American History

Sara Georgini Publishes Religious History of the Adams Family

Sara Georgini is Series Editor for The Papers of John Adams and author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family (Oxford, 2019).

Sara Georgini is Series Editor for The Papers of John Adams and author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family (Oxford, 2019). Her book includes a fascinating account between Joseph Smith and Charles Francis Adams in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Who is Sara Georgini?

I am a native of Brooklyn, New York, and I earned my doctorate in history from Boston University. My Massachusetts Historical Society career began roughly a decade ago in the Library, and I jumped at the chance to join the Adams Papers editorial project staff. My background is in print journalism and early American history, so I was eager to learn the craft of historical editing. I worked full-time at the Adams Papers throughout my Ph.D., rising through the ranks to become series editor of The Papers of John Adams. As a public historian, I’m passionate about ensuring preservation and access to primary sources like the Adams Papers. We, the people, make the past.

I was fascinated by your conversation with Liz Covart in a podcast episode of Ben Franklin’s World. Describe the process of “tandem collation” used by the papers project and explain why it is important to preserving the voices of the original writers?

I’m so grateful to Liz Covart for giving us the chance to demystify the historical editing process in Episode 007 of Ben Franklin’s World, and to explain why what we do is vital for the creation of an authoritative text.

Under the Historical Society’s roof, we have more than a quarter of a million manuscript pages in the Adams Papers alone. Our access to those documents, entrusted to us by the very generous Adams family, means that we can work with original manuscripts every day. Once we’ve transcribed a document, we embark on a painstaking process to make sure that we’re publishing an accurate version of the author’s words.

During two rounds of tandem collation, a team of four editors reviews the original manuscript and the transcription, calling out capital letters, stray punctuation, grammatical quirks, and non-standard spelling. Spending three hours a day reading the Adamses out loud is a great way to get their voices off the page, and in your head. Try it!

When we collate, we pick up little things that illuminate what early American life was really like. We get to listen in on Abigail’s farming plans (including “cowcumbers” and “Sparigrass”). Also, I can get a real feel for how to storyboard the book, structuring each Papers of John Adams volume’s annotation around the letters’ major topics and the flow of correspondence. Collation helps us produce an authoritative text that is true to the author, and of aid to the scholar.

When did Sara Georgini first come up with the idea for Household Gods and how long has it taken to come to fruition? 

It’s been a 10-year adventure! When I first joined the Adams Papers, one of my first duties was transcribing portions of John Adams’ letterbooks. A single manuscript set my book in motion.

In a July 1812 dispatch to Benjamin Rush, Adams reflected on the importance of keeping up a Christian worldview in eventful and politically divisive times. “What has preserved this race of Adams’s in all their ramifications, in Such Numbers, health peace Comfort and Mediocrity?” he wrote. “I believe it is Religion. Without which they would have been Rakes Fops Sots Gamblers, Starved with hunger, frozen with Cold, Scalped by Indians &c &c &c been melted away and disappeared.”

About a month into my new job, routine transcription had yielded a new story for me to investigate. That’s how I thought of it—John Adams was throwing me a lead from 1812. For, far from disappearing, the Adamses contributed significantly to the intellectual and cultural life of the new nation. In order to understand how and why they did so for three centuries, I seized on John Adams’s cue: Follow the family history of religion.

If you’ve ever dug into family history research, you know how challenging it can be. We archive our memories and myths in so many different ways: letters, diaries, heirlooms, home movies, and more. The Adams family did that, too. And while their manuscripts make for  juicy reading, nothing beats seeing how they lived, in Quincy and around the world.

Thanks to the very patient and insightful National Park Service team, I spent plenty of time at the Adams National Historical Park, soaking up the family’s domestic world. Visit! Every room has a distinctive visual grammar. It’s loaded with beautifully preserved artifacts, paintings, furniture, and material culture.

But, for me, the Stone Library is a special spot. That’s where John Quincy Adams placed the six classical orator busts that he purchased in Napoleon’s Paris. 

They traveled to the White House, and back to the Quincy mantel, where they were affectionately known as the family’s “household gods.” Just like the mementoes that Virgil’s Aeneas swept up as talismans to bless his quest, the Adamses’ household gods symbolized their commitment to serve two causes: Christianity and the American republic. When Jazz Age visitors showed up in Quincy a century later, the family made sure the household gods were the first stop on the tour.

Why do you think “individual family stories of religious life in American history” are so rare?

One of my favorite challenges in writing Household Gods was experimenting with genre. I worked hard to mine family history resources in order to understand religious growth. After all, the home is a place where religious ideas are inherited and transformed. Families archive signs of faith and pass along religious memories.

From the colonial period to the 20th century, the home was the major site for religious education and devotion. That doesn’t make it an easy subject to find in the archives, and I think that may account for why it’s so rare. Fortunately, a subject as sacred and sensitive as religion was an open topic in Adams letters. Parents and siblings used it to signal personal or political growth. Take Abigail Adams, who deftly deployed faith and doubt in her writing. Her eloquence stemmed directly from the kind of religion that she experienced or created at home.

Something I have noticed, in talking about the project, is that readers are moved to share their own family histories and religious encounters. I’m delighted that Household Gods, a book about religious explorers, can lead to new dialogues about and between traditions.

Were the book’s main themes fairly obvious from the outset or were there important theses you added several years into the project?

