His theistic rationalism, like that of the other key Founders, was a sort of middle ground between protestantism and deism. For example, his complaint that “millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation” to make “the most bloody religion that ever existed” would not please either camp. Deists could not countenance the recognition of legitimate revelation, and Christians would not appreciate either the characterization of parts of Scripture as “fables, tales, legends” or the use of the “most bloody religion” label.
Let’s take a more detailed look at the conversation of which this letter was just a part.
Toward the end of 1816, John Adams and Francois Van der Kemp exchanged a series of letters discussing an outline of the life of Jesus which Van der Kemp had written at the request of Thomas Jefferson. As a prelude to the discussion, Adams mentioned the writings of Dupuis, a French author who was one of the originators of the Christ myth theory.
Dupuis claimed that Christianity was nothing more than a recantation of the ancient mythological worship of the sun and moon. He claimed that the early Christians borrowed from various pagan myths in order to concoct the legend of Christ. He also claimed that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was responsible for the vast majority of the wars and bloodshed in the world. He wrote that:
When we shall have shown, – that the pretended history of a God, born of a Virgin at the winter solstice, who resusitates at Easter or at the equinox of spring, after having descended into hell; of a God, who has twelve apostles in his train, whose leader has all the attributes of Janus; of a God-conqueror of the Prince of Darkness, who restores to mankind the dominion of Light, and who redeems the evils of Nature – is merely a solar fable, like all those, which we have analysed, it will be quite as indifferent, or of as little consequence to examine, whether there ever existed a man by the name of Christ, as it would be to equire, whether some Prince was called Hercules, provided it will be conclusively demonstrated that the being, consecrated by worship under the name of Christ, is the Sun, and that the marvelousness of the legend or of the same poem, has that luminary for its object; because it would seem then to be proved, that the Christians are mere worshippers of the Sun, and that their priests have the same religion as those of Peru, whom they have caused to be put to death.
Regarding the idea that the Bible is a revelation from God, Dupuis wrote:
We shall therefore not investigate, whether the Christian religion is a revealed religion. None but dunces will believe in revealed ideas and in ghosts. The philosophy of our days has made too much progress, in order to be obliged to enter into a dissertation on the communications of the Deity with man.
And in regards to the influence of Christianity on the world, Dupuis wrote:
without describing here all the crimes of the so-called Christian courts of the successors of Constantine; without stirring up the cinders of the funeral piles of the inquisition; without surrounding us with the mournful shadows of so many thousand Frenchmen, murdered at the Saint Bartholomew and at the time of the Royal dragonnades, what heartrending picutres of assassinations committed in the name of religion have not been spread before our eyes during the French revolution. I take you as witnesses, ye smoking ruins fo the Vendee, where priests consummated the sacrifice of their God of peae over the heaps of bloody corpses, preached murder and carnage with crucifix in hand, and quenched their thirst in the blood of those brave Frenchmen, who died in the defence of their country and its laws.
... Can we not, after so many crimes, place religions in the number of the greatest curses, with which the world has been afflicted, because they serve at least as a pretext to the priest to commit and to ordain massacres? I shall be told, that those are the abuses of religion. Well! of what importance is it to me, when everything is abuse in a political institution, or when the abuses are a necessary consequence of its existence?
When Adams read Van der Kemp’s “Outlines of the Life of Jesus,” he praised Van der Kemp for having a better system that Jefferson and suggested the Van der Kemp use his “Outlines” to write a refutation of the claims of Dupuis. The letter which Frazer quotes appears at the end of this conversation, and I’ll resume my commentary after we’ve had a chance to read the conversation in full.
When we consider the conversation as a whole along with a few excerpts from Dupuis, there are several observations that we could make, but let’s answer Frazer’s claim first.
