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Reviewed by:
  • Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family by Sara Georgini
  • Daniel Walker Howe (bio)
Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family. By Sara Georgini. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2019. Pp. 284. Cloth, $34.95.)

Sara Georgini identified an excellent subject for a book on the religious lives of the presidential Adams family, from their Puritan ancestors to the childless families of Henry and Brooks Adams at the turn of the twentieth century. As series editor for the multivolume Papers of John Adams, she certainly acquired a sense of the extent and value of the family's private papers across the nineteenth century. She is particularly interested in the relationship between Christianity and American democracy in the Adamses' minds. Her professed goal in the book is to show that the Adamses were representative Americans of their day and that their evolving religious beliefs typify those of their countrymen.

Georgini's choice of title seems to me not an entirely happy one. The [End Page 567] "household gods" was a facetious family nickname for a set of six little bronze busts of masters of classical literature (Cicero, Homer, Plato, Virgil, Socrates, and Demosthenes) that John Quincy Adams purchased in Paris in 1815. These pagan "household gods" illustrate the respect for classical learning and literary facility in the Adams family, but not their respect for Christian religion, which Georgini rightly emphasizes in her book.

The nineteenth-century Adams family functioned within the Unitarian religious denomination. It would have been helpful if the author had told her readers more about this denomination, how it evolved within Congregationalism, how it found an institutional home for itself at Harvard (as Congregationalism did at Yale), and how nineteenth-century Unitarianism was much more overtly Christian than the Unitarian denomination is today. Massachusetts had a state establishment of religion until 1833, and after Unitarianism separated from Congregationalism, each community could choose which of the two would be the established one. Where the Adams family members stood on the establishment issue would have been interesting to learn. Georgini could have looked at the works of Conrad Wright the elder for relevant guidance on nineteenth-century Unitarianism in its social and cultural as well as theological aspects.

The Adamses supported important social-reform issues in the nineteenth century. Georgini is good on Abigail Adams and women's rights but says little about that issue in other generations. Did the Adamses lose interest in it? If so, why? She acknowledges John Quincy's antislavery stances and their profoundly religious motivations, but doesn't convey much appreciation for their heroic quality. Why no mention of JQA's stance on Andrew Jackson's policy of "Indian removal" to west of the Mississippi? This was a religious issue, and the opposition to Indian removal was led by the Protestant ministers who served as missionaries to the Indians. She thinks the temperance advocates provided a confused "mixed message" by serving wine at their meetings (91), evidently not realizing that in its early days the movement literally embraced temperance—that is, moderation—rather than total abstinence.

Georgini consistently seeks to portray the Adams family as typical Americans of their time with typical opinions and religious views. She is certainly right that nineteenth-century Americans—especially in New England—rooted U.S. patriotism in Christian religion. In many ways, however, I was not persuaded. The Adamses were much better educated [End Page 568] and far more cosmopolitan than their average fellow countrymen. Emotional, evangelical, revival Protestantism played a huge role in the issues of their time, including slavery, temperance, public education, asylums for the mentally ill, women's rights, and above all, the Civil War. This kind of religion remained quite alien to the Adamses. The Democratic Party, despite its wide popularity, was almost always their adversary. I was startled to learn that John Quincy Adams II chose to align with the Democratic side in state politics (135) and couldn't help wondering why. The Adamses were in the forefront of trends toward applying science to religion rather than typifying the American attitudes of their age.

I was so pleased that Sara Georgini does a fine job analyzing the writings...


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