Against my writings on the religious worldview of the constitutional framers, several people have pointed out many of John Adam’s more pious proclamations on morality, Christianity, and even the Bible specifically. What is too often lacking from such quotations is much context or nuance showing what Adams really meant. For example, I have written about what Adams’ really thought of the incarnation, and why that point of view is crucial. So now, what did Adam’s really think of the Bible?
In one of the most pointedly pro-Bible comments from any of the primary framers, Adams once wrote:
I have examined all as well as my narrow sphere, my straitened means, and my busy life would allow me; and the result is, that the Bible is the best book in the world.
I think that settles it: “best book in the world.” Need there be any further discussion?
Yes, there does. For starters, you just need to read the rest of that same letter (written to Jefferson on Christmas Day, 1813). In it, he goes on to say that he only believes parts of the Bible:
It contains more of my little philosophy than all the libraries I have seen; and such parts of it as I cannot reconcile to my little philosophy, I postpone for future investigation. . . .
So why does he believe the Bible is the best book in the world? Because it is divinely inspired? We’ll get to that in a minute. For now, notice it is because the Bible reconciles better with his own personal philosophy of life than other books do. So this is a relative comparison, not absolute. There are parts of the Bible he cannot reconcile with his personal philosophy, so he puts them on the back burner. The ruling principle here is not Jesus Christ or Scripture but John Adams’ human reason.
Nor does the letter give such praise to the Bible exclusively. He goes on to ask,
Where is to be found theology more orthodox, or philosophy more profound, than in the introduction to the Shasta?
So which is it, John? Is the Bible the best, or is the Hinduistic Shasta the best? And why have my fundamentalist and “Christian America” opponents never informed their followers of the Hindu principles of our founding father, John Adams? (Let’s return America to her Hindu foundations!)
In that letter to Jefferson, Adams was reviewing a work of the rationalist Joseph Priestly. Adams was upset Priestly did not reveal his knowledge of how superior and transcendent Eastern mystics were compared to Jesus:
Priestley ought to have given us a sketch of the religion and morals of Zoroaster, of Sanchoniathon, of Confucius, and all the founders of religions before Christ, whose superiority would, from such a comparison, have appeared the more transcendent. Priestley ought to have told us that Pythagoras passed twenty years in his travels in India, in Egypt, in Chaldea, perhaps in Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon. He ought to have told us, that in India he conversed with the Brahmins, and read the Shasta, five thousand years old, written in the language of the sacred Sanscrit, with the elegance and sentiments of Plato. Where is to be found theology more orthodox, or philosophy more profound, than in the introduction to the Shasta?
Keep in mind, Confusionism is atheistic! It is clear that Adams was speaking as a rationalist, who as a rationalist, held high esteem for parts of the Bible, but not all of it, and held doctrines of eastern religions to be superior to those of Jesus.
Again, this is the result of his own estimation, his own reason, not Scripture. And this was the ruling principle for Adams, as for many of the framers. Human reason—the spark of divinity, as some say, within each of us—is superior to any and all claims of revealed religion. Thus Adams wrote in that same letter:
Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature, man. When this revelation is clear and certain, by intuition or necessary inductions, no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it. Philosophy is not only the love of wisdom, but the science of the universe and its cause. . . . Philosophy looks with an impartial eye on all terrestrial religions.
It is with the same spirit that Adams relates a story, in his unfinished Autobiography, concerning his views of the Bible, as well as those of a particular confidant, Thomas Paine.
Before we note that story, we should get a couple things straight. In the long debate over the religious nature of our constitutional framers, terms get tossed about frequently but without thought or definition. Confusion results. For example, the left often argues against the idea of a “Christian nation” based on the claim that most of the founders were “deists”—a term never defined. Some Christians react by noting the standard definition of “deist”—the absentee designer idea of God—cannot apply to hardly any of the prominent men of the area. Both probably need help, as in some cases people of that era did not use the terms the same as we use them today, or even the same as each other.
Thus, some will point out the only real atheist at the time was Thomas Paine—and he was widely assailed in his own day with that label. But, in fact, Paine was a self-avowed “deist.” He was among the few who used that label. (So did Jefferson, but differently. He called Old Testament Jewish ethics “deism,” and also called the religion of Jesus “deism.”)
But as some have noted, it was this same Paine who, in his famous and important tract Common Sense, appealed to Old Testament law and history in order to argue that monarchy is an invalid form of government. His arguments clearly regarded these sections of Old Testament scripture as “the will of the Almighty” and “the word of God.” These are things no true deist would value. So was Paine sincere?
