How a leader of the Sons of Liberty turned the patriot cause into a divine mission.
The patriots who instigated the American Revolution faced a moment of truth in late September 1777. British troops controlled New York City. General George Washington’s army had just lost the Battle of Brandywine, in which 200 Americans were killed, 500 wounded and 400 captured. The Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia in a rush, just before the British seized the city, and then reassembled in York, Pennsylvania, where they pondered whether to go ahead or give up.
Samuel Adams, who at age 55 was the elder statesman of the Massachusetts delegation, had been one of the earliest and most zealous supporters of the cause of independence. He was a leader of the Sons of Liberty, gave the name to the Boston Massacre and issued the order to begin the Boston Tea Party. Now he sensed matters were drawing to a crisis and stood to address the Congress. Having helped instigate the uprising against the British with stirring rhetoric about taxation without representation, on this occasion he sought to buoy the sagging spirits of the assembled delegates by summoning God into the room, comparing the American revolutionaries to the Israelites who had fled the slavery of Egypt.
“We have appealed to Heaven for the justice of our cause, and in Heaven we have placed our trust. Numerous have been the manifestations of God’s Providence in sustaining us,” Adams told his colleagues. “We have been reduced to distress, and the arm of Omnipotence has raised us up. Let us still rely in humble confidence on Him who is mighty to save. Good tidings will soon arrive. We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection.”
While many politicians through – out American history have invoked the name of God on the stump or in the halls of power, few have done so with as much genuine passion as Samuel Adams. As his cousin John Adams observed, he was a man of “real as well as professed piety.” His God was not the remote cosmic watchmaker envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers who were skeptical of organized religion and later enshrined the notion of a distinct separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution. His God was the stern patriarch worshipped by the Puritans who fled the Church of England in the early 1600s and founded Massachusetts, where politics and religion remained deeply entwined throughout the colonial era. Much of Adams’ effectiveness as a revolutionary leader stemmed from his ability to fan the fervor of fellow Congregationalists who kept the Puritan legacy alive and use it to help ignite a violent insurrection against the British.
History has neglected Samuel Adams, as well as his incendiary role in turning the patriot cause into a divine mission. As relations with Great Britain healed in the 19th century, historians were all too willing to dismiss him as a zealot. Likewise, his distrust of secularism and vision of his homeland as a “Christian Sparta” has done little to endear him to contemporary scholars. But Adams viewed fighting for liberty and independence as a service to God just as essential as church attendance or Bible study, and understanding his faith is critical for making sense of an important dynamic in the cause and ultimate success of the American Revolution.
Puritan blood ran thick in Samuel Adams’ veins. His maternal grandmother, Maria Fifeld, was the granddaughter of John Cotton, the minister who preached the farewell sermon to John Winthrop and the first wave of Puritans who set sail for America in 1630. Maria’s father, Increase Mather, and her brother Cotton Mather were both prominent Puritan ministers who participated in a 1689 rebellion that toppled the royal governor of the New England colonies for “raising of taxes without an Assembly.” On his father’s side, Samuel was a descendant of Henry Adams, a Puritan farmer who arrived in Boston with nine children in 1632. Samuel’s father, known as Samuel the Elder, was a member of the Massachusetts legislature and helped found Boston’s New South Church. Samuel the Elder earned his keep by selling beer-maker’s malt, which he made in a little malt house in his backyard—the inspiration for Boston’s contemporary Samuel Adams brewery.
A few months after Adams graduated from Harvard in 1740, at age 18, Boston was captivated by the visit of a 25- year-old charismatic itinerant preacher from England, George Whitefield. At New South Church, where Samuel Checkley was the minister, the crowd that gathered to hear Whitefield was so large and got so excited that it panicked and stampeded. Five people were killed. But the deaths did nothing to diminish the impact of the “Great Awakening” that Whitefield effected on American spirituality.
