Letters of John Quincy Adams to His Son on the Bible and Its Teachings

To the Young Men of America this Little Volume Is Respectfully Inscribed

Editor’s Note

John Quincy Adams (1767– 1848) was the sixth President of the United States, and son of the second President, John Adams. The great majority of his life was spent in public service. This began at the age of 14 when he received a Congressional diplomatic appointment as secretary to the ambassador of the court of Catherine the Great in Russia. During his life he served as foreign ambassador to England, France, Holland, Prussia, and Russia, Secretary of State, a member of the U.S. Senate, President, and then 18 years as a member of the House of Representatives. He died in the U.S. Capitol on February 23, 1848.

His last words were: “This is the last of earth; I am content.”[1] He could be content, for he faithfully discharged his duties as a public servant, and his devout Christian faith prepared him to face the eternal hereafter.

Shortly after his death, a series of letters Adams had written from Russia to his son on the Bible and its teachings were printed in a little book and widely distributed throughout America. They were received with great enthusiasm and the book underwent many printings and editions. This article contains one of the nine letters Adams wrote to his son. This letter reflects well the Christian faith of John Quincy Adams. Some additional materials on the faith of this man are provided before his letter to his son.

Faith of John Quincy Adams

Following are some words and actions that reflect the devout Christian faith of John Quincy Adams.

1. For many years John Quincy Adams was a member of the American Bible Society, and he served as one of the Vice Presidents. In 1830 he wrote a letter to that body stating in part:

The distribution of Bibles, if the simplest, is not the least efficacious of the means of extending the blessings of the Gospel to the remotest corners of the earth; for the Comforter is in the sacred volume: and among the receivers of that million of copies distributed by the Society, who shall number the multitudes awakened thereby, with good will to man in their hearts, and with the song of the Lamb upon their lips?

The hope of a Christian is inseparable from his faith. Whoever believes in the divine inspiration of the holy Scriptures, must hope that the religion of Jesus shall prevail throughout the earth. Never since the foundation of the world have the prospects of mankind been more encouraging to that hope than they appear to be at the present time. And may the associated distribution of the Bible proceed and prosper, till the Lord shall have made “bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”[2]

2. Adams attended church throughout his life, including services in the Capitol and other public buildings in Washington, D.C.

Adams attended church services in many places while living in Washington, D.C., including various locations in the Capitol Building. In his diary entry for October 23, 1803 he wrote: “Attended public service at the Capitol where Mr. Rattoon, an Episcopalian clergyman from Baltimore, preached a sermon.”[3]

His diary entry for Oct. 30, 1803 was:

[R]eligious service is usually performed on Sundays at the Treasury office and at the Capitol. I went both forenoon and afternoon to the Treasury.[4]

In 1827 while President, Adams attended a service in the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol to listen to Harriet Livermore, an evangelical female minister. He “sat on the steps leading up to her feet because he could not find a free chair.”[5]

In his diary of February 2, 1806, he recorded:

Several of the Ladies went to pay visits — I rode with them to the Capitol for the purpose of attending Church; but I found there was no preaching at the House of Representatives, and the Court-House below . . . was so crowded that I could not get within the room.[6]

Adams also recorded in his diary attending a four-hour Presbyterian service conducted in the War Office on January 29, 1804.[7]

The last Sunday of his life, February 20th, 1848, he attended public worship at the Capitol in the morning, and at St. John’s church in the afternoon.[8]

3. Adams was Vice-President of the American Bible Society and a member of the Massachusetts Bible Society[9]

4. In an Oration delivered July 4th 1837 he stated:

Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birth-day of the Saviour? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the corner stone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity, and gave to the world the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfillment of the prophecies, announced directly from Heaven at the birth of the Saviour and predicted by the greatest of the Hebrew prophets six hundred years before?[10]

5. Adams spoke of the Christian faith of the American people:

[T]he people of the North American union, and of its constituent States . . . were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledged as the rules of their conduct.[11]

6. Adams said that Christianity produced the public morality necessary for civil freedom because Christianity effects the heart.

