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He who loves the Workman and his Work improves It: The Religion of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
AuthorHume, Blakely K.
AdvisorCasper, Scott E.
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John Adams and Thomas Jefferson proposed that in order for republican values to flourish in the republic virtue must be cultivated in society. They believed a reasonable religion was the necessary foundation to uphold this virtue. The letters they shared suggested a rationally critiqued faith that would provide the necessary foundation for the republic, one at odds with the rising evangelical religion so popular in the republic. The first goal of this project is to examine their correspondence to show how they used enlightened principles of reason and debate to provide an intellectual inquiry into the historical perversions they perceived in their "Christian" society. For Adams and Jefferson, a properly constructed religion emerged from a series of discussions about its content. The language that they used with each other revolved around three intellectual suppositions about religion. First, the essence of understanding religion, for them, was to examine and critique religious writers, materials, and doctrines. Second, such a critique led them to question specific points of religious doctrine and to determine the accuracy or inconsistency in their faith. Third, this questioning of doctrine led them to an enlightened, well-reasoned, and reformed religious belief. While this study speaks to the current historiography and the "culture wars" regarding religion during the Revolution presently debated in American politics, it also provides the ancient and colonial religious context into which Adams's and Jefferson's discussion may be placed. Historians must recover the theological meaning behind the religious conversations these men had with one another to explain what they meant when they chose to define themselves as "Christian." The process of recovering their faith by contextualizing the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson is the second goal of this project.By contextualizing their correspondence, historians may decipher Adams's and Jefferson's intentions about religion. The language they use in their letters demonstrates four things. First, they viewed themselves as "real Christians," not as "Deists" or "Unitarians" or "Atheists" as they have been labeled at various stages in their lives and by historians since. Second, they were willing--though privately and only with each other--to use reason and rationality as the basis for their faith. Third, having reason and rationality as the basis for their faith, they critiqued commonly held beliefs of "Christian" society at the time discovering many of those beliefs to be corrupt. Finally, these letters indicate what they believed was an accurate understanding of the religion of their culture without any doctrinal corruption. Interpreting their letters in this context Adams and Jefferson defined religion very differently in their era: they implemented revolutionary enlightenment thinking to reassess their religious beliefs to arrive at a "rational Christianity" which, to them, represented a "purified and enlightened Christianity." Both men understood that this religion was highly contentious and problematic. The faith that emerged was a very different and unorthodox "Christianity," one that would be wholly unrecognizable and unacceptable to not only their culture, but to the cultures that followed.