Part of the beauty of the ‘Letters of John and Abigail Adams’ is that every sentence suggests careful consideration.
There are sentences for example, where John cautions Abigail against openly sharing his letters for fear of sensitive information falling into the wrong hands. They reveal a husband and wife, both loving parents who are also very much the exemplary, one for the other, each for God.
‘Their mutual respect and adoration served as evidence that even in an age when women were unable to vote, there were nonetheless marriages in which wives and husbands were true intellectual and emotional equals.’ (History.com)
I picked this book up out of curiosity about its historical and theological significance. As I continue to casually read through them, I am more and more convinced about the gravity of their contents, context and the important message they carry to the world, not just Americans.
Part of a letter written to John in May, 1775, from Abigail, further clarifies my point :
‘The Lord will not cast off his people; neither will He forsake his inheritance. Great events are most certainly in the womb of futurity; and, if the present chastisements which we experience have a proper influence upon our conduct, the event will certainly be in our favour’[i].
The Adams family epistles have contemporary relevance. The most pertinent of which is that they challenge Christians to steer clear of anti-intellectualism. They encourage Christians to engage; to understand current events in light of the biblical texts, and move away from disengaging in informed debate, dismissing it as uninteresting, convoluted and/or unnecessary.
Here are a people on the cusp of necessary conflict; a people not yet prepared for what they hope to avoid; a people who understand the danger of the mob; a people who acknowledge that they bear the burden of responsibility, and are God’s participants in necessary decisions that will require courage, faith, hope, prudence, calm justice and fierce mercy.
The same people who, under God, will stare down the supposed divine right of a king, and challenge his exercise of freedom without restraint.
The same people who will instead assert that under God all are created equal, and that authentic freedom can only come with the caveat of authentic responsibility.
One example is that both John and Abigail looked unfavourably on slavery, made clear by Abigail’s rebuke: ‘I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me— to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. You know my mind upon this subject.[ii]’
Both husband and wife lived out their faith – not in a cloister, reserved pew or in pious appearances.
A constant in the letters are references to biblical texts. Used comfortably, they form an important part of the extraordinary exchange. It might not be so wrong to suggest that these letters read like small sermons, shared between a loving, overburdened husband, and his equally loving and overburdened bride.
Unfortunately, the letters are not without theological issues.
Gaps exist. Such as Abigail’s allusion to a form, of what Shirley Guthrie called, the ‘common heresy’ of Pelagianism (Christian Doctrine, 1994:127) – an ancient misinterpretation of God’s salvation, grace and the role of the responsive sinner.
‘God helps them that help themselves, as King Richard says; and if we can obtain the Divine aid by our own virtue, fortitude, and perseverance, we may be sure of relief.[iii]’
In addition, I’m uncertain as to whether or not the countless references to ‘Providence’ are in fact veiled 18th Century Congregationalist references to the Holy Spirit. The context implies they are.
‘I pray for you all, and hope to be prayed for. Certainly there is a Providence; certainly we must depend upon Providence, or we fail; certainly the sincere prayers of good men avail much. But resignation is our duty in all events.[iv]’
Nevertheless, reformed theology appears to dominate the politics, parenting philosophy, orthodoxy and sociology. Prayer and references to God’s care, wisdom, provision and guidance are ever-present.
This is not something that is the result of a cultural Christian appendage. To begin with Abigail Adams is openly critical of appearance only faith.
‘General John Burgoyne practices deceit on God himself, by assuming the appearance of great attention to religious worship, when every action of his life is totally abhorrent to all ideas of true religion, virtue, or common honesty.[v]’
John affirms this in a similar way stating that:
‘The man who violates [destroys] private faith, cancels solemn obligations, whom neither honor nor conscience holds, shall never be knowingly trusted by me. Had I known, when I first voted for a Director of a Hospital, what I heard afterwards, when I was down, I would not have voted as I did. Open, barefaced immorality ought not to be so countenanced.[vi]’
The Adams family epistles are unique in that they present an organic living relationship between husband and wife, grounded in God’s freedom. What has caught me by surprise is that God is not reduced to second place. Alongside great concerns, God is still in the forefront of their thoughts, and as a result a good deal of theology permeates the wisdom that informs their actions, wit and dialogue .
One thing grasps me as I read through these letters. That is the relevance they hand out to a contemporary audience still concerned with the matters of God, love, liberty and the caveat of responsibility.
Braintree, 19 August, 1774:
‘Did ever any kingdom or state regain its liberty, when once it was invaded, without bloodshed? I cannot think of it without horror.
Yet we are told that all the misfortunes of Sparta were occasioned by their too great solicitude for present tranquillity, and, from an excessive love of peace, they neglected the means of making it sure and lasting.[vii]”
– Abigail Adams.
History forgotten is history repeated.
References: (Not otherwise linked)
[i] Adams, J & Adams, A. 2012. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams (Kindle Ed). Start Publishing LLC, 7th May , 1775
[ii] Ibid, 24th September , 1774
[iii] Ibid, 16th September , 1775 & John Adam’s agrees with this. See letter 62. 1st October, 1775
[iv] Ibid, John Adams, 8th May , 1775
[v] Ibid, Letter 55. 25th July, 1775
[vi] Ibid, Letter 72. 23rd October, 1775
[vii] Ibid, Letter 13. 19th August, 1774
Image: Abigail and John Adams (Source)
2 thoughts on “The Adams Family Epistles: God, Love, Liberty & the Caveat of Responsibility”
I especially love Abigail’s quote on slavery. It shows there was strong opposition even from the beginning of the country’s formation. Her reasoning stands up now as well as it did then. Thanks for sharing.
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If you get the chance. I recommend reading the book.