Devoutly religious all his life, John Adams became a confirmed Unitarian. On Sunday, Curry College professor John Hill will lecture on Adam’s religious journey and how it influenced his politics.
More than two centuries before Barack Obama faced questions about his religious background, John Adams knew something about church controversies.
As a boy in Braintree, the future president observed a heresy trial in his own home. Running for re-election in 1800, he saw his supporters call his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, a godless man who would seize their Bibles.
Along the way, Adams took a spiritual path that Curry College professor and author John Hill says in many ways anticipated the nation’s modern embrace of religious equality – including the election of our first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
Born into a conventional Congregational faith, Adams was effectively Unitarian by the time he was elected president. Yet from first to last, “religion was at the center of his life,” said Hill, who will lecture about Adams’ faith and politics Sunday at Christ Episcopal Church.
In a nation where religion has often played a big role in national politics, Adams was a model of what a U.S. political leader should be – a man who often acted from a deeply held faith, but never in a divisive, sectarian way, Hill said.
A self-described “church-going animal,” Adams touted policies “as common democratic ... not religious values,” said Hill, author of “Democracy, Equality and Justice: John Adams, Adam Smith and Political Economy.”
Massachusetts Puritanism was relaxing when Adams was born in 1735. Colonial authorities no longer banished dissenters or hanged Quakers. But Congregationalism was still unchallenged.
Hill said Adams may have been affected by a heresy trial he witnessed as a youth. His father, deacon Thomas Adams, and other leaders at the United First Parish Church charged the church’s minister with Arminianism, which disputed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. The minister was dismissed.
As John Adams grew older, “he abhorred the rigidity of the church he grew up in,” Hill said.
Like his fellow colonists, Adams regarded Catholics with suspicion, even though few lived in Massachusetts. (There were even fewer Jews.) Then, in 1776, he attended a Catholic Mass while in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress.
A few years later, as a European diplomat for the new nation, he visited other churches and observed peaceable relations among Catholic and Protestant countries. He also held negotiations with a Muslim ambassador.
From those encounters, “something happened to him,” Hill said. His views began to broaden. Even so, finding an obvious faith-based root in Adams’ policies and actions is difficult, Hill said.
Like most of the Founding Fathers, he saw a divine hand in the Revolutionary War, though he never campaigned for independence on that claim. Anti-slavery by faith and moral conviction, Adams did not push that view, either, in an effort to make sure the Southern slave colonies supported the patriots’ cause.
Though he attended church twice a day whenever he could, Adams apparently never served as a deacon or in any other formal church role, even after he retired from politics and returned to Quincy.
“He was always too busy,” Hill said.
Lane Lambert may be reached at email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
What: Presentation titled “John Adams: Religious Statesman”
Speaker: John Hill, a professor at Curry College
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Christ Church, 12 Elm Ave., Quincy
More info: Call 617-773-0310 or go to christchurchquincy.org
--A SECOND CHURCH WITH ADAMS TIES
While four generations of the Adams family worshipped at United First Parish – first as Congregationalists, later as Unitarians – Christ Episcopal Church has its own ties to the presidential family.
Christ Church’s pastor, the Rev. Clifford Brown, said first lady Louisa Catherine Adams was an active member of the parish for most of her life.
The wife of President John Quincy Adams was born in England and grew up going to Anglican churches there. She was 26 when she joined Christ Church in 1801, after returning with her husband after his stint as ambassador to Prussia, the Rev. Brown said.
Adams served one term as president, then was a congressman from 1831 until his death in 1848. For all those years, his wife attended Christ Church whenever they were home from Washington. John Quincy Adams, meanwhile, still attended United First Parish, also known as the “Church of the Presidents.”
Louisa Adams died in 1852, a half-century after she joined Christ Church. She is buried with her husband and John and Abigail Adams in a basement crypt in the “Church of the Presidents.”
But her affiliation with Christ Church lives on. Her granddaughter started the first Sunday School there, and several descendants are current members.