It took a lifetime of study and reflection for John Adams to come up with his religious credo. In the end, the self-styled church going animal boiled it down to just four words.
He was an elderly ex-president, free of the public spotlight’s glare, when he finally confessed the essence of his faith to an old rival.
Church going Animal
John Adams spent his decades of rural retirement exchanging rich letters with friends and devouring key volumes on foreign faiths. A descendant of Puritan immigrants, he saw the world while serving as an American statesman in revolutionary Europe. Between his diplomatic tasks, Adams grew fascinated with comparing different religious beliefs. Frequent travel heightened his interest.
Adams was a lifelong student of church and state. He took notes on sermons, looked up biblical references, and explored aspects of ancient Egyptian religion. Writing to old colleague Dr. Benjamin Rush in the summer of 1811, Adams reflected on the pivotal role of religion in his life.
“It is notorious enough, that I have been a Church going Animal for Seventy Six years, i.e. from the Cradle,” he wrote.
A Providential Turn
Like one of his beloved oak trees, Adams’s faith had deep roots in New England culture. As a young man, he studied theology at Harvard College and considered becoming a Congregationalist minister. Back in Braintree, his family parish (now the United First Parish Church of Quincy, Unitarian Universalist), was battling through a controversy.
In John Adams’ words, the church’s new pastor Lemuel Briant was “a jocular and liberal scholar and divine.” A teenaged John Adams heard plenty of Briant’s radical theology. Shedding older Puritan ways, Briant told his community that practicing a Christian life–rather than repeating dogma–would open up a path to salvation, but only if they chose it.
Briant’s sermons sent a ripple. This idea was a fairly new one for worshippers to weigh.
Several local clergy took issue with Briant’s message. As the controversy unspooled, the preacher’s wife left him, after claiming that he had committed “several scandalous sins.”
Church officials launched a full investigation into Briant’s moral character. From 1749 to 1753, Adams kept an eye on the pamphlets that supported or criticized Briant’s beliefs.
“I may say I was born & bred in the centre of Theological & Ecclesiastical controversy,” he recalled. “It broke out like the eruption of a volcano and blazed with portentious aspect for many years.”
Though he agreed with Briant’s spiritual outlook, Adams was troubled by the way that society had treated the minister. Lemuel Briant made it through the inquiry, but his health was broken, and he died in 1754.
To Adams, the whole debate bred a “Spirit of Dogmatism and Bigotry.” He was convinced that pursuing a career in the pulpit would “involve me in endless Altercations and make my Life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow Men.” Far better, he thought, to study law.
By 1765, John Adams had opened his practice and begun a family with wife Abigail. New England’s unique religious history ran alongside his commute between Boston and Braintree.
Take the rows of locust trees lining Salem’s “Witchcraft Hill,” which reminded him of the Puritans’ fiery witchcraft trials, and of “that memorable Victory over the Prince of the Power of the Air.”
He knew little for certain about his own Puritan ancestors, but John Adams was proud to invoke them and their legacy of dissent. When he sat down to write his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law that summer, Adams harkened back to family history. He was anxious to show that “ordinary” men and women could overturn tyranny, no matter the conditions they inherited.
“Their greatest concern seems to have been to establish a government of the church more consistent with the scriptures, and a government of the state more agreable to the dignity of humane nature, than any they had seen in Europe: and to transmit such a government down to their posterity, with the means of securing and preserving it, for ever,” Adams wrote.
The Cost of Freedom
According to John Adams, harnessing Providence’s will with a liberal education had emboldened the Puritans’ Great Migration. He applauded their drive to reform the Church of the England, and to seek out new streams of profit in the early American colonies.
Adams had a political lesson for his peers of 1765, too. He drew on the actions of the “vexed” Puritans to ignite the revolutionary imagination of his family and friends. Adams reminded readers that Puritan colonists had laid their faith in American success, opening schools and carving out towns. Their freedom, he wrote, came at great cost.
“Be it remembred, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker,” he wrote. “But if we had not, our fathers have earned, and bought it for us, at the expence of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”
A World Within
John Adams spent much of the 1770s and the 1780s on the road, traveling first to the Continental Congress, and then serving as an American minister to Europe. As he moved around the Continent, Adams sought out diverse religious experiences in France, the Netherlands, and England. He recorded foreign rituals and new beliefs, and he grew to appreciate the sensory impact of religion.
While he embraced the idea of religious toleration, Adams did not always find it easy to practice. An early experience at a Catholic mass in Philadelphia left him dazzled by the organ music but choking on incense. The “Grandmother Church” had “Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant,” John told Abigail. “I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.” He remained curious about beliefs beyond his own, acquiring books and writing to clergy.
Adams spent his final years at Peacefield, immersed in reading about foreign faiths and cultures. When he and Thomas Jefferson renewed their correspondence in 1812, religion became a favorite subject. “I have been a diligent Student for many years in Books whose Titles you have never Seen,” Adams teased his former rival.
At Jefferson’s request, and after a lifetime of seeking, John Adams unveiled his religious credo: “Be Just and Good.”
Notes on the author of How John Adams Became A “Church going Animal”
Sara Georgini, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., earned her doctorate in history at Boston University. She is the series editor for The Papers of John Adams, part of the Adams Papers editorial project based at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family (Oxford University Press, 2019). Follow her on Twitter: @sarageorgini. This story was updated in 2022.
Images: John Adams. Portrait, pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, ca. 1766. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and United First Parish Church (Unitarian Universalist), Quincy, Massachusetts.