David Barton on John Adams – The Holy Ghost letter

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.

Here is the portion where Rush suggests he had a “dream” of a Jefferson-Adams reconcilation .

“What book is that in your hands?” said I to my son Richard a few nights ago in a dream. “It is the history of the United States,” said he. “Shall I read a page of it to you?” “No, no,” said I. “I believe in the truth of no history but in that which is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” “But, sir,” said my son, “this page relates to your friend Mr. Adams.” “Let me see it then,” said I. I read it with great pleasure and herewith send you a copy of it.
“1809. Among the most extraordinary events of this year was the renewal of the friendship and intercourse between Mr. John Adams and Mr. Jefferson, the two ex-Presidents of the United States. They met for the first time in the Congress of 1775. Their principles of liberty, their ardent attachment to their country, and their views of the importance and probable issue of the struggle with Great Britain in which they were engaged being exactly the same, they were strongly attracted to each other and became personal as well as political friends.  They met in England during the war while each of them held commissions of honor and trust at two of the first courts of Europe, and spent many happy hours together in reviewing the difficulties and success of their respective negotiations.  A difference of opinion upon the objects and issue of the French Revolution separated them during the years in which that great event interested and divided the American people. The predominance of the party which favored the French cause threw Mr. Adams out of the Chair of the United States in the year 1800 and placed Mr. Jefferson there in his stead. The former retired with resignation and dignity to his seat at Quincy, where he spent the evening of his life in literary and philosophical pursuits, surrounded by an amiable family and a few old and affectionate friends. The latter resigned the Chair of the United States in the year 1808, sick of the cares and disgusted with the intrigues of public life, and retired to his seat at Monticello, in Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his days in the cultivation of a large farm agreeably to the new system of husbandry. In the month of November 1809, Mr. Adams addressed a short letter to his friend Mr. Jefferson in which he congratulated him upon his escape to the shades of retirement and domestic happiness, and concluded it with assurances of his regard and good wishes for his welfare. This letter did great honor to Mr. Adams. It discovered a magnanimity known only to great minds. Mr. Jefferson replied to this letter and reciprocated expressions of regard and esteem. These letters were followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country. Many precious aphorisms, the result of observation, experience, and profound reflection, it is said, are contained in these letters. It is to be hoped the world will be favored with a sight of them. These gentlemen sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country (for they outlived the heterogeneous parties that were opposed to them), and to their numerous merits and honors posterity has added that they were rival friends.
With affectionate regard to your fireside, in which all my family join, I am, dear sir, your sincere old friend,

It is not clear to me that Rush had an actual dream. He may have used the device of a dream to prod his friend into reconciliation with Jefferson. On more than one prior occasion, Rush communicated his views via writing about them as dreams. For instance,  Rush responded to a political question from Adams in a February 20, 1809 letter via a dream narrative.  Adams responded on March 4, 1809 praising Rush’s wit and asked for a dream about Jefferson:

Rush,—If I could dream as much wit as you, I think I should wish to go to sleep for the rest of my Life, retaining however one of Swifts Flappers to awake me once in 24 hours to dinner, for you know without a dinner one can neither dream nor sleep. Your Dreams descend from Jove, according to Homer.
Though I enjoy your sleeping wit and acknowledge your unequalled Ingenuity in your dreams, I can not agree to your Moral. I will not yet allow that the Cause of “Wisdom, Justice, order and stability in human Governments” is quite desperate. The old Maxim Nil desperandum de Republica is founded in eternal Truth and indispensable obligation.
Jefferson expired and Madison came to Life, last night at twelve o’clock. Will you be so good as to take a Nap, and dream for my Instruction and edification a Character of Jefferson and his Administration?