Shortly after Whitefield’s visit, Adams became an active member of the New South Church, and in 1749 he married Checkley’s daughter, Elizabeth. During the next seven years, Elizabeth gave birth to five children, only two of whom lived past infancy. Then, after delivering a stillborn child in 1756, Elizabeth died. Meanwhile Adams struggled to make ends meet through a succession of jobs that included helping with his father’s business, serving as an apprentice in the counting house of a prominent Boston merchant and working as a tax collector. Adams also had begun honing his skills as a newspaper writer. His favorite topic: liberty, which he called “the choicest gift that Heaven has given to man.”
Adams first burst onto the scene as a public agitator a decade later when Parliament and King George III imposed the Stamp Act on America, taxing newspapers and other printed materials to try to relieve debts the British had accumulated while protecting its colonies during the French and Indian War. Recently remarried and newly elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Adams authored a set of antitax resolutions in which he invoked God in support of the argument that the lack of American representatives sitting in Parliament made the tax unfair. “Resolved, that there are certain essential rights of the British Constitution of government, which are founded in the law of God and nature, and are the common rights of mankind,” the first resolution said. Adams went on to argue that “no law of society, can, consistent with the law of God and nature,” take those rights away.
In Boston, opponents of the Stamp Act hung an effigy of the local stamp master, Andrew Oliver, from a 120-year-old elm that came to be known as the Liberty Tree. On August 14, 1765, a mob dragged the effigy through the streets and, after beheading and burning it, broke into Oliver’s house and raided his wine cellar. The next target was the lieutenant governor and chief justice of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, who was also Oliver’s brother-in-law and had been bold enough to try to disperse the mob as they trashed the house. On August 26, rioters smashed in the doors of Hutchinson’s house with axes and trashed everything inside. Adams condemned the attack on Hutchinson’s house. But circumstantial evidence suggests he may have had a role in planning the effigy parade and raid on Oliver’s house, and there is no doubt those acts met with his approval. In an article in the Boston Gazette, he referred to the antistamp agitators as “Sons of Liberty” who were “animated by a zeal for their country then upon the brink of destruction, and resolved at once to save her, or like Samson, to perish in the ruins.”
On November 11, 1765, Adams joined another Bostonian in writing to a British clergyman, “Reverend G___ W___,”— apparently the same George Whitefield who had so electrified Boston when he visited in 1740—to lay out the case of the colonists. Samuel Adams referred back to the founding of the colony by his Puritan forbears. “We are the descendants of ancestors remarkeable for their zeal for true religion & liberty,” he wrote. “When they found it was no longer possible for them to bear any part in the support of this glorious cause in their native country England, they transplanted themselves at their own very great expense, into the wilds of America, till that time inhabited only by savage beasts and men: Here they resolved to set up the worship of God, according to their best judgment, upon the plan of the new testament, to maintain it among themselves, and transmit it to their posterity, & to spread the knowledge of Jesus Christ among the ignorant & barbarous natives.” In a separate note that appended the letter, Adams broached in writing, apparently for the first time, the possibility of a decisive break between the colonies and Great Britain. “There is at present no appearance of…a struggle for independence; & I daresay there never will be unless Great Britain, shall exert her power to destroy their libertys. This we hope will never be done,” he wrote.
As the dispute between Boston and London escalated, Adams also took his arguments to the newspapers, particularly the pages of the Boston Gazette. He accused the British of planning to impose bishops of the Church of England on the colonists, or of allowing Catholic influence to descend from Canada. In an April 4, 1768, article signed “A Puritan”—one of a series of articles that Adams wrote for the Gazette under that pen name—he wrote, “I confess I am surpriz’d to find, that so little attention is given to the danger we are in, of the utter loss of those religious Rights, the enjoyment of which our good forefathers had more especially in their intention, when they explored and settled this new world.” He went on, “What we have above everything else to fear is POPERY,” calling it “the idolatry of Christians.” On April 11, Adams wrote that “much more is to be dreaded from the growth of POPERY in America, than from Stamp-Acts or any other Acts destructive of mens civil rights: Nay, I could not help fancying that the Stamp-Act itself was contrived only to inure the people to the habit of contemplating themselves as the slaves of men; and the transition from thence to a subjection to Satan, is mighty easy.”
