Wednesday, January 21, 2009

John Adams on Catholic worship

I really like John Adams, from the little I know of him. One day I should read a biography, or his correspondence with Abigail Adams (she was a smart cookie too). He seems like one of the most admirable of the Founding Fathers. By the way, isn't it quaint and lovely that our country even has "Founding Fathers"? How many countries get to have founding fathers? Don't all you non-Americans feel like orphans now? :) Anyway, on October 9, 1774 when Adams was in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress, he and George Washington dropped by the Catholic Church, and he wrote to his wife about it:

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 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.

I think Adams' Puritan prejudice overcomes his reason here, but he's observant and I like how he doesn't just notice the details but analyzes their effect. Catholic ceremony does affect all the senses, I wouldn't say to bewitch the ignorant, but to help everyone to enter in to the spirit of worship. We're physical beings affected by physical reality. Much of what apparently seems suspect to Adams-- ritual and beauty and richness and incense and music-- was commanded by God for temple worship in the Old Testament. Why should anyone think we don't need it anymore? We're still human.

H/T Pertinactious Papist and Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive (follow the link for pictures of the original letter)


JimAroo said...

Perhaps that very good man John Adams didn't get it but maybe George did...see this link:

The story persists that George Washington converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. It is a fact that he had a "romish" devotion to Mary.
He also was sympathetic to Catholic causes.

Rachel Gray said...

Oh, that's interesting; I'd be glad to believe it because Washington is probably my favorite person in American history. He was amazingly humble.

John Adams might not have been as negative as I thought either. He never actually says he disapproves of all the Catholic stuff; rather, he calls it "awful and affecting", high compliments in his day. The positive things he says are all direct observations of the worship; the negative things are just assumptions he makes about the worshipers. And the negative stuff almost sounds like it's only there to reassure his wife that he's not changing his mind on Catholicism or anything. At least, I like that interpretation... :)