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Saturday, December 5, 2009

More on John Adams' Religion and Thanksgiving Proclamations

Over at his excellent blog Boston, 1775 (a blog that you really must check out if you haven't already), historian J.L. Bell has recently put together a series of posts on the religion of John Adams, with particular emphasis being given to his presidential Thanksgiving proclamations.

To start things off, Bell cites John Adams' 1812 letter to Benjamin Rush, in which he laments his decision to issue a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation:
The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.
And while the aforementioned letter seems to affirm Adams' belief that his Thanksgiving proclamation cost him the election with Jefferson, Mr. Bell points out that Thanksgiving proclamations, though apparently regrettable for Adams, were actually quite popular in early America:
Authors have accepted a lot of Adams’s late-life recollections and analyses uncritically, but not this one. The notion that a Thanksgiving proclamation was the most unpopular of Adams’s acts in office seems incredible.

In fact, the American government had already proclaimed occasional Thanksgiving holidays, and they seemed to be popular. The Congress declared one on 18 Dec 1777 (though with Philadelphia under British control, members had less to be thankful for). When Adams’s predecessor, George Washington, issued such a proclamation in 1789, he noted that “both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested” it.
As a child of Puritan Massachusetts, the language of Adams' thanksgiving proclamations are distinct from his predecessors. As Mr. Bell points out:
I think the crucial difference is what Adams asked people to do. He proclaimed a day of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” with “fervent thanksgiving” as an afterthought. In contrast, the Congress and Washington asked Americans to pray and give thanks, but they didn’t mention humiliation or fasting.

Fasting was the basis of the New England Puritans’ Thanksgiving tradition. The big dinner came only at the end of a day spent in church while eating little and feeling sinful. Adams’s holiday proclamations weren’t meant to produce “an Establishment of a National Church,” as he claimed his enemies said, but they did try to spread one form of worship nationwide.

[...]

Finally, religious orthodoxy was also a dividing line between Adams and his rival Thomas Jefferson, at least as the Federalist press portrayed the two men. (In reality, they weren’t far apart in their beliefs.) The 1799 proclamation’s warning about “principles, subversive of the foundations of all religious, moral, and social obligations,” clearly tried to claim all religion and morality for one side—the anti-French Revolution side—of the U.S. of A.’s politics.
Perhaps this helps to explain why Adams later regretted his Thanksgiving proclamation. In terms of his personal religious beliefs, Adams was far closer to Thomas Jefferson than to his Puritan roots. And as we all know, Jefferson himself abstained from making such proclamations during his two terms in office. One could easily imagine seeing Adams in his later years kicking himself for making a religious proclamation that did not fit very well with his personal beliefs.

With this said, we must keep in mind that John Adams was very difficult to pin down on many topics -- religion being just one. His personal writings are chalked full of highs and lows; ups and downs. Surely the man would have benefited from a little Prozac in his system (though I doubt he would have taken it!). In conclusion, I will cite Mr. Bell's illustration of just how difficult John Adams can be to pin down on matters of religion:
Adams’s statements on religion also tended to be personal. Not in the sense that, as Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Rather, personal in the sense that Adams often thought he was being personally and unfairly attacked—he even took that as a sign of his virtue. He therefore spent a lot of ink refuting what he thought others might say about him.

Here, for example, is more context for the quotation above about how he saw “Religion and Virtue” as fundamental:
I agree with you in Sentiment that Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free Government, but of social felicity under all Governments and in all the Combinations of human Society. But if I should inculcate this doctrine in my Will, I should be charged with Hypocrisy and a desire to conciliate the good will of the Clergy towards my Family as I was charged by Dr. [Joseph] Priestley and his Friend [Thomas] Cooper and by Quakers, Baptists and I know not how many other sects, for instituting a National Fast, for even common Civility to the Clergy, and for being a Church going animal. . . .

If I should inculcate those “National, Social, domestic and religious virtues” you recommend, I should be suspected and charged with an hypocritical, Machiavilian, Jesuitical, Pharisaical attempt to promote a national establishment of Presbyterianism in America, whereas I would as soon establish the Episcopal Church, and almost as soon the Catholic Church. . . .

If I should recommend the Sanctification of the Sabbath like a divine, or even only a regular attendance on publick Worship as a means of moral Instruction and Social Improvement like a Phylosopher or Statesman, I should be charged with vain ostentation again, and a selfish desire to revive the Remembrance of my own Punctuality in this Respect, for it is notorious enough that I have been a Church going animal for seventy six years i.e. from the Cradle; and this has been alledged as one Proof of my Hypocrisy.
As you can see, this letter was almost all about how the many enemies of John Adams would distort whatever he said, so he was best off saying nothing. We have to dig beneath his self-pitying declarations to find out how he viewed religion, as opposed to how he suspected or hoped people viewed him.

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