Adams Family Values

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Sara Georgini. Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family. Oxford University Press, 2019. xi + 272pp. Cloth $34.95.

Sara Georgini’s ambitious project in Household Gods is to tell the story of American religion through one family who, in successive generations, sought answers to both the public and personal aspects of religion. Despite the vast differences between the family’s circumstances and those of most Americans, Georgini uses their journeys to tell the story of white Anglo-American religious development: “Puritans ceding to Congregationalists, a bend toward Unitarian ideology at mid-century, capped by Victorian neurasthenia and the angst of modernity” (p. 199).

The Adamses engaged in continual exploration at home and abroad, sampling new faiths and denominations, and measuring their own religious heritage against the unfamiliar—opportunities created by their positions as politically and economically successful figures in the young nation. “America’s first family,” as Georgini calls them, were actually shaped most by the time they spent abroad. She paints a picture of successive Adams generations that embraced travel as a way of exploring different faith traditions, sampling and evaluating a variety of faith traditions while measuring their own inherited Congregationalism against these varied practices. Bigger questions about the relative importance of community and individualism are raised but not answered, perhaps appropriate for a story about a family of seekers.

Georgini is able to analyze the religious lives of the Adams family in part because of the voluminous family papers preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where she works as one of the collection’s editors. The challenge of using a famous, affluent family for this kind of project, however, is that they may not be representative of other families, not only in how they approached their relationships with each other but also in their self-conscious consideration of their family’s heritage in a changing religious and political landscape. Georgini argues that the Adams men pursued a dual project of developing their own individual faiths while preserving and honoring the memory of their famous ancestors. The book highlights these two sometimes-contradictory projects in five chapters, each one providing a religious biography of a member of the Adams family that explains how intellectual currents, religious developments, social change, and individual experience combined in their religious explorations.

From the Quincy, Mass., Postcard Collection, Thomas Crane Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

The first chapter describes the role of religion in precipitating the English farmer Henry Adams’s migration to Massachusetts in 1633 and then skips several generations to discuss how John Adams (1735–1826) understood that heritage and embraced Congregationalism as a foundation for “weathering periods of change” through his long political career (p. 21). Later generations would push against this heritage, but for John, his faith was a lens through which to see his service to the new country. John and Abigail Adams found utility in Providentialism, the idea that God took an active hand in events on Earth, while also embracing scientific reason and Enlightenment thought. When John served as a diplomat in London and Paris, the couple explored foreign expressions of Christianity, sampling services in Protestant and Catholic churches and using religion as a way of interpreting other cultures. It was this sense of Christianity as a method for inquiry that provided a blueprint for future generations of Adamses.

John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) followed in his father’s footsteps as a politician and president, but unlike his father, John Quincy married outside his faith. He and his Anglican wife Louisa Catherine made a hobby of “sampling and evaluating new religions” (p. 48). John Quincy believed that pluralistic Protestant Christianity provided an important foundation for the developing nation, going so far as to buy pews in churches representing four different denominations. During his lifetime, he and other Americans drifted away from an insistence on a predestined elect and embraced instead a faith that emphasized individual experience and free will.

John Quincy’s third son Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886) was an “openly apathetic Christian” (p. 87). Like his parents, he and his wife Abby had different religious commitments and attended different churches. In the Adams family tradition, Charles Francis conducted religious inquiry through a busy travel itinerary that saw him visiting Catholics in Canada, exploring religious experience at Niagara Falls, observing the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo, and attending Anglican services in England. He drew on these experiences as he sought to understand the place of religion in American life during a period of change. Georgini paints Charles as “the family’s last providentialist” whose disillusionment with the “commoditization of Christianity” led him to question the place of religion in America in a way his father and grandfather had not (p. 116).

