During his appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, David Barton claimed that John Adams believed in the Trinity and avoided discussing the meaning of John Adams letter to Benjamin Rush where Adams invokes the Holy Ghost (at about 9 minutes in the clip).


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Here is a transcript of the exchange:

Stewart: Do you think people would be more comfortable with you if they felt like you were consistently looking to extend historical context and — because there are a lot of critics out there who say you cherry-pick your religious facts, take them out of context — your historical facts — to use them to bolster your argument.

Barton: They’ve never proven that. They’ve claimed that. Show me some documentation where it’s taken out of context. They’ve never provided that. They complain about it.

Stewart: Didn’t they say the John Adams quote, where you talk about, he says, “We were inspired by Divinity.”

Barton: No, I don’t recall him saying that. Have you got the quote?

Stewart: Yeah, let me see if I can find it. [consults notes] Okay, here it is. Here is what you wrote in your book about what Adams said, endorsing the Church being involved in the State: “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 upon the heads of candidates for the ministry. [...] There is no authority, civil or religious; there can be no legitimate government, but what is administered by the Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it; all without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words, damnation.” That’s the quote that you used in your book.

Barton: Now, I have the original John Adams letter with me off the set. I brought the original. See, I posted that online; how can I misquote it when I put the whole thing up there. That’s the only John Adams letter in the world that he wrote on that day to that person, and that’s what’s in it. I posted that where everybody can see it, and that’s what we do with our documents.

Stewart: But you have then the sentence after the one, which is: “Although this is all artifice and cunning —”

Barton: Oh, the entire letter is posted. The entire letter is posted.

Stewart: But you can see that the next sentence shows that he’s being sarcastic in that passage.

Barton: Not in — no, not at all. You read the entire letter, Jon — now, see, they’ve given you their critique of it.

Stewart: But how could he say the Holy Ghost — I mean, this man was a Unitarian; why would he claim the Holy Ghost sincerely?

Barton: You know what a Unitarian was then?

Stewart: Yeah, someone who didn’t believe in the Trinity.

Barton: No, no. Not until 1839, long after his death. It did not become —

Stewart: So John Adams believed in the Holy Ghost?

Barton: He believed in the Trinity, and that’s where Unitarian

Stewart cut in at that point with a comment on The Treaty with Tripoli John Adams negotiated with the Barbary pirates. That is another story. For now, I want to address Barton’s claim that Unitarians and John Adams believed in the Trinity. My next post will examine Barton’s use of Adams’ letter to Benjamin Rush where Adams discusses the Holy Ghost.

According to Holley Ulbrichs, author of The Fellowship Movement, and member of the Universalist Unitarian church, Unitarians never believed in the Trinity. Recently, she told me in an email:

In 1819 William Ellery Channing preached a famous sermon in Baltimore at the ordination of Rev. Jared Sparks. The title of his sermon was “Unitarian Christianity.”  That brought to a head an ongoing battle between the religious liberals and the religious conservatives in the Congregational Church, of which John Adams was a member, but on the liberal side.  The American Unitarian Conference, later Association, came into being in 1825, a year before his death (and Thomas Jefferson’s), but both of them were very sympathetic to the anti-Trinitarian views that were at the heart of the controversy.

Unitarians were never okay with the trinity. Hence the name. Most of them like Jesus, but as a prophet, a role model, a nonviolent revolutionary. Not God.

As support for Ulbrich’s statements regarding Adams, I reproduce here an exchange about the doctrine of the Trinity between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. First Jefferson wrote to Adams on August 22, 1813.

Monticello, August 22, 1813.

DEAR SIR,—Since my letter of June the 27th, I am in your debt for many; all of which I have read with infinite delight. They open a wide field for reflection, and offer subjects enough to occupy the mind and the pen indefinitely. I must follow the good example you have set, and when I have not time to take up every subject, take up a single one. Your approbation of my outline to Dr. Priestley is a great gratification to me; and I very much suspect that if thinking men would have the courage to think for themselves, and to speak what they think, it would be found they do not differ in religious opinions as much as is supposed. I remember to have heard Dr. Priestley say, that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all; and I observe a bill is now depending in parliament for the relief of Anti-Trinitarians. It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one…Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe; for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition. (emphasis mine)

Adams wrote to Jefferson in reply and affirmed the same views regarding the Trinity.

QUINCY, September 14, 1813

DEAR SIR,—I owe you a thousand thanks for your favor of August 22d and its enclosures, and for Dr. Priestley’s doctrines of Heathen Philosophy compared with those of Revelation. Your letter to Dr. Rush and the syllabus, I return enclosed with this according to your injunctions, though with great reluctance. May I beg a copy of both?

They will do you no harm; me and others much good.

I hope you will pursue your plan, for I am confident you will produce a work much more valuable than Priestley’s, though that is curious, and considering the expiring powers with which it was written, admirable.

The bill in Parliament for the relief of Anti-Trinitarians, is a great event, and will form an epoch in ecclesiastical history. The motion was made by my friend Smith, of Clapham, a friend of the Belshams.

I should be very happy to hear that the bill is passed.

The human understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted. There can be no scepticism, Pyrrhonism, or incredulity, or infidelity, here. No prophecies, no miracles are necessary to prove the celestial communication.

This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three nor can three be one. We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfillment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, i. e., Nature’s God, that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or prophecies might frighten us out of our wits; might scare us to death; might induce us to lie, to say that we believe that two and two make five. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary.

Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and been admitted to behold the divine Shekinah, and there told that one was three and three one, we might not have had courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it.

Adams ridicules the idea of a trinitarian deity, saying that even if Jefferson and he were the presence of God, they would be unable to believe in the Trinity because it is an unreasonable doctrine. Reason, granted by God, asserted Adams, would prevent such belief.

Historian John Fea, teaching at evangelical Christian Messiah College agrees that Adams rejected the divinity of Christ, hence also the Trinity. Although, as Fea notes, Adams attended different churches, his views settled on a Unitarian theology, very much at odds with orthodox Christianity.

As always, if anyone has information that indicates Adams did believe in the Trinity, please pass it on. For now, it certainly appears that John Adams and the budding Unitarian movement did not hold to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Next up – David Barton on John Adams – The Holy Ghost letter