John Adams On The Catholic Mass

While looking for something else, I read that American Founding Father John Adams had made some disparaging comments about the Catholic Mass.

I thought, hey, interesting, and looked them up. Here they are, in a letter to his wife:

I am wearied to death with the life I lead. The business of the Congress is tedious beyond expression…

This day I went to Dr. Allison’s meeting in the forenoon, and hear the Dr.; a good discourse upon the Lord’s supper. . . . This is a Presbyterian meeting. I confess I am not fond of Presbyterian meetings in this town. . . . And I must confess that the Episcopal Church is quite agreeable to my taste as the Presbyterian. They are both slaves to the domination of the priesthood. I like the Congregational way best, next to that Independent.

This afternoon, led by curiosity and good company, I strolled away to mother church, or rather grandmother church. I mean the Romish chapel. I heard a good, short moral essay upon the duty of parents to their children, founded in justice and charity, to take care of their interests, temporal and spiritual. This afternoon’s entertainment was to me most awful and affecting; the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood; their pater nosters and ave Marias; their holy water; their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it; their bowings, kneelings and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich white lace. His pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar-piece was very rich, little images and crucifixes about; wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Savior in a frame of marble over the altar, at full length, upon the cross in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds! The music, consisting of an organ and a choir of singers, went all the afternoon except sermon time, and the assembly chanted most sweetly and exquisitely.

Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination–everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell. Adieu.

Now, those aren’t kind words. But I think through them shines forth something else.

When you google up that letter, you’ll see titles like, “John Adams, Anti-Catholic Bigot!!!!” And sure, maybe he was–America was certainly rife with anti-Catholic bigotry in those days.

But I think here we have someone who was struck by the reality of the Mass, which is a breaking through of the Eschaton into this world of dust, a little piece and moment of Heaven. The phrase “I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell” is disparaging, of course, but I don’t think you write that if you haven’t been struck.

Of course, once you’ve been pierced with such an arrow, the natural psychological response is to throw away those feelings, as far as possible. Oh, it’s just a spell.

I don’t know what came of it, but Adams was probably touched by the Holy Spirit on that day.

The Liturgy is our greatest tool of evangelization, and let us never forget it.

P.S. Somebody who has a problem with our Savior portrayed on the Cross, as he was, with blood dripping, doesn’t understand Christianity. Ecce Homo.


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  • njmkw

    Well, Adams was a unitarian, wasn’t he?

  • Jonathan

    I can relate to Adams. I went to Holy Thursday and Good Friday services for the first time this year and was struck by the power of the ceremonies (priest prostrate before the alter, the people removing the Host to the lower chapel and kneeling/chanting, the stripped alter on Good Friday). The Catholic Church- then and now-knows how to do liturgy.

  • Brodi

    Go to a Lutheran mass…we haven’t “broken the spell.”