David Barton on John Adams – The Trinity

During his appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, David Barton claimed that John Adams believed in the Trinity and avoided discussing the meaning of John Adams letter to Benjamin Rush where Adams invokes the Holy Ghost (at about 9 minutes in the clip).

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Here is a transcript of the exchange:

Stewart: Do you think people would be more comfortable with you if they felt like you were consistently looking to extend historical context and — because there are a lot of critics out there who say you cherry-pick your religious facts, take them out of context — your historical facts — to use them to bolster your argument.

Barton: They’ve never proven that. They’ve claimed that. Show me some documentation where it’s taken out of context. They’ve never provided that. They complain about it.

Stewart: Didn’t they say the John Adams quote, where you talk about, he says, “We were inspired by Divinity.”

Barton: No, I don’t recall him saying that. Have you got the quote?

Stewart: Yeah, let me see if I can find it. [consults notes] Okay, here it is. Here is what you wrote in your book about what Adams said, endorsing the Church being involved in the State: “The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a sacrament can be administered, but by the Holy Ghost, who is transmitted from age to age by laying the hands of the bishop upon the heads of candidates for the ministry. […] There is no authority, civil or religious; there can be no legitimate government, but what is administered by the Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it; all without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words, damnation.” That’s the quote that you used in your book.

Barton: Now, I have the original John Adams letter with me off the set. I brought the original. See, I posted that online; how can I misquote it when I put the whole thing up there. That’s the only John Adams letter in the world that he wrote on that day to that person, and that’s what’s in it. I posted that where everybody can see it, and that’s what we do with our documents.

Stewart: But you have then the sentence after the one, which is: “Although this is all artifice and cunning —”

Barton: Oh, the entire letter is posted. The entire letter is posted.

Stewart: But you can see that the next sentence shows that he’s being sarcastic in that passage.

Barton: Not in — no, not at all. You read the entire letter, Jon — now, see, they’ve given you their critique of it.

Stewart: But how could he say the Holy Ghost — I mean, this man was a Unitarian; why would he claim the Holy Ghost sincerely?

Barton: You know what a Unitarian was then?

Stewart: Yeah, someone who didn’t believe in the Trinity.

Barton: No, no. Not until 1839, long after his death. It did not become —

Stewart: So John Adams believed in the Holy Ghost?

Barton: He believed in the Trinity, and that’s where Unitarian

Stewart cut in at that point with a comment on The Treaty with Tripoli John Adams negotiated with the Barbary pirates. That is another story. For now, I want to address Barton’s claim that Unitarians and John Adams believed in the Trinity. My next post will examine Barton’s use of Adams’ letter to Benjamin Rush where Adams discusses the Holy Ghost.

According to Holley Ulbrichs, author of The Fellowship Movement, and member of the Universalist Unitarian church, Unitarians never believed in the Trinity. Recently, she told me in an email:

In 1819 William Ellery Channing preached a famous sermon in Baltimore at the ordination of Rev. Jared Sparks. The title of his sermon was “Unitarian Christianity.”  That brought to a head an ongoing battle between the religious liberals and the religious conservatives in the Congregational Church, of which John Adams was a member, but on the liberal side.  The American Unitarian Conference, later Association, came into being in 1825, a year before his death (and Thomas Jefferson’s), but both of them were very sympathetic to the anti-Trinitarian views that were at the heart of the controversy.

Unitarians were never okay with the trinity. Hence the name. Most of them like Jesus, but as a prophet, a role model, a nonviolent revolutionary. Not God.

As support for Ulbrich’s statements regarding Adams, I reproduce here an exchange about the doctrine of the Trinity between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. First Jefferson wrote to Adams on August 22, 1813.


Monticello, August 22, 1813.

DEAR SIR,—Since my letter of June the 27th, I am in your debt for many; all of which I have read with infinite delight. They open a wide field for reflection, and offer subjects enough to occupy the mind and the pen indefinitely. I must follow the good example you have set, and when I have not time to take up every subject, take up a single one. Your approbation of my outline to Dr. Priestley is a great gratification to me; and I very much suspect that if thinking men would have the courage to think for themselves, and to speak what they think, it would be found they do not differ in religious opinions as much as is supposed. I remember to have heard Dr. Priestley say, that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all; and I observe a bill is now depending in parliament for the relief of Anti-Trinitarians. It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one…Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe; for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition. (emphasis mine)

Adams wrote to Jefferson in reply and affirmed the same views regarding the Trinity.


QUINCY, September 14, 1813

DEAR SIR,—I owe you a thousand thanks for your favor of August 22d and its enclosures, and for Dr. Priestley’s doctrines of Heathen Philosophy compared with those of Revelation. Your letter to Dr. Rush and the syllabus, I return enclosed with this according to your injunctions, though with great reluctance. May I beg a copy of both?

They will do you no harm; me and others much good.

I hope you will pursue your plan, for I am confident you will produce a work much more valuable than Priestley’s, though that is curious, and considering the expiring powers with which it was written, admirable.

