By Matthew Claridge–

[artwork by Josh Lange]

Last Fall I read David McCullough’s bio of John Adams. I came away with a greater admiration for Adams himself and a deeper appreciation for that entire period in world history. I was particularly intrigued to discover in more detail the content of the regular correspondence Adams and Jefferson developed between the years 1812-1826 following their retirement from public life. So, I picked up the complete Adams-Jefferson Letters at the local library to satisfy my curiosity. I had been lead to believe that these letters contained a frank interchange of their religious positions and Adams’ attempt to actually convert Jefferson to orthodox Christianity.

 If that idea has any popular support at all, it should definitely be laid to rest. The letters provide wonderful portraits of these two Founding Fathers: Jefferson, the cool and collected Virginian; Adams, the bombastic and lovable New Englander; and both, unapologetic disciples of the Enlightenment. I didn’t have any high expectations for Jefferson, but I did for Adams—his puritan roots and more realistic perspective on human depravity lead me to believe he had a little more theological backbone (McCullough’s bio was rather vague on Adams particular religious beliefs). Unfortunately, that is not the case. At several points in the letters he attacks Trinitarian dogma, [1] he cozies up to the idea that the physical universe is eternal like God, [2] and he reduces religion to a common-denominator form of morality (think the Golden Rule). [3] While he loves the simple maxims of Jesus, he lambastes the theological claims ascribed to Jesus by his simple-minded biographers (i.e., the Gospel writers). By the same token, the apostle Paul is completely absent from his discussions and serious reflections on the meaning of Christ’s atonement are not pursued. Whenever religious themes come up, Adams affirmed rather than challenged the Deism of Jefferson. [4] Needless to say, I was quite disappointed.

While his conclusions are certainly inexcusable, they are not inexplicable. At several points in the letters both Adams and Jefferson wrestle with the new historical criticism of their day that was taking the Bible apart piece by piece. [5] Their age was witness to the rise of a dizzying array of silly religious and romantic movements (Mormonism being one of its progeny). [6] They both had a greater historical proximity and remembrance of Catholicism’s centuries-long hegemony of pseudo-historical polemics and fabulous tales of the saints. [7] They lived at a time when “Science” appeared to offer all the answers to our social problems. [8] They were blissfully ignorant of the complex, amoral results of the industrial revolution, the atomic age, eugenics, and the digital revolution. The full political, social, and religious implications of the French Revolution were only beginning to play themselves out (though John Adams was much more perceptive than Jefferson on this). They were riding the wave of a tremendous, almost irresistible revolution in worldview and its hard not to blame them for getting entangled and caught up in it.

It appears to me that the driving factor behind much of Adams and Jefferson’s deistical views were their reactions against the Medieval appropriation of Platonism, in all its complex, mystical forms. Their views of God, the world, and morality are developed in a point for point contrast with Platonism—at least as they understand it. They routinely object to the nonsensical language of the Athanasian Creed and express disdain at Plato’s complex “chain of being” philosophy. It’s all a convoluted, illogical mess as far as they are concerned. The irony in all this, however, is that while both Adams and Jefferson vigorously attack Platonism[9] and “Platonizing” Christianity (i.e., Trinitarian Orthodoxy), their own form of Deism is in many ways a legitimate heir to Platonism. When it comes right down to it, their strong denouncement of Plato turn out to be quite superficial.

The problems with their reading of “Platonism” is three-fold: 1) Plato was one of the purest rationalists of the Greek tradition, whereas Cicero and other classical favorites of the Founding Fathers tended to be skeptics and pragmatists. Plato’s entire program defended Jefferson’s confidence in the powers and authority of human reason. Jefferson and Adams should have been much more sympathetic to Plato who would have stood with them against the skeptical “atheists” [10] and the superstitious hagiographies of the unenlightened masses.

2) Deism is actually a permutation of Platonism, and Jefferson and Adams are biting the hand that fed them. Their rationalist account of “redemption” history (which involves little history, in fact), their golden-mean moralism, their sterilized descriptions of the nature and attributes of God, their confidence in man’s innate reasoning process, and their focus on creational categories over redemptive categories are entirely consistent with Platonism.

3) Both Adams and Jefferson completely misunderstand the Athanasian Creed. It was not Plato that drove the language and categories developed by Nicea, it was the testimony of Scripture. Though neither Adams nor Jefferson ever come out and say it, there is very little reason to think they held to the deity of Christ. In fact, at several points, they speak favorably of Unitarianism (particularly when they discuss in letter after letter a Unitarian work produced by a guy named Priestly). Adams implies a belief in Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, but that is still far from affirming his deity. It seems that both were convinced that the “theological” ideas of Christ’s person were the product of meddling church officials (Dan Brown, anyone?).

Here’s the problem: Athanasius argued for Christ’s deity not simply from the clear teaching of Scripture but also from the nature of salvation. If Christ is not fully divine, it would mean our salvation is not fully guaranteed. Athanasius argues this point not with appeals to Plato, but by following the story of redemption starting with Adam. But, of course, such considerations don’t enter the heads of Jefferson and Adams. They are blind to this because of their rationalistic presuppositions. Revealed religion serves no other function but to confirm their ethical principles. Jesus is simply a wise, moral teacher who brought Judaism back to sanity by reforming and even rejecting the ethical accretions of the Old Testament. [11] Yet, if anything, it is the Founding Fathers, not the Church Fathers, who have put words in the mouth of Christ and have paid too little heed to C.S. Lewis’ ultimatum: Christ is either madman, devil, or deity. You can’t have it any other way.

Matthew Claridge is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has two children, Alec and Nora. 

[1] JA to TJ July 13, 1813; TJ to JA Aug. 22, 1813; JA to TJ Sept. 14, 1813; JA to TJ March 3, 1814

[2] JA to TJ Sept. 14, 1813; JA to TJ March 2, 1816

[3] JA to TJ June 28, 1812; JA to TJ June 28, 1813; JA to JT Oct. 4, 1813; JA to JT Dec. 25, 1813. Adams says at one point: “I could express my faith in shorter terms. He who loves the Workman and his Work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of him.”

[4] JA to TJ July 16, 1813; JA to TJ Nov. 14, 1813

[5] JA to TJ Nov. 14, 1813; JA to TJ Dec. 3, 1813

[6] JA to TJ Feb. 10, 1812; JA to TJ May 3, 1812

[7] JA to TJ June 22, 1815; JA to TJ June 22, 1815

[8] TJ to JA June 15, 1813

[9] TJ to JA July 5, 1814; JA to TJ July 16, 1814. Adams humorously adds, “my disappointment with [Plato] was very great, my Astonishment was greater and my disgust was shocking. Two Things only did I learn from him. 1. that Franklins ideas of exempting Husbandmen and Mariners etc. from the depredations of War were borrowed from him. 2. that Sneezing is a cure for the Hickups. Accordingly I have cured myself and all my Friends of that provoking disorder, for thirty Years with a Pinch of Snuff.”

[10] JA to TJ Nov. 13, 1815

[11] TJ to JA Aug. 22, 1813; TJ to JA Oct. 12, 1813