Well, we have looked at Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and seen that their religious beliefs were what me might call post-Christian in as that, while recognizing the benefits of organized religion for the moral formation of the ordinary citizen, they themselves not only did not subscribe to any particular Christian denomination but in fact did not believe in a personal God as defined by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They were both deists, what we might call today secular humanists, who believed that sound human reason, not divine revelation, was the cornerstone of moral formation and that human nature, being essentially rational and good, was inclined to moral behavior. Of course I think that is incredibly naïve but then, like Luther, Calvin, and Benedict XVI, I am a pretty strong Augustinian. Although both Franklin and Jefferson saw the benefits of organized religion for character formation of individuals less enlightened than themselves and their peers among the intelligentsia, Franklin seems to have held Christianity in higher regard than Jefferson but then while neither of them suffered fools gladly, Franklin was the more graciously mannered of the too. Jefferson was your classic liberal showing little or no patience with those whom he regarded as his inferiors. That is the problem with liberalism: it is not truly democratic but replaces socio-economic hierarchy with a social order based on intellectual pretense. But let’s not pursue that, at least not now. Instead let’s look at the third person responsible for the Declaration of Independence, John Adams—and by way of contrast—his cousin the instigator of independence, Sam Adams. Both the Adams cousins were born and bred in New England Congregationalism.
Congregationalism grew out of the Puritan wing of the Church of England and represented a strong Calvinist presence in the Established Church. During the English Civil War when the monarchy was replaced by Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Episcopacy was abolished in the Church of England and was replaced by Presbyterian Church Order. That is to say that bishops were abolished and the Church was administered by Presbyteries—boards of pastors. The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 not only brought back the King but the bishops and the reintroduction of bishops split the Church of England with the Puritan wing refusing both bishops and the Anglican liturgy, and being known as non-Conformists (because they would not conform to the Anglican Church Order of Bishops and the Prayer Book). During Cromwell’s Puritan Parliamentary government in England, the vast majority of colonial American Anglicans had not deviated from the Prayer Book and classic Anglicanism—though the Church in America never did have bishops—but in New England, which had always been quite Puritanical, nominal membership in the Church of England gave way to the emergence of a very non-Anglican denomination which we call Congregationalism. In the course of the eighteenth century New England Congregationalism itself split with many—indeed in Boston, the majority—of congregations rejecting Trinitarian faith for Unitarianism.
Now, let’s talk for a moment about Unitarianism. At the time of the Protestant Reformation there were many in Europe—particularly in England, Poland, Hungary, and Italy—among the intellectuals who rejected the Christian idea of a Trinitarian God—three “divine persons” consubstantial in one Divine Nature. Trinitarianism was, and in some circles still is, seen as lightly disguised polytheism. Nevertheless, the civil authorities, both Catholic and Protestant, rigorously suppressed any dissent. After all, a corollary of Unitarianism is that Jesus is not Divine. In the Enlightenment many mainline clergy—Anglican, Presbyterian, and Congregationalists—embraced Unitarianism which at the time was not a separate denomination (much less a religion) but rather a movement or opinion in various religious groups. New England Congregationalism was split between Trinitarian and Unitarian factions. Samuel Adams who maintained his membership at Old South Meeting House was a Trinitarian. John Adams, who had studied at Harvard—a bastion of Unitarian thought—identified with the Unitarian faction. It was only in the early nineteenth century, however, that the formal break came and Unitarianism and Congregationalism went their separate ways.
The Unitarianism of John Adams should not be confused with the Unitarianism of today. Although it rejected the Divinity of Christ it considered itself—and was widely considered by others—to be a Christian denomination. Unitarians believed—much like Jefferson—that the professions of Jesus’ divinity and the stories of miracles were added to the teachings of Jesus by the Evangelists and later generations of Christians. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Unitarianism looked to the Jewish-Christian scriptures for moral guidance and for inspiration though they did tend to give the texts a far more liberal interpretation than their more orthodox peers. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Unitarianism, influenced by theological Modernism, gradually dissolved its Christian identity in favor of a more universal approach to religion. In John Adams’ day however, Unitarians still had a strong Christian (though not orthodox) identity. While Jefferson and Franklin can be called Deists and post-Christian, John Adams should be counted as a Christian from a social point of view, if not a theological one. That does not mean, however, that he favored a Christian identity to the American Republic. He wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1815: “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?”
Adams saw organized religion as a threat to intellectual freedom and he bore a particular animus against Catholicism. He had written his law dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law and, in true Enlightenment fashion, saw the Catholic Church as repressive of scientific advancement. Yet he defended the rights of Catholics in the new Republic and despite a particular hatred—and fear—of the Jesuits he recognized that the American Republic had a duty to accept them. He wrote to Jefferson: “I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits.... Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.” Reading this I cannot but wonder what he would have to say about Muslims in American today?
Samuel Adams was of a different bent than his cousin. Perhaps no other individual save Thomas Paine was as responsible for fanning the flames of colonial discontent into the conflagration of Revolution as Samuel Adams. Adams was a member of Old South Meeting House, a Congregationalist Church that when the break with the Unitarian faction came remained an bastion of Trinitarian belief. Sam Adams, even more rabidly anti-Catholic than his cousin, remained an orthodox Christian and religiously conservative. Today he would probably identify—though “today woulds” in history are tricky and unreliable (as well as irrelevant to argument) place himself among the so-called “Evangelicals.” Would he favor the idea that we are “Christian Nation?” That is hard to say. I can find no evidence either way. During the lifetime of the Adams cousins Congregationalism was the official Church of Massachusetts—it was not disestablished until 1833. Given his rationalist approach to religion, I doubt that John Adams would have supported the idea of an officially Christian Nation, but the more conservative Sam Adams might have.