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Finding Household Gods: A CLA Primary Source Playlist

Sara Georgini, Historian and Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams


Where do you go to trace how presidents prayed? When I was researching Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, I headed for the Congregational Library & Archives’ trove of primary and secondary sources to illuminate 300 years’ worth of religion at home and abroad. Thanks to the wealth of love letters and state secrets preserved in the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, we know that John and Abigail Adams of Quincy--and their descendants--operated at the heart of political power.

What can we say of their inner lives of belief? Fascinated by faith and less invested in mastering theology, they used religion as a key to access other cultures and to make lasting connections between family life and public service.

Here’s a playlist of 5 sources at the CLA that challenged what I knew and shaped my scholarship.

  1. Let’s start with . . . a scandal! One of my all-time favorite CLA catalog subject headings is “Church of England-Controversial Literature.” Go ahead and click! William Laud, powerful archbishop of Canterbury, led the Church of England’s fierce reaction to fresh forms of Christianity, like Puritanism, during the social and cultural tumult of the 17th century. Laud’s sweeping reforms spurred the emigration of the English Adamses and their friends to America. Then, fortune and royal favor turned against him. Learn all about his doctrine, his alleged treason, and his time in Laud's Tower in The History of the Troubles and Tryal of William Laud.
  2. With the American colonies tipping toward revolution, what did women and men like the Adamses really know of their Puritan forebears? When Braintree’s star lawyer, John Adams, penned his