One of the major points of contention in the discussion of America’s Christian foundation is found in a reference that John Adams made to the “general principles of Christianity.” Those who support the idea that America was founded on Christian principles often present this statement as evidence in their favor, while those who disagree with them usually respond by pointing to the context of the statement as evidence for their position. Unfortunately, most of those discussing Adams’ statement seem to be operating under the impression that it was made in a vacuum. In this article, I will attempt to provide a full analysis of Adams’ letter and demonstrate that when we consider all of the variables in their proper order, it becomes clear that this letter supports the claim that America was founded on principles that are unique to Christianity.
In 1798 and during the Presidency of John Adams, America entered what is known as the Quasi-War with France. Thomas Jefferson was Adams' Vice President, and he was an outspoken opponent of this war. In May of that year, an assembly of young men in Philadelphia made an address to President Adams in response to the XYZ affair in which officials of the French government had demanded a bribe in exchange for peace.
In this address, these young men expressed their disdain for the insults of the French, praised Adams for his wisdom and pledged to give their lives in the service of their country. They also drew a parallel between the actions of the French against America and the actions of the British during the time leading up to the Revolution. This parallel was so distinct in their minds that they claimed to be "Actuated by the same principles on which our forefathers achieved their Independence." It was on the grounds of these principles that they wrote, "As our ancestors have magnanimously resisted the encroachments of the one, we will no less vigorously oppose the attacks of the other."
Of course, this letter was very encouraging to Adams, and he immediately published a response in which he wrote:
"Nothing of the kind could be more welcome to me than this address from the ingenuous youth of Philadelphia in their virtuous anxiety to preserve the honor and independence of their country."
Adams' full response can be read in the ninth volume of The Works of John Adams. In that response, Adams made the following statement:
"Science and morals are the great pillars on which this country has been raised to its present population, opulence, and prosperity; and these alone can advance, support, and preserve it. Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction, that after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors."
Jefferson apparently took offence at this statement, and in a letter to Joseph Priestley a year and a half later, he wrote:
"Pardon, I pray you, the temporary delirium which has been excited here, but which is fast passing away. The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion & in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion & government, by whom it has been recommended, & whose purposes it would answer."
And in another letter, written a year later, he wrote:
"What an effort, my dear sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations; they pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors; we were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement; the President himself declaring in one of his answers to addresses, that we were never to expect to go beyond them in real science."
This second letter was somehow obtained by Thomas Belsham and published as part of the collection of correspondences in his book, The Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey. Adams managed to read a copy of this book when four of them were brought to Boston in 1813. Upon reading Jefferson's comment, Adams promptly wrote to his former Vice-President and demanded an explanation in the following words:
"The sentiment that you have attributed to me in your letter to Dr. Priestley, I totally disclaim, and demand, in the French sense of the word, of you the proof. It is totally incongruous to every principle of my mind and every sentiment of my heart for three score years at least."
Jefferson responded by saying:
"The readers of my letter should be cautioned not to confine its view to this country alone. England and its alarmists were equally under consideration. Still less must they consider it as looking personally towards you. You happen, indeed, to be quoted, because you happened to express more pithily than had been done by themselves, one of the mottos of the party. This was in your answer to the address of the young men of Philadelphia. One of the questions, you know, on which our parties took different sides, was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, &c. Those who advocated reformation of institutions, pari passu with the progress of science, maintained that no definite limits could be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, denied improvement, and advocated steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they represented as the consummation of wisdom, and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance. Although in the passage of your answer alluded to, you expressly disclaim the wish to influence the freedom of inquiry, you predict that that will produce nothing more worthy of transmission to posterity than the principles, institutions and systems of education received from their ancestors. I do not consider this as your deliberate opinion."
Here we see what Jefferson was actually opposing in his letter to Priestley. He was opposed to the idea that the level of human understanding at that time could never be improved upon, and he thought that Adams' response to the young men of Philadelphia conveyed this sentiment. This is the point at which Adams wrote the letter containing his famous statement regarding the general principles of Christianity. (This letter is available online in the tenth volume of The Works of John Adams, and I have provided a link to it in footnote number seven.) Adams asked Jefferson to remember that the young Philadelphians had claimed to be "actuated by the same principles on which our forefathers achieved their independence," and he pointed out that his statement regarding the "great pillars" of the Revolution should be considered as a response to that claim. In this letter to Jefferson, when Adams quoted himself as saying, "the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors," he emphasized the phrase "in general" and then proceeded to explain what he had meant by referring to general principles.
