Read the Revolution
Household GodsMarch 24, 2021
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For the Adams family, politics, faith, and music mixed on a daily basis. In Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, Sara Georgini, series editor of The Papers of John Adams at Massachusetts Historical Society, presents Christianity as a pivotal framework that shaped the family’s decisions over 300 years. For John and Abigail Smith Adams, both influenced by their Puritan ancestors, this cultural lens informed how they interpreted the political impact of the American Revolution. The couple blended discovery and criticism and faith and doubt in their approach to their Christian convictions. Less than a decade after Abigail challenged gender inequality by reminding John to “remember the ladies” to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John’s role as a diplomat allowed her to live abroad in France and England from 1780 to 1788. In Europe, Abigail found new intellectual inspiration and religious meaning from experiencing music and the arts.
In this excerpt from Household Gods, read Abigail’s reflective review of musical performances seen and heard from a London pew.
The provincial lawyer married Abigail Smith in the late autumn of 1764. Abigail, the middle daughter of a prominent Weymouth pastor, served as a second mother to her two sisters, an alcoholic brother, and her parents’ slaves. The Reverend William Smith ran a blossoming suburban parish, performing roughly twenty to thirty marriages a year and hundreds of baptisms during his long tenure, which lasted from 1734 to 1783. Like John, Abigail’s appreciation for Christian sentiment was colored by her experience of growing up in a home that doubled as the venue for settling major church-town disputes. As a teenager, she watched her father wrangle successfully with the town over church property rights. She helped to rebuild the Weymouth religious community after a catastrophic fire.
When farm tasks allowed, young Abigail, too, indulged widely in modes of Protestant self-education. Equipped with a smattering of self-taught French and her brother’s Harvard reading lists, Abigail Adams gathered her knowledge of Christian precepts from a rich and innovative blend of Sunday sermons and literary classics. Abigail’s sense of Providence was highly attuned to the act of interpreting the linked social worlds—daughter, sister, wife, mother, eventually First Lady—that she moved through. From her earliest days of Christian life, Abigail Smith Adams trained a providentialist lens on events within the family circle, giving a precise emphasis when literature supplemented or explained happenings that scripture did not.
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In contrast to John, Abigail’s religious world was one where Providence focused the finer brushstrokes of the arts. Her perception of Providence was omnipresent. She saw God in history, literature, and art in a way that John Adams did not always mirror. There was little religion in the courtship notes that “Portia” and her “Lysander” had first exchanged in 1762. Steadily, Abigail and John’s correspondence grew to nearly twelve hundred letters over the course of their marriage, peaking during his difficult stint in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777. When war separated the family—John heading off to persuade fractured representatives of the need for independence and Abigail left with four small children to endure a city besieged by the British and by smallpox—they relied on Christianity to make sense of events. New Englanders like the Adamses were certain that Providence still held them in favor; every affliction signaled a divine lesson or a future reward. The Revolutionary generation that (initially) favored John’s political rise drew on historical, national, and private forms of providentialism to interpret the war’s episodes of crisis and change.
John’s diplomatic work took them to Europe, but it was Abigail who ran the households in Braintree, London, and Auteuil; led the children’s religious instruction at home; and served as John’s savviest political confidante in Protestant and Catholic courts alike. Abigail’s religious explorations were indicative of other Revolutionary-era women who brought about religious change while inculcating a model Christian home. The key difference was that Abigail Adams operated on an international scale. As the prototypical republican mother tasked with the moral education of her children, Abigail threaded her letters of instruction with mash-ups of scripture and popular poetry. At home, she centered the family’s life on Christian tenets. Abigail’s mulberry-and-ivory Delft tiles bordered the fireplace with biblical scenes, designed at a child’s height so that John Quincy and his siblings could comprehend Christian morals long before they read the Bible—a common feature in the early American household where Christianity (literally) governed the hearth and nurturing family piety ensured a reunion in heaven.
In keeping with Lemuel Briant’s call, Abigail clung to the idea that inculcating a stout Christian character was the best defense against damnation—for self and nation. During the war, Abigail was staunch in her letters to fellow revolutionaries that Christian patriotism would spur independence. “A patriot without religion in my estimation is as great a paradox, as an honest Man without the fear of God. Is it possible that he whom no moral obligations bind, can have any real Good Will towards Man, can he be a patriot who by an openly vicious conduct is undermineing the very bonds of Society, corrupting the Morals of Youth, and by his bad example injuring that very Country he professess to patrionize more than he can possibly compensate by his intrepidity, Generosity and honour? The Scriptures tell us righteousness exaltheth a Nation,” she wrote to Mercy Otis Warren in 1775. That idea stuck with Abigail after the peace (though her relationship with the Warrens grew thorny). A decade later, just as her son John Quincy began wrestling with ancient history and Christian patriotism, Abigail resumed the cause in a letter to her sister, noting: “In short their is nothing binding upon the Humane mind, but Religion.” To her mind, Christianity meant change. Reinterpreting scripture and testing out new rites were ways to bolster and deepen faith.
John Adams enjoyed new cultural habits while serving abroad, as did Abigail. She savored her sudden flight from the New England countryside. Living in Auteuil and London from 1783 to 1788, and briefly reunited with the whole family, she dug into the local varieties of Old World Christianity. The act of observing British and French rituals, in particular, remade Abigail’s aesthetic response to worship and stirred her appetite for experimenting with new theological ideas at home and abroad. She praised the rhetorical skill of the universalist preachers in London’s Hackney Street, making the six-mile carriage drive each Sunday through muddy roads.
She brought Thomas Jefferson to hear a royal Te Deum sung at the grand Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. She marveled at the soaring Gothic arches. She puzzled over the propriety of whispering through a confessional grate to absolve one’s sins. Surprised to find French churches open all day, Abigail returned again and again, polishing her criticism of Catholicism’s sensory impact. She hated the hard lockstep of schoolboys pacing through the pews and chanting hymns. She disapproved of the casual way in which worshippers shuffled in at midday, “clattering” to their knees before the altar. Worse, the dank and drafty air of great cathedrals left her sick of prayer. “Their Churches seem rather calculated to damp Devotion than excite it,” Abigail wrote to her brother-in-law John Shaw, a Calvinist minister in New Hampshire.
Throughout the 1780s, Abigail slowly came to accept “High Church” worship aesthetics as legitimate manifestations of real faith, even when delivered in a foreign tongue. Hearing European church music became, for example, a potent luxury for her to seek out and enjoy. In letters home, the Yankee clergyman’s daughter rhapsodized about the “Solemnity and dignity” of hearing George Frideric Handel’s “Sublime” Messiah sung in Westminster Abbey in June 1785. “When it came to that part, the Hallelujah, the whole assembly rose and all the Musicians, every person uncoverd,” Abigail informed her niece back home. “Only conceive six hundred voices and instruments perfectly chording in one word and one sound! I could scarcly believe myself an inhabitant of Earth. I was one continued shudder from the begining to the end of the performance.”
Read the Revolution is sponsored by The Haverford Trust Company.
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.