This is where Adam’s story comes into play:
In the course of this winter  appeared a phenomenon in Philadelphia, a disastrous meteor, I mean Thomas Paine. He came from England, and got into such company as would converse with him, and ran about picking up what information he could concerning our affairs, and finding the great question was concerning independence, he gleaned from those he saw the common-place arguments, such as the necessity of independence at some time or other; the peculiar fitness at this time; the justice of it; the provocation to it; our ability to maintain it, &c. &c. Dr. Rush put him upon writing on the subject, furnished him with the arguments which had been urged in Congress a hundred times, and gave him his title of “Common Sense.” In the latter part of winter, or early in the spring, he came out with his pamphlet. The arguments in favor of independence I liked very well; but one third part of the book was filled with arguments, from the Old Testament, to prove the unlawfulness of monarchy, and another third, in planning a form of government for the separate States, in one assembly, and for the United States, in a Congress. His arguments from the Old Testament were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest ignorance or foolish superstition on one hand, or from wilful sophistry and knavish hypocrisy on the other, I know not.
Here we learn that Adams must have considered the Old Testament injunctions against kings, which Paine did little more than repeat verbatim and flourish upon, were “ridiculous.” At any rate, to argue against monarchy from these Scriptures was “ridiculous” and likely the result of “foolish superstition.”
He gets even more emphatic, as he later relates to Benjamin Rush (letter dated April 12, 1809) that he stuck the fact right in Paine’s face. Adams disliked some of Common Sense so much that he published his own tract, Thoughts on Government. He relates what followed:
Mr. Thomas Paine was so highly offended with it, that he came to visit me at my chamber at Mrs. Yard’s to remonstrate and even scold at me for it, which he did in very ungenteel terms. In return, I only laughed heartily at him, and rallied him upon his grave arguments from the Old Testament to prove that monarchy was unlawful in the sight of God. “Do you seriously believe, Paine,” said I, “in that pious doctrine of yours?” This put him in good humor, and he laughed out. “The Old Testament!” said he, “I do not believe in the Old Testament. I have had thoughts of publishing my sentiments of it, but, upon deliberation, I have concluded to put that off till the latter part of life.”
So it’s clear that Adams thought these aspects of the OT were ridiculous. He disbelieved Paine’s sincerity in even arguing them, and he was right. Together, they were a pair of disbelievers in this regard. They were both rationalists who subjected the Bible to their own dictates and criticism. Call it a Paineful admission.
Adams would not quite follow Paine in giving the same disdain for all of Scripture. He relates the rest of this story in his autobiography:
I told him further, that his reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his ideas in that part from Milton; and then expressed a contempt of the Old Testament, and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprised me. He saw that I did not relish this, and soon checked himself with these words: “However, I have some thoughts of publishing my thoughts on religion, but I believe it will be best to postpone it to the latter part of life.” This conversation passed in good humor, without any harshness on either side; but I perceived in him a conceit of himself and a daring impudence, which have been developed more and more to this day.
Note the slight discrepancy in the accounts. Nevertheless, the whole reveals that both Paine and Adams were rationalists when it came to Scripture.
It is for this reason that Adams obfuscates and dodges when considering the most crucial and central question in the “Christian America” debate: is Christianity the law of the land, and is the Bible law? In other words, is the United States a Christianity nation institutionally and, where it counts, judicially. In a letter to Jefferson, March 14, 1814, Adams dismissed any possibility of ever answering the question:
Your researches in the laws of England, establishing Christianity as the law of the land, and part of the common law, are curious and very important. Questions without number will arise in this country. Religious controversies and ecclesiastical contests are as common, and will be as sharp as any in civil politics, foreign or domestic. In what sense and to what extent the Bible is law, may give rise to as many doubts and quarrels as any civil, political, military, or maritime laws, and will intermix with them all to irritate faction of every sort. I dare not look beyond my nose into futurity. Our money, our commerce, our religion, our national and state constitutions, even our arts and sciences, are so many seed-plots of division, faction, sedition, and rebellion. Every thing is transmuted into an instrument of electioneering.
What is the translation of this rambling dodge? It is this: a national institution exalting religious pluralism has destroyed the possibility of arguing that the Bible is the foundation of our civil polity. Even if it were possible, it would now be pointless. We now have enough factions of all sorts, in all areas of life, that adding one of religious character into the mix will light a powder keg. All that now remains is a contest for votes to gain power—religion to the side.
So what did Adams really think of the Bible? Was it really the “best book in the world”? Perhaps it was “best” by some measure. But from what we know from the rest of his contexts, it was not good enough for civil polity, not good enough to be considered inspired, not to be more trusted than human reason in general (even if attested by miracles), not better than his own personal philosophy in specific, not good enough to be taken as a whole, and not even better than the “Shasta” of eastern religion. So in what way was it “best”? At this point, with all of these qualifications and detractions, I don’t see how any biblical Christian could think it matters.
 I can see where some may think the subject of the phrase “whose superiority . . .” should be “Christ” and not “all the founders of religions before Christ.” I don’t see how this could be reconciled with what he says further about the Shasta, which is just the opposite.