Human legislators can undertake only to prescribe the actions of men: they acknowledge their inability to govern and direct the sentiments of the heart; the very law styles it a rule of civil conduct, not of internal principles. . . . It is one of the greatest marks of Divine favor . . . that the Legislator gave them rules not only of action but for the government of the heart.[12]

Three points of doctrine, the belief of which, forms the foundation of all morality. The first is the existence of a God; the second is the immortality of the human soul; and the third is a future state of rewards and punishments. Suppose it possible for a man to disbelieve either of these articles of faith and that man will have no conscience, he will have no other law than that of the tiger or the shark; the law of man may bind him in chains or may put him to death, but they never can make him wise, virtuous, or happy.[13]

7. His faith is expressed in his poetry.

Mr. Adams wrote a hymn for the celebration of the 4th of July, 1831, in Quincy, Massachusetts. Stanzas include the following:


Sing to the Lord a song of praise;

Assemble, ye who love his name;

Let congregated millions raise

Triumphant glory’s loud acclaim.

From earth’s remotest regions come;

Come, greet your Maker, and your King;

With harp, with timbrel, and with drum,

His praise let hill and valley sing.

. . . .

Go forth in arms; Jehovah reigns;

Their graves let foul oppressors find;

Bind all their sceptred kings in chains;

Their peers with iron fetters bind.

Then to the Lord shall praise ascend;

Then all mankind, with one accord,

And freedom’s voice, till time shall end,

In pealing anthems, praise the Lord.[14]


8. He said it is shameful to be ignorant of the Bible.

To a man of liberal education, the study of history is not only useful, and important, but altogether indispensable, and with regard to the history contained in the Bible . . . It is not so much praiseworthy to be acquainted with as it is shameful to be ignorant of it.[15]

9. His view on the laws of nature and nature’s God.

[T]he laws of nature and of nature’s God . . . of course presupposes the existence of a God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and of government.[16]

10. He expressed trust in Christ for future life.

My hopes of a future life are all founded upon the Gospel of Christ and I cannot cavil or quibble away . . . the whole tenor of His conduct by which He sometimes positively asserted and at others countenances His disciples in asserting that He was God.[17]

11. He said the Ten Commandments are the foundation of civil government:

The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code . . . laws essential to the existence of men in society and most of which have been enacted by every nation which ever professed any code of laws.[18]

Vain indeed would be the search among the writings of profane antiquity . . . to find so broad, so complete and so solid a basis for morality as this decalogue [the Ten commandments] lays down.[19]

12. John Quincy Adams and Unitarianism

In his later years Adams was associated with the Unitarian Church, yet, Unitarianism at this time was much different than it is today. For one, it was firmly rooted in the Bible. Adams believed in the divine nature of the Holy Scriptures and the assertion that Christ was God. Unitarians were described in the Theological Dictionary of 1823 in these words:

In common with other Christians, they confess that He [Jesus] is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; and in one word, they believe all that the writers of the New Testament, particularly the four Evangelists, have stated concerning him.[20]


*  *  *  *  *

The following is taken from Letters of John Quincy Adams, to His Son, on the Bible and Its Teachings by John Quincy Adams (Auburn: James M. Alden, 1850).



