EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of articles by historian Bruce Gourley on the religious faith of U.S. presidents. Gourley is online editor and contributing writer for Baptists Today and executive director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society. His latest book, Baptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of Faith and Freedom, a compilation of articles from the recent series on Baptists and the American Civil War, is now available from Nurturing Faith.
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
As a young child, John Quincy Adams watched the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill at Boston, not far from his 1767 birthplace of Braintree (now Quincy), Mass. The Revolutionary War won during his teenage years, in early adulthood he followed with keen interest the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution.
When not observing the foundational events of the American nation, young Adams, the son of a diplomat and future president, traveled to France, Holland and Russia before graduating from Harvard in 1787.
The youthful Adams did more than follow in his father’s political footsteps. Raised in his parents’ Unitarian (Congregational) church, the First Parish Church of Braintree, Adams as a young adult chose to remain in the faith as he settled into his own career.
Admitted to the bar in 1791, Adams briefly practiced law in Boston, near his hometown of Quincy. Although seemingly satisfied with the life of a lawyer, the world beckoned yet again.
Returning to Europe in 1794, Adams for three years served as President George Washington’s minister to the Netherlands. In this capacity he played a small role in effecting the Jay Treaty of 1795, an agreement averting a second war with Great Britain. Evidencing his confidence in Adams, Washington called him “the most valuable public character now abroad.”
Heritage and experience propelled the younger Adams ever upward. Now married — to Louisa Catherine Johnson, British-born daughter of an American consul — Adams served as minister to Prussia during his father’s presidency, afterward entering elective politics.
First voted into the Massachusetts legislature, he then served a term in the U.S. Senate prior to an 1809 appointment by James Madison as America’s first minister to Russia. During this time Adams led the American delegation in the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812.
A brief appointment as minister to Britain followed, after which Adams with his family returned to America to serve as secretary of state for the two terms of James Monroe’s presidency.
While in the Senate, Adams taught part time at Harvard, but only after securing a waiver from signing the faculty declaration of religious conformity. Nonetheless appreciative of the Christian scriptures, Adams as secretary of state assumed a position as a vice president of the American Bible Society, remaining in that capacity until his death.
He wrote: “In accepting the appointment I am duly sensible to the honour conferred upon me by this invitation to join the assembly of those whose voices in unison with the heavenly host at the birth of the Saviour, proclaim good tidings of great joy to all people.”
A devoted churchman, in 1821 he helped found First Unitarian Church (now All Souls Church) in the District of Columbia.
Seeking the presidency in 1824, Adams vied for the position as one of five candidates. None obtained a majority electoral vote, sending the election to the House of Representatives for a second vote. Against his four southern opponents, Adams prevailed in the House vote, becoming only the second non-southern president of the United States, and the first not among the ranks of America’s founding fathers.
John Quincy Adams’ inaugural presidential address touched upon religion only briefly, offering no mention of God. The newly-elected president did, however, affirm freedom of religion. He also pledged “by the solemnities of religious obligation to the faithful performance of the duties allotted to me in the station to which I have been called.”
President Adams, viewing government in the service of the freedom and betterment of all (including African Americans and Native Americans), set his sights on national infrastructure and science. His advocacy for the construction of federal highways, canals, astronomical observatories and a national university met stiff resistance from southern congressmen determined to advance the cause of slavery through states’ rights. Nonetheless, the completion of the Erie Canal occurred during Adams’ presidency.
Frustrated by congressional opposition, Adams declared the presidential office to be “harassing” and “wearying.” Perhaps mercifully, he lost a re-election bid in 1828, soundly defeated by southerner Andrew Jackson.
Religion, meanwhile, offered some comfort to Adams. He stood apart from previous presidents, including his father, in — sometimes — expressing belief in the divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity and the existence of an afterlife. He also wrote hymns and religious poetry, frequently mentioning God in his diary.
Yet a dark side of doubt lingered in Adams’ mind. Ever the rationalist, he wavered between opposition, reluctant affirmation and outright doubt of many Christian tenets. Human depravity, predestination and vicarious atonement he found offensive.
Enjoying church services, he approved of the preaching of “sound morals” but not “doctrinal speculation.” Critical of many preachers, Adams determined “to content myself with practicing the dictates of God and reason so far as I can judge for myself.”
In his diary Adams once confided his “judgment that the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ is not countenanced by the New Testament. As little can I say that it is clearly revealed. It is often obscurely intimated; sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly, asserted; but left on the whole, in a debatable state, never to be either demonstrated or refuted till another revelation shall clear it up.”
Aside from doctrine, Adams’ religious faith found firmer expression in opposition to slavery. On numerous occasions as president he attended African-American congregational services. In 1826 he wrote the following words as part of a sonnet: “Who but shall learn that freedom is the prize / Man still is bound to rescue or maintain; / That nature’s God commands the slave to rise, / And on th’ oppressor’s head to break his chain. / Roll, years of promise, rapidly roll round, / Till not a slave shall on this earth be found.”
Following his presidential years, Adams’ Massachusetts constituency voted him into the House of Representatives in 1830. “My election as president of the United States was not half so gratifying,” he said of his House victory. Finding great happiness and purpose as a representative, therein he remained until his death.
In the House the former president’s religious faith in human equality propelled him to the forefront of the ascendant abolitionist movement and set the stage for the ultimate triumph of emancipation.
Incensed over D.C.’s thriving slave market, Adams in 1838 expressed anger against Christian slaveholders (including many southern congressmen) for “taxing their learning and ingenuity to prove that the Bible sanctions slavery; that Abraham, Isaac and Paul were slave-holders; and that St. Paul is the apostle of man-stealers, because he sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon. These preachers of the Gospel might just as well call our extermination of the Indians an obedience to Divine commands because Jehova commanded the children of Israel to exterminate the Canaanitish nations.”
Arguing before the Supreme Court in 1841 and against the administration of Martin Van Buren, Adams secured the freedom of the slaves on the ship Amistad. Three years later he successfully led a movement to retract House rules preventing abolitionists from petitioning Congress for the abolition of slavery.
In addition, Adams became the first congressman to insist that the government could free slaves during time of war. Some two decades later, President Abraham Lincoln used Adams’ wartime slavery argument in crafting the rationalization for the Emancipation Proclamation.
Near the end of his life Adams summarized his faith in words that conveyed his mind’s lifelong religious tensions: “I reverence God as my creator. As creator of the world. I reverence him with holy fear. I venerate Jesus Christ as my redeemer; and, as far as I can understand, the redeemer of the world. But this belief is dark and dubious.”
He also affirmed: “I believe there is a God who heareth prayer, and that honest prayers to him will not be in vain.”
John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and afterward a congressional representative, died in the House chamber on Feb. 21, 1848. Arguably the most religious president of the 19th century, Adams’ body came to rest in the crypt of the First Parish Church in Quincy, Mass. BT
By Bruce Gourley