How Unitarianism shaped the Adamses — and the United States

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How Unitarianism shaped the Adamses — and the United States

Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family by Sara Georgini, Oxford University Press, US $34.95, Pp 284, February 2019, ISBN 978-0190882587

President John Adams once said that Christianity had not only shaped his family’s fortunes but also the future of the United States. As constant globetrotters, they documented their religious travels in words and images that total nearly three hundred thousand manuscript pages in what is known as the Adams Family Papers. In Household Gods, Sara Georgini tells the story of the Adamses the way it was never told. Sara Georgini says that Christianity played a pivotal role in shaping Adams family’s decisions about the course of the American republic that they served for three centuries. She writes, “Christianity was the cultural language that Abigail Adams used to interpret her husband John’s political setbacks. Scripture armed their son John Quincy to act as a parent, statesmen, and antislavery advocate. Unitarianism gave Abigail’s Victorian grandson Charles Francis the ‘religious confidence,’ as he called it, to persevere in political battles on the Civil War home front.” However, his son Henry found religion hollow and repellent when he compared it to the purity of modern science. Finally, Christianity was the missing link that explained world economic ruin to Abigail’s great-grandson Brooks, a Gilded Age critic of capitalism and the lay prophet of two world wars. In short, over time the Adamses created a cosmopolitan Christianity that blended discovery and criticism, faith and doubt.

For three centuries, the Adamses chose Protestant Christianity as their main spiritual path. Later, their more liberal descendants also explored Catholicism, atheism, and non-Western religions by visiting foreign religious sites, recording rituals in their diaries, trying out new languages of belief in their letters, and bringing home artifacts of religion. But from John Adams though his grandson Charles Francis, the Adams family creed was conventionally Unitarian. Sara Georgini says that they believed in a guiding Providence. They trusted that human will empower them to freely accept or reject God’s grace. They turned away from miracles and revelation, preferring Biblical criticism and lay inquiry to broaden the mind beyond the passive reception of dogma. They acknowledged Jesus as a “master workman” and a gifted moral teacher. They grew fuzzy about his divinity, opting instead to scrutinize his teachings and doctrines as they related to contemporary culture. In line with their Protestant peers, most Adams mistrusted the sensory emphasis and hierarchical nature of “Romish” Catholicism, but they revered Judaism as a source of lawmaking and ethics. Sara Georgini says that the Adamses were Christian, cosmopolitans, curious — and famous for it. In popular memory, stories circulated widely about what they believed (and did not) in terms of church and state.

Sara Georgini says that most Adamses reached for a distinctively American form of Protestant Christianity, one born of a dissenting heritage and political disunion from England, in order to view the world. She writes, “In this way, John and Abigail’s descendants operated, along with their well-educated American peers, as liberating Protestants, Biblical inquiry, comparative religious studies, philanthropic efforts, and inner drive to reconcile the goals of church and state steered their lives.” Sara Georgini says, claiming Puritan ancestry and preferring to practice a liberal form of Unitarianism, the Adamses were unusually forthright in their exploration of a subject as private and provocative as personal faith. Like many Americans, most Adamses accepted organized Christianity as a public good. They filled letters and lives with the effort to answer one query: What was it good for? She concludes, at home and abroad, the Adamses’ religion evolved as the new nation grew. This is Adamses’ story as much as it is the story of the United States.

Household Gods is a necessary and important addition to the existing scholarly literature on how Unitarianism shaped the Adamses and, through them, the United States. It will help both scholars and laypeople understand and interpret the Adamses and our history. This is a meticulously researched and beautifully written book by a historian whose scholarship remains unmatched. Sara Georgini has the knack of making dry history as interesting as a novel can be. This is not just the story of one of the most celebrated American families but also the story of American Protestantism and the United States itself. It is a must-read for everybody who is interested in American history.

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