Like a Whale through a Net

Besides serving as the second President of the United States (1797-1801), John Adams was in many other ways a pivotal figure in the founding of his nation. As a delegate to the Continental Congress and the author of the Massachusetts Constitution (on which the national one was later modeled), Adams understood the American experiment at least as well as any other person of his time. As Adams saw it, the American people faced a stark choice: esteem and embrace godly virtue and thrive or cast it away and decline.

Several years ago my wife and I read David McCullough’s best seller, John Adams. It ranks as one of our all-time favorites. This was followed by the HBO film series which in our humble opinion couldn’t compare with the book. While the film portrayed Adams as a crotchety throw back to the puritans, it failed to develop his biblically informed conviction and insight. The following quote is one such example.

“While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation [that is, hypocrisy] towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practicing iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.1”


1 “Adams to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798,” in Works of John Adams, vol. 9 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1854), 228-229.

Share this article on…

More Articles

Our Basic Need

In her first novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character Hazel Motes that “there was a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that

Read More »

Models of the Church

When I was in seminary, Professor Rick Lints made a memorable statement. After lecturing on the Reformation’s conception of salvation, he asserted that “This generation

Read More »

The Crux of Gospel Preaching

The acclaimed Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti was a nervous wreck before every performance. Perhaps this would be the day that he would finally fail?

Read More »