Another reason that I question whether it was an actual dream is because a draft of this letter demonstrates that Rush considered another literary device for his prophecy. A footnote in Lyman Butterfield’s  compilation of Rush’s letter reads:

In the passage that follows, BR [Benjamin Rush] made his principal plea to Adams to make an effort toward reconciliation with Jefferson. That pains were taken in composing the plea is shown by an autograph draft of the letter, dated 16 Oct. in Hist. Soc. Penna., Gratz Coll. In the draft BR originally wrote, and then crossed out, the following introduction to his dream history: “What would [you omitted] think of some future historian of the United States concluding one of his chapters with the following paragraph?” The greater verisimilitude of the revision adds much to the effectiveness of this remarkable letter. (Butterfield, L.H., The Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. II, 1793-1813, Princeton Univ. Press, 1951, p. 1023)

Apparently, Rush wanted to get this message to Adams and chose to use a device already requested by Adams, instead of an appeal to legacy via the reference to the history books.
In any case, real dream or not, Adams liked the proposition and replied to Rush on October 25, 1809, about the “dream” saying,

A Dream again! I wish you would dream all day and all Night, for one of your Dreams puts me in spirits for a Month. I have no other objection to your Dream, but that it is not History. It may be Prophecy. There has never been the smallest Interruption of the Personal Friendship between me and Mr. Jefferson that I know of. You should remember that Jefferson was but a Boy to me. I was at least ten years older than him in age and more than twenty years older than him in Politicks. I am bold to say I was his Preceptor in Politicks and taught him every Thing that has been good and solid in his whole Political Conduct. I served with him on many Committees in Congress in which we established some of the most important Regulations of the Army &c, &c, &c
Jefferson and Franklin were united with me in a Commission to the King of France and fifteen other Commissions to treat with all the Powers of Europe and Africa. I resided with him in France above a year in 1784 and 1785 and met him every day at my House in Auteuil at Franklins House at Passy or at his House in Paris. In short we lived together in the most perfect Friendship and Harmony.

Barton says in his Wallbuilder’s article that Adams and Jefferson were “vehement opponents.” Adams clearly does not feel that way, saying there has never been an interruption in their friendship. It is true that they were on different sides of the political spectrum and communication had gone cold over those political differences, but both men maintained their respect for each other.
Significantly, Barton does not mention Adams’ October 25  reply to Rush in his article about this matter on the Wallbuilder’s website. Barton also fails to include another letter from Rush on December 5, 1809 which is the actual trigger for Adams’ references to the Holy Ghost. Instead, Barton jumps to the passage in a December 21, 1809 letter about the Holy Ghost. Here is Barton’s article with notes in the margin pointing out the dates of the letters:

Despite letters from Rush to Adams dated October 25, and then from Rush to Adams dated December 5, Barton claims that Adams words about the Holy Ghost are somehow in reply to Rush’s dream saying

Adams received the dream from his dear friend with an open heart and candidly responded.

However, as noted above, Adams replied to Rush about his dream on October 25. To understand the “Holy Ghost letter” of December 21, 1800, one must read Benjamin Rush’s letter to Adams dated December 5, 1809.
Here is Rush’s 12/5 letter:

TO John Adams
My dear Friend                                 Philadelphia, December 5, 1809
I picked up some time ago a magazine in which I met with a revival of the old controversy concerning the divine origin of Episcopal and Presbyterian ordination carried on by Dr. Hobart and Dr. Mason of New York. After reading a few pages of it, I threw down the magazine with disgust and committed the enclosed thoughts upon that subject to paper. The partiality you have been pleased to express for some of my dreams has induced me to send you a copy of it. It may perhaps afford some amusement to your parish minister after he has drunk his glass of wine and smoked his segar at your table.
I have great pleasure in informing you that my son who sailed from Philadelphia for Glasgow on the 15th of July, and my daughter, who with her husband and children sailed from Quebec on the 10th of July for Plymouth, both arrived at their wished port on the same day, August 29th, the day on which their brother was married to one of the most amiable and accomplished women in this country. A rare coincidence on one day of family blessings, for which I desire to be devoutly thankful! My son has been well received in Edinburgh and is much pleased with everything he has seen and heard in that part of the world.
I send you herewith a few numbers of the Aurora.
Excuse the shortness of this letter. For some weeks past, my lectures, the Hospital, and my private practice have occupied every moment of my time. My class amounts 300, 260 of whom are students of medicine. The rest are graduates in medicine, clergymen, and private gentlemen.
With love to your fireside, in which my dear Mrs. Rush joins, I am, dear sir, ever yours.
P.S. Has the prophecy (as you called it) contained in my last letter as yet become history?
ENCLOSURE (Rush included a story about two competing tailors which was meant to refer metaphorically to Rush’s disgust with the competition between the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians over the role of the Holy Ghost in ordaining ministers. This story was enclosed in the letter from Rush to Adams on a separate sheet of paper. I have included here his introduction to the story. You can read the rest by clicking this link)
The claims of the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches to the divine origin of their respective modes of ordination proved to be just: extracted from a manuscript copy of T.E.’s “Travels into the East.”

