Q&A with Sara Georgini

By March 19, 2019

Kurt Manwaring has published an interview with historian Sara Georgini over on his site, From the Desk. Georgini earned her Ph.D. in American History at Boston University and is a Series Editor for The Papers of John Adams at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Her most recent book, Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, examines the religious lives of the Adams Family across several generations. An excerpt from Manwaring’s site (including a question about the Adams Family and Joseph Smith is posted below; click over to From the Desk to read the rest!

How was religion used to frame the successes and failures of John Adams’ political endeavors?

John and his wife Abigail hung on to the idea that an omniscient Providence—the same God who guided the Puritans—would steer them to nationhood and prosperity.

For John and Abigail, Providence was a close and powerful force. They tried daily to detect “providences,” or signs of God’s will at work in the world. God hovered over the pages of history. God pushed their Puritan forebears to emigrate and establish American Christianity. The Adamses believed that the same God governed the family’s fate, and guided the patriots who had united in a bid for liberty from Great Britain.

“Certainly, There is a Providence—certainly, We must depend upon Providence or We fail.,” John Adams wrote home in the spring of 1775. Wherever he went, John drew on that language of providentialism.

Such confidence! That’s what I thought when I read this, wondering how he felt about Providence in times of failure. Flipping ahead to the early 1800s, I found out more. Reeling from an electoral loss to Thomas Jefferson, the family experienced several tragedies, personal and political, that strengthened John’s and Abigail’s inward turn to Christianity.

Stepping back from public life cemented Abigail’s view of the unfolding family events that she cataloged as the “allotments of Providence.” John called it a “pretty large dose . . . of distress and pain.” This revelation sent me racing back to the letter where my whole project began. When John wrote in 1812 that Christianity was the force that preserved the Adams “race” in all its glory, it was probably more to remind himself that Providence might heal his mounting afflictions.

Tell us the story of when Charles Adams and Josiah Quincy met with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois in May 1844 (barely a month before Smith was assassinated). In what ways did the encounter create an internal struggle within Charles?

Charles Francis Adams, a politician and man of letters, embraced a series of what he called “journeyings” to explore other religious cultures.

In the spring of 1844, he and fourth cousin Josiah Quincy went on a western tour that stopped at Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo. Both men were openly skeptical of any self-pronounced prophet. Charles was eager to meet “the celebrated Joe Smith,” who had swiftly consolidated both sacred and secular power in a fertile region of the expanding nation. Charles had heard of the Mormon leader’s visions, and read of Smith’s efforts to set down those revelations in the Book of Mormon. Charles had some idea of the formalization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

What Charles did not realize, until he sat down with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, was how adroitly the Mormon tavern keeper had built up local power.

Over breakfast, as Adams recalled, Smith lectured on Mormon doctrine. Then, he led them down to the private chamber to visit his mother, Lucy Mack Smith. There, the Mormon leader unwrapped four Egyptian mummies and several rolls of yellow papyri. Next, “Joe” explained in detail the related holy manuscripts that he had transcribed. “Of course, we were too polite to prove the negative,” Charles wrote in his diary, “against a man fortified by revelation.”

Despite Smith’s best efforts at instruction, Charles never grasped the intricacies of Mormon belief, and he resented paying a quarter to see the cache. By trip’s end, he hazarded (wrongly) that Smith’s “theological system is very nearly Christian Unitarianism— with the addition of the power of baptism by the priests of adults to remit sin, and of the new hierarchy of which Smith is the chief by divine appointment.”

Adams mulled the Mormon lesson of his high-speed tour through western Christianity. “On the whole I was glad I had been,” he wrote. “Such a man is a study not for himself, but as serving to show what turns the human mind will sometimes take.”

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