One of the most frustrating aspects of Gregg Frazer’s book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders is the abundance of errors that he blunders into when discussing the various theological positions that were debated during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Frazer has a tendency to assume that the theological terms which were in use at that time were understood in the exact same manner in which they are understood today. This can lead to some very serious misinterpretations as we can see in his discussion of Adams’ beliefs about the Bible.
Frazer wrote of Adams that:
Adams may have agreed with Priestley that the Fall of man in Genesis “is either an allegory, or founded on uncertain tradition: that it is an hypothesis to account for the origin of evil, adopted by Moses, which by no means accounts for the facts.” Those, like Adams and Priestley, who rejected the doctrine of original sin had to hold that or a similar view.
There are at least two things to note here. The first of which is that Frazer did not provide the slightest bit of evidence to support his claim that Adams rejected the doctrine of original sin. He quoted Priestley and said that Adams may have agreed with Priestly, but Frazer did not provide any documentation of Adams ever rejecting the doctrine of original sin.
The second and more important item of note is the fact that Frazer never distinguished between what the theologians of John Adams’ day meant by original sin and how the average Christian thinks of that term today. Earlier in his book, Frazer defined original sin as the belief “that man was born with a sin nature as a result of Adam’s Fall.” Unfortunately, Frazer’s definition does not take into account the nuances of the term “original sin” which were debated during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In a pamphlet published in 1832, Benjamin Wisner, the pastor of Old South Church in Boston wrote a very enlightening defense of Charles Finney. Under Wisner’s leadership, Old South Church was the only Congregationalist church in Boston that did not give in to the pressure of the Unitarians. Consequently, Wisner had a great deal of experience with the various nuances of the debates between orthodox and unorthodox theologians. He revealed some of this experience in his defense of Finney, and after reviewing the opinions of several of the leading orthodox theologians of the preceding two centuries, he came to this conclusion:
In these quotations we have the following different meanings of the phrase Original Sin. 1. The first sin of the first man. This is the meaning adopted by Dr. Emmons and his followers. 2. The first sin of the first man and woman; Scotch Confessions of 1560. 3. Natural or inherent corruption; Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, and the French and Westminster Confessions. 4. Want of original righteousness and inclination to evil; Articles of the Church of England, and of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. 5. The imputation of Adam's first sin, and the innate sinful depravity of the heart; President Edwards, Ursinus, Zanchius and others. 6. Something not described, but distinct from natural corruption, and that came to us by the fall of Adam; Form of Examination before the Communion in the Kirk of Scotland in 1591. 7. The guilt of Adam's first sin, the defect of original justice, and concupiscence; Augsburg Confession. 8. The universal sinfulness of Adam's posterity as connected with hi first sin by divine constitution; Dr. Hopkins. Here are no less than eight different meanings of the phrase Original Sin, (and the list might, doubtless be extended,) attached to it by theologians and churches, all acknowledged to be Orthodox on the subject of man's native character.
Wisner then proceeded to denounce the criticisms of Asa Rand who had claimed that Charles Finney was preaching against the doctrine of original sin.
But the author we are reviewing, who deems himself fully qualified to bring "the new divinity" to the trial, knows of but one meaning of the phrase Original Sin, that of "transmitted pollution;" and, of course, decides that all who do not believe in "transmitted pollution," "discard the doctrine of original sin!"
We could bring the same accusation against Frazer and say that he knows of but one meaning of the phrase “original sin,” and of course, decides that all who do not believe in that one meaning have discarded the entire doctrine of original sin. When we keep in mind the wide variety of understandings of “original sin” which were considered orthodox in the early years of our nation, we can then turn to John Adams own writings and determine whether he rejected the entire doctrine or simply held to a different view of that doctrine than the one presented by Frazer.
To do this, we must first know what Adams actually said about the doctrine of original sin, and this brings us back to our previous observation that Frazer did not provide any evidence of Adams’ view on this topic. I decided to give Frazer the benefit of the doubt and assume that he simply forgot to include a footnote for this particular claim, so I began searching for any reference that Adams may have made to the doctrine of original sin. I found the following six instances of Adams writing about this doctrine:
Nevertheless his master endeavoured to instruct him in the Christian Religion. He began by reading and explaining the History in Genesis, of the Fall of Man. Glasgow listen’d with great attention and astonishment for a long time; but at last he broke silence, “Master! “we have a different account of this matter in my Country,” Aye! indeed what is that account? “We say that in the begining, the lot of the world was put upon a race between a dog and a toad. If the dog came out first, the world was to be good and happy. If the toad, all was to be wicked and sorrowful. Every body rejoiced. Surely the dog would winn. But when they started the Dog had ran a great way before the toad had hopp’d a rod. But about half way the evil Spirit threw a bone before the Dog who turn’d aside to gnaw it, while the toad hopp’d on and got out first.” Dr Cooper has repeatedly related this Anecdote to me. Is not this the history of the loss of Paradise translated into Negro?. There is the same dulness of understanding, the same imbecility of Virtue against Apetite in the dog that there was in Eve and Adam. The same ruin to the world though ascrib’d to chance not to fault. The same personification of Evil in the tempter. It is as rational an attempt to Account for the Origin of Evil as that of the great Frederick, Soames, Jennings, or Dr Edward’s Secret things belong not to us.
None of these quotations indicate that Adams rejected the doctrine of original sin in itself. In examples 1 through 3, Adams referred to Eve as if she were a real person in history and not a mere allegory as Frazer suggested. Example 4, and to a lesser extent, examples 5 and 6 reveal to us that Adams rejected the traditional Calvinistic view of original sin, but that should come as no surprise since Adams was a staunch opponent of the doctrines of Calvinism. All of John Adams’ statements regarding original sin are consistent with the first, second, fourth and sixth categories of orthodox views on this doctrine as outlined in the above quote from Benjamin Wisner.
Frazer would have us believe on the strength of mere supposition alone that Adams fully rejected the doctrine of original sin, but when we take the time to examine the evidence ourselves, his supposition is found to be inconsistent with reality.
"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)