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Dr. Warren Throckmorton Christian Blog and Commentary

David Barton defends his interpretation of John Adams and the Holy Ghost

  • Dr. Warren Throckmorton
    Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He co-founded the Golden Rule Pledge which advocates bullying prevention in evangelical churches. His academic articles have been published by journals of the American Psychological Association and he is past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. He is the author with fellow Grove City College professor, Michael Coulter, of the book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. Over 200 newspapers have published his columns. He can be reached at ewthrockmorton@gcc.edu.
  • 2011 Jun 29
  • Comments

On his most recent article on the Wallbuilder's website, David Barton strikes back at critics, notably Chris Pinto, who have challenged Barton’s interpretation of President John Adams’ views on the Holy Spirit. Pinto's film, The Hidden Faith of the Founding Fathers, addresses some of Barton's claims about the early patriots.

On May 31, I posted on my personal blog a lengthly critical analysis of Barton’s contention that John Adams believed government and just about every other human activity is carried on by the Holy Ghost. At issue is the meaning of this passage from a December 21, 1809 letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush:

The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this Earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a sacrament can be administered but by the Holy Ghost. . . . There is no authority, civil or religious – there can be no legitimate government – but that which is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it. All without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words, damnation.

I argue that Barton’s interpretation completely ignores the reason for Adams’ December 21 letter. On December 5th, 1809, Rush wrote Adams a letter complaining about ecclesiastical controversies over the Holy Ghost’s role in the ordination of ministers. See the May 31 post for that letter and the details.

Barton’s rebuttal is a rambling attempt to link Adams’ December 21 letter to church history. He also claims that his critics are liberals and engage in modernism and other faulty methods of understanding the meaning of the letters. If you wade into these deep weeds, please note what Barton does not do. One, he does not address the fact that conservative Christian historians such as John Fea at Messiah College, dismiss Barton’s interpretation. In fact, Barton does not provide one other authority who supports him. He demonizes his critics as liberal but ignores the fact that some of his critics are evangelicals who strongly support religious freedom.

Two, Barton’s rebuttal ignores this introduction to John Adams’ letter to Benjamin Rush:

QUINCY December 21. 1809.

MY DEAR SIR,—I thank you for the pleasing account of your Family in your favour of the 5th.

"Your favour of the 5th" means the letter Rush sent to Adams. The rest of the “Holy Ghost letter” from Adams to Rush addresses content that Rush wrote about to Adams in that same letter.  There are personal details of Rush’s family that Adams comments about as well as Rush’s complaints over the ordination controversy involving the Holy Ghost. Here you can read the series of letters in order.

Given that David Barton has responded to one critic, I think he now needs to respond to the rest of us, but this time really address a substantial issue – namely the December 5 letter from Rush to Adams.

Additional thoughts:

Barton does several curious things in his defense. Here are just two.

One, he says that John Adams uses the phrase “In the same manner…” to introduce a contrasting idea. Barton writes:

Adams begins by first establishing the accepted doctrine of the Holy Spirit according to Period III Reformation Christianity, telling Rush:

But my friend there is something very serious in this business. The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this Earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a sacrament can be administered but by the Holy Ghost, Who is transmitted from age to age by laying the hands of the bishop on the heads of candidates for the ministry.

This statement is sound, solid, orthodox Christian doctrine. But Adams then contrasts that positive statement about the Holy Spirit with the perverted doctrine from Period II:

In the same manner, as the Holy Ghost is transmitted from monarch to monarch by the holy oil in the vial at Rheims which was brought down from Heaven by a dove and by that other phial [vial] which I have seen in the Tower of London.

Notice his use of the very important phrase: “In the same manner, as . . .” That is, having stated the right doctrine of the Holy Ghost, he now looks at the distortion of it – at how it was presented falsely “in the same manner,” but this time not in regards to “candidates for the ministry” (i.e., the Church, which is the proper use), but rather by wrongly teaching that the Holy Ghost is transferred from king to king (i.e., the State, which is not the proper use) by way of the oil brought from Heaven.

Doesn’t it seem odd that Barton would read what Adams’ wrote and call it a contrast? If anything, Adams made an analogy from the church disputes over the role of the Holy Ghost in the proper ordaination of ministers to the political disputes over the ordination of Kings via the Holy Ghost. Adams says “in the same manner…” and not ”in contrast.” The only way you can have Adams meaning to switch from an positive statements to negative ones is to impose it on the text — and to ignore the fact that Adams is replying to Rush’s December 5th letter on the subject.

The other thing that Barton does is to assume that Benjamin Rush believed God gave him the dream which featured the reunion of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Look in the “dream letter” from Rush (October 17, 1809); does Rush anywhere credit God for the dream? The context of correspondence between Rush and Adams is important here. Rush frequently communicated his views via dreams, real or made up. On one occasion, in a March 4, 1809 letter, Adams said about Rush’s dreams:

Rush,—If I could dream as much wit as you, I think I should wish to go to sleep for the rest of my Life, retaining however one of Swifts Flappers to awake me once in 24 hours to dinner, for you know without a dinner one can neither dream nor sleep. Your Dreams descend from Jove, according to Homer.

By Jove, I think he’s got it!

Jove (or Jupiter) is the chief god of the Romans and, according to Adams, the giver of dreams. I doubt Adams really meant this but I do doubt you would hear many evangelicals today saying that Jupiter gave them a dream.  In any case, I can’t find anywhere where Rush credits God in any direct or even indirect way with giving him this dream about Jefferson and Adams. After the reunion was complete around 1812, Rush expressed his happiness at the development but still did not credit God. To Adams, Rush wrote on February 17, 1812:

I rejoice in the correspondence which has taken place between you and your old friend, Mr. Jefferson. I consider you and him as the North and South Poles of the American Revolution. Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish it, but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.

And then on March 3, 1812, Rush wrote Jefferson without mention of divine agency, but instead took some credit himself:

It will give me pleasure as long as I live to reflect that I have been in any degree instrumental in effecting this reunion of two souls destined to be dear to each other and animated with the same dispositions to serve their country (though in different ways) at the expense of innumerable sacrifices of domestic ease, personal interest, and private friendships. Posterity will do you both justice for this act.

I can find no account where Rush says that God gave him the dream or that it was even an actual dream. The "god gave me the dream" narrative appears to be imposed by Barton.


For more on John Adams' views of the Trinity, see this prior article:

David Barton on John Adams - Did Adams accept the Trinity?