During his appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, David Barton claimed that John Adams believed in the Trinity and avoided discussing the meaning of John Adams letter to Benjamin Rush where Adams invokes the Holy Ghost. Last week, I noted that John Adams denied the Trinity in correspondence to Thomas Jefferson, who also denied it. In this post, I take up the letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush where Adams discusses the Holy Ghost. On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart read a portion of the letter to Barton which referred to the Holy Ghost. The transcript of that segment is below. Elsewhere, Barton has written that the Holy Ghost letter is in some way related to Benjamin Rush’s effort to reconcile Adams and Jefferson. This post refers to what Adams was really saying in his letter to Rush and the next post takes up the reconciliation between Adams and Jefferson.
Here again is a transcript of the exchange between between Barton and Stewart where Barton makes his claims:
Stewart: Do you think people would be more comfortable with you if they felt like you were consistently looking to extend historical context and — because there are a lot of critics out there who say you cherry-pick your religious facts, take them out of context — your historical facts — to use them to bolster your argument.
Barton: They’ve never proven that. They’ve claimed that. Show me some documentation where it’s taken out of context. They’ve never provided that. They complain about it.
Stewart: Didn’t they say the John Adams quote, where you talk about, he says, “We were inspired by Divinity.”
Barton: No, I don’t recall him saying that. Have you got the quote?
Stewart: Yeah, let me see if I can find it. [consults notes] Okay, here it is. Here is what you wrote in your book about what Adams said, endorsing the Church being involved in the State: “The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a sacrament can be administered, but by the Holy Ghost, who is transmitted from age to age by laying the hands of the bishop upon the heads of candidates for the ministry. [...] There is no authority, civil or religious; there can be no legitimate government, but what is administered by the Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it; all without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words, damnation.” That’s the quote that you used in your book.
Barton: Now, I have the original John Adams letter with me off the set. I brought the original. See, I posted that online; how can I misquote it when I put the whole thing up there. That’s the only John Adams letter in the world that he wrote on that day to that person, and that’s what’s in it. I posted that where everybody can see it, and that’s what we do with our documents.
Stewart: But you have then the sentence after the one, which is: “Although this is all artifice and cunning —”
Barton: Oh, the entire letter is posted. The entire letter is posted.
Stewart: But you can see that the next sentence shows that he’s being sarcastic in that passage.
Barton: Not in — no, not at all. You read the entire letter, Jon — now, see, they’ve given you their critique of it.
Stewart: But how could he say the Holy Ghost — I mean, this man was a Unitarian; why would he claim the Holy Ghost sincerely?
Barton: You know what a Unitarian was then?
Stewart: Yeah, someone who didn’t believe in the Trinity.
Barton: No, no. Not until 1839, long after his death. It did not become —
Stewart: So John Adams believed in the Holy Ghost?
Barton: He believed in the Trinity, and that’s where Unitarian —
David Barton does indeed have the original letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush in his collection and has a picture of it on his website. Stewart asserts that Adams’ use of the terms “artifice and cunning” was sarcasm toward the belief that the Holy Ghost sets up governmental and religious authorities. Barton said Stewart was wrong. However, Stewart did not press Barton to say what he thought Adams meant. Too bad, because I would like to hear Barton’s explaination of Adams’ statements in context.
This letter is important to Barton. In a related article, Barton claims that Adams references to the Holy Ghost were in some way a reply to Benjamin Rush’s wish that Adams and Thomas Jefferson would reconcile their differences. An examination of the series of letters in 1809 makes this assertion very unlikely.
This issue has been visited in depth by Chris Rodda (this video, this article, and then her book – now free on her website- are must reads) and then lately by Messiah College historian John Fea (this post and his book are also must reads). In addition to consulting these resources, I also looked at the original sources myself. In short, Barton has taken correspondence between John Adams and Benjamin Rush, and selectively quoted from those letters to create a fiction, one which he repeated on Jon Stewart’s program. This post provides evidence to contradict Barton’s claims.
To understand the various claims about Adams, Rush and the Holy Ghost, one must read the relevant series of letters between Adams and Rush. Three of these letters are easily available on the internet; the other one, from Rush to Adams dated December 5, 1809, I reproduce below. Rush and Adams were good friends and exchanged warm and friendly correspondence often. In his letter to Adams on October 17, 1809, Rush used the device of a dream to express his wish that Adams and Thomas Jefferson would again resume communications. Read all four letters here.