David Barton’s Founders’ Bible: John Adams and the General Principles of Christianity

The purpose of David Barton’s Founders’ Bible is to make a case that the founders intended America to be a distinctly Christian nation. This is a multi-layered claim that has been taken up by many historians with many opinions. On this question, I recommend John Fea’s book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: An Historical Introduction. I do not recommend the Founders’ Bible for reasons I have outlined here, here and here today.

In the Founders’ Bible, historical information is selectively cited to craft a political message. In the Founders’ Bible article, “America: A Christian Nation,” Barton provides a dramatically abbreviated quote from John Adams to bolster his position:

This quote is cobbled together from a letter Adams sent to Jefferson as a part of their retirement correspondence.  When Jefferson was Adams’ vice-president, there were great disputes about the direction of government and the men became leaders of opposing sides. After the bitter presidential race of 1800, the two men drifted apart. It was only later after Benjamin Rush played the intermediary that the two men began to explain their positions to each other. The quote in the Founders’ Bible is lifted without context from an exchange of letters which addressed some of those differences in philosophy. On June 15, 1813, Jefferson wrote to Adams about one of those divisions:

One of the questions, you know, on which our parties took different sides, was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, &c. Those who advocated reformation of institutions, pari passu with the progress of science, maintained that no definite limits could be assigned to that progress [Jefferson’s party]. The enemies of reform [Adams’ party], on the other hand, denied improvement, and advocated steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they represented as the consummation of wisdom, and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance. Although in the passage of your answer alluded to, you expressly disclaim the wish to influence the freedom of inquiry, you predict that that will produce nothing more worthy of transmission to posterity than the principles, institutions and systems of education received from their ancestors. I do not consider this as your deliberate opinion. You possess, yourself, too much science, not to see how much is still ahead of you, unexplained and unexplored.

The passage Jefferson referred to is a letter that Adams wrote in reply to certain young men of Philadelphia in 1798. At that time, Adams had urged the men to hold to principles derived from their ancestors. Here is a particularly relevant portion:

Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit in general to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors.

The new nation was still looking for solid ground and faced with many challenges at home and abroad, citizens were staking out political territory. According to Jefferson, the parties disagreed about the nature of science and progress with Adams viewed as more of a traditionalist and Jefferson as the progressive. In the June 28, 1813 reply to Jefferson’s letter, Adams explained his position in more detail. Note the words in bold, these are the ones Barton selectively quoted in the Founders’ Bible. Speaking about the patriots who made up the revolution, Adams wrote:

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

Barton obscures Adams’ meaning by failing to provide the context of the quote and by failing to provide the entire quote. Adams does not give sole credit for achieving independence to the “general principles of Christianity.” He also includes the “general principles of English and American liberty.” The general principles where all could agree would have to be a pretty small subset of principles given the long list of sects and denominations listed by Adams. Also note the religious skeptics (e.g., Bolingbroke, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau)* in his list of philosophers.  The inclusion of these skeptics makes clear that Adams was looking beyond explicitly Christian influences and lauding some general set of principles which could be derived from both Christian and non-Christian sources.

Look again at the fuller quote from Adams. It would be easy to lift several portions of it to say that the nation was founded based on the American and English principles of liberty or on the list of people from Frederic of Prussia forward. Adams clearly saw many influences converging to provide support for independence, a fact obscured by the Founders’ Bible.

 

*For a tongue-in-cheek review of religion by Voltaire, click this link.

Print Friendly

  • JCF

    I can’t decide which bothers me more: that Barton asserts that “(the U.S. of) America was founded as a Christian nation”, or that it would matter to us today even IF it were. >:-/

  • Pingback: Right Wing Round-Up – 10/9/12 « Radical Right Thugs: assassins of gay soul and spirit

  • http://www.ourfoundingtruth.blogspot.com oft

    You wrote Adams clearly saw many influences converging to provide support for independence, a fact obscured by the Founders’ Bible.

    Warren,

    You would have a point if that is what Adams believed. He did not believe what you wrote. He changed his mind after he retired, so what he wrote above is irrelevant. When Adams served the public, he believed, and the people understood he believed, Christianity was the source of our founding.

  • ken

    oft says:

    October 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    “You would have a point if that is what Adams believed. He did not believe what you wrote. ”

    Not what Warren wrote, what Adam’s wrote. Warren cited the entire letter by Adams and showed how Barton misrepresented it. And while I agree with Warren’s conclusions about Adam’s stance when he wrote the letter, others might have a different opinion. Barton certainly did. But the point is Barton deliberately misrepresented the letter and prevented his readers from forming their own opinions about what Adam’s believed.

