Jefferson’s Syncretism & Adams’ Belief in Biblical Errancy

[This one was originally from 2007 and is edited.]

John Adams, rejecting biblical inerrancy, wrote:

What suspicions of interpolation, and indeed fabrication, might not be confuted if we had the originals! In an age or in ages when fraud, forgery, and perjury were considered as lawful means of propagating truth by philosophers, legislators, and theologians, what may not be suspected?

— John Adams, marginal note in John Disney’s Memoirs (1785) of Arthur Sykes. Haraszti, Prophets of Progress, 296. Taken from James H. Hutson, The Founders on Religion, p. 26.

Adams was so suspicious of the accuracy of the Bible’s text that he doubted it contained the correct version of the Ten Commandments. Notice how he uses terms like “error” and “amendment” to describe what’s contained in the Bible:

When and where originated our Ten Commandments? The Tables and The Ark were lost. Authentic copies, in few, if any hands; the ten Precepts could not be observed, and were little remembered.

If the Book of Deuteronomy was compiled, during of after the Babilonian Captivity, from Traditions, the Error or Amendment might come in there.

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 14, 1813.

Adams makes clear that the “corruptions of Christianity” had seeped into the Bible:

We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James’s Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better, to apply these pious subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity, than to propagate these corruptions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America!

— John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, November 4, 1816. Taken from James H. Hutson, The Founders on Religion, p. 143.

And of course, in 1787-1788, Adams declared that the United States was founded on man’s reason and the senses, and a treaty from his administration declared the United States was in no sense founded on the Christian religion.

Likewise the reader accepted Jefferson’s unitarianism but was skeptical about Jefferson’s syncretism. Jefferson’s 1809 letter to James Fishback evinces his belief in the validity of most or all world religions:

Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. Yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, and now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers &c. Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world! We all agree in the obligation of the moral precepts of Jesus; but we schismatize and lose ourselves in subtleties about his nature, his conception maculate or immaculate, whether he was a god or not a god, whether his votaries are to be initiated by simple aspersion, by immersion, or without water; whether his priests must be robed in white, in black, or not robed at all; whether we are to use our own reason, or the reason of others, in the opinions we form, or as to the evidence we are to believe. It is on questions of this, and still less importance, that such oceans of human blood have been spilt, and whole regions of the earth have been desolated by wars and persecutions, in which human ingenuity has been exhausted in inventing new tortures for their brethren. It is time then to become sensible how insoluble these questions are by minds like ours, how unimportant, and how mischievous; and to consign them to the sleep of death, never to be awakened from it. … We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions. [My emphasis.]

Jefferson also made clear that good people of all religions get into Heaven because of their works. From his September 18, 1813 letter to William Canby:

I believe…that he who steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ. That on entering there, all these are left behind us, and the Aristides and Catos, the Penns and Tillotsons, Presbyterians and Baptists, will find themselves united in all principles which are in concert with the reason of the supreme mind.

Aristides and Cato were pagans. The pagan Cato was George Washington’s hero. Indeed, when called upon to explain his belief in the afterlife, Washington invoked a pagan authority for such. From his letter to Annis Boudinot Stockton 31 August 1788:

But with Cicero in speaking respecting his belief of the immortality of the Soul, I will say, if I am in a grateful delusion, it is an innocent one, and I am willing to remain under its influence….I can never trace the concatenation of causes, which led to these events, without acknowledging the mystery and admiring the goodness of Providence. To that superintending Power alone is our retraction from the brink of ruin to be attributed.

Washington certainly doesn’t sound like an orthodox Christian in that passage. Indeed, he, like the other theistic rationalist American Founders, was imbibed in pagan Greco-Romanism. You have to wonder why, if they were almost all committed orthodox Christians, the, for instance, authors of the Federalists Papers (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay) would choose a pagan Greco-Roman surname — “Publius” — as opposed to a Hebraic one. Jay was perhaps the only orthodox Christian out of those three. But he wrote a measly five essays compared to Hamilton’s fifty-one and Madison’s twenty-nine. And in any event, though the series has a few nominal references to a generic “Providence,” there is no mention of Jesus, the Bible or citations of verses and chapters of Scripture. If the US Constitution had any connection whatsoever to the Bible or “Christian principles,” that series would seem the perfect place to so tell us. But they don’t.

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15 Responses to Jefferson’s Syncretism & Adams’ Belief in Biblical Errancy

  1. James Hanley says:

    Yeah, but they were fringe founders, you know.

  2. OFT says:

    Jon,

    You already are not unaware that John Adams made this quote after he retired, which would have no bearing on this subject. Adams clearly believed in biblical inerrancy as he read it, until after he retired. The quote you post was made after he retired, which you admit:

    What suspicions of interpolation, and indeed fabrication, might not be confuted if we had the originals! In an age or in ages when fraud, forgery, and perjury were considered as lawful means of propagating truth by philosophers, legislators, and theologians, what may not be suspected?