The bill in Parliament for the relief of Anti-Trinitarians, is a great event, and will form an epoch in ecclesiastical history. The motion was made by my friend Smith, of Clapham, a friend of the Belshams.

I should be very happy to hear that the bill is passed.

The human understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted. There can be no scepticism, Pyrrhonism, or incredulity, or infidelity, here. No prophecies, no miracles are necessary to prove the celestial communication.

This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three nor can three be one. We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfillment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, i. e., Nature’s God, that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or prophecies might frighten us out of our wits; might scare us to death; might induce us to lie, to say that we believe that two and two make five. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary.

Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and been admitted to behold the divine Shekinah, and there told that one was three and three one, we might not have had courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it.

Adams ridicules the idea of a trinitarian deity, saying that even if Jefferson and he were the presence of God, they would be unable to believe in the Trinity because it is an unreasonable doctrine. Reason, granted by God, asserted Adams, would prevent such belief.

Historian John Fea, teaching at evangelical Christian Messiah College agrees that Adams rejected the divinity of Christ, hence also the Trinity. Although, as Fea notes, Adams attended different churches, his views settled on a Unitarian theology, very much at odds with orthodox Christianity.

As always, if anyone has information that indicates Adams did believe in the Trinity, please pass it on. For now, it certainly appears that John Adams and the budding Unitarian movement did not hold to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Next up – David Barton on John Adams – The Holy Ghost letter

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Maybe Barton can decide that Adams was really a member of the United Pentecostal Church.


  • Hey, thanks for following up on this. Originally, his statement really threw me for a loop (as a unitarian, but not a theologian or a particular expert in the history this seemed an especially out of left field form of wrong). But your point that this is actually all about misunderstanding unitarian history within the Congregational Church makes everything much more clear, if still wrong… and bizarre. I wrote up another piece about it, here, where I try to mention how you helped uncover this. Thanks!

  • PS: Sorry for missing your response in the other thread until now. I’ll just repeat though, that I think this post gets it. He got the date wrong (and I’m not sure why), but at least part of what he seems to have been thinking of was the 1825 schism. How he got 1839 out of that could be explained multiple ways, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

  • Jayhuck

    These discussions have moved me to read a biography of Ben Franklin, something I am enjoying immensely. While being a great man, one who was interested in virtue and improving himself, he does not come across as a Christian, at least in the sense that most conservative Christians today would understand the term. He did dabble in ideas that can only be labeled as Deistic. I’m only 1/3 of the way through the book so I will share more of his life as is appropriate for this and a few other threads 🙂

    The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

  • Jayhuck

    These discussions have moved me to read a biography of Ben Franklin, something I am enjoying immensely. While being a great man, one who was interested in virtue and improving himself, he does not come across as a Christian, at least in the sense that most conservative Christians today would understand the term. He did dabble in ideas that can only be labeled as Deistic. I’m only 1/3 of the way through the book so I will share more of his life as is appropriate for this and a few other threads 🙂

    The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

  • I trust you’ll forgive me… I’ll be rude here, discourteous, but at least honest. Though that’s a thin excuse for rudeness. All I can say is the unvarnished truth, for you deserve that.

    My immediate reaction was “what a waste”! So many great minds arguing about whether Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny was more “real”.

    Then, on second thought, it seemed that it was more like people arguing whether the USS Enterprise would win over the Battlestar Galactica.

    These fine issues of doctrine, to me, denigrate and demean the message in Matthew 22:39-40 and 1 Corinthians 13. Messages that do not require either Theistic or Deistic belief to be valid, and relevant.

  • David Blakeslee



    The argument here, I think, is whether fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have a right to claim John Adams as a founding father who supported their theological positions.

    Warren, over time, is trying to debunk Evangelical claims on history which are not supported by the facts.

    He is doing this because he has found they have done this with concurrent science regarding SSA; and he believes no one else in the community will do it.

    Given how folks in Uganda use Dominionist beliefs to drive their public policy; he is trying to create, over time, a series of documents to make such movements more easily undermined from an authentic Christian perspective.

    It is an act of Tough Love :).

  • Hijacking a reputation is hardly a rare tactic. Especially if the person is dead.

    This week Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. admonished a black gathering that of course Dr. Martin Luther King would have opposed gay marriage. (Corretta Scott King – whom we must admit has a bit more intimate knowledge of her husband’s thinking – has stated just the opposite.)

    But Jackson admires King and, even more important, knows his audience admires King, so he’ll just put words in King’s mouth.

  • Like Timothy, I think this isn’t an argument over theology as much as theological history. Unitarians have been more or less erased from contemporary mainstream understandings of the establishing of the US. Barton and others who are saying that those unitarians were actually Christians exactly like them are taking this erasure to a new level – where the historical unitarian identity itself is basically rendered into whatever they want it to be.

    This is an on-going tactic against unitarians used by more extreme Protestants – to claim that our forerunners were actually Christians exactly like them but that we’re somehow outside of any definition of Christianity. They’re appropriating our history while othering us. Barton just gave us a great example of how they think about it, that at some point unitarians across the world “lost” their status, conveniently after the unitarian political leaders they want to claim were one of them had died.