John Quincy Adams, the writer of the following Letters, is widely known as one of the purest and most eminent men of our age. Born in 1767, during the fierce and absorbing discussions of the rights and responsibilities of rulers which heralded our Revolution and war of Independence, he entered his country’s service, while yet a mere lad, as secretary to the Russian embassy, and remained through life, with few and brief intermissions, a public servant, filling successively the posts of secretary, embassador, United States senator, negotiator of the last treaty of peace with Great Britain, secretary of state, president, and finally representative in Congress, which station he filled from 1831 to the hour of his death, which took place in the Capitol, February 23, 1848, he having been stricken down with paralysis, while in the act of rising to address the house, two days before; having lived more than eighty years, and passed nearly or quite three fourths of his days in public stations. Though naturally reserved and diffident in manner, and never in the obvious sense a popular man — for his life was devoted to serving rather than pleasing his countrymen — he was profoundly and generally esteemed for his fearless conscientiousness, his ardent patriotism, his vast and various acquirements, and his unfaltering devotion to human freedom. The funeral honors paid to his memory have had no parallel in this country, except in the case of Washington. Those who had seen fit to oppose his election and to defeat his re-election as president, and to whom he had generally stood opposed in party differences, seemed to vie with his warmest supporters in rendering homage to his memory.

The following letters were written by Mr. Adams, while embassador at St. Petersburgh, to one of his sons, who was at school in Massachusetts. Their purpose is the inculcation of a love and reverence for the Holy Scriptures, and a delight in their perusal and study. Throughout his long life, Mr. Adams was himself a daily and devout reader of the Scriptures, and delighted in comparing and considering them in the various languages with which he was familiar, hoping thereby to acquire a nicer and clearer appreciation of their meaning. The Bible was emphatically his counsel and monitor through life, and the fruits of its guidance are seen in the unsullied character which he bore through the turbid waters of political contention to his final earthly rest. Though long and fiercely opposed and contemned in life, he left no man behind him who would wish to fix a stain on the name he has inscribed so high on the roll of his country’s most gifted and illustrious sons.

The intrinsic value of these letters, their familiar and lucid style, their profound and comprehensive views, their candid and reverent spirit, must win for them a large measure of the public attention and esteem. But, apart from even this, the testimony so unconsciously borne by their pure-minded and profoundly learned author to the truth and excellence of the Christian faith and records, will not be lightly regarded. It is no slight testimonial to the verity and worth of Christianity, that in all ages since its promulgation, the great mass of those who have risen to eminence by their profound wisdom, integrity, and philanthropy, have recognised and reverenced in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the living God. To the names of Augustine, Xavier, Fenelon, Milton, Newton, Locke, Lavater, Howard, Chateaubriand, and their thousands of compeers in Christian faith, among the world’s wisest and noblest, it is not without pride that the American may add, from among his countrymen, those of such men as Washington, Jay, Patrick Henry, and John Quincy Adams.




St. Petersburg, Sept., 1811

MY DEAR SON: In your letter of the 18th January to your mother, you mentioned that you read to your aunt a chapter in the Bible or a section of Doddridge’s Annotations every evening. This information gave me real pleasure; for so great is my veneration for the Bible, and so strong my belief, that when duly read and meditated on, it is of all books in the world, that which contributes most to make men good, wise, and happy — that the earlier my children begin to read it, the more steadily they pursue the practice of reading it throughout their lives, the more lively and confident will be my hopes that they will prove useful citizens to their country, respectable members of society, and a real blessing to their parents. But I hope you have now arrived at an age to understand that reading, even in the Bible, is a thing in itself, neither good nor bad, but that all the good which can be drawn from it, is by the use and improvement of what you have read, with the help of your own reflection. Young people sometimes boast of how many books, and how much they have read; when, instead of boasting, they ought to be ashamed of having wasted so much time, to so little profit.

