Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Was John Adams an Anti-Catholic Bigot?

If spoken by a contemporary politician, many of John Adams’ comments about Catholics would render him or her unelectable. In 1765, he wrote that the “whore of Babylon” had falsely grabbed the “keys to heaven”; blasphemously claimed to convert wine into the blood of the Lord; and survived by keeping subjects in “sordid ignorance and staring timidity.”
Its hard to recognize freedom’s champion in this letter to Abigail in which he describes a visit to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphiaa. His pen dripping with contempt and pity, Adams catalogues the repellant customs: “The poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood, Their holy Water—their Crossing themselves perpetually—their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, whererever they hyertit – their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar.” He marveled at the power of the gaudy ritual to hypnotize. “But how shall I describe the Picture of our Saviour in a Frame of Marble over the Altar at full Length upon the Cross, in the Agonies, and the Blood dropping and streaming from his Wounds… Here is everything which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination. Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant.”
On August 12, 1765, the Boston Gazette published an essay again linking both churches to each other, and to tyranny. The essay argued that religious canon law – “extensive and astonishing” — was created by the “the Romish clergy for the aggrandizement of their own order.” Church law enslaved people by “reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity” and warned that only an educated populace could thwart the “direct and formal design on foot, to enslave America.” Though it was not known at the time, Adams was the author.

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posted April 9, 2008 at 7:34 pm

Let’s face it, John Adams had a big mouth. I would have loved to have had a couple beers with him. I suspect it would have been like drinking with Pat Buchanan :). Every American historian should thank their lucky stars for John Adams.
The fact that his anti-catholic bias posed zero threat to his candidacy, while conversely the implications of Jefferson’s agnosticism nearly cost him the election of 1800 should tell all we need to know about the pulse of 18th century political mind. Bashing Catholics was all the rage – perhaps more among politicians than the common man.

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posted April 10, 2008 at 10:51 am

“…fingering their beads, chanting Latin… Their holy Water — their Crossing themselves perpetually — their Bowing to the Name of Jesus… Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar.”
It’s funny.. What Adams hated about Catholicism is so much of what I love about it — especially the Rosary, and the Blessed Mother. It’s all much of why I converted.
“Bashing Catholics was all the rage”
Judging by The View and John Hagee, it’s still in fashion.

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posted April 11, 2008 at 11:59 am

I guess the fact that all of the southern signers of the declaration of independence were slave owners would pretty much eliminate them from running for any office today as well. And they physically bashed what they considered “chattel”. Lets try to keep things in historical perspective.

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posted April 11, 2008 at 12:51 pm

Steven –
All of Protestant America was theologically and politically opposed to the Catholic Church. Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation of 1516 was a reaction to the Catholic Church and its perceived political and theological corruption.
Protestant settlers were understandably wary of Catholic settlers as possible agents of France and Spain the two Catholic super powers of the day.
The King of England created the church of England for personal and political reasons putting the Catholic Church in England in a poor political position. But the Catholic Church being the original christian denomination has always had a presence in England. The Catholic Church has been in continuous operation in all of Christendom except where it has been specifically eradicated by Protestant forces mostly through armed conflict.
Just as various Jewish sects battled each other theologically and physically in the creation of Jewish dogma in the near east. Christian theology was a winner take all proposition and all means political and militarily were put to use. In the west we stopped waging religious wars in the 1800’s, partly because we espoused freedom of religion and a division of church and state.
In the middle east Islam is still willing to wage religious battles. That is one of the main differences in our worldviews. We believe in the rights of individuals, they believe the individual must submit to the political will of the state and to the will of God.

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posted April 12, 2008 at 7:29 pm

The reality is that John Adams, while certainly a great man for his vigorous championing of independence from Britain, was the stereotypical New Englander of his day — uncomfortable and disdainful of everything out of the everyday experience of Massachusetts life: Protestant, Boston-centered. At the Continental Congress, he found everything about Philadelphia unbearable. When he had the opportunity to go to Europe, a situation in which Franklin and Jefferson drank deeply of the culture and were nearly universally loved and admired, Adams did nothing but complain. His inability to get along with other Americans not from New England was so extreme that, as second President of the US, he lost control of his own political party to Alexander Hamilton (and had as a result a mediocre, if not failed, one-term Presidency). It is in this context that his anti-Catholic remarks should be viewed (one should remember the treatment that Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Hunger received in Boston a few decades later).

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Charles Cosimano

posted April 12, 2008 at 9:08 pm

And is there a reason why it would matter?

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posted April 16, 2008 at 6:44 am

I was raised a Roman Catholic and went to Catholic school k to 10. Does telling the truth constitute bigotry? Though John Adam’s words certainly would not describe the Church today I do believe they only reflected the Church as it actually was back then. How do I know this?….because the Church wasn’t so much different from Adam’s time to when I was growing up.

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posted April 22, 2008 at 1:11 am

The English, for 200 years up until that point, had anti-Catholic propaganda rammed down their throats to such a point that it became nearly a inbred cultural trait. Washington, Jefferson, and the more aristocratic Founders saw it (the propaganda) for what it was, as opiate meant to keep the people docile and loyal to the king. The fact that Washington stamped out Guy Fawkes Day and people more or less forgetting about it shows has politically motivated England’s anti-Catholicism was.

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posted September 27, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Adams was one of the greatest presidents that have every lived and he had every right to disagree with the Catholic church because there ARE things that are thought as others to be wrong. John Adams was a man greater than his time, it is because of him that I am a Republican. He is the best.
*Philidelphia has 1 a, not 2.

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Steven Barrett

posted September 7, 2010 at 9:24 am

This is ridiculous and demonstrates how easily our comments can be taken out of context and twisted to form conveniently prejudicial talking points dressed up as hatchets that’ll never be fully buried and always ready to yank out when … again, that word, conveniently … necessary. Yes, he was an opinionated northeastern Yankee, often demonstrating some of his (no doubt) Harvard-instilled sense of intellectual, spiritual, regional and WASP-“ethnic” arrogance, but John Adams, nor his son John Quincy were no more different than many politicians from the same part of the country, where I’m writing from now. And wouldn’t you also know it, some Catholic politicians behave in much the same manner; but they have fewer excuses. John Adams was staying true to his roots, faith and background; the same can’t be said for many of today’s liberal catholic pols from New England, MA, in particular, beginning from the head of the MA Congressional Delegation, John Forbes Kerry.

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posted May 26, 2011 at 10:14 pm

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