    – John Adams, marginal note in John Disney’s Memoirs (1785) of Arthur Sykes. Haraszti, Prophets of Progress, 296. Taken from James H. Hutson, The Founders on Religion, p. 26.

    That’s how the footnote looks in James Hutson’s excellent quote book. However, in reading the original “Prophets of Progress” in context, it’s likely that the 1785 refers to the date of John Disney’s Memoirs; Adams’ comment was likely done later.

    What suspicions of interpolation, and indeed fabrication, might not be confuted if we had the originals! In an age or in ages when fraud, forgery, and perjury were considered as lawful means of propagating truth by philosophers, legislators, and theologians, what may not be suspected?

    – John Adams, marginal note in John Disney’s Memoirs (1785) of Arthur Sykes. Haraszti, Prophets of Progress, 296. Taken from James H. Hutson, The Founders on Religion, p. 26.

    “That’s how the footnote looks in James Hutson’s excellent quote book. However, in reading the original “Prophets of Progress” in context, it’s likely that the 1785 refers to the date of John Disney’s Memoirs; Adams’ comment was likely done later.”

    John Adams changed his views, just as some of the other FF’s. The below quote supports the fact JA denounced anyone as a traitor who denied biblical inerrancy. This quote is from 1778, not 1813. JA leaves no doubt what a person is that denies it “The man who can think of it with patience is a traitor.”

    “The idea of infidelity cannot be treated with too much resentment or too much horror. The man who can think of it with patience is a traitor in his heart and ought to be execrated [denounced] as one who adds the deepest hypocrisy to the blackest treason.

    -John Adams to James Warren on August 4, 1778.
    http://jonrowe.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_archive.html

    I firmly believe JA could have rejected his unitarianism had someone shown him the many scriptures saying the Messiah would be eternal God in human flesh, such Micah 5:2 in the O.T:

    But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

  3. OFT says:

    Jon,

    Sorry, for butchering that previous post. Please delete it.

    You already are not unaware that John Adams made this quote after he retired, which would have no bearing on this subject. Adams clearly believed in biblical inerrancy as he read it, until after he retired. The quote you post was made after he retired, which you admit:

    “That’s how the footnote looks in James Hutson’s excellent quote book. However, in reading the original “Prophets of Progress” in context, it’s likely that the 1785 refers to the date of John Disney’s Memoirs; Adams’ comment was likely done later.”
    http://jonrowe.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_archive.html

    John Adams changed his views, just as some of the other FF’s. The below quote supports the fact JA denounced anyone as a traitor who denied biblical inerrancy. This quote is from 1778, not 1813. JA leaves no doubt what a person is that denies it “The man who can think of it with patience is a traitor.”

    “The idea of infidelity cannot be treated with too much resentment or too much horror. The man who can think of it with patience is a traitor in his heart and ought to be execrated [denounced] as one who adds the deepest hypocrisy to the blackest treason.

    -John Adams to James Warren on August 4, 1778.

    I firmly believe JA could have rejected his unitarianism had someone shown him the many scriptures saying the Messiah would be eternal God in human flesh, such Micah 5:2 in the O.T:

    But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

  4. Jon Rowe says:

    OFT,

    There is no evidence that JA — a lifelong unitarian — changed his views when you say he did. And that’s because you err in your understanding of what JA meant by “infidelity” which didn’t mean rejecting inerrancy but someone to someone’s religious left. Thomas Paine or Hume were “infidels” to Adams (even in 1813!), but JA was an “infidel” to the orthodox even in 1750 simply because that’s when he claims to have been a “unitarian.”

    Likewise you are an “infidel” to Muslims.

  5. Matty says:

    OFT, Firstly I rather doubt that Mr Adams was unaware of counter arguments against his position. Second, while the passage you quote is certainly compatible with the divinity of Jesus I think it is stretching matters to think a reader can conclude that divinity from the passage alone. In fact my first thought was to be reminded of a piece I once read that argued that Orthodox Jews were right to reject Jesus because the Messianic prophecies refer to a ruler or king, which he was not in any literal sense.

  6. OFT says:

    Jon,

    I believe the word infidel meant exactly what the Church, and public understood it to mean; a denial of the scriptures. I am going to take the definition of the public, and Noah Webster, over your interpretation of it, and I believe I’m on solid ground doing it.

    There’s plenty of evidence JA changed his views:

    “The great and almighty Author of nature, who at first established those rules which regulate the World, can as easily Suspend those Laws whenever his providence sees sufficient reason for such suspension. This can be no objection, then, to the miracles of J [Jesus] C [Christ].”

    – Adams Diary, March, 1756.

    We know JA after he retired rejected that God could suspend the Laws of Nature.

    Where is their a quote from JA saying Hume or Paine were infidels after he retired? If you find him using that word for them, then you win this debate.

    JA was not an infidel to the public while in office, because he and the unitarians believed the Bible did not teach Jesus was God.

  7. OFT says:

    Matty,

    In Micah 5, the King James Translators, actually Jews, add the word “eternal” after everlasting. How can someone read that and not know the Messiah was eternal? The passage specifically mentions the Messiah.

