By James A. Haught
This is the fifth segment of a series on renowned skeptics throughout history. These profiles are drawn from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.
None of America’s radical founders were traditional Christians. Most were Deists (somewhat forerunners of science-minded Unitarians) who speculated that a Creator had formed the universe and nature, but had nothing to do with churches or Jesus.
One was John Adams (1735-1826), who was sent to Harvard College and pressured to become a clergyman. But Adams chose law. He told a friend that he respected lawyers, but saw in the clergy the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” (letter to Charles Cushing, October 19, 1756)
When Britain imposed the Stamp Act on the colonies in 1765, Adams became a leader of colonial resistance. After his election to the Massachusetts legislature, he attacked British policies. Then he went to Philadelphia in 1774 as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, where he became a chief advocate of independence. Adams proposed creation of a Continental Army, with George Washington as commander.
Two years later, he seconded the motion to break with Britain, and was named to the committee to write a Declaration of Independence. Adams worked with his younger colleague from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, who called him “the colossus of that debate.”
Adams served as envoy to France and Britain, and helped negotiate an end to the Revolution in 1783. In the first elections in 1788 and 1792, he received the second-highest number of electoral votes, making him vice president under President Washington. In the 1796 election, he got three more votes than his fellow radical from Virginia, so he became president and Jefferson vice president.
In the 1790s, political parties took shape. Populist-minded Jefferson and James Madison led the incipient Democrats. Aristocratic Alexander Hamilton and half-aristocratic Adams headed the Federalists. Hamilton turned the 1800 election vicious. He half-heartedly supported Adams as the Federalist nominee for president while leading a Federalist slander campaign that branded Jefferson an atheist. Jefferson narrowly won, and Adams bitterly went home to retirement.
Years later, after President Jefferson also had retired to his farm, a remarkable thing happened: The two men who had been young radical friends, then split as political enemies, reconciled and entered a long period of warm correspondence. Their letter writing focused repeatedly on religion, and they concurred in their scorn for Christianity.
For the remainder of their twilight years, Adams and Jefferson kept up their fond letters. Finally, on July 4, 1826 — the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — the dying Adams spoke his final words: “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” He did not know that Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.
Adams’s views on religion:
“The frightful engines of ecclesiastical councils, of diabolical malice, and Calvinistical good-nature never failed to terrify me exceedingly whenever I thought of preaching.” – letter to his brother-in-law, Richard Cranch, Oct. 18, 1756, explaining why he rejected the ministry
“Numberless have been the systems of iniquity…. The most refined, sublime, extensive, and astonishing constitution of policy that ever was conceived by the mind of man was framed by the Romish clergy for the aggrandizement of their own order….They even persuaded mankind to believe, faithfully and undoubtingly, that God Almighty had entrusted them with the keys of heaven, whose gates they might open and close at pleasure … with authority to license all sorts of sins and crimes … 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. Thus was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude.” – A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” printed in the Boston Gazette, August 1765“… Of all the nonsense and delusion which had ever passed through the mind of man, none had ever been more extravagant than the notions of absolutions, indelible characters, uninterrupted successions, and the rest of those fantastical ideas, derived from the canon law, which had thrown such a glare of mystery, sanctity, reverence, and right reverend eminence and holiness around the idea of a priest as no mortal could deserve … the ridiculous fancies of sanctified effluvia from episcopal fingers….” – ibid
“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature… It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven…. These governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.” – A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1788
“… The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….” – treaty with Tripoli, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by President Adams on June 10, 1797
“Indeed, Mr. Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public? Miracles after miracles have rolled down in torrents.” – letter to Thomas Jefferson, Dec. 3, 1813
“Cabalistic Christianity, which is Catholic Christianity, and which has prevailed for 1,500 years, has received a mortal wound, of which the monster must finally die. Yet so strong is his constitution, that he may endure for centuries before he expires.” – letter to Jefferson, July 16, 1814
“The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles.” – letter to Jefferson, June 20, 1815
“Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.” – letter to his son, John Quincy Adams, Nov. 13, 1816
“As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?” – letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816
“Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!’ But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly [minister and tutor to Adams’s son]. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.” – letter to Jefferson, April 19, 1817
“Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?” – letter to Jefferson, May 19, 1821
“There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself, it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. In America it is not better; even in our own Massachusetts, which I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the states, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigating the divine authority of those books?” – letter to Jefferson, Jan. 23, 1825
“The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning…. And, even since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? The blackest billingsgate, the most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated, and applauded. But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes.” – letter to John Taylor, 1814