very clearly, as I thought, that the study of theology, and the pursuit of it as a profession, would involve me in endless altercations, and make my life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow men.”  

Steven Waldman wrote: “Adams believed that since God created the laws of the universe, the scientific study of nature would help us understand His mind and conform to His wishes. He became convinced that while God loved a good argument, Christian leaders didn’t, preferring to rule through intimidation rather than persuasion.”  

A large portion of Adam’s religious beliefs had to do with a heart of gratitude toward God. He wrote to a friend, “Shall I censure the conduct of that Being who has poured around me a great profusion of those good things that I really want, because He has kept from me other things that might be improper and fatal to me if I had them? But all of the provision He has made for the gratification of my sense, though very engaging instances of kindness, are much inferior to the provision for the gratification of my nobler powers of intelligence and reason.  

“He has given me reason, to find out the truth and the real design of my existence here, and, has made all endeavors to promote that design agreeable to my mind and attended with a conscious pleasure and complacency.  

“On the contrary, He has made a different course of life, a course of impiety and injustice, of malevolence and intemperance, appear shocking and deformed to my first reflection.  

“He has made my mind capable of receiving an infinite variety of ideas, from those numerous material objects with which we are environed; and of retaining, compounding, and arranging the vigorous impressions which we received from these into all the varieties of picture and of figure.”  

Like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams believed in the utility of religion even when he had doubts about religious beliefs themselves: “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite society, I mean hell.”  

Adams biographer James Grant wrote: “Adams had no patience with the institutionalized structure of religion—synods, councils, convocations, oaths, and confessions—or with the doctrinal controversies that had flared up in the Awakening.”  

But despite his criticisms of the organized church, John Adams was also a conventional church-goer. He was a lifelong member of Braintree’s First Parish Church, which had switched from conservative Congregationalist doctrine to a Unitarian one in the mid-1750s.  

Religion scholar Gary Kowalski noted that “however far Adams ventured, spiritually or physically, he always came back to Braintree and to the meetinghouse where his family had worshiped for generations; and where he would eventually be laid to rest.”  

His wife Abigail was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister who shared her husband’s Unitarian bent. His lifestyle was quite conventional for a man of his position in life, a true public servant. He remained in the church in which he was raised, faithfully attending worship services each week.  

Adams was a longtime friend of Pastor Anthony Wibird of First Parish Church. His loyalty and friendship was not because of the quality of Wibird’s preaching. His son, John Quincy Adams, once said of Wibird’s sermons, “Parson Wibird preached in his usual dull, unanimated strain.”  

But both John and Abigail, John Q’s parents, valued good preaching, and always enjoyed Wibird’s messages.  

As he aged, Adams retained his religious piety while still embracing skepticism. By the end of his life, noted biographer James Grant, said Adams “had rejected the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the infallibility of Scripture, as did many a Boston Unitarian. But he believed in God and in God’s governance of the world.  

He prayed, attended Congregational meetings on Sunday (morning and afternoon), discussed theological questions with fluency and earnestness, and read the Bible.” Adams died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson.  

His last words to his grand-daughter were: “Help me, child! Help me!”  

Our second president, born on this day, October 30th in the year 1735, was a man of action, a man who was destined to make a difference in his world, and a man who was humbled to be a vessel used by a God he didn’t ever claim to fully understand.  

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