John Adams and his wife Abigail were two extraordinary people that served as clear examples to others when it comes to matters of freedom. There are thousands of sources of information of the same that can be found in the Adams’ papers, which consists of letters, diaries and family papers (1). They give a detailed eyewitness account, like no other, of history and their personal lives.
Who was John Adams?
John Adams was born as the son of Deacon John and Susanna Adams on October 19, 1735. The Adams family had been part of the great Puritan migration nearly a century before and lived in Braintree, Massachusetts. His father, Deacon Adams, was described as “a solid citizen, as a tithing man, constable, lieutenant in the militia, selectman, and ultimately church deacon, taking his place on the deacon’s bench before the pulpit (2). To say that young John Adams was just baptized in the church and raised in a Christian home was putting it mildly.
John would one day explain to Benjamin Rush in a letter his belief for the reason why his family had survived when so many others had perished that had been part of the Puritan migration. He wrote:
“What has preserved this race of Adamses in all their ramifications in such numbers, health, peace, comfort, and mediocrity? I believe it is religion, without which they would have been rakes, fops, sots, gamblers, starved with hunger, or frozen with cold, scalped by Indians, etc., etc., etc., been melted away and disappeared” (3).
Adams learned to read at home using The New England Primer (4). It was a book containing the alphabet, grammar, prayers, songs, and questions about the Bible. It can be described as follows:
“The New England Primer was a textbook used by students in New England and in other English settlements in North America. It was first printed in Boston in 1690 by Benjamin Harris who had published a similar volume in London. It was used by students into the 19th century. Over five million copies of the book were sold.
In the 1700’s schools in the colonies were strongly influenced by religion. It was the intent of the colonists that all children should learn to read and in 1642 Puritan Massachusetts passed a law stating this. They believed that an inability to read was Satan’s attempt to keep people from the Scriptures.
The New England Primer followed a tradition of combining the study of the alphabet with Bible reading. It introduced each alphabet letter in a religious phrase and then illustrated the phrase with a woodcut. The primer also contained a catechism of religious questions and answers. Emphasis was placed on fear of sin, God’s punishment and the fact that all people would have to face death” (5).
In the example below of a New England Primer alphabet lesson, some of the content is shown. Noah Webster did not yet standardize spelling so some words may appear with unusual spellings.
A In ADAM’S Fall We sinned all.
B Heaven to find; The Bible Mind.
C Christ crucify’d For sinners dy’d.
D The Deluge drown’d The Earth around.
E ELIJAH hid By Ravens fed
F The judgment made FELIX afraid.
As Adams got a little older, he eventually began to attend a “dame school,” a home school for a handful of children at a neighbor’s house. There too he used the New England Primer. Later, as he matured in his studies, he attended a tiny local schoolhouse where Adams encountered a teacher that paid him no attention. He lost all interest in books or study and began to form a desire to be a farmer (6).
Adams grew up highly respecting his father who taught him the virtues of frugality and industry. Deacon Adams also taught John that land was the only sound investment and should never be sold, once purchased. This dislike for school and seeing his father work hard with his hands is why John wanted to be a farmer. However, Deacon Adams planned a different path for his bright son. He wanted him to attend Harvard to become a minister so he put John in a private school.
By age fifteen, John’s private school teacher said John was ready for Harvard. Despite not wanting to go to college, John followed the directive of his father and traveled to Harvard to stand for his admission examinations. He was admitted and granted a partial scholarship. His father, for the first and only time in his life, sold ten acres of land to pay for the remaining expenses (7).
Harvard was extremely strict compared to today’s standards. “All scholars” were to “behave themselves blamelessly, leading sober, righteous, and godly lives.” They were admonished not to lean at prayers, lie, blaspheme, fornicate, get drunk, or pick locks (8). While at Harvard, John fell in love again with books and read voraciously. By his last years, he was told he would be more suited as a lawyer.
Adams readily accepted this guidance to become a lawyer and his father agreed. He went on to graduate and took up a position as a schoolmaster to save money to pay for an apprenticeship under an attorney and to study more. By the time he was twenty years old he wrote in his journal:
“I am resolved t[o] rise with the sun and to study the Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other three mornings…I will strive with all my soul to be something more than persons who have less advantages than myself” (9).