To explain this statement, Adams first asked the question, "Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes?" Before considering the answer which Adams provided for this question, it is important that we first understand which "army of fine young fellows" he was speaking of. Warren Throckmorton, among others, has erroneously concluded that Adams was "Speaking about the patriots who made up the revolution," but we can see from a statement appearing later in Adams letter that he was not referring to the army of the Revolution. Adams wrote:
“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer.”
It is obvious from this statement that the assembly of young men which Adams had before his eyes when writing about general principles was the same assembly which wrote an address to him and to whom he had written an answer. This means that Adams’ listing of the beliefs of these young men should not be understood to be a list of the beliefs of the men fighting in the Revolution but rather a listing of the beliefs which were held by the young men of Philadelphia in 1798. Adams listed those beliefs as:
“Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants ‘qui ne croyent rien.’ [Usually translated as: Protestants who believe nothing]”
Now, it is often claimed that, when Adams spoke here of the general principles of Christianity, he was speaking only of principles which are also held by “Deists, Atheists and Protestants who believe nothing,” but this claim overlooks several particulars of Adams’ statement. Before we look at those particulars, however, let me first offer an explanation for the term “Protestants who believe nothing.” Gregg Frazer emphasizes this phrase in his book and mocks it in his speeches to show how ludicrous it is for anyone to think that Adams could have been referring to uniquely Christian principles, but it is quite possible that Adams was referring to a denomination similar to the present-day Churches of Christ (not to be confused with the United Church of Christ). These churches trace their history back to James O’Kelly who, in 1793 “withdrew from the Baltimore conference of his church and called upon others to join him in taking the Bible as the only creed.” The Church of Christ website answers the question, “Does the church of Christ have a creed?” with this statement:
“No. At least, there is no creed in the usual sense of the word. The belief of the church is stated fully and completely in the Bible. There is no other manual or discipline to which the members of the church of Christ give their allegiance.”
These churches could easily have been called “Protestants who believe nothing” because of their unusual determination not to adhere to any creed, yet their doctrine is still uniquely Christian. If Adams was referring to churches of this type, then there is no need to consider why he listed them as adhering to the general principles of Christianity. We can therefore limit our discussion to the Adams’ reference to Deists and Atheists.
When considering Adams’ reference to Deists and Atheists, it is important to note two additional statements which he made in this letter. First, it is imperative that we not skip over Adams’ statement that these young men were “all educated in the general principles of Christianity.” The second fact to keep in mind is that Adams only referred to the “general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united,” but Deists and Atheists cannot properly be considered as members of a sect. The word “sect” refers to “a group within an organized religion whose adherents recognize a special set of teachings or practices.” Thus, when Adams referred to principles “in which all those sects were united,” he was referring to all of those in his list who claimed to be Christians. This conclusion is supported by the fact that immediately after Adams spoke of the general principles of Christianity which united all of the sects, he then added “the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united.” If by the term “sects” Adams had intended to include all of those in his list, then there would have been no need for him to make a separate reference to the young men. He could have simply written:
“What were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united.”
Adams was attempting to explain his position in clear and unmistakable terms, and in doing so, he intentionally referred to the principles that united the various sects of Christianity and to the principles that united the young men of Philadelphia in 1798. Thus, Adams provided two sets of “general principles on which the fathers achieved independence” – the general principles of Christianity and the general principles of English and American liberty.
These two sets of principles correlate perfectly with Adams’ previous statement that, "Science and morals are the great pillars on which this country has been raised to its present population, opulence, and prosperity.” The general principles of English and American liberty are the pillar that he referred to as science, and the general principles of Christianity make up the pillar which he referred to as morals. That Jefferson would have understood this correlation can be seen in his earlier letter to Priestley in which he referred to Adams’ statement about science and morals as “bigotry in politics and religion.”
At this point in the discussion, we can see clearly that general principals of Christianity which Adams mentioned were not limited to principles that Christians shared with Deists and Atheists. The particular Deists and Atheists that Adams mentioned had all been educated in the general principles of Christianity. They were not members of the sects which held to those general principles, and they were only mentioned as agreeing with the general principles of English and American liberty. This means that when Adams referred to the general principles of Christianity, he would have been including such principles as the existence of God, His intervention in the affairs of men and His revelation to them of His will. This is the only explanation of these principles that makes sense of the opening paragraph of Adams’ letter in which he wrote:
“Poor weak man! when will thy perfection arrive? Thy perfectibility I shall not deny, for a greater character than Priestley or Godwin has said, ‘Be ye perfect.’”