    That’s how I at least read it.

  • I wish Stewart had let Barton finish.

    I’m not explicitly a defender of Barton, as he errs frequently [Adams clearly is being mocking in the letter to Rush]. However, if anyone’s actually interested in the truth of the matter without the culture war part, from a recent blog post:

    As a public man, as president, what did America know of John Adams’ “unitarianism”? The answer is, little or nothing.

    President John Adams’ 1798 thanksgiving proclamation explicitly recognizes God the Father, Jesus the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit:

    “I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction…”

    Bold face mine. As we see, the Father is in there, Jesus is still the “Redeemer,” and the existence of the Holy Spirit is acknowledged, not denied.

    Most people, whether in 1798 or in 2011, would see President Adams’ proclamation as explicitly “Christian.” What John Adams believed in private is of some interest, but of little importance. These days, we use the term “Judeo-Christian” to dispose of the question of whether Jesus is God or not anyway. And as we see here, in public, John Adams comes off more Christian than that, not less.

  • tom – I think you have something there. Most people would probably interpret Adams statements through their own views which were predominantly trinitarian. In fact, as you know, Jefferson was interpreted to be a non-believer by the masses, while Adams was viewed as more religious, and hence Christian. However, we find that they were pretty close to each other in belief.

    The problem for Barton is that he needs Jefferson and Adams to be Christian since he makes the case that biblical Christianity is the foundation for the nation. He wants people to believe that Jefferson and Adams were acting out of a basically evangelical faith in their worldview. Well, when you really understand these men, they were not doing that.

  • J P


    Just happened upon your blog. Do you know of anyone who has done a concise and thorough presentation or book on this topic of the balance between what Barton and Pinto seem to be arguing?

    I haven’t seen or read everthing Pinto or Howse have presented over the past couple decades as I work for a living and have little time to follow every “teacher” under the sun. However, from a spectators perspective with limited time and access, it appears that Howse and Pinto are very good about “exposing” and/or critiqueing others, what “positives” have they presented about the pro-Christian founders and teachers of the Revolution times?

    It would be nice to find a balance somewhere that covers it well. I for one, get very tired of both sides focusing on Jefferson and Washington so much. There were hundreds involved in those days and thousands who fought. So, it sure would be nice to find a balanced presentation or book on the subject. I’d write it myself if I had the time and didn’t have to work for a living.

    Do you know of any such balanced analysis with documentation to back it up? It would be nice to know which founders were members of what church and if their “deistic” or “unitarian” views could be documented, as well as those with true Trinitarian views.


    J P

  • JP – I would start with John Fea’s new book on America as a Christian Nation.

  • Ben

    I read an excellent biography on John Quincy Adams, a while back, where he writes home to ‘dad’ (John Adams). Anyone familiar with what I recall… that JQA was further in the evangelical camp than his dad?

    These guys were amazing thinkers, who didn’t bow out of things like theology, and JQA definitely seemed aware that His dad didn’t quite know Jesus as He did, or was starting to. JQA was recommending a sermon, or writing, on Jesus — which I’m sure was undergirding His divinity, don’t recall whether it was Trinitarian focused.

    I think you may have a point on the timing. There was certainly openness / dialog, and they valued that. It looks to me like JQA definitely ended up evangelical / trinitarian.

    But even Jefferson saying that if we can’t conceive of something then we can’t embrace it (the Trinity), may not have been so much a statement of definite Unitarianism, but rather a rejection of a formulaic, rigid, conformity, which they were resentful of.

    I’m no expert, but perhaps in these formative years there were “Unitarians” who may not have rejected Christs divinity, so much as having said, he looks like he’s separate from the Father to me…

    Three persons, on essence, yeah maybe .. just don’t be dogmatic and judge me for not parroting the way you believe in the Trinity.

    Boston, at the time, was definitely the hotbed of Unitarianism, and others outside of Boston, like Washington, could have had nothing to do with it. But again he had associations with Masonry, and didn’t necessarily see the contridiction, which kept up right down to Harry Truman.

    So again, some of these guys if they lived through to our day may have been anti-mason (certainly JQA turned out so), other may have dropped out of church for the lodge, or Unitarianism.

    I don’t think any of us can claim them, unless they were directly involved with something like the First Great Awakening.

  • Michael

    As most religions and denominations do, Unitarians fail to recognize, or flat out deny the evolutionary processes that have shaped their beliefs.

    In the case of Unitarianism (which merged with the Universalists in the mid 20th Century), there are tiny seeds/roots going back to the 2nd Century of the denial of the full Deity of Christ. This slowly grew over centuries, often getting pounded back by church councils, but really began to take off in the mid to late 18th Century – spreading to England and the US with the wave of the “Enlightenment”. Still – Universalism had varying degrees – from full anti-trinitarian views, to somewhat muddy views of Christ (including a mixing with modalism). Was Adams a full-bore anti-trinitarian? It is hard to say – he certainly had such leanings. Does this change the very Christian-like contributions he made to the foundational time of this nation, or the very biblical view his writings, decisions, and actions often followed? Not at all…