Academic journal article Church History

John Quincy Adams at Prayer

Academic journal article Church History

John Quincy Adams at Prayer

Article excerpt

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I wish to thank the editors and fellow contributors for convening this forum, and the members of the 2013 American Society of Church History Winter Meeting for their thoughtful comments. I want to extend special thanks to Jon H. Roberts, and members of the North American Religion Colloquium at Harvard Divinity School, who generously provided feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Finally, I want to thank my colleagues at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Adams National Historical Park.

At seventy-three years old, John Quincy Adams embarked on a winter lecture tour to share his views "On Faith" and drew on his "intercourse with the world" to describe the "many liberal minded and intelligent persons--almost persuaded to become Christians" whom he had met. So powerful was Adams's religious message that when his youngest son came across the manuscript years later, he simply docketed it: "Two sermons/JQA." The speech, delivered from Boston to Salem and Hartford to Brooklyn--but never printed--laid out his decades of seeking and the formulation of Adams's own theology. Overall, Adams came to believe that man's unity of faith, hope, and charity could defeat earthly ills and clarify choices in the early republic's burgeoning religious marketplace. "Faith must have its bounds, and perhaps the most difficult and delicate question in morals is to define them clearly," Adams said, praising the American government's nonintervention in forming official articles of faith. "But allow me to say that this unbounded freedom of religious faith, far from absolving any individual from the obligation of believing, does but impose it upon them, with a tenfold force."1 This insight was especially true of Adams's own religious history. Therefore this essay offers a reintroduction to America's sixth president based on the diverse circles of prayer that he moved through, and the religious poetics that he created to narrate that pilgrimage. It ends with a glimpse of the curious afterlife that American religious culture assigned to him.

Throughout the large life that he led on the world stage, John Quincy Adams devoutly chronicled people, places, events, and religions like no other American statesman of his era. As a leader of the early republic's fledgling diplomatic corps, and later, as an antislavery firebrand, the lifelong Protestant used his public and private writings to valorize political office as the epitome of a Christian patriot's service to Providence. During his stints as ambassador, Secretary of State, President, and Congressman, Adams remained unswervingly committed to the projection of America as a Christian commonwealth. His intense engagement with the world's believers and skeptics also fueled a remarkable personal odyssey that mirrored his generation's shift from rigid Calvinism to liberal Arminianism. Reimagining John Quincy Adams at prayer, then, illuminates the remarkable evolution of the Unitarian conscience.2 Over time, he came to care less about the use of religion for self-perfection, and far more about the practical power of faith to achieve social justice over "national sins" like slavery. He set aside youthful demands for evidence of miracles, and grew to embrace the divinity of Christ as he worked out matters of faith in the dual context of politics and poetry. Man's will forged belief, Adams argued, and that belief made and sustained the Christianity needed to counter any trial. Faith, he concluded, was a "natural and essential denomination of the human soul."3

How and why John Quincy Adams came to define and redefine religion matters deeply, because often the form of worship that he attended was not his own. Constant travel led Adams to develop the cosmopolitan Christianity that shaped his worldview, but religion remains an understudied aspect of his life.4 The relentless tug of a diplomatic itinerary constantly uprooted and replanted Adams, along with wife Louisa Catherine and their three sons, John 2nd, George Washington, and Charles Francis. …

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