Like many of his contemporaries, he brought the religion in which he was raised into the court of his reason and common sense and judged it by what he found ... "Let the human mind loose," Adams once wrote in an outburst of Enlightenment passion. "It must be loosed; it will be loose. Superstition and despotism cannot confine it." He followed these words with the assertion that Christianity would surely triumph if the human mind were loosed. This statement indicates that Adams belongs somewhere in the category of Unitarian Christian or Christian Deist.
Adams was not saying in this letter that if the human mind were free of all restraints it would end up accepting Christianity. What he actually said was that all men must submit to the dictates of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Now, this is a much, much different understanding of what Adams wrote than that which is proclaimed by Holmes and nearly every other historian who mentions this quote, so let me take a few moments to spell out exactly how I arrived at that conclusion.
Let’s begin by considering the actual words that Adams wrote. Here are the two paragraphs from page 2 of Adams’ letter in which the above quote is found:
For sixty years I have neglected all sciences but Government and Religion. The former I have for several years passed by in despair, the latter still occupies my thoughts. I have all my lifetime studied Religions, Irreligions and no Religions as much as my contraited means and opportunities would permit. I have read within two years, Grim in 15 volumes, Tucker in Seven and nine volumes, in twelve of Dupuis. No Romances I ever read have entertained me so much.
My conclusion from the whole is “Universal Toleration, Let the human Mind loose. It must be loose; it will be loose. Superstition and Despotism cannot confine it. And the conclusion must be that Musquitos are not competent to dogmatise” [concerning the whole]. Philosophy and theology must submit to the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount, and trust the Ruler with his Skies.
Now, at first glance, the context here may seem to agree with what Holmes wrote, but bear with me just a little longer and consider the topic of conversation which Adams was discussing. This letter is from the middle of a series of communications between John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. When we follow the thread of the conversation, we can see that the above two paragraphs from John Adams were written in response to something that his son wrote on January 5, 1816. Here is an excerpt from John Quincy Adams’ letter to his father:
I plainly perceive that you are not to be converted, even by the eloquence of Massillon, to the Athanasian creed ... Mr. Channing says he does not believe, because he cannot coprehend it. Does he comprehend how the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, infinite, eternal spirit, can be the father of a mortal man, conceived and born of a Virgin? Does he comprehend his own meaning when he speaks of God as the Father, and Christ as the Son? Does he comprehend the possibility according to human reason, of one page in the Bible from the first verse in Genesis to the last verse of the Apocalypse? If he does, I give him the joy of his discovery, and wish he would impart it to his fellow Christians. If the bible is a moral tale, there is no believing in the Trinity. But if it is the rule of faith –
From this letter, we can see that father and son were disputing about the doctrine of the Trinity. John Adams believed that Jesus was a man who had been empowered by God to be the Savior (see chapter 6 of Hidden Facts of the Founding Era) while John Quincy Adams believed that Jesus was God. In the letter from John Quincy Adams, we see that he rejected the argument that the Trinity cannot be true because it is incomprehensible. He explained that there are many things incomprehensible about theology which are accepted even by those who deny the Trinity. In response to this, John Adams wrote the above two paragraphs in which he said that men are not competent to speak dogmatically on those subjects. John Quincy’s response on January 3, 1817, provides the key to understanding his father’s words. Here is an excerpt from this letter:
If after sixty years of assiduous study and profound meditation you have only come to the result of trusting the Ruler with his skies, and adhering to the sermon upon the mount, I may be permitted to adopt the same conclusions by a shorter and more compendious process. But you observe again that mosquitoes are not competent to dogmatize [concerning the whole] ... You and I are competent to dogmatize, taking the sense of its derivation, that is, to hold opinions about the [whole]. To hold opinions, but not to obtain perfect knowledge. Mosquitoes hold no opinions. Now in the sermon upon the mount much is said about the kingdom of Heaven, and those who alone shall enter it. The preacher of that sermon announced himself as a being superior at least to human nature. If you say that he was a mere ordinary man, you include him also in the class of those who are not competent to dogmatize upon the system of the universe. You, or at least I, can by no possible process of reasoning consider him as a mere man, without at the same time pronouncing him an Impostor … You see my orthodoxy grows upon me, and I still unite with you in the doctrine of toleration and benevelonce.
At this point, the pieces start to fall into place. Father and son were discussing the Athanasian Creed. John Quincy Adams had scored an excellent point when he defeated the argument from incomprehensibility. His father responded by saying that men are not competent to speak dogmatically on such topics and, therefore, should tolerate those of other opinions. John Quincy then replied that men are able to dogmatize upon such topics, but he agreed with his father in regards to toleration. The portion of the conversation dealing with toleration revolves around the issue of whether those who accept the Trinity should force their view on those who do not.
So what does this tell us about the quote used by David Holmes? Well, to put it simply, it tells us that, when John Adams spoke of the human mind being loosed, he was not speaking of freeing the mind from all constraints of religion but rather of men being allowed to differ on the question of the Trinity. That Adams was not seeking to free men from all religious constraints can be seen in the final sentence of his paragraph. There, he clearly stated that all “philosophy and theology must submit to the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount.” Then, he followed that statement with a quote from Alexander Pope: “trust the Ruler with his Skies” which simply implies that men ought not to fret over the things of God. Thus, in contrast with the claim of Holmes and several other historians, Adams actually told his son that men must submit themselves to the religious principles of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount even if they differ on issues like the Trinity.
That this is what John Adams was saying is evident from his son’s response, for John Quincy Adams immediately turned to the very passage of Scripture which his father had identified as being authoritative over all men in order to prove that his father’s view was inconsistent. If John Adams had merely been arguing for men to be freed from the constraints of religion, then his son would not have been able to make such an appeal to authority. It is only the fact that John Adams viewed the Sermon on the Mount to be supremely authoritative over all the opinions of men that allowed his son to make the argument that he did.
John Adams was mistaken in his view of the Trinity, and he wished that other Christians would stop ostracizing him as a result, but he had no problem at all with saying that every man’s philosophy should be constrained by the teachings of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.