[Originally posted at Fake History on 24 April 2010]
Did John Adams say
God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world
No. The two sentences given above were both written by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, the first in 1820 and the second in 1825, but (as the dates show) they were not joined together, not written on the same topic, and not even part of the same letter.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, fellow firebrands in the American Revolution, became bitter political rivals in the early constitutional period, Adams being of the Federalist party and Jefferson of the Antifederalist. The election of 1800, in which Jefferson defeated Adams to become the third president of the United States, was extremely divisive, and left lasting wounds. Nonetheless, when the sound and fury had died, the two ex-presidents resumed their friendship and exchanged what has become a classic series of letters on a wide variety of topics. One of those topics was religion. Neither man believed in the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, that desperate fourth-century compromise that tried to insist that the deity could be both tripartite and unitary. And neither bought into the doctrine of the incarnation, either. In a letter of 22 January 1825 Adams expressed his dismay about Jefferson’s plan to staff his college with European scholars because
The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices, both ecclesiastical and temporal, which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds, and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschell’s universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.
The bolded section will be recognized as the source for the second sentence in the frankenquote as given above. As for the first, in a discussion of matter and spirit suggested by a book the two had recently read, Adams wrote on 17 January 1820:
When we say God is a spirit, we know what we mean, as well as we do when we say that the pyramids of Egypt are matter. Let us be content, therefore, to believe him to be a spirit, that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.
He followed this by signing off with “Behold the creed and confession of faith of your ever affectionate friend.” Again, the portion in bold is obviously the source for the first sentence of the alleged quotation. Had this been quoted
…God is … an essence that we know nothing of…
it could be said to be a fair quotation, though it would have been better to be a bit fuller, say
… God is a spirit … that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.
Something like that, anyway. But following it with the 1825 sentence makes it seem as though the “awful blasphemy” is the concept of god, rather than the specific doctrine of the incarnation. (Which is why it earns the red designation, even though the words are all those of Adams himself.) The source for this misleading combination seems to have been a BBC program entitled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief (later shown in the US as A Brief History of Disbelief) that first aired in 2004. Google Books shows it appearing in a 2008 book entitled The Quotable John Adams, compiled by Randy Howe.
It looks as though the editing of the 1820 quotation was done in the interest of making John Adams appear to have atheist leanings, something that would have been harder to maintain with a fuller quotation. However, I haven’t seen the program, or how the quotations were used, and the context might explain a lot. In any case, this quotation, as usually given, is bogus.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson 17 January 1820 (John Adams)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson 22 January 1825 (John Adams)