I advise you, my son, in whatever you read, and most of all in reading the Bible, to remember that it is for the purpose of making you wiser and more virtuous. I have myself, for many years, made it a practice to read through the Bible once every year. I have always endeavored to read it with the same spirit and temper of mind, which I now recommend to you: that is, with the intention and desire that it may contribute to my advancement in wisdom and virtue. My desire is indeed very imperfectly successful; for, like you, and like the Apostle Paul, “I find a law in my members, warring against the laws of my mind.” But as I know that it is my nature to be imperfect, so I know that it is my duty to aim at perfection; and feeling and deploring my own frailties, I can only pray Almighty God, for the aid of his Spirit to strengthen my good desires, and to subdue my propensities to evil; for it is from him, that every good and every perfect gift descends. My custom is, to read four or five chapters every morning, immediately after rising from my bed. It employs about an hour of my time, and seems to me the most suitable manner of beginning the day. But, as other cares, duties, and occupations, engage the remainder of it, I have perhaps never a sufficient portion of my time in meditation, upon what I have read. Even meditation itself is often fruitless, unless it has some special object in view; useful thoughts often arise in the mind, and pass away without being remembered or applied to any good purpose — like the seed scattered upon the surface of the ground, which the birds devour, or the wind blows away, or which rot without taking root, however good the soil may be upon which they are cast. We are all, my dear George, unwilling to confess our own faults, even to ourselves: and when our own consciences are too honest to conceal them from us, our self-love is always busy, either in attempting to disguise them to us under false and delusive colors, or in seeking out excuses and apologies to reconcile them to our minds. Thus, although I am sensible that I have not derived from my assiduous perusal of the Bible (and I might apply the same remark to almost everything else that I do) all the benefit that I might and ought, I am as constantly endeavoring to persuade myself that it is not my own fault. Sometimes I say to myself, I do not understand what I have read; I can not help it; I did not make my own understanding: there are many things in the Bible “hard to understand,” as St. Peter expressly says of Paul’s epistles: some are hard in the Hebrew, and some in the Greek — the original languages in which the Scriptures were written; some are harder still in the translations. I have been obliged to lead a wandering life about the world, and scarcely ever have at hand the book, which might help me to surmount these difficulties. Conscience sometimes puts the question — whether my not understanding many passages is not owing to my want of attention in reading them. I must admit, that it is; a full proof of which is, that every time I read the Book through, I understand some passages which I never understood before, and which I should have done, at a former reading, had it been effected with a sufficient degree of attention. Then, in answer to myself, I say: It is true; but I can not always command my own attention, and never can to the degree that I wish. My mind is ofttimes so full of other things, absorbed in bodily pain, or engrossed by passion, or distracted by pleasure, or exhausted by dissipation, that I can not give to proper daily employment the attention which I gladly would, and which is absolutely necessary to make it “fruitful of good works.” This acknowledgment of my weakness is just; but for how much of it I am still accountable to God, I hardly dare acknowledge to myself. Is it bodily pain? How often was that brought upon me by my own imprudence of folly? Was it passion? Heaven has given to every human being, the power of controlling his passions, and if he neglects or loses it, the fault is his own, and he must be answerable for it. Was it pleasure? Why did I indulge it? Was it dissipation? This is the most inexcusable of all; for it must have been occasioned by my own thoughtlessness or irresolution. It is no use to discover our own faults and infirmities, unless the discovery prompts us to amendment.

