Archives For Abigail Adams

johnabigailPart 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 responsibilityand 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)

On page 291, of his 2013 book, Hollywood and Hitler, Thomas Doherty makes a small, but note worthy statement about the song “God Bless America.”  Written by Irving Berlin from an earlier tune called “Yip!, Yak!, Yaphank!” , “God Bless America”  was to become an unofficial second national anthem.

 ‘as the wave of antisemetic violence [during what was penned by journalists as Krystallnacht], in [Nazi Germany], was subsiding, the singer Kate Smith had long planned to dedicate her variety show program to the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, a solemn look back at the last war as the world stood on the brink of another. Smith asked Irving for a patriotic theme suitable for the occasion’[i]

Whilst it is right to describe “God Bless America” as a patriotic song, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it also fits well within the rubric of protest songs.

Cast in the light of his original intent, Berlin’s song is an anthem for peace. It rallies people of all races, around the banner of peace.

God Bless America” is perhaps also the most significant musical push-back against the onslaught of mid-20th century Nazism, to come out of America during that pre-WW2 era.

Post-1939, into, America’s 1942 involvement in the war; first in the Pacific, then in the North African, and European theatres, this prayer for peace, while still holding its integrity, extended its meaning towards a prayer for freedom.To call on God’s blessing is to call on His grace and victory.

And if prayer is, as Karl Barth asserted:

 ‘…the beginning of an uprising, [a revolt] against the disorder of the world’[ii]

Then “God Bless America” is a protest. It is an effective protest that draws people’s attention towards the great Other. Towards the God, who, in His Covenant with Israel, and it’s fulfilment in Jesus Christ, sets out to present Himself as the revolution against the disorder, that is set in play by false lords, false claims to authority, and all human versions of “ordering” the world, which takes place under those false claims, in total allegiance to those false lords*.

Irving’s lyrics join up with the voice of the Confessing Churches, who, in the 1934, Barmen declaration, led by Karl Barth, declared that any proposition that suggests, or asserts that salvation could come through Hitler, or any human, outside of or abstracted from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, is false, and is therefore is to be utterly rejected. This is because:

‘Jesus is the one Word of God and the proper hearing of this Word takes place in trusting and obeying […] The one Word is the way upon which, and the door through which, God comes to us in his truth and in his life, comes as the light that overcomes the lie and as the resurrection that disempowers death’[iii]

There are no ways to God, there is only one way from God to us. Founded and expressed entirely through, and in Jesus the Christ. No man, woman, leader, idea or natural organism can lay claim to this revelation that lays claim to all of humanity, without usurping God. It’s not something that can be moulded, crafted and raised in the name of human triumphalism.

Irving Berlin’s song declares that before nations and governments, there is no other Lord, but God.

As problematic as ambiguity and nationalism[iv] that is attached to the song, can be; at its inception, “God Bless America” was conceived as an anthem for peace. It was written at a time when the majority of Americans understood God as the one who makes Himself known in history, as testified to in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

What “God Bless America” became was both a prayer and protest. It focuses, unites, humbles, and in combined song, rouses a challenge against all those who actively seek to do the opposite.

God Bless America” is a song of defiance in the face of an adverse and overwhelming enemy. As a prayer, it becomes the anthem for revolt. Not just against an oppressor from without, but also from within; against the sinful nature of the flesh that exists within each of us, to which God has answered, not by the way of man’s religion, and feeble attempts to save himself, by way of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

In “God Bless America” both the Sh’ma Yisrael and The Lord’s Prayer are heard. If we lean in close enough, we’ll hear Irving, Kate, Barth, Roosevelt and the many others, who, in fox holes, camps and gas chambers, ‘prayed both'[v], we may hear them “whisper their legacy”[vi] to American and non-American alike. I should point out that I’m not an American, but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from joining in and singing the same kind of prayer and following the same kind of protest. For:

‘Even the “devils believe and tremble,” and I really believe they are more afraid of the Americans’ prayers than of their swords’
(Abigail Adams, 1775, Letters #55)


References:

[i]  Doherty, T. 2013 Hollywood & Hitler: 1933-1939, Columbia University Press, p.291

[ii]  Barth, K. CD Fragments IV:4

[iii]  Busch, E. 2010 The Barmen theses then and now: the 2004 Warfield lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids Michigan, U.S.A. pp.23 & 37

[iv] For more on this see Sheryl Kaskowitz’s article ‘How “God Bless America” became a conservative anthem’

[v] Victor Frankl: we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.’ Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press. p. 134.

[vi] Robin Williams, 1989. The Dead Poets Society.