    “When Adams served the public, he believed, and the people understood he believed, Christianity was the source of our founding.”

    And what is your source for this claim?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

    oft – With Ken, I ask for your source that Adams believed something different during his presidency.

    The point of the exchange between Adams and Jefferson was to explain to each other their earlier positions. Adams letter is an explanation to Jefferson that Adams’ appeal to the ancestors was not meant to exclude the possibility of progress or the influences other than Christianity. Adams references to Voltaire and Bolingbroke does not support you. Adams was explaining and expanding on his earlier position.

  • http://www.ourfoundingtruth.blogspot.com oft

    Ken,

    My source is Adams himself; the big chameleon.

    Warren,

    Adams despised Bolingbroke and Voltaire. He actually ridiculed them. He accused the guys you mention of being libertines (people without Christianity).

    “All Religions are tolerated in America, said M.M., and the Ambassadors have in all Courts a Right to a Chappell in their own Way. But Mr. Franklin never had any. — No said I, laughing, because Mr. F. had no — I was going to say, what I did not say, and will not say here. I stopped short and laughed. — No, said Mr. M., Mr. F. adores only great Nature, which has interested a great many People of both Sexes in his favour. — Yes, said I, laughing, all the Atheists, Deists and Libertines, as well as the Philosophers and Ladies are in his Train — another Voltaire and Hume.” [bold face mine]

    – John Adams. Diary, June 23, 1779.

    Adams repeatedly believed ONLY Christianity is the source of our liberty:

    “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”

    – to Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776.

    Again, the public understood Adams as an orthodox Christian, because everyone else was, who believed the Bible was the source of our founding:

    The gallant Struggle in America, is founded in Principles so indisputable, in the moral Law, in the revealed Law of God, in the true Constitution of great Britain…”

    -John Adams second “Clarendon” letter as printed in the Boston Gazette, 20, Jan. 1766.

    Adams told the other nations he was orthodox and believed in the Deity of Christ:

    “All the epithets I have here given to the Romish policy are just; and will be allowed to be so, when it is considered, that they even persuaded mankind to believe, faithfully and undoubtingly, that God Almighty had intrusted them with the keys of heaven, whose gates they might open and close at pleasure—with a power of dispensation over all the rules and obligations of morality—with authority to license all sorts of sins and crimes—with a power of deposing princes, and absolving subjects from allegiance—with a power of procuring or withholding the rain of heaven, and the beams of the sun—with the management of earthquakes, pestilence and famine.——Nay, with the mysterious, awful, incomprehensible power of creating out of bread and wine, the flesh and blood of God himself. All these opinions they were enabled to spread and rivet among the people, by reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity; and by infusing into them a religious horror of letters and knowledge.” [bold face mine]

    –Adams, to the Calvinist Dutch. AN ESSAY ON Canon and Feudal Law.

    The colonists understood John Adams as an orthodox Christian while he was a public servant. That is all that matters. It wasn’t until later, which is irrelevant, that he said he was unitarian.

  • http://americancreation.blogspot.com Jon Rowe

    OFT, I have come to conclude, cannot figure out context. John Adams was an adult life long unitarian. He had problems with BOTH orthodox Christianity AND hard deism. That’s because his position was somewhere in the middle.

    Here is a letter of Adams’ to Jedidiah Morse (a hard orthodox guy) explaining his position:

    “DEAR DOCTOR,

    “I thank you thank you for your favour of the 10th, and the pamphlet enclosed, entitled, ‘American Unitarianism.’ I have turned over its leaves, and found nothing that was not familiarly known to me. In the preface, Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New-England. I can testify as a witness to its old age. Sixty-five years ago, my own minister, the Rev. Lemuel Bryant; Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, of the West Church in Boston; the Rev. Mr. Shute, of Hingham; the Rev. John Brown, of Cohasset; and perhaps equal to all, if not above all, the Rev. Mr. Gay, of Hingham, were Unitarians. Among the laity how many could I name, lawyers, physicians, tradesmen, farmers!…More than fifty years ago, I read Dr. Clarke, Emlyn, and Dr. Waterland: do you expect, my dear doctor, to teach me any thing new in favour of Athanasianism? — There is, my dear Doctor, at present existing in the world a Church Philosophick. as subtle, as learned, as hypocritical, as the Holy Roman Catholick, Apostolick, and Ecumenical Church. The Philosophical Church was originally English. Voltaire learned it from Lord Herbert, Hobbes, Morgan, Collins, Shaftsbury, Bolingbroke, &c. &c. &c. You may depend upon it, your exertions will promote the Church Philosophick, more than the Church Athanasian or Presbyterian. This and the coming age will not be ruled by inquisitions or Jesuits. The restoration of Napoleon has been caused by the resuscitation of inquisitors and Jesuits.