I have thought if in addition to the hour which I daily give to the reading of the Bible, I should also from time to time (and especially on the Sabbath) apply another hour occasionally to communicate to you the reflections that arise in my mind upon its perusal, it might not only tend to fix and promote my own attention to the excellent instructions of that sacred Book, but perhaps also assist your advancement in its knowledge and wisdom. At you age, it is probable that you have still greater difficulties to understand all that you have read in the Bible, than I have at mine; and if you have so much self-observation as your letters indicate, you will be sensible of as much want of attention, both voluntary and involuntary, as I here acknowledge in myself. I intend, therefore, for the purpose of contributing to your improvement and my own, to write you several letters, in due time to follow this, in which I shall endeavor to show you how you may derive the most advantage to yourself, from the perusal of the Scriptures. It is probable, when you receive these letters, you will not, at first reading entirely understand them; if that should be the case, ask your grand-parents, or your uncle or aunt, to explain them: if you still find them too hard, put them on file, and lay them by for two or three years, after which read them again, and you will find them easy enough. It is essential, my son, in order that you may go through life with comfort to yourself, and usefulness to your fellow-creatures, that you should form and adopt certain rules or principles, for the government of your own conduct and temper. Unless you have such rules and principles, there will be numberless occasions on which you will have no guide for your government but your passions. In your infancy and youth, you have been, and will be for some years, under the authority and control of your friends and instructors; but you must soon come to the age when you must govern yourself. You have already come to that age in many respects; you know the difference between right and wrong, and you know some of your duties, and the obligations you are under, to become acquainted with them all. It is in the Bible, you must learn them, and from the Bible how to practise them. Those duties are to God, to your fellow-creatures, and to yourself. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” On these two commandments, Jesus Christ expressly says, “hang all the law and the prophets;” that is to say, the whole purpose of Divine Revelation is to inculcate them efficaciously upon the minds of men. You will perceive that I have spoken of duties to yourself, distinct from those to God and to your fellow-creatures; while Jesus Christ speaks only of two commandments. The reason is, because Christ, and the commandments repeated by him, consider self-love as so implanted in the heart of every man by the law of his nature, that it requires no commandment to establish its influence over the heart; and so great do they know its power to be, that they demand no other measure for the love of our neighbor, than that which they know we shall have for ourselves. But from the love of God, and the love of our neighbor, result duties to ourselves as well as to them, and they are all to be learned in equal perfection by our searching the Scriptures.

Let us, then, search the Scriptures; and, in order to pursue our inquiries with methodical order, let us consider the various sources of information, that we may draw from in this study. The Bible contains the revelation of the will of God. It contains the history of the creation of the world, and of mankind; and afterward the history of one peculiar nation, certainly the most extraordinary nation that has ever appeared upon the earth. It contains a system of religion, and of morality, which we may examine upon its own merits, independent of the sanction it receives from being the Word of God; and it contains a numerous collection of books, written at different ages of the world, by different authors, which we may survey as curious monuments of antiquity, and as literary compositions. In what light soever we regard it, whether with reference to revelation, to literature, to history, or to morality — it is an invaluable and inexhaustible mine of knowledge and virtue.

I shall number separately those letters that I mean to write you upon the subject of the Bible, and as, after they are finished, I shall perhaps ask you to read them all together, or to look over them again myself, you must keep them on separate file. I wish that hereafter they may be useful to your brothers and sisters, as well as to you. As you will receive them as a token of affection for you, during my absence, I pray that they may be worthy to read by them all with benefit to themselves, if it please God, that they should live to be able to understand them.

From your affectionate Father,

John Quincy Adams.



End Notes

1. William H. Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams (New York: C.M. Saxton, Barker & Co., 1860), p. 336.

2. Seward, pp. 248-249.

3. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1874), Vol. 1, p. 268, Oct. 30, 1803.

4. Ibid., p. 265.

5.  James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington: Library of Congress, 1998), p. 87.

6. Hutson, p. 90.

7.  Ibid., p. 91.

8. Seward, p. 332.

9. See David Barton, Original Intent (Aledo, Tex.: WallBuilder Press, 1996), p. 139.

10. An Oration Delivered before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport, at Their Request, on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1837, by John Quincy Adams. Newburyport: Charles Whipple, printed by Morse and Brewster, 1837, pp. 5-6.

11. Barton, p. 88 & 169.

12. John Quincy Adams, Letters of John Quincy Adams to His Son on the Bible and Its Teachings (Auburn: James M. Aledn, 1850), p. 62.

13. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

14. Seward, p. 237.

15. Letters of John Quincy Adams to His Son, p. 64.

16. John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution (New York: Published by Samuel Colman, 1839), pp. 13-14.

17. John Adams and John Quincy Adams, The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams, Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), p. 292, John Quincy Adams to John Adams, January 3, 1817.

18. Letters of John Quincy Adams to His Son, p. 61.

19. Ibid., pp. 70-71.

20. Barton, p. 304.


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