John Adams, second President of these United States, was a man of very firm convictions. Once he decided to support a cause, most notably American independence, nothing on this Earth could convince him to change his mind. In regard to religion he was raised a Congregationalist. Although described as a Unitarian, I find the evidence ambiguous in his writings and I suspect he remained at heart a fairly conventional Protestant. As such he was unsympathetic to the Catholic faith by heredity, creed and conviction. However, he did attend Mass on occasion, and his writings about these visits show attraction mixed with repulsion.
On October 9, 1774 Adams and George Washington attended a Catholic chapel in Philadelphia during the First Continental Congress. He reported his thoughts about the visit to his wife and constant correspondent Abigail:
“This afternoon, led by Curiosity and good Company I strolled away to Mother Church, or rather Grandmother Church, I mean the Romish Chapel. Heard a good, short, moral Essay upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in justice and Charity, to take care of their Interests temporal and spiritual.
This afternoon’s entertainment was to me most awful (Adams here means awe-inspiring and not the more colloquial use of the term common in our time.) and affecting. The poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. Their holy water– their crossing themselves perpetually– their bowing to the name of Jesus wherever they hear it– their bowings, and kneelings, and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich with lace– his pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich– little images and crucifixes about– wax candles lighted up. 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.
The music consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted– most sweetly and exquisitely.
Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”
New England services in the time of John Adams were as plain as, well, as some Masses unfortunately are today in this country. The pageantry and power of traditional Catholicism obviously had an impact upon Adams although he was loathe to admit it.
On December 18, 1779, while abroad as an American diplomat, Adams attended Mass in Corunna, Spain and was impressed by the beauty of what he saw:
“Went into the church of a convent; found them all upon their knees, chanting the prayers to the Virgin, it being the eve of the Sainte Vlerge. The wax candles lighted, by their glimmerings upon the paint and gildings, made a pretty appearance, and the music was good.”
On July 30, 1780 Adams attended Mass at the Cathedral in Brussels:
“Sunday. Went to the cathedral, — a great feast, an infinite crowd. The church more splendidly ornamented than any that I had seen, hung with tapestry. The church music here is in the Italian style. A picture in tapestry was hung up, of a number of Jews stabbing the wafer, the ban Diett, and blood gushing in streams from the bread. This insufferable piece of pious villany shocked me beyond measure; but thousands were before it, on their knees, adoring. I could not help cursing the knavery of the priesthood and the brutal ignorance of the people ; yet, perhaps, I was rash and unreasonable, and that it is as much virtue and wisdom in them to adore, as in me to detest and despise.”
Once again we see Adams the aesthete attracted to the Mass. Adams of course then lashes out at “knavish priesthood”, but, rather remarkably for Adams, then admits that perhaps the worshipers had as much wisdom and virtue as he has. Such humility is very rare in the writings of Mr. Adams!
Adams attended other Masses and made similar observations. I think he was a man attracted at least to the externals of the Faith, but was intellectually impervious to the message that the externals sought to convey. The faith of Catholics at worship obviously unsettled him however, and I suspect that he felt an emotional attraction to the Faith that he fought against. As anyone who has read much of Adams’ writings can attest, John Adams was a complex man and therefore it is appropriate that this New England shunner of the papacy, against his will, felt the pull of “Grandmother Church”.