*According to an unverified source, the Klu Klux Klan, only with Pro-American Nazi’s are said to have boycotted the song. The only source I could find, so far, which mentions this, is parade.com:  6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Song ‘God Bless America’ 

Original image credit: Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash

IMG_2219As a ship before a reef is directed by a lighthouse, so must we find ourselves directed. Who we allow to do the directing is a matter of choice and faith.

This is, however, counter to the logic of advocates who aggressively serve an ideology of absolute freedom; who, in turn deny absolutes and inadvertently also deny freedom.

The outcome is the theft of freedom under the guise of promising freedom.

The few assert themselves as lords over the many because some form of direction is ultimately necessary for survival.[i] Necessary for freedom to remain freedom.

Accordingly, the act of being confronted by a lighthouse is repressive, and unfairly restrictive.

Following this logic, it’s an anachronistic social construct of a by-gone era.

Something to be denied its right to speak.

Something to be denied its right to confront us.

Something to be silenced by put-downs and ridiculed into submission.

Something that no longer has a right to exist or the freedom to shine?

That is until the unmovable brunt of a reef rips apart the hull and this charade of freedom-without-limitation is shattered upon its concealed jagged surface.

Unveiled, this hidden danger now leaves a trail of debris, terror, chaos and destruction in the wake of what is an observable and reasoned, natural intolerance.

The reef could have been avoided, but it wasn’t.

Consequently, the pride and cheering stop. The celebrity promotions, hype, progressive optimism, associated propaganda, ad hominem, and ticket tape parades are instead replaced by mourning, blame, loss and emptiness.

An unhealthy fear of offending or demands of compensation for being offended by the offensive posturing of the lighthouse no longer matter. All that was has been sacrificed to the abyss. Behind the veil of universal niceness, true freedom is regrettably lost.

Like most ships, who on seeing the warm and graceful signal fires of a steadfast lighthouse, do not stay ignorant; or choose to remain on its own wilful course. So it is, that although an ‘educator may teach a child, the student must take pains to get an education. There is a difference between merit and means. There is moreover a difference between cause and effect…Wisdom’s dole is dispensed at wisdom’s gate’ [ii]

Or, in the brilliant words of the late Dallas Willard,

‘grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.’ [iii]

Karl Barth might meet this with a resounding, “yes! this is our response to God because He loves in freedom; chooses to be responsibly involved.” He grants us permission to know what He expects of us. We are not abandoned to fallible perilous assumptions. We are not left alone, having to choose between what is the equivalent of Scylla and Charybdis.

God is free. In His freedom he acts. In His love we hear His “yes and no” spoken for our benefit. Not because we deserved it, but because it is God’s will-to-rescue us from a corrupted will-to-power; He directs us towards Himself.

Our response, (our effort?) then, is to be one of ‘prayer and gratitude’; or as Barth simply puts it, ‘grateful obedience.'[iv]

For him this is because ‘the truth of humanity, [in our being confronted by grace; Jesus Christ] is that we are directed towards God.’ [v]

Spurgeon, himself, appears to have grasped this, stating:

‘There is no merit in seeking the Lord; but we may not hope to find him without it. The cup must be held under the flowing fountain or it will not be filled, yet the cup does not create the water or purchase it’ [vi]

A summary of this might be as simple as saying that grace affords our gratitude.

In the end perhaps, Abigail Adams says it best:

‘I wish our gratitude may be in manner and way, proportionate to our benefit.’ [vii]

Which in turn means:

‘blessed is the one who hears instruction and responds wisely to it’ – (Proverbs 8:33-34)

 

 


Sources:

[i] My tentative conclusions here rest on those of Albert Camus. To paraphrase, ‘therefore, absolute freedom is ultimately a lie.’ (The Rebel)

[ii] Spurgeon, C.H. 1883 Flowers from a Puritan’s Garden,  Electronic Ed. p.78

[iii] Willard, D. 2006 The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship, Monarch Books, United Kingdom

[iv] Barth, K. 1940, The Limits of The Knowledge of God CD. II/1 p.218-229 Hendrickson Publishers, T& T Clark Ltd, 1957

[v] ibid, p.121

[vi] Spurgeon, C.H. 1883 Flowers from a Puritan’s Garden,  Electronic Ed. p.78

[vii] Adams, J & A. The Letters of John & Abigail Adams, #81, 10th December 1775

‘Even the ”devils believe and tremble,” and I really believe they are more afraid of the Americans’ prayers than of their swords’

(Abigail Adams, 1775, Letters #55)