By 1770 the tax dispute between Boston and Britain had progressed from a war of words fought in newspapers to a violent struggle fought with sticks and snowballs and muskets in the streets of Boston while church bells rang to sound the alarm. As Adams’ hometown buried the five colonists who had been killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre, Samuel Adams’ cousin and fellow patriot John worked as a lawyer defending the British officer who oversaw the troops. Samuel Adams, who, though not a lawyer, advised the prosecutor on trial strategy, had a harder time than his cousin did seeing the other side of the case. Commenting on jurors who eventually acquitted six of the soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre and found two guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, Adams wrote in the Gazette, “They are accountable to God and their own consciences, and in their day of trial, may God send them good deliverance.”
In 1772 he created a “committee of correspondence” to spread the revolutionary message outside Boston. The committee’s first major work was a statement of the “Rights of the Colonists,” which provided a framework for the Declaration of Independence. All men have a right, Adams wrote, “in case of intollerable Oppression, Civil or Religious, to leave the Society they belong to, and enter into another.” The document called the right to freedom “the gift of God Almighty.” A section on the rights of the colonists as Christians cited the Massachusetts Charter granted by William and Mary in 1691 and the Toleration Act passed by the British Parliament in 1689. Both guaranteed freedom of conscience to all Christians except Roman Catholics. Adams noted, “Our ancestors came over to this Country that they might not only enjoy their civil but also their religious rights, and particularly desired to be free from the Prelates, who in those times cruelly persecuted all who differed in sentiment from the established Church.”
In a letter sent with the proposed declaration of rights statement to other Massachusetts towns, Adams and his colleagues on the Committee of Correspondence again invoked the legacy of the colony’s Puritan founders. If the other towns failed to stand up against the British, the Bostonians, he wrote, would “forever lament the extinction of that generous ardor for Civil and Religeous liberty, which in the face of every danger, and even death itself, induced our fathers to forsake the bosom of their Native Country, and begin a settlement on bare Creation.”
In late 1773, matters came to a head when the British government passed legislation that gave the East India Company a tax break on tea and made it possible for the company to undercut prices offered by colonial merchants and smugglers. When three ships loaded with East India tea arrived in Boston Harbor, the crowd of Bostonians who wanted to reject it rather than send it back was so large it overflowed Fanueil Hall. They reconvened in Old South Church, where Samuel Adams moved “that the tea should not be landed.” Then, after word came that Thomas Hutchinson, who since the Stamp Act dispute had risen to become the colonial governor of Massachusetts, refused to allow the ships to leave without unloading the tea, Adams announced, “This Meeting can do nothing more to save the Country!” On cue, the Sons of Liberty proceeded to empty 342 chests of tea into the cold seawater of Massachusetts Bay.
Governor Hutchinson subsequently fled to England, where King George III grilled him about Adams and the backing he had received from Congregationalist ministers in New England. “Why do your ministers generally join with the people in their opposition to government?” the king asked.
Hutchinson replied by describing the way Congregational ministers were employed. “They are, Sir, dependent upon the people,” he said. “They are elected by the people, and when they are dissatisfied with them, they seldom leave till they get rid of them.” He went on to describe to the king the way in which the Boston population was motivated by religious concerns. Advising the king on choosing new members of a Massachusetts Governor’s Council, Hutchinson said: “The body of the people are Dissenters from the Church of England; what are called Congregationalists. If the Council shall have been generally selected from the Episcopalians, it will make the change more disagreeable.”
Back in North America, Adams and his fellow delegates to Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress, including John Adams, George Washington and Patrick Henry, passed resolutions and sent letters complaining that the king’s toleration of Catholic priests in Canada was a threat to “free Protestant Colonies.” But Philadelphia—home to Moravians, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and even Catholics—provided a forum not only for the dissemination of Adams’ traditional Congregationalist-tinged rhetoric, but also for challenges to the dominance of a single denomination. Sensitive to the need to broaden his base of religious and political support, Samuel Adams moved that the Congress be opened with a prayer from a minister of the Church of England.
