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  • The Triumph of the CrossPresident John Quincy Adams, Archbishop John Baptist Purcell, and the Reclamation of Cincinnati’s Mount Adams as a Sacred Site
  • C. Walker Gollar (bio)

In 1843, former president John Quincy Adams left Massachusetts to lay the cornerstone for an observatory in Cincinnati, Ohio. Newspapers covered his every move. Adams considered the cornerstone-laying ceremony the most memorable achievement of his life—an astounding claim from someone who had negotiated the 1812 Peace Treaty of Ghent, led the antislavery movement in the United States, and restored free speech in Congress, all the while serving beside George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. The Cincinnati Astronomical Society published Adams’s cornerstone-laying remarks, along with the address Adams had delivered the next day. The society also voted to name the hill on which the observatory was built Mount Adams.

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John Quincy Adams (1767–1848). library of congress

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Despite all the coverage of Adams’s visit to Cincinnati, some people debated what the man actually had said. A few Catholics specifically charged that Adams had unduly assaulted the Catholic Church. Adams’s alleged slurs contributed to the building of Mount Adams’s Immaculata Church and inspired one of the oldest Catholic pilgrimages in the country, the Good Friday praying of the steps leading up to Immaculata. The way people remembered his Cincinnati visit often pitted natural against revealed theology. At the heart of the story stands one significant question: what role does God play in everyday human affairs? But a careful review of the entire historical record, beginning with Adams’s early thoughts on the Catholic Church, reveals that the conflict played out more as a feud between Adams and the local bishop, John Baptist Purcell; was dependent on various social and cultural developments, many of which occurred well after the actual events of 1843; and was derived more from sectarian prejudice than scientific controversy.1

From an early age, Adams certainly exhibited suspicion toward the Catholic Church. As a boy traveling through Europe from 1778 to 1785, he was extremely curious about many things, especially Catholicism. He blamed the poverty of one Spanish town on the greed of Catholic priests and mocked Catholic piety he observed. In what Adams identified as “one of the most revered ceremonies of the Romish Religion,” every person in Paris, including the king, “fell on their knees and began to mutter prayers and cross themselves” after a little bell announced that a priest was carrying through town le bon dieu, that is, “the good god,” or the Eucharist. Not believing that God was truly present in the Eucharist, Adams remained standing.2

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John Baptist Purcell (1767–1848). Fifty Years in a Brown County Convent, (Anonymous Author), 1895

Never much of a churchgoer, as an adult Adams tried to maintain some religious affiliation, especially to the Congregational Church of his New England upbringing. When there was no Congregational Church where he happened to live, he occasionally attended other services, such as the baptism of his children at an Anglican Church. Not until the strain of another difficult pregnancy—his wife, Louisa, suffered numerous miscarriages—did Adams, in about 1801, begin to exhibit much enthusiasm for spiritual matters. In search of consolation, he devoured the simple sermons of Anglican archbishop John Tillotson of Canterbury. Though Tillotson was even more anti-Catholic than Adams, he also encouraged a general spirit of religious tolerance, which undoubtedly contributed to Adams’s eventual assertion that there were many ways to be a Christian. [End Page 49] Inspired by Tillotson, Adams adopted the practice of reading the Bible cover to cover every year, which he observed for the rest of his life. He occasionally entertained higher theological questions, such as those concerning heaven and hell, but he generally focused on this world, most often considering Christianity a sound “guide to morality.”3

Adams also grew to believe that the natural world revealed God’s glory better than did pious acts of devotion. While serving as U.S. minister to Russia from 1809 to 1814, he marveled over the stars as...