Adams went on to be an attorney and have a law practice after his father died in 1761. Two years before his father’s death, he met Abigail Smith. He eventually married her in 1764 after a nearly five-year courtship. Abigail was raised in a Christian home and her father was Reverend William Smith. She was home schooled by her mother, loved to read, and was considered to be quite intelligent and witty (10).
What did Adams think about freedom?
Adams showed a keen understanding of freedom as a right from God that required effort to prevent it from being taken by government. With John’s father’s death, receiving of an inheritance, and his marriage to Abigail, Adams became a prosperous man and was well involved in politics. The next year he wrote a dissertation as a member of a law club in Boston. In it he wrote:
“Be it remembered that liberty must be at all hazards supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we have not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood. And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers…Government is a plain, simple, intelligent thing, founded in nature and reason, quite comprehensible by common sense…Let it be known that British liberties are not the grants of princes of parliaments…that many of our rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims and established as preliminaries, even before Parliament existed” (11).
It is clear from this passage and many others that Adams knew that freedom did not come from government, but from God. He also realized that for people to have liberty, they must have a general knowledge of the freedom we have in Christ, which existed long before the princes and parliaments existed and that the rights from God are inherent and essential to the establishment of good government.
It was during the times of conflict in Massachusetts with the King of England, that Adams witnessed first-hand the removal of the natural born rights of Englishmen whose only fault was that they lived not on the native soil of England, but in the English colonies. Based on the actions taken against the people by agents of the king and the King himself, many articles would be later written in the Bill of Rights that would specifically enumerate those rights that had been removed from the people. Of particular note, was that it was Christians of the Baptist denomination that would assist Thomas Jefferson in this endeavor to secure the freedoms that were granted in Scripture by God.
Adams quickly became well known for his writing on the subject of liberty and government. His writings concerning observation of government and freedom filled his journal and were instrumental in his role as an attorney when it came to matters of justice. The more he studied and wrote, the more he believed that:
“the preservation of liberty depends on the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved…The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with the power to endanger the public liberty” (12).
What was John Adams’ attitude toward Scripture and humanistic wisdom?
John Adams was later elected to be a representative to the Continental Congress. With fame, his schedule filled with all sorts of visits, ceremonies, business, articles, and other things. Despite this, his Sunday’s were set aside for church. He typically spent most of Sunday attending services; two or three times at different churches. He enjoyed evaluating the music and preaching of various denominations. Some he liked better than others, but stuck to what he knew was taught in the Bible (13).
Adams’ reverence for the Bible was also a topic of his meditation, writings, and discussion. On the idea of perfection, he wrote:
“Perfectibility abstracted from all divine authority was unacceptable. It is an idea of the Christian religion, and ever has been of all believers of the immortality of the soul, that the intellectual part of a man is capable of progressive improvement forever. Where then is the sense of calling the perfectibility of man an original idea or modern discovery…I consider the perfectibility of man as used by modern philosophers to be mere words without meaning, that is mere nonsense” (14).
Adams believed what the Scriptures taught concerning the condition of humanity. He sharply disagreed with those who believed that man can intellectually improve or perfect himself apart from God. His Christ-centered thoughts, ideas and, opinions concerning Christianity, freedom, and the affairs of men became the topic of many conversations and letters. In a discussion with Benjamin Rush concerning Rush’s idea of eliminating Greek and Latin from education, Adams said, “Your labors will be as useless as those of Thomas Paine against the Bible” (15).
Adams, like Washington and many other Founding Fathers, was not shy about his Christian faith and where he saw the Bible as being essential. Even though he was a gifted debater and able to argue from a position of knowledge, he still gave the credit to God by saying “Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right” (16). Despite the wisdom and knowledge that Adams possessed, he recognized that it came from God, which made him instrumental in his role as an American Founding Father.
To learn more about John Adams visit our resource page over at Christianity Every Day: John Adams
Resources – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, King James Version. Williams, Michael L. Silenced in the Schoolhouse: How Biblical illiteracy in our schools is destroying America. Albuquerque, NM: Wisdom4Today, 2008.
(1) McCullough, David. John Adams. McCullough, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005 p. 653-656
(2) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 29-30
(3) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 30
(4) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 33
(5) Barger, Dr. Robert N., http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/neprimer.html
(6) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 33
(7) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 34-35
(8) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 36
(9) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 41
(10) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 52-56
(11) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 60
(12) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 70
(13) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 83-84
(14) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 590-591
(15) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 591
(16) McCullough, David. John Adams. p. 228