The fourth chapter examines the religious journey of historian Henry Adams (1838–1918) and his “rogue departure” from previous generations’ embrace of Christianity and republicanism. By the time Henry was born, the family’s wealth was secure enough that he was able to embrace extensive foreign travel without any qualms about expense, and with his wife Clover, he took a Grand Tour, an extended trip around Europe that was traditional for British elites, to study and understand religion. Henry’s scholarship focused on the role of women in the history of religion even as he lost his wife and travel partner when Clover committed suicide in 1885. Henry used his travels and scholarly inquiries to support the arguments he made to and about an increasingly unchurched nation. Previous generations had returned to organized religion after their religious adventures, but Henry never did, remaining a dedicated and prominent skeptic, firm in the belief that both Christianity and republicanism were “too ruined to salvage” (p. 162).

In the final chapter, Georgini turns to Henry’s younger brother Brooks (1848–1927), who began as an agnostic but eventually embraced the family’s once-default Congregationalism. Brooks’s reliance on science and his belief that increasingly specialized knowledge was more useful than Christianity in the search for truth mirrored changes happening within his generation, particularly among his socio-economic peers. He wrote two books about the intersection of religion and social development, presenting puritans like Cotton Mather as “villains” and arguing for religion’s role in “civilization’s downfall” (p. 189). Eventually, however, Brooks came to embrace the organized religion he had previously criticized and publicly joined the Quincy church that had once nurtured his ancestors.

From the Quincy, Mass., Postcard Collection, Thomas Crane Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Despite the framework of family religion and classical republicanism, several other prominent themes emerge that are perhaps more important to Georgini’s story. First, it was their travels more than their family relationships or their public roles that shaped the Adamses’ religious ideas and practices. The Adams men rejected European historical faiths even as they continued to look there for answers. The book also describes a religious seeking that focused intensely on sensory experience. Exploring other faiths and denominational practices meant surrendering to the effects of music, incense, grand architecture, colorful stained glass windows, hymns, and oratory.

Georgini also argues that the Adams men were engaged in a project to define their own family history as part of a national myth. Beginning with John Adams’s embrace of his family’s puritan past, these public figures continually wrestled with how they should understand their own religious beliefs and their family’s religious heritage in a rapidly changing world. But the book also tells the story of men reckoning with the burden of filiopiety–reverence for one’s ancestors–and seeking ways to embrace their collective past while staking out individual paths. For Georgini, doubt and criticism were as much a part of the Adams men’s faith as belief. She argues that Christianity was “pivotal” in shaping “decisions great and small about the course of the American republic that they served for three centuries” but the majority of the book focuses not on the men who served as president but on their descendants, who wrestled with finding their place in a nation that had moved on from genericclomid their family’s service (p. 2).

While Georgini is clearly deeply immersed in the intellectual currents that surrounded the Adams men, grounding the narrative more deeply in these currents and the broader events that shaped the young nation would have made this much easier going for a non-specialist. Georgini seems most comfortable when discussing the Adams men who were not politicians, the nineteenth-century generations that struggled with the effects of market capitalism and Civil War, and it is here that the book hits its stride. Particularly in the chapter about Henry Adams, her enthusiasm shines through and she skillfully blends the broader narrative of American history with her story about his religious turmoil. Her discussion of Henry’s Grand Tour provides needed context for his travels and draws sharp contrasts between his explorations and previous generations’ religious curiosity. She also usefully shows the widely disparate effects of the Civil War on Henry and his brother Charles. While Henry was in England writing about the war for a public audience from a place of comfort and safety, Charles wrote letters home from the front where he was in continual danger. In other places, her whirlwind tour of nineteenth-century intellectual trends is strangely divorced from events. More reflection on the effects of national events on these men would have provided welcome context in other chapters.

The title of the book refers to the Adams’s “household gods,” small busts of six classical figures that were passed from father to son and that served as “republican talismans” for generations of Adams men. These statuettes were “always guarding” the family’s bibles and papers and represented the intersection of republicanism and faith that shaped and challenged both these men and the nation they inhabited. It is remarkable, then, that the household plays little part in her analysis. This is a story about the minds and lives of men who were related to each other but it gives only cursory attention to the household labor and emotional entanglements that distinguish family from lineage.