    This is just one of the many passages, which the Church has interpreted for 2000 years.

    In fact my first thought was to be reminded of a piece I once read that argued that Orthodox Jews were right to reject Jesus because the Messianic prophecies refer to a ruler or king, which he was not in any literal sense.

    The Bible says in at least fifty verses, that the Messiah’s Kingdom would be in the future, in the Millenium. Daniel 9, and Zechariah 11, specifically say the Messiah would be “Karat” killed for his people.

    To this day, the Jews are only concerned about their nation living in peace from human aggressors. Satan, and death, is the real aggressor. They missed the trees for the forest. Ask a Jew what is God’s redemption for man, and how that works? God tried to show them, from Abraham to Zechariah, 1500 years, with sacrificing animals to cover their sin and what that meant.

  8. OFT says:

    Jon,

    I would also add Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, still one of the greatest dictionaries ever written, from which, Noah Webster copied many of his definitions, repeatedly wrote “infidelity” was a denial of inerrancy of the Scriptures.
    http://books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&dq=life+of+samuel+johnson&sig=hMvakFU2RRZn3kVWKftE_ip-Q5Q&ei=tC6ZTP_WHoaKlwfVrOB4&ct=result&pg=PA247&id=A9NU1Zpl3x8C&ots=LVXvnyIBqT#v=onepage&q=infidelity&f=false

    I will say the general public in the 18th century, believed the word “infidelity” meant a rejection of the Scriptures as Divine. I could be wrong, but this is what I believe the public believed.

  9. Matty says:

    Sorry I’m not getting into a debate about biblical interpretation. My point was the more general one that when people disagree about what a text means you are unlikely to solve the argument just by getting them to read it again. The meaning may be obvious to you but it doesn’t follow that it is for everyone or that if someone reaches a different conclusion we must assumw they haven’t read it, as you imply with respect to Mr Adams. There may be echoes here of the constitutional interpretation debate but if so I will leave those who understand that to decide if we have anything worth expanding on.

  10. Jon Rowe says:

    The problem with your reasoning OFT is there is what the churches officially held, what the public believed and what an individual founder believed re meaning of words and they all could differ.

    “Infidel” didn’t have a univocal meaning just as “Christianity” didn’t. To the churches “Christianity” meant belief in a Triune God and we know that John Adams didn’t abide by that definition. What makes you think he abided by their or Webster’s definition of “infidel”?

    I have also provided evidence before in the past that simply denying the Trinity (regardless of what you thought of scripture) made you an “infidel” in the minds of the “orthodox.” Hence Adams since 1750 was an “infidel” according to some orthodox understanding of the term.

    I think I can meet your challenge, though, and find Adams in 1810+ period calling those to his religious left “infidel.” I’ll look for it.

  11. OFT says:

    The problem with your reasoning OFT is there is what the churches officially held, what the public believed and what an individual founder believed re meaning of words and they all could differ.

    There were no churches that officially held what you are talking about. I could pull up countless periodicals from that time, and “infidelity” means the same thing. There would be major problems if no one had a general definition of words.

    “Infidel” didn’t have a univocal meaning just as “Christianity” didn’t. To the churches “Christianity” meant belief in a Triune God and we know that John Adams didn’t abide by that definition. What makes you think he abided by their, or Webster’s definition of “infidel“?

    I’m only saying he thought the word meant what the dictionaries, and people thought it meant. Publically, no one at that time knew he disagreed with the Church. Both terms had a public understanding definition. A private understanding what a word means doesn’t count. Think if someone had that belief for every word. It’s chaos.

    I have also provided evidence before in the past that simply denying the Trinity (regardless of what you thought of scripture) made you an “infidel” in the minds of the “orthodox.” Hence Adams since 1750 was an “infidel” according to some orthodox understanding of the term.

    It only made one an infidel if that person went public with his views, like Priestley.

    I think I can meet your challenge, though, and find Adams in 1810+ period calling those to his religious left “infidel.” I’ll look for it.

    I doubt you’re going to find it; in 1813, why would he call someone an infidel, when he knew he was an infidel himself, under the guise of his own reason?

  12. James Hanley says:

    It only made one an infidel if that person went public with his views

    So it wasn’t possible to be a private infidel? OFT, you crack me up. You don’t happen to work as a writer for John Stewart, do you?

  13. OFT says:

    “It only made one an infidel if that person went public with his views”

    So it wasn’t possible to be a private infidel?

    A straw-man and Non sequitur in the same sentence. I never said being a private infidel was impossible. The context refers to what the public understands, and the public could not understand if JA was an infidel unless they knew JA was an infidel.

  14. James Hanley says:

    OFT, nice try, but no cigar. You said a person could only be an infidel if they went public. Your words state that going public with those views makes one an infidel.

    If you didn’t express yourself clearly, man up or get out. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed on the latter, but you’re a persistent little pest.)

  15. Pingback: John Adams, Yankee v. Samuel Adams, Puritan « Hysteriography

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