John Quincy Adams on Special Revelation & Canon

John Quincy Adams was raised a Unitarian by his parents. Somewhere along the way he converted to a Calvinistic form of orthodox Christianity. I’m not sure where JQA ended up in life. I do know that around the mid 1810s, he was in his Calvinist stage and exchanged some interesting letters with his Unitarian father on theological issues.

I made a mistake in my intense research on the matter when reading a letter that John Quincy Adams wrote to his father. The elder John Adams wrote a letter to his son asking his thoughts on the Bible’s canon and certain books contained therein, and John Quincy Adams responded on July 7, 1814. When reading the son’s response, I thought it was his father’s writings.

Here is why I was confused: When the letters were exchanged, John Quincy Adams had already converted to his orthodox Calvinist position. The answer that JQA gave to his father on how he understood the Bible’s text was not what I expected an orthodox Calvinist to deliver. Rather, it sounded like the answer a heterodox Unitarian rationalist like his father would give.

JQA stated he believed parts of the biblical canon were inspired. He thought all modern (as of 1814) translations had errors. He didn’t think himself competent in the original languages to judge errors in the original. And he was open to the notion that the writings of John Milton, Homer and Virgil were divinely inspired along the same grounds he believed the inspired parts of the biblical canon were. He admits Song of Solomon and Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) questionably belong in the canon. But, if Homer, Virgil and Milton had a good claim on writing sacred scripture, “those of the Apocalypse and of Solomon’s Song, are unquestionable.” He is agnostic on whether St. Jude’s Epistle is inspired.

Below is a quotation:

I am not altogether ignorant, but am far from being properly acquainted with the History of the Bible, or its Evidence; and with regard to its Authority my Mind rests upon two Pillars—the prejudice of my Education; and my own judgment, upon its internal Evidence—You Sir, and my ever dear and honoured Mother, took care to give me a pious education; and although at the same time you sent me upon the theatre of an infidel World, at an age perhaps the most accessible to impressions of infidelity, I never found any thing there, that could serve me as a substitute for the duties or the pleasures, the Morals or the Hopes which I derive from my Religion—I have seen nothing in the glories of this World, nothing in the pride of human learning which should make me ashamed of the Cross of Christ—My Judgment therefore has confirmed the Prejudice of my Education—My idea of Inspiration, as applied to the Scriptures is neither very clear nor very definite—That in the composition of parts of the Sacred Books, the Writers were actuated by a preternatural interposition of the divine power, I believe, because it is expressly declared by the Writers themselves, and because I cannot disbelieve it without rejecting the whole Bible as an imposture.

The bold is mine. One of the heterodox positions that the “key Founders” like the elder John Adams adhered to was the notion that parts of the biblical canon were inspired. On the one hand, such a position rejects that of the strict deists and atheists that “special revelation” was impossible. On the other, it rejected the more orthodox position that the biblical canon was inerrant or infallible.


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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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3 thoughts on “John Quincy Adams on Special Revelation & Canon

  1. My problem with this sort of thing is the whole “flatters the reader” issue that manages to inject itself into all kinds of historical analysis. So, of course, there are the parts of the Bible that I agree with that are obviously divinely inspired, as well as parts of Homer, Virgil and Milton that I agree with that are also divinely inspired. You can go back and find the parts of Plato that I agree with and similarly see the Hand of the Father helping transcribe His Truth.

    “What about this part of the Bible that you don’t agree with?”

    Well, there are all kinds of translation problems…

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  2. This really highlights the ‘flexibility’ applied by not just the Founding Fathers but also most modern Christians in interpreting the Bible. Many modern Christians will, for example, admit the Tower of Babel was a metaphor…however they are comfortable believing Jesus really did walk on water… And my academic brain simply cannot reconcile those two positions.

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    • One person doing divinely inspired and/or sourced supernatural miracles of limited scope and duration is an easy enough thing to accept. What’s not are tales that explain how things came to be that contradict the historical, archeological, paleontological, geological and astronomical records.

      Or alternatively-

      Superman can fly? fine. Impervious to bullets? also fine Demonstrate feats of strength that ensure no one invites him to Festivus parties anymore? very well.

      But flying around the world to reverse the earth’s spin and turn back time? No, that’s not how it works. That isn’t how any of it works.

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