    I am and wish to be

    Your friend,

    JOHN ADAMS”

    Quincy, May 15th, 1815.

  • Jon Rowe

    OFT has a problem with reading things into the record that aren’t there.

    “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”

    – to Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776.

    Adams uses the word “religion” generally, NOT Christianity. There are many quotations showing Adams as a unitarian or as Gregg Frazer terms it “theistic rationalist” believes all religions — INCLUDING CHRISTIANITY, but others too — are valid.

    Here is but one: “This moral liberty resides in Hindoos and Mahometans, as well as in Christians;…”

    – John Adams to John Taylor.

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2104&chapter=159956&layout=html&Itemid=27

  • http://www.gettingjeffersonright.com Warren

    Jon – I conclude the same. Thanks for the citations.

  • Timothy Kincaid

    Oh the Lies those liberals tell about the founders. Clearly they were influenced solely by Newton. As this proves:

    In favor of these general principles, in … government, I could fill sheets of quotations from … Newton {ignore the ellipses}

  • Timothy Kincaid

    “Again, the public understood Adams as an orthodox Christian, because everyone else was…”

    I’m not an expert in Early American theology, but even I know the absurdity of that statement. It’s that circular type of thinking which is used to validate one’s own prejudices:

    Person X agrees with me.

    because everyone at Person X’s time agrees with me.

    And we know everyone agrees with me because

    Person X is indicative of that time and Person X’s agrees with me.

  • Timothy Kincaid

    oft,

    I don’t get your point here:

    “All the epithets I have here given to the Romish policy are just; and will be allowed to be so, when it is considered, that they even persuaded mankind to believe, faithfully and undoubtingly, that God Almighty had intrusted them with the keys of heaven, whose gates they might open and close at pleasure—with a power of dispensation over all the rules and obligations of morality—with authority to license all sorts of sins and crimes—with a power of deposing princes, and absolving subjects from allegiance—with a power of procuring or withholding the rain of heaven, and the beams of the sun—with the management of earthquakes, pestilence and famine.——Nay, with the mysterious, awful, incomprehensible power of creating out of bread and wine, the flesh and blood of God himself. All these opinions they were enabled to spread and rivet among the people, by reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity; and by infusing into them a religious horror of letters and knowledge.”

    Adams is criticizing the Catholic Church for presuming to control sunbeams and rain and even in turning wine into blood. He’s mocking these claims, not supporting them. He says that the Catholic Church encouraged ignorance and blind belief and fear of knowledge.

  • http://www.ourfoundingtruth.blogspot.com oft

    Tim,

    Your are missing the point, just as Jon and Warren fail to properly discern what they read.

    Adams is calling Jesus Christ, God–to appease the Dutch. The Dutch were highly Calvinist. That’s why everyone believed Adams was orthodox. It wasn’t till after he retired, that he let the cat out of the bag.

  • http://aebrain.blogspot.com Zoe Brain

    they even persuaded mankind to believe, faithfully and undoubtingly, that God Almighty had intrusted them… with a power of procuring or withholding the rain of heaven, and the beams of the sun—with the management of earthquakes, pestilence and famine…. All these opinions they were enabled to spread and rivet among the people, by reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity; and by infusing into them a religious horror of letters and knowledge.”

    Reverend Jesten Peters of Keys of Authority Ministries told the Christian Broadcasting Network that her organization successfully prayed Isaac away from Tampa, Right Wing Watch reports.

    Said Peters:

    “We have had lots and lots of people praying around the clock that it would move, and after you watch from the very beginning where they were saying it was coming and now where they say it is going, then it has really moved out of the way for us and we appreciate God doing that and moving it for us!”

    Read more: http://www.towleroad.com/2012/08/peters.html#ixzz28ykIHoH5

  • Richard Willmer

    Perhaps Ms. Peters should be renamed ‘Reverend Mother Nature’?! LOL!