Here, in the same letter from which some would have us believe that Adams thought the general principles of Christianity to be inclusive of deism and atheism, we find Adams himself recognizing the existence of God and the authority of the Scriptures.
At this point, those who disagree with me are undoubtedly sputtering that I have ignored Adams’ reference to Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire, so let’s take a look at that portion of the letter as well.
After mentioning the general principles of Christianity and the general principles of English and American liberty, Adams explained why it is so important to recognize that he was referring to general principles and not specific teachings. In this portion of his letter, he wrote:
“Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles.”
This statement indicates that the principles which Adams referred to general principles are those principles which we would refer to today as timeless principles. They are principles which are true of all ages of the world – past, present and future. The timeless principles of Christianity would include the statement of Christ that “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” In the category of English and American liberty, these principles would include the statement “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was to timeless principles such as these that Adams was referring when he told the young men of Philadelphia that they would never discover principles more fit for passing on to their children.
In his letter to Jefferson, Adams added an additional statement about these general or timeless principles. He wrote:
“In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.”
According to Jonathan Rowe and many other writers, this statement shows that the principles which Adams recognized as the general principles of Christianity can be found in the writings of men like Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire, but that is not what Adams actually said. He did not say that he could provide quotes of these principles from the given list of men. Rather, he said that he could provide quotes “in favor of” those principles. To give a quote from someone in favor of a particular principle does not necessarily mean that the person quoted must himself be in favor of that principle. We could, for example, quote Mark Antony refusing to demonstrate love and forgiveness toward his enemy Augustus and use this quote in favor of the timeless principles of love and forgiveness. In fact, we have a record of Adams doing this very thing. In a letter to his wife, he wrote:
“Our Saviour taught the Immorality of Revenge, and the moral Duty of forgiving Injuries, and even the Duty of loving Enemies. Nothing can shew the amiable, the moral, and divine Excellency of these Christian Doctrines in a stronger Point of Light, than the Characters and Conduct of Marius and Sylla, Caesar, Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, among innumerable others.”
All of the names listed in this letter were examples of men who failed to abide by the principles taught by Christ, and yet Adams lists them as among the best demonstrations of the truth of those principles. He was using their failures to prove the excellency of that principle which they rejected, and it is likely that he was employing this same tactic in his letter to Jefferson. He did not mention the writings of men like Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire as sources of the general principles of Christianity but rather to prove his claim that the principles of Christianity really are eternal and immutable. It is as if he was asking “If the writings of men like Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire can do nothing to refute the general principles of Christianity, then why shouldn’t I say that the young men of Philadelphia will never be able to refute them either?”
Thus, it should be clear that when John Adams said that the founding fathers achieved independence through the general principles of Christianity, he was not referring to principles which are held by men who believe nothing, by Deists and Atheists or by philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire. He was referring to the same timeless principles of the Bible which are “as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God,” but just in case there are those who still hold to the opposite opinion, let’s continue on and give our consideration to the final paragraph of Adams’ letter.
In that paragraph, Adams told Jefferson that he thought his “sentiments were sufficiently known to have protected me against suspicions of narrow thoughts.” He then explained that Jefferson should have been able to ascertain his view on this topic from the preface to his book A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America which had been published in 1787. He asked Jefferson to “read again that whole page, and then say whether the writer of it could be suspected of recommending to youth ‘to look backward instead of forward,’ for instruction and improvement.” If we were to fulfill this request ourselves, we would find that not only did Adams recognize the continuous advancement of the sciences, but he also made reference to the timeless principles of Christianity upon which our nation was founded. Here are two excerpts from that preface:
“The people in America have now the best opportunity, and the greatest trust, in their hands, that Providence ever committed to so small a number, since the transgression of the first pair: if they betray their trust, their guilt will merit even greater punishment than other nations have suffered, and the indignation of heaven.”
“It can no longer be called in question, whether authority in magistrates, and obedience of citizens, can be grounded on reason, morality, and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests, or the knavery of politicians.”
The body of Adams’ book contains many more statements regarding the principles of Christianity, but a mere listing of them would fill an additional four pages of text. For now, however, I will simply leave you with the full assurance that when John Adams said that our nation was founded on the general principles of Christianity, he really was speaking of the principles of Christianity and not just of some watered down list of the ethics which Christians have in common with Atheists.
 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, (1966) s.v. “sect.”
 Luke 10:27
 The Declaration of Independence
 Ibid., pg xv
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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