David McCullough, the author of the popular biography John Adams, sums up the man when he says that “Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that.” The ancestors of John Adams were the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, seeking freedom to live life as they believed it should be lived. He, still residing in one of the small communities that his forefathers had settled, always credited the religion of his ancestors for their independence and general success.
Yet for all that, Adams was never one to spend much time talking or arguing about the faith. Rather, his aim was to live it out by pursuing freedom and equality for his countrymen. He said he believed that “human equality is founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father, all accountable to Him for our conduct to one another…” (p.619).
That belief in the spiritual basis of equality made him an opponent of all slavery. While some of the American founding fathers were also slave masters, Adams never had a slave and tried to persuade his friend Jefferson to free his own many black servants and “become a Hercules against slavery,” though the appeal fell on deaf ears. Adams thought that slavery would ruin the achievement of the newly independent United States, predicting that in the future there would be “horrible massacres” that would split apart the union. And of course, he was right. He also reached out to American Jews and proposed an amendment to the constitution of his home state of Massachusetts to guarantee religious freedom for Jews and all others – a novel thing at the time.
For all his learning and involvement in high politics, Adams aimed for a sense of simplicity and appreciation of life’s mystery. “Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe,” he wrote, “…but never assume to comprehend [it all] (p.630). In retirement, Adams enjoyed some inner peace by sitting at the window of his home library reading his favorite poems, Cicero’s essays, American novels, and the Bible (the Psalms especially). These times of quiet reflection eased the feelings of despondency that he felt from being put out to pasture after a very active life. Thereby he arrived at a new motto for himself: “Rejoice evermore and be content.”
His religion had gradually boiled down to this and a few simple concepts. In advanced age, he wrote to his granddaughter to answer her questions, recommending that she “…do justly, love mercy, walk humbly. This is enough” (p.650).