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:
- Letter to Benjamin Rush: May 13, 1812
If you can publish a compleat Treatise of Madness, you will instruct Mankind in a compleat System of Religion, Morals, Philosophy, and Policy, from the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, to the last Embargo and the last Vote against an American Navy.
- Letter to Francois Van Der Kemp: March 18, 1813
In answer to Mr Pemberton, I said Massachusetts had no establishment but of Ministers and Meetinghouses and Laws Obliging Men to attend public Worship once a month. Those Laws, Pemberton Said Should be abolished. A. We have no Authority to abolish them nor to agree that they Shall be abolished. Pemberton. Would not you allow your Brethren in the other Colonies, liberty of Conscience? A. Most certainly; and We hope our Brethren in the other colonies will allow Us Liberty of Conscience too. P. Poh! Pray dont alledge that. A. But I can alledge that with great Truth. The People of that Colony always have always had Such laws. They were born and bred under them. They think them, Salutary. They judge them necessary for the Instruction and Education of the rising Generation, indeed for the benefit and improvement of all of every Age. They conscientiously believe them indispensible for their happiness. Here Israel muttered Some Sneering Expression about their consciences; when some little leaven of that hereditament of Infirmity derived from my respectable Ancestors Adam and Eve I Suppose fermented and made me pronounce rather too emphatically and energetically “It may be depended on that The People of Massachusetts are as religious and as conscientious, as any People in this Country, or any other; that they are conscientiously attached to their Religion and these Laws; and you might as well undertake to remove the Sun, Moon and Stars from their orbits as to induce them to make any material Change in their religion or the Laws they think essential to the Support of it.
- Letter to John Taylor: April 19, 1814
Will Helvetius or Rousseau Say that all Men and Women are born equal in beauty? Will any Phylosopher Say, that beauty has no Influence in human Society? If he does, let him read the Histories of Eve, Judith, Helen, the fair Gabrielle, Diana of Poitiers, Pompadour, Du Barry, Susanna, Abigail, Lady Hamilton Mrs Clark, and a million others. Are not Despots, Monarchs, Aristocrats and Democrats, equally liable to be seduced by beauty to confer favours and influence Suffrages?
- Letter to Francois Van Der Kemp: February 23, 1815
The Origin of Mal moral, is Liberty, the Self determining Power of free Agents endowed with Reason and Conscience, and consequently Accountable for their Conduct. Wadstrom’s dissertation I have never Seen, nor do I desire to See it. I have read the Hypothesis of the Hindoos, of the Disciples of Pythagoras, of Frederick of Prussia of Soams Jennings of Dr Edwards and many others and am no more Satisfied than with Eves Apple. I have no difficulty about it. I am answerable for my own Sins, because I know they were my own Faults; and that is enough for me to know.
- Letter to Thomas Jefferson: September 30, 1816
If you know any Thing of this “Monsieur Dupuis or his “Origine de tous les Cultes”; candidus imperté. I have read only the first Volume. It is learned and curious. The whole Work will afford me Business, Study and Amusement for the Winter. Dr Priestley pronounced him an Atheist, and his Work “The Ni Plus ultra of Infidelity.” Priestly agrees with him that the History of the Fall of Adam and Eve, is “an Alegory,” a Fable, an Arabian Tale, and so does Dr Middleton, to account for the origin of Evil; which however it does not
- Letter to William Shaw: Jun 20, 1821
Why are not Bibles translated into negro, and Sent to the gold coast? My learn’d, ingenious eloquent, and amiable friend and next door neighbour when I lived in the white house in brattle square Dr Samuel Cooper, had a negro fellow named Glasgow, who seem’d as harmless, and almost as mindless, as an Idiot.
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.