As I mentioned in part 1, I am reading through Gregg Frazer’s book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders and responding to his erroneous quotations from and conclusions about the founders of our nation. Frazer claims that the most important founders were not Christians but rather followers of a hybrid belief system that he refers to as “Theistic Rationalism.” I’m currently in the chapter on John Adams, and Frazer’s second error follows immediately after his first. According to Frazer:
Adams’s affinity with the deist conception of Creation is reflected in his use of the classic deist metaphor of a watchmaker: “The watchmaker has in his head an idea of the system of a watch before he makes it. The mechanician of the universe had a compleat [sic] idea of the universe before he made it: and this idea, this logos, was almighty or at least powerful enough to produce the world, but it must be made of matter which was eternal. For creation out of nothing was impossible.” One should notice the reference to matter being eternal, which also separates the supposedly orthodox Adams’s view from that of Christianity.
Frazer made two claims about this statement by Adams, and if he were consistent, he would have made a third claim as well. His first claim was that Adams held to a Deistic view of creation because he referred to God as a watchmaker. His second claim was that Adams held to a non-Christian view of creation because he referred to matter as being eternal. The third claim that Frazer should have made is the claim that Adams held to a heretical view of creation because he referred to matter as being inherently evil. Of course, the evidence for this third claim is not in the meager excerpt that Frazer provided, so let’s look at the quote with a bit of context added to it.
2 The Devil, or the Source of Evil. They are not metaphisicians enough as yet to Suppose it, or at least to call it matter, like the Wiseacres of Antiquity, and like Frederic the Great, who has written a very Silly Essay on the origin of Evil, in which he ascribes it all to Matter, as if this was an original discovery of his own.
Notice how Adams referred to matter being inherently evil both before and after the section that Frazer quoted. There is a reason that Frazer started and stopped his quotation where he did. No historian in his right mind would ever believe that Adams held to the view that “Matter was essentially evil” especially not when Adams had just referred to those who believe such silliness as “the Wiseacres of Antiquity.”
The essay by Frederick which Adams referenced was written in French, and I have not been able to find an English translation of it other than the automated translation from Google. However, even this poorly done translation is sufficient for us to get the general idea of Frederick’s thoughts on matter and creation. At the beginning of his essay, Frederick asked:
Whence comes the moral evil? Where does the physical evil come from?
The remainder of the essay is devoted to a very circuitous answer to this question of the origin of evil. Eventually, Frederick gets around to saying:
I want to know how a just God, fair,
In this essay, Frederick presented two of the points which Adams referenced. When he spoke of both man and animals being made of an “abject substance,” he was claiming that matter itself is inherently evil and that it is the source of all the evil in the world. He returned to this theme when he referred to matter as being “indocile to treat” and “rebellious to his [God’s] designs.” Compare this with Adams’ statement that “Matter was unmanageable. It would not, and could not be fashioned into any System, without a large mixture of Evil in it, for Matter was essentially evil,” and it becomes obvious that Adams is summarizing the philosophy of Frederick the Great.
If Adams was referring to the philosophy of Frederick the Great both immediately before and immediately after the section quoted by Frazer, then it stands to reason that the section quoted by Frazer is also a reference to the philosophy of Frederick the Great and not a declaration of John Adams’ own view of creation.
That this is the case can be seen in the fact that Frederick founded his claim about the evilness of matter on the assumption of the eternality of matter. This is what Frederick was claiming when he said: “Suppose with me … that the universe and God both are eternal.” The eternality of matter was a prerequisite for Frederick’s claim that matter was inherently evil. Thus, when Frazer tells us that we “should notice the reference to matter being eternal” we can agree with him and add that we not only should notice that reference but we also should notice that it was a reference to the philosophy of Frederick the Great which Adams was ridiculing.