It’s been a journey, following the Adamses’ adventures. Reading sources is the hardest thing we do, and this family’s archive is especially (gloriously!) deep and wide.

Diving in, I thought that some of the big turning points that we use in studying and teaching this period—like the rise and fall of evangelical awakenings; the clashes between Anglican and Congregationalist elites in early Boston; the transatlantic popularity of preachers and philanthropists—would show up as formative moments in the religious lives of the Adamses.

But they didn’t.

Instead, I learned that with regard to religion, local history can be epic.

It’s a small-town scandal, not a star revivalist, for example, that turned John Adams’ steps away from a career in the pulpit. Settling into the project, I had to rethink my sources and timeline. That helped me uncover some of the major themes, including religious tourism and toleration.

The archive that the Adamses built gradually took on a different shape for me, too. While the Adams Papers narrate the family’s interactions with some of the boldest-faced names in history, it’s always worth scrutinizing the less well-known figures who peopled their daily scene. When I went searching for examples of what we call “lived religion”—basically, how the Adamses chose to implement their faith between Sundays—then the way they treated their servants and tenants became just as vital for me to look at, as the public orations that they gave on the Fourth of July.

Word and action: They wove Christianity into both.

Was it liberating to write Household Gods in a narrative style as opposed to the purposefully dry and succinct annotations that are involved with your day job as a documentary editor? Did you ever struggle going back-and-forth between writing styles while balancing both writing projects?

Spending long days and late nights with the Adams families’ stories was a real pleasure. Yes, it also posed a unique challenge. That’s a big part of why I tackled the project.

Good annotation frames a source and supplies context. Narrative history calls for more intensive analysis. A documentary edition may cover a few months’ or years’ worth of correspondence; the subject’s profile emerges slowly. The Adamses may be in the foreground, but writing the story of Household Gods meant keeping pace with three centuries of American history, religion, and culture as it happened. I am grateful to all of my family, friends, and colleagues who read drafts and provided support.

What is your relationship with Harvard Divinity School’s David Holland and how did he influence Household Gods?

Thanks to my adviser Jon H. Roberts, who expertly guided a 300-year dissertation, I had the opportunity to workshop Household Gods in diverse professional networks. That’s how I met David Holland, who kindly served on my dissertation committee. At a critical juncture in my research path, David raised some questions that I really needed to hear, mainly about the significance of providentialism in the family’s religious outlook. Our conversations helped me to reshape the book’s opening.

Give us a sample of the different religious views held by members of the Adams family throughout the generations.

At home and abroad, the Adamses’ religion evolved as the new nation grew. The Adamses served as founders of a nation, and acted as lifelong seekers of religion. A closer look at the Adams family reveals how pivotal Christianity—as the different generations understood it—was in shaping their decisions great and small.

Christianity was the cultural language that Abigail Adams used to interpret her husband John’s political setbacks. Scripture armed their son John Quincy to act as parent, statesman, and antislavery advocate.

Unitarianism gave Abigail’s Victorian grandson Charles Francis the “religious confidence,” as he called it, to persevere in political battles on the Civil War home front.

By contrast, his son Henry found religion hollow and repellent when he compared it to modern science.

Christianity was the missing link that explained world economic ruin to Abigail’s great-grandson Brooks, a Gilded Age critic of capitalism and the lay prophet of two world wars. Constant globetrotters who documented their religious travels in words and images, the Adamses made a cosmopolitan Christianity that blended discovery and doubt.

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.”

How did the Adams family struggle to balance the sacred and secular in different generations? Were their challenges more representative or divergent from the standard American families during this time period? 

Over and across the generations, sacred and secular concerns overlapped in their thought. The Adamses were forthright about the pros and cons of staying within a Christian tradition as their political dynasty took off.

Something I didn’t count on finding was how much the Adamses worried that a life in public service might cause their faith to suffer. Take John Quincy’s tenure as the American minister in Russia, from 1809 to 1815. The painful fact that Adams and his wife Louisa spent nearly six years separated from two of their sons did not excuse them from the task of Christian parenting.

A throwaway line from one of young George Washington Adams’s letters in 1811 prompted great concern. His son’s fondness for reading aloud Bible chapters to his elderly aunt was laudable, John Quincy wrote, but it was not enough. The remedy was vintage Adams. For the next two years, John Quincy issued a series of pedantic and personal Letters on the Bible. He told his sons how they should read scripture, when to apply its lessons, and why it merited special distinction in world literature. This idea—of taking time to deepen faith no matter the world’s demands—took root in the family and encouraged their religious travels.

Many Americans have experimented with religion, but the Adamses lived at the heart of political power for more than a century. I wanted to know how they carved out belief. In a century marked by people, goods, and ideas on the move, they manufactured an eclectic brand of Christianity. Rewind through all that change flashing past, and it’s hard to know if there is such a category as a “standard” American family for us to study, then or now.

If you could go back in time and have a conversation about religion with two people from the book, who would you choose and what would you want to ask about?

Great question! We have just a few archival scraps to show for the life of the Puritan emigrants, Henry and Edith Adams.

So much of biography’s craft, as I am learning, relies on world-building. I’d love to sit down at their kitchen table in 1630’s rural England, and listen to their questions and plans for a new life in America.

What had they heard about the colonies?

How did they respond to epic religious change in their churches?

Once Henry and Edith crossed the ocean, where did they hope faith would lead them next?

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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