The histories of families and religion bridge the artificial divide typically erected between public and private activities. Just as the influence of religion is not confined inside the church or meetinghouse, neither is the influence of family limited to the home. Religion is at once interior and performative, encompassing both belief and practice. It influences public life, shaping definitions of citizenship, culture, and belonging. It is a belief system and also an institution, one that has shaped and been shaped by other intellectual and social currents. Family too has public significance, despite cultural understandings that family is what happens “behind closed doors.”  Family relationships have public significance no less important than intellectual networks. The home is often where young people first encounter not only religion and education but also family history and articulations of duty, where gender roles are shaped and values are defined. Family and religion, then, can be powerful lenses through which to understand public life and help to further dissolve that fuzzy boundary between public and private life in American history.

From the Quincy, Mass., Postcard Collection, Thomas Crane Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

My repeated use of the phrase “Adams men” is quite deliberate. Georgini’s analysis centers on the members of the family who “left behind the greatest archival evidence for religious biography,” which may be why it skews toward prominent men rather than their wives, sisters, or daughters (p. 2). Georgini raises tantalizing questions about how the married Adamses interacted and negotiated their faiths, but we learn little, for instance, about how they navigated their interdenominational marriages other than that they went to different churches on Sunday. How might changing expectations for married women, including the much-discussed hardening of a “separate spheres” ideology and the rise of the “cult of domesticity,” have influenced the ways that the Adams women understood their roles in a changing religious landscape? In a book purportedly about family, the family ties and connections that bound the Adamses to each other are often relegated to the background. Off-hand references to family tragedies such as illness, accidents, and miscarriages are left unexplored, along with their effects on the religious outlooks of those who suffered them. I would like to have seen more about how family relationships worked in the context of religion rather than just how being part of the family influenced religious choices, which would have made the women more prominent actors in this drama.

These questions, and the ones that animate Georgini’s book, may not be what readers expect when picking up a book on the famous Adamses. But Household Gods is not written primarily for non-specialists and at times Georgini’s fluency with religious and intellectual history can make this hard going for the casual reader. The biggest challenge will be the lack of definitions for some of the terminology Georgini uses to describe religious developments. Those who do not spend all of their days reading about early American religion may be stymied by undefined terms such as Arminianism, Calvinism, “millennial faith,” and “double predestination,” while those who are unfamiliar with the political, cultural, and economic history of the nineteenth century may struggle with references to market capitalism or belles-lettres.

A steeper challenge for non-specialists, though, is understanding the historical debates embedded in her analysis. References to self-fashioning, words like “providentialism,” or a sentence about lay authority might have decades of historical debate packed into them. These conversations among historians can be invisible to non-experts but are vital for understanding how Georgini positions the history of the Adams family within the broader currents of historical scholarship. In other cases, she sidesteps debates that may be of most interest to non-specialist readers and those interested in the Founding Fathers, in particular the question of whether the United States is or was a “Christian nation.” As a result, this could be a frustrating book for those seeking more information about the Adams family but who may not have the deep background in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history that Georgini obviously does.

But Household Gods does offer rewards to non-specialist readers who are willing to supplement their reading with dives into her footnotes and perhaps into some of the texts she cites there. Georgini has produced a work of intellectual history that is not a dry catalog of thought but instead an intimate portrait of men who struggled with loss, disappointment, grief, and the heavy weight of their family legacy. The book shows how the religious searching that characterized their spiritual lives reflected both this legacy and the tools offered by intellectual currents of their time. This is not a sweeping global family history on the scale of Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, nor is it a history of familial political networks like those found in Catherine Allgor’s Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Instead, it offers a series of intellectual mini-biographies that map onto broader currents in American history, a point of entry for those interested in learning more about national culture during this vital period of development.

In the end, the “American religion” found in this story is one of searching, of dissatisfaction, of emotion and aesthetics as much as theology and belief, and of a seeking available to the Adamses because of their cultural and economic privilege. These are men who sought but largely failed to find comfort in their faith but sometimes found it in their nation. They saw their Congregational heritage as the foundation of values needed for Christian republicanism but did not advocate a nation or a national culture that precluded other ways of achieving these ends. While the book is not always successful in answering the questions it raises, Georgini points to an exciting way that we can try to understand the intertwined histories of the family, religion, and nation.

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