Frazer claimed that Adams was rejecting parts of the Bible when he asked how the Christian revelation came to be mixed with millions of fables, tales and legends, but this is not necessarily true. Adams was discussing the work of Dupuis who criticized many Christian ideas that are not found in Scripture. For example, one of Dupuis’ main arguments was that both Jesus and Mithras were born on December 25th, but the day of Christ’s birth is never mentioned in Scripture. And when Dupuis argued that Christianity was a bloody religion, he founded his argument on examples from the Catholic church whose various inquisitions find absolutely no sanction in Scripture. Adams could have been referring to the many unscriptural additions to the original revelations of the Old and New Testament which had been made by the Catholic church in order to justify the violent persecution of non-Catholics.
I think that it is far more probable that Adams asked this question as a rephrasing of Dupuis’ argument. Dupuis had dismissed the idea of revelation as absurdly impossible, but Adams explained to Van der Kemp that he was certain that both the Jews and the Christians had received revelations from God. If Dupuis’ argument that Christianity was harmful to society were modified to include the fact that the Christian religion is based on revelation from God, then his argument would have to be phrased as: The Christians received a revelation from God, but they mixed that revelation with fables, tales and legends to the point that their religion became just as harmful as all others. Thus John Adams’ question is nothing more than a rephrasing of Dupuis’ argument in light of the reality of revelation.
I suspect that what Adams was really asking was whether Dupuis’ recounting of the errors and atrocities of the Catholic church were sufficient evidence to reject the entire religion of Christianity. This possibility is greatly strengthened by the second question that Adams asked:
How has it happened that all the fine Arts, Architecture Painting Sculpture Statuary, Musick Poetry and Oratory have been prostituted from the Creation of the World to the Sordid and detestable Purposes of Superstition? and Fraud?
Frazer apparently gave no thought to this second question, but it is vital to understanding Adams’ intent.
From Adams’ letters to his wife, we know he had a great appreciation for fine arts. This opens up the possibility that his answer to the second question would be that the various misuses of art do not in any way decrease the value of art itself. And this, in turn, leads to the possibility that his intent in the first question was not to question the validity of the Bible itself but rather to imply that the various misuses of it by the Catholic church did not in any way justify the argument which Dupuis made against the Christianity in general.
This possibility becomes much more likely than Frazer’s argument when we read the response that Van der Kemp made to Adams’ two questions. Van der Kemp wrote:
What matters it, if his heavenly doctrine has been adulterated—grain does not loose its feeding powers—although a wafer may have been poisoned
If we consider Van der Kemp’s response in light of Adams’ questions and Dupuis’ arguments, we can rephrase the entire train of thought as follows:
1. Dupuis dismissed the possibility of revelation and argued that Christianity is harmful because of the violence of the Catholic church.
2. Adams admitted the possibility of revelation and implied by two rhetorical questions that the abuses of the Catholic church do not in any way detract from the value of Christianity.
3. Van der Kemp agreed with Adams that Dupuis’ argument was illogical and that the adulterations of the Catholic church did not detract from the value of Christianity itself.
This explanation of Adams’ question seems to be a much better fit with the context of the discussion than Frazer’s claim that Adams was referring to certain parts of Scripture when he spoke of fables, tales and legends. Frazer has not provided any evidence to show that Adams questioned the validity of a single passage of Scripture. A question about the addition of fables and legends asked within the context of a discussion on the errors of the Catholic church does not in any way prove that Adams rejected parts of the Bible.
Frazer is quick to point out that Adams read the works of men like Priestley and Dupuis, but it is surprising that, in all of his supposed study of the original documents of the founders, he seems to have missed the fact that Adams also read and recommended the works of Nathaniel Lardner and Jeremiah Jones. Lardner and Jones are still, to this day, two of history’s most influential defenders of the traditional canon of the New Testament. If Frazer can take a question that Adams asked about Dupuis (whom he despised) and a few of Adams’ praises for Priestley (of whom Adams wrote: “I Shall never be a Disciple of Priestley.”) and argue that Adams may have agreed with these men; then why couldn’t we just as easily say that Adams agreed with the defenders of the Canon of Scripture whom he never once criticized?