John Adams on Establishments

I have always greatly liked and admired John Adams.  His views are generally more congenial to my own than those of many of the other famous founders (particularly Jefferson’s).  I’ve been reading and enjoying the book by Donald Drakeman that I recommended below, Church, State, and Original Intent, which is really terrific on many counts. 

Here is an interesting section dealing with John Adams’s support for “mild establishments” of religion such as initially existed in Massachusetts.  I quote it because it is striking to me that the meaning of an “establishment” was not only deeply contested in early America (as much, it seems, as it is today), but also because in this passage Adams’s understanding appears to be in tension with itself, yet in a way that demonstrates the subtlety and elegance of his mind.

Perhaps John Adams best characterized the definitional uncertainties inherent in New England’s evolving pattern of church-state interactions.  Commenting on Massachusetts’s support for churches a few years before the Commonwealth essentially codified that approach in the 1780 constitution, Adams wrote that “the laws of Massachusetts were the most mild and equitable establishment of religion that was known in the world, if indeed they could be called an establishment.”  Isaac Backus recorded a similar comment by Adams to the effect that “there is indeed an ecclesiastical establishment in our province, but a very slender one, hardly to be called an establishment.”  . . . . [D]espite the effort of many New Englanders to distance themselves from the term, either by avoiding it or by defining it as strictly as possible, New Englanders simply did not share one definition of establishment, irrespective of whether they were for or against whatever it was.  (226-27)

For those interested in an excellent discussion of Adams’s views, be sure to look for John Witte’s piece, A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion: John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment, in the Journal of Church and State from a few years back. — MOD

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