    Of course, I am very pleased that the hurricane did less damage than it might have done, although it did hit some places already racked by poverty … maybe some prayers for such places (e.g. Haiti) would be a good idea in the future?

  • Krista Vessell

    I’ve noticed that some people have a very difficult time discerning between concepts of morality and general principles of an ethical nature that have traits in common with Christianity, and Christian DOCTRINE.

    The founders mentioned many MANY times about the importance of the GENERAL principles of Christianity….but considering that they were also VERY well educated about different religions and beliefs dating from antiquity, the word “general” is very important. That word is what distinguishes from Christian DOCTRINE. So many of the “general principles” of Christianity can be found in just about every other religion or belief system somewhere, and those “general principles,” if they are the same as the Christian ones, are just as valid, are they not?

    And you can’t ignore the fact that John Adams even mentioned Deists and ATHEISTS in his list of people who were united by these “general principles” of Christianity AND “general principles of English and American liberty.”

    In other words…I’m pretty sure nearly everyone can agree that murder should be a punishable offense, regardless of your religion. The details are what muddle things up (God commanding the Israelites to murder entire cultures of people, calls to violence from Imams, etc.), but the GENERAL principle of “love thy neighbor” and “thou shalt not kill” are found not only in a wide range of religions, but even secular (religiously neutral) systems such as the Code of Hammurabi. Applying GENERAL principles such as these to our government does NOT make America a “Christian nation,” and mentioning them does not make Adams a proponent of religious intolerance and Christian exclusivity in our government.

  • http://www.ourfoundingtruth.blogspot.com oft

    Krista,

    What evidence do you have the framers were taught Islam, buddhism, hinduism, etc.?

  • Richard Willmer

    I think the general point behind Krista’s comment is very well made: I for one certainly want to see a society based on ‘core Christian principles’, such as the Golden Rule (it was, reportedly, Christ who coined that rule – though others have said similar things, of course), but would never want to see some kind of theocracy supplanting democracy, or the human rights of those who are not Christian compromised.

    I can’t comment on the specifics of Adam’s perspective – I’m not knowledgeable enough to do that.

  • Krista Vessell

    Oft, that’s a loaded question. I never said the founders were “taught” about other religions. I said they were well aware of other religions, either by schooling or through their own study. Which one, I don’t know, but I have read enough of their letters referencing things like Jewish mysticism, Roman and Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, etc….NOT “Christian” men), and yes, even Hinduism, etc…, where I had to do research just to understand what they were talking about.

    November 26th, 1785 Letter from Richard Henry Lee to James Madison –

    “The declaration of Rights, it seems to me, rather contends against forcing modes of faith and forms of worship, than against compelling contribution for the support of religion in general. I fully agree with the presbyterians, that true freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo as well as the Xn religion. And upon this liberal ground I hope our Assembly will conduct themselves”

    Mahomitan = Muslim. Gentoo = Hindu. Yeah…they were aware of other religions. Oh, and Mr. Lee even used the word “liberal”! No wonder Barton doesn’t mention him…

    Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, pg. 8 –

    “Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed (Mohammed) inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.”

    Rush goes on to suggest that, although “…it is improper to fill the minds of youth with religious prejudices of any kind, and that they should be left to choose their own principles, after they have arrived at an age in which they are capable of judging for themselves,” he also says:

    “Could we preserve the mind in childhood and youth a perfect blank, this plan of education would have more to recommend it; but this we know to be impossible.”

    This being the case, he offers his opinion that Christianity should be the basis for introducing youth to religion, but went on to explain: “…I add further, that if our youth are disposed after they are of age to think for themselves, a knowledge of one system, will be the best means of conducting them in a free enquiry into other systems of religion, just as an acquaintance with one system of philosophy is the best introduction to the study of all the other systems in the world.”

    Again, this is hardly proof of Barton’s arguments that the founding fathers wanted the government to be founded on the Christian religion, and that Christianity is the only worthwhile religion to teach our youths. They may have had opinions about the importance of Christianity (and no one can deny that educating our children about religion is necessary if they are to have a well-rounded education), but they also had enough understanding of other religions and cultures so as not to blind themselves and “paint themselves into a corner,” so to speak, with regards to strict adherence to a particular religion (Christianity, for ex.) with intolerance toward all others.

    There are several other examples; I encourage you to take the initiative to research them. I can only do so much work for people…

  • Pingback: Here we come a wassail-link | Fraser Sherman's Blog


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X