As the war progressed, Adams’ friend Thomas Paine published an influential pamphlet, Common Sense, full of religious arguments for independence. “Government by kings,” the pamphlet said, “was the most preposterous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.” When the colonists finally proclaimed their independence in July 1776, they did so in a document invoking “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and declaring that all men “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Samuel Adams signed his name at the top of the list of delegates from Massachusetts. Declaring independence was easier than achieving it with a military victory, as the bleak outlook in September 1777 attested. Yet Adams’ “humble confidence” was rewarded by news of the American victory at Saratoga, which was decisive in bringing France into a full alliance with America. Congress celebrated the victory with a resolution declaring a day of thanksgiving to God, one recognized as the first national Thanksgiving holiday. Adams even managed to accommodate himself to the alliance with the Catholic monarch Congress referred to as “his most Christian Majesty, the King of France.”
Returning to Massachusetts, Samuel Adams worked to craft the state’s constitution of 1780. In many ways it was a model for the federal Constitution that would follow. “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in Society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the SUPREME BEING, the great creator and preserver of the universe,” it said. “And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshiping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or his religious profession or sentiments, provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship.” The constitution nevertheless imposed a general tax for the support of “public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” And it required certain elected officials to declare “that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth.”
At the Massachusetts Convention of 1788 on ratification of the federal Constitution, Adams, who was a swing vote, worried that the document gave too much power to the central government. He proposed an amendment to guarantee, among other things, a free press, “the rights of conscience,” the right to bear arms and protection from unreasonable search and seizure—all elements in what would become the First, Second and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. Assured that a Bill of Rights would be added in the future, Samuel Adams eventually voted to ratify the Constitution.
If Adams was coming around to the idea of a federal government that was religiously neutral, he nevertheless felt there was a place to promote faith at the level of the states. As governor of Massachusetts from 1793 to 1797, Adams did his best to create what he called a “Christian Sparta,” telling lawmakers that “we owe our unceasing gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, who safely carried us through our arduous struggle for freedom.” He proclaimed numerous days of thanksgiving and of fasting, and sponsored speeches by ministers, including one who preached, “May heaven save us from the vortex of Deism—that old harlot, lately re-baptized by the name of reason.” But Adams’ rhetoric and even his legal efforts to ban theater in Boston met some resistance from the public, which attended plays and acted in other ways out of step with the town’s Puritan past. One critic wrote a friend that it would be an occasion for a real day of thanksgiving when Adams finally retired from public life: “After beseeching the Almighty to prosper our husbandry, and our fisheries…I will most devoutly pray, that his Servant Samuel may be relieved from the burthens of government.”
In his final days Adams was a regular at Old South Church, where so many mass meetings during the run-up to the Revolution had taken place. He sat with the choir, singing, and often choosing the melody. While the interior of the church was familiar, the world outside was rapidly changing. Many of the old Congregationalist churches were moving toward Universalism, a more liberal view of Christianity based on rationalism and reason. A Catholic church had opened in the heart of Boston. Even the author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet questioning religious assumptions, news that prompted Adams to fire off a letter to his old friend pronouncing himself “astonished” and “grieved.” Adams asked: “Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens?” It was his last known piece of correspondence.
When the Rev. Thomas Thacher of Dedham preached a sermon in tribute to Adams on the Lord’s day after the patriot’s death on Oct. 2, 1803, the minister praised him not only for his public acts but for his daily morning and evening prayers, for his “reverence for the Christian Sabbath, and the altar of Jesus Christ, his compliance with every ritual derived from the authority of heaven.” If Adams “preferred the mode of divine worship in which he was born” to other forms, it was not from prejudice, Thacher said, but from sincere personal belief and appreciation of the role it played during the Revolution.
From a modern vantage, the zealous way in which Adams mixed religion and politics seems curiously at odds with the principles of religious tolerance that have since become a hallmark of American democracy. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics can be justifiably glad that the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, while still in force, has been amended so that they are not taxed to support Congregationalist clergy and so that governors of the state no longer have to swear they are firm Christian believers. Even in his own era Adams’ ideas were a throwback to a much earlier time, when his Puritan forebears landed on these shores. But echoes of the words of the man who has come to be known as the last of the Puritans can still be heard anytime a public figure proclaims that freedom is God’s gift to man or that God will stand with Americans when they fight to defend liberty.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.