In addition to all this, however, we also know of two additional instances in which Adams wrote about the eternality of matter. The first of these is found in a diary entry dated May 23, 1756. On that Sunday evening, Adams wrote:
“Nothing can proceed from Nothing.” But Something can proceed from Something, and Thus the Deity produced this vast and beautiful Frame of the Universe out of Nothing, i.e. He had no preexistent matter to work upon or to change from a Chaos into a World. But He produced a World into Being by his almighty Fiat, perhaps in a manner analogous to the Production of Resolutions in our minds.
This is a statement of Adams’ own view of creation, and it contains a direct denunciation of the eternality of matter. At this point in his life, Adams clearly believed that God created the world out of nothing and rejected the concept of eternal matter, but perhaps he had changed his view by the time that he began his famous series of correspondences with Jefferson more than fifty-five years later. To determine if this was the case we can turn to one of the letters that Frazer quotes from more than once in his book. In that particular letter Adams wrote:
When I was in England from 1785, to 1788 I may Say, I was intimate with Dr Price. I had much conversation with him at his own House, at my houses, and at the houses and Tables of many Friends. In some of our most unreserved Conversations, when We have been alone, he has repeatedly Said to me “I am inclined to believe that the Universe, is eternal and infinite. It Seems to me that an eternal and infinite Effect, must necessarily flow from an eternal and infinite Cause; and an infinite Wisdom Goodness and Power, that could have been induced to produce a Universe in time, must have produced it from eternity.” “It Seems to me, the Effect must flow from the Cause.”
Now, my Friend Jefferson, Suppose an eternal Self existent Being existing from Eternity, possessed of infinite Wisdom, Goodness and Power, in absolute total Solitude, Six thousand years ago, conceiving the benevolent project of creating a Universe!
Here Adams recorded for Jefferson his response to Richard Price’s reasoning on the eternality of matter. Adams took Price’s claim that the cause must be at least equal to the effect and declared that the eternal and infinite God would be a sufficient cause for the effect of a universe which was created just six thousand years ago.
This letter reveals that Adams’ view of creation did not change over the course of his life. As a young man, he wrote of God creating the universe out of nothing, and toward the end of his life, he wrote of the universe being created out of nothing just six thousand years ago. This is the Christian view of the creation of the world and not the deistic view which Frazer claims that Adams held.
What about Adams’ reference to the watchmaker? Could this also have been a reference to Frederick the Great? This one is a little more difficult to answer. Since I have not found an actual translation of Frederick’s essay, I cannot say with certainty whether that essay makes any reference to God as a “Watchmaker.” The Google translation does include the phrase “The author of nature is above the laws” which is similar to Adams’ reference to “the Mechanician of the Universe,” but without a more accurate translation, it is difficult to say for sure whether the term “Watchmaker” was used in this essay. However, we do know that this term is found in the published correspondences of Frederick the Great.
For example, in a letter to Voltaire, Frederick once wrote:
I think I see an American, or some savage, who for the first time is shewn a watch: he believes that the hand which denotes the hours is free to turn of itself, and does not once suspect there are hidden springs which give it motion, much less that a watchmaker purposely made it with a precise motion to which it is subject. God is the watchmaker, and the springs of which we are composed are infinitely more minute, more ductile, and more various than those of a watch.
Now, Adams’ overarching context for his reference to Frederick was a conversation between himself and Thomas Jefferson on the origin of the philosophies of the American Indians. Since Frederick had referred to God as a “Watchmaker” within the context of the American Indians, it would have been natural for Adams to use the same term when summarizing Frederick’s view of creation within a similar context.
Throughout his book and his lectures, Frazer criticizes his opponents for conveniently leaving out portions of quotations that disagree with their claims. Here we find Frazer guilty of the very same thing. If he had included Adams’ reference to Frederick’s belief in the inherent evil of matter, it would have been obvious to everyone that the portion which Frazer quoted was not the philosophy of John Adams but rather a summary by Adams of the philosophy of Frederick the Great for whom Adams had nothing but contempt.
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)