Rush began his letter with a reference to a dispute in a magazine between Drs. Hobart and Mason over the divinity of Episcopal and Presbyterian ordination and then his enclosure lampoons the dispute. In this letter, I believe Rush referred to the series of letters published in the Christian’s Magazine in 1807. Rev. Hobart was the Assistant at Trinity Church in New York and later became Bishop of New York. Hobart wrote the editor of the Christian’s Magazine, Presbyterian John Mason, in protest over how Mason had represented Hobart’s views of ordination. Hobart began his letter to the editor with a combative tone:

The Christian’s Magazine, which the newspapers lately announced to the public, and the responsibility of which, as Proprietor and Editor, you take upon yourself, I have perused, and the determination is instantly formed to address you on the subject.
The tendency of the system of denunciation which you have adopted leaves me no alternative. This: denunciation is so injurious to my character, and aims at the same time so deadly a blow at the principles of the Episcopal Church, that a moment’s delay in repelling it would be traitorous to my sacred office.

In the lengthy series of letters involving Hobart and Mason, the Holy Ghost was referenced often with disagreements expressed over matters of ordination and authority. For instance, Hobart defends his view of ordination deriving from Bishops:

There is an absolute necessity of a strict succession of authorized ordainers from the apostolical times, in order to constitute a Christian priest. For since a commission from the Holy Ghost is necessary for the exercise of this office, no one now can receive it, but from those who have derived their authority in a true succession from the Apostles.
” The clergy have their commission from the Holy Ghost: the power of conferring this commission of the Holy Ghost was left with the Apostles: therefore the prer sent clergy cannot have the same commission, or call, but from an order of men who have successively conveyed his power from the Apostles to the present time. So that, my lord, I shall beg leave to lay it down as a plain, undeniable, Christian truth, that the order of the clergy is an order of as necessary obligation as the sacraments, and as unalterable as the holy scriptures; the same Holy Ghost being as truly the author and founder of the priesthood as the institutor of the sacraments, or the inspirer of those divine oracles.”

Hobart’s framing of the dispute brings context to the conversation and opinions expressed by Rush and Adams in this series of letters. Hobart wrote:

The point of difference is, whether all ministers are on a level and empowered by succession to ordain; or whether there is not a grade of ministers superior to Presbyters, and now called Bishops, who alone receive in succession the power of ordination, of conveying the ministerial commission. In other words—Is Episcopal or Presbyterian ordination valid ? The validity of the former is not compatible with an acknowledgment of the validity of the latter.

To me, this context makes it very clear that the December 21st letter where Adams talks about the Holy Ghost referred to the ordination controversy and has nothing to do with Rush’s “dream” of reconciliation. Below is Adams’ complete letter of 12/21 which is in reply to the above 12/5 letter from Rush.

QUINCY December 21. 1809.
MY DEAR SIR,—I thank you for the pleasing account of your Family in your favour of the 5th. As I take a lively interest in their Prosperity and Felicity, your relation of it gave me great Pleasure. We have Letters from our Colony navigating the Baltic, dated at Christians and  They had been so far as prosperous, healthy and happy as such Travellers could expect to be.
Pope said of my Friend General Oglethorpe
Some driven by strong Benevolence of soul
Shall fly like Oglethorpe from Pole to Pole.
But what was a Trip to Georgia in Comparison with the Journeys and Voyages that J. Q. Adams has performed? I do not believe that Admiral Nelson ever ran greater Risques at sea.
Tell Richard that I hope Mrs. Rush will soon present him with a son that will do him as much honour in proportion, as the first born of his Genius has already done him in the opinion of the world. W. S. S. our Guardian of the Athenaeum has obtained it and proclaimed it loudly every where the best Pamphlet that ever he read. Be sure you do not hint this to Mrs. Rush Senr. It would allarm her Delicacy.
I really do not know whether I do not envy your City of Philadelphia for its Reputation for Science, Arts and Letters and especially its Medical Professor. I know not either whether I do not envy you your Genius and Imagination. Why have not I some Fancy? some Invention? some Ingenuity? some discursive Faculty? Why has all my Life been consumed in searching for Facts and Principles and Proofs and Reasons to support them? Your Dreams and Fables have more Genius in them than all my Life. Your Fable of Dorcas would make a good Chapter or a good Appendix to The Tale of a Tub.

Here Adams refers to the enclosure Rush sent to him about the competing tailors of Dorcas. As Rush stated, the fable was written down in response to Rush’s disgust over reading about the “revival of the old controversy concerning the divine origin of Episcopal and Presbyterian ordination.” At the time, Episcopalians believed that a minister carried no authority unless the ordination was conferred by a Bishop, while the Presbyterians believed that the blessing of a Bishop was not necessary. Adams then opines about how various governments and religious groups claim divine authority.

But my Friend there is something very serious in this Business. 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 Bishops on the heads of Candidates for the Ministry. In the same manner as the holy Ghost is transmitted from Monarch to Monarch by the holy oil in the vial at Rheims which was brought down from Heaven by a Dove and by that other Phyal which I have seen in the Tower of London. There is no Authority civil or religious: there can be no legitimate Government but what is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it. All, without it is Rebellion and Perdition, or in more orthodox words Damnation. Although this is all Artifice and Cunning in the secret original in the heart, yet they all believe it so sincerely that they, would lay down their Lives under the Ax or the fiery’ Fagot for it. Alas the poor weak ignorant Dupe human Nature. There is so much King Craft, Priest Craft, Gentlemens Craft, Peoples Craft, Doctors Craft, Lawyers Craft, Merchants Craft, Tradesmens Craft, Labourers Craft and Devils Craft in the world, that it seems a desperate and impracticable Project to undeceive it.

Adams comments that he has seen governments and religions claim the Holy Ghost but that these claims are “artifice and cunning.” Artifice means trickery and he says that using the Holy Ghost as authority is an effort to “dupe human nature.” He even despairs that efforts to enlighten those who are deceived would be an “impracticable project.” He continues to say Voltaire and Paine have followers because their views seem more believable.

Do you wonder that Voltaire and Paine have made Proselytes? Yet there was as much subtlety, Craft and Hypocrisy in Voltaire and Paine and more too than in Ignatius Loyola.
This Letter is so much in the tone of my Friend the Abby Raynal and the Grumblers of the last age, that I pray you to burn it. I cannot copy it.
Your Prophecy my dear Friend has not become History as yet. I have no Resentment or Animosity against the Gentleman and abhor the Idea of blackening his Character or transmitting him in odious Colours to Posterity.
But I write with difficulty and am afraid of diffusing myself in too many Correspondences. If I should receive a Letter from him however I should not fail to acknowledge and answer it.

The last two paragraphs above (beginning “Your Prophecy…) are responses to Rush’s question in his postscript to the 12/5 letter. In this letter, these two paragraphs are the actual references to Rush’s dream which occurred because Rush asked Adams if he had gotten in touch with Jefferson. Adams responded to matters raised by Rush’s letter in the same order as Rush composed it.

The Auroras you sent me for which I thank you, are full of Momentous Matter.
I am Dear Sir with every friendly sentiment yours

To recap Adams’ reference to the Holy Ghost: On 12/5, Rush complained about the dispute between the Presbyterians and Episcopalians over ordination and on 12/21, Adams replied with some ridicule for those who believe the Holy Ghost is involved in governmental and religious authority, calling such beliefs artiface (i.e., trickery) and cunning. He did not describe his own views but ridiculed those who believe in the Holy Ghost. The only way one can arrive at the conclusion Barton does is to ignore intervening correspondence and context of their communications.
In the next post in this series, I will have some concluding thoughts on Barton’s presentation of the reconciliation of Adams and Jefferson.
For more on the accuracy of David Barton’s claims about Adams and Jefferson, click here for a series of posts.

6 thoughts on “David Barton on John Adams – The Holy Ghost letter”

  1. Reading comprehension skills mean nothing in the face of a confirmation bias inspired by a personal divinity.

  2. Reading comprehension skills mean nothing in the face of a confirmation bias inspired by a personal divinity.

Comments are closed.