John Adams (1735-1826) was the first vice president and second president of the United States. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and is considered one of America’s greatest founding fathers. One of the most popular beliefs about him is that he was a conservative Christian.
In a previous article, I wrote about the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, and showed that he was not a Christian like many have thought. What about John Adams? Was he a Christian, or was he something else? In this article, I will examine what Adams had to say about his belief in God, and whether or not he believed that one is only saved through Jesus Christ.
The Morality of John Adams
It is clear that John Adams believed in his heart that he was a Christian. He was raised in a Christian home, went to a Congregational church founded by Puritans in the seventeenth-century, considered pursuing a career as a clergyman, and even described himself as a “churchgoing animal.” Historian John Fea notes, “His personal convictions often led to behavior that one could easily describe as ‘Christian.’”
Adams had such a love for goodness that he dreamed about living in a godly society where the Bible was the nation’s only law book. This type of nation was so godly that everyone followed the Bible. This society would be so good at following Scripture that it would be perfect or very close to it. It would be a Utopia, that is, a paradise.
Adams believed in a providential God who ordered his creation according to his good purpose, and he placed his family into the hands of this God. Adams was a role model for family life as well. He was a loving father and had a great relationship with his wife, and he believed that family was the very heart of a virtuous society.
Adams was a big believer in forgiveness. So much so that he believed that the British government should be forgiven (this was during the American Revolution). He was against the luxury and materialism that many pursued, and worried that these ambitions could do harm to the young American nation. He was self-conscious of his own faults and believed in repentance. According to him, America would only survive if her people put others people’s needs above their own. “Sins” like ambition would be punished by God. Adams believed that government should promote religion, and he even called for a day of prayer. One time Adams actually said that he was sorry to hear someone like Jefferson object to Christianity. “Based upon the way he conducted his life and his own understanding of his religious identity, Adams appears to have been a Christian.”
Was Adams a Believer in Jesus Christ?
All of this makes it sound like John Adams was a Christian. He clearly had a mind that followed many Christian principles, and I believe that many American Christians probably would have found themselves comfortable to be around Adams. However, when one looks closely at Adams’s own writings you will discover that he was, in fact, not a Christian.
Let me start with his thinking on Jesus. His beliefs about the person of Jesus Christ were clearly not Biblical. Fea notes that Adams failed the “orthodoxy” test miserably and “[e]ven as he referred to himself as a Christian in his personal writings and letters, Adams was well aware of the fact that his religious beliefs were ‘not exactly conformable to that of the greater Part of the Christian World.’”
Adams noted that his religious convictions could be summed up by John 5:29: “But after all that has been said of doctrines, they only who have done good shall come forth to the resurrection unto life, and they only who have done evil to the resurrection of damnation.” In 1816, he told Thomas Jefferson that it was the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount that contained his religion. The problem is, of course, 1 John 3:22-23 specifically says that to obey God and do good deeds is to not only love one another, but to believe in the name of Jesus Christ. It is impossible to do good in God’s sight if you do not believe in Jesus.
Adams could not accept the deity of Jesus Christ or that he died for the sins of the world. Adams said, “An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent omnipresent [everywhere] omniscient [all-knowing] Author of this stupendous Universe suffering on a Cross!!! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea.” The idea that a “finite Being” like Christ making “Satisfaction to infinite justice for the sins of the world” was absurd. These teachings, according to Adams, were not originally part of the Gospel, but were created by the early Church who “understood” Jesus.
This is very similar to what Jefferson believed about Jesus. Romans 10:9 says that to be saved a person must believe that Jesus is Lord, and that he rose from the dead. To say that Jesus is Lord is to affirm that he is the God of the Old Testament in the human form.
Adams also denied the Trinity. He thought that the Trinity violated the First Commandment. This made Adams a Unitarian. A Unitarian believes that God is one, not three. Unitarians believed that God could only be understood through reason. The Trinity cannot be understood by human reason so it must be false. “As a man deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, he could not tolerate any form of religion that seemed to contradict the dictates of reason.” In this way, he was no different than Jefferson.
Adams also rejected the Biblical teaching of original sin and total depravity. By doing this he rejected the very foundation of the Gospel. Jesus came to earth and died for our sins because of original sin – the teaching that Adam and Eve were perfect until they sinned against God. He believed that humans do sin, but not that they were pure evil (in contrary to numerous Scriptures – Genesis 8:21; Romans 3:9-20). He was a believer in Enlightenment thought that humanity will improve and progress. He also did not like the idea that great thinkers in history, for example, Plato, Cicero, and others, were in hell because they rejected Christ. Note that these “great thinkers” were pagans.
Was Adams a Deist?
Some claim that Adams was a deist, the belief that a god created the world, leaves it alone, and performs no miracles. Adams was clearly no deist. He believed that God had intervened in history to overthrow the tyrannical authority that the Catholic Church had held for centuries on Europe. (Adams had a much better attitude towards Protestant Christianity.) He also thought that God always fought for freedom (like in the United States).
Fea says that Adams “was convinced that God was a patriot” and that he was on the side of American progress. “If colonists were not virtuous and continued in their sin, God would not bless their pursuit of independence.” He once said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
This is a strange argument for Adams to make since he believed that God could not be known. If God cannot be known, then how can Adams know that God is a patriot and that he always fights freedom? Adams was a man of his time (the Enlightenment), and because of this a good God had to be on the side of those who believed in reason. Essentially Adams (and others like him) created God in their own image.
John Adams was not a Christian since he rejected the deity and atoning work of Christ. Instead, he was someone who picked out from the Bible what he liked and agreed to, and rejected the things that a “reasonable” people did not like. Although he was a “moral” person in the eyes of man, he was “immoral” in the eyes of God.
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 John Fea. Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). Pg. 191. John Adams to Benjamin Rush, Aug. 28, 1811.
 Fea, 191.
 John Adams Diary, Feb. 22, 1756. Fea, 191.
 Fea, 192, 200.
 Adams to Abigail Adams, June 2, 1777, June 3, 1778, September 8, 1777, April 13, 1777; John Adams to John Quincy Adams, June 16, 1816; Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817; Adams to Caroline de Windt, Jan. 24, 1820.
 Fea, 197, 199, 201.
 Jon Meacham. American Gospel. (New York: Random House, 2006.) Pgs. 83-84.
 Fea, 192.
 Adams to Benjamin Rush, Feb. 1, 1810.
 Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 4, 1816.
 Adams to Jefferson, July 16, 1813; Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816; Adams Diary, Feb. 13, 1756.
 Fea, 193, 196.
 Fea, 192, 198. Adams to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820; Adams to Jefferson, April 19, 1817; Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816.
 Fea, 197, 199.
 Ibid., 199.
 Ibid., 200.
 Chris Pinto. The Hidden Faith of the Founding Fathers. Adullam Films.