by David Barton
In a Boston Review article entitled “The Eternal Return of the Christian Nation,” Stanford history professor Richard White first belittles and then attempts to dispel what he terms the “myth” of a Christian nation. To prove his point, he opens his piece by quoting John Adams’ comment that:
“It was never pretended that any persons employed in [drafting the founding documents] had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven.” Ours was a government “founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery.” 1
This statement by Adams seems to affirm White’s position. Yet the story is not quite so simple. Indeed, White selectively quotes Adams to make him appear to say almost the opposite of what he actually said.
By way of background, the quoted passages are from a single paragraph in the preface of Adams’ three-volume work, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, written in 1787 in response to British criticisms of the new American governments. In this work, Adams defends the recently drafted state constitutions (the federal Constitution had not yet been penned). To be properly understood, they must be viewed in the context of the full paragraph from which White takes them.
Adams begins the paragraph in question by summarizing the pattern of human governments preceding the American Revolution. He observed that earlier governments had been imposed on the people rather than chosen by them, and that the primary means for accomplishing this coercion had been by invoking the authority of various gods. Adams explained:
It was the general opinion of ancient nations that the divinity alone was adequate to the important office of giving laws to men. The Greeks entertained this prejudice throughout all their dispersions; the Romans cultivated the same popular delusion; and modern nations, in the consecration of kings, and in several superstitious chimeras of divine right in princes and nobles, are nearly unanimous in preserving remnants of it. Even the venerable magistrates of Amersfort [a city in the province of Utrecht, Netherlands] devoutly believe themselves God’s vicegerents. Is it that obedience to the laws can be obtained from mankind in no other manner? 2
Previous governments had heavily relied upon what later became characterized as the “Divine Right of Kings” doctrine, which bestowed on a small elite a supposed divine authority to rule over and oppress their brethren. The Founding Fathers rejected any notion that such a divine mandate existed.
For example, James Otis (mentor of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and a close associate of John Adams) asserted that the only king who had any Divine right was God Himself, and that He had ordained that political power should rest with the people, not the elites:
Has it [government] any solid foundation? any chief cornerstone. . . ? I think it has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God, the Author of Nature, Whose laws never vary. . . . The power of God Almighty is the only power that can properly and strictly be called supreme and absolute. In the order of nature immediately under Him comes the power of a simple democracy, or the power of the whole over the whole. . . . [God is] the only monarch in the universe Who has a clear and indisputable right to absolute power because He is the only One who is omniscient as well as omnipotent. . . . The sum of my argument is that civil government is of God, that the administrators of it were originally the whole people. 3
Signer of the Constitution John Dickinson agreed, affirming: Kings or parliaments could not give the rights essential to happiness. . . . We claim them from a higher source – from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice. It would be an insult on the Divine Majesty to say that he has given or allowed any man or body of men a right to make me miserable. 4
The Founders did not remove God from government, nor did they see it as a purely secular entity. They simply rejected the centuries-old doctrine that rulers could be maintained only through the power of a menacing religious belief enforced upon the people by priests and kings. But White wrongly concludes that Adams’s rejection of the Divine Right of Kings is actually a rejection of God Himself and an endorsement of secularist government.
Consider the change in meaning that occurs when Adams’s two phrases are placed back into the context from which White lifted them. The underlined portions of the following quotes were omitted by White:
It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture. 5
Adams is not saying that there was no inspiration of Heaven in government, but only that it was no more than in any other profession. That is, no shop owner, merchant, farmer, carpenter, or sailor claimed a Divine Right to impose his will upon his fellows, nor should government; but it does not follow that merchants, farmers, or sailors (or government) were therefore secular.
Even more significantly, consider the broader context for the second phrase quoted by White:
Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind. The experiment is made, and has completely succeeded; it can no longer be called in question, whether authority in magistrates and obedience of citizens can be grounded on reason, morality, and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests, or the knavery of politicians. 6
Adams does indeed reject the Divine Right of Kings, but he explicitly argues that the new state constitutions were founded on “reason, morality, and the Christian religion.” White may believe that Adams was not serious about his claim that Christianity had an important influence on the framers of the new state constitutions, but he needs to argue his point, not simply ignore evidence that does not suit his preconceived ideas.
The idea Adams was a secularist becomes even less plausible if one considers other comments he made about the Christian nature of America’s governments. For example, in describing a reply he wrote to the young men of Philadelphia, Adams told Thomas Jefferson:
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young gentlemen 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 these 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. 7
Additionally, Adams was an author of the clause in the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution that declared:
Any person chosen Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, Counsellor, Senator, or Representative, and accepting the trust, shall, before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, make and subscribe the following declaration, viz. “I do declare that I believe the Christian religion and have firm persuasion of its truth.” 8
There are many other quotes from Adams conveying the same tone about government:
[I] think there is nothing upon this earth more sublime and affecting than the idea of a great nation all on their knees at once before their God, acknowledging their faults and imploring His blessing and protection. 9
[R]eligion and virtue are the only foundations not only of republicanism and of all free government but of social felicity under all governments and in all combinations of human society. 10
The Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy that ever was conceived upon earth. It is the most republican book in the world, and therefore I will still revere it. 11
But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another and another towards foreign nations which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practicing iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivation manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world, because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. 12
Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. Every member would be obliged, in conscience, to temperance and frugality and industry; to justice and kindness and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence, towards Almighty God. In this commonwealth, no man would impair his health by gluttony, drunkenness, or lust; no man would sacrifice his most precious time to cards or any other trifling and mean amusement; no man would steal, or lie, or in any way defraud his neighbor, but would live in peace and good will with all men; no man would blaspheme his Maker or profane his worship; but a rational and manly, a sincere and unaffected piety and devotion would reign in all hearts. What a Utopia – what a Paradise would this region be! 13
Only by first ignoring extensive historical writings and then by misportraying other portions of them can White make his historically inaccurate assertion. It is unfortunate that so many American youth have been subjected to this type of faulty academic tutelage concerning the overwhelmingly positive influence of Christianity in America’s history and among America’s Founders.
- John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Hall and Sellers, 1787), Vol. I, pp. x-xi, “Preface.” (Return)
3. James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston: J. Williams, 1766), pp. 11, 12, 13, 98. (Return)
5. John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Hall and Sellers, 1787), Vol. I, pp. xi-xii, “Preface.” (Return)
6. John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Hall and Sellers, 1787), Vol. I, pp. xii-xiii, “Preface.” (Return)
7. Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIII, p. 293, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813. (Return)
8. A Constitution or Frame of Government Agreed Upon by the Delegates of the People of the State of Massachusetts-Bay (Boston: Benjamin Edes & Sons, 1780), p. 44, Chapter VI, Article I. (Return)
9. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 291, correspondence originally published in the Boston Patriot, 1809, Letter XIII. (Return)
10. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 636, to Benjamin Rush on August 28, 1811. (Return)
11. Old Family Letters, Alexander Biddle, editor (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1892), pp. 127-128, John Adams to Benjamin Rush on February 2, 1807. (Return)
12. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1854), Vol. IX, pp. 228-229, to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts on October 11, 1798. (Return)
13. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), Vol. II, pp. 6-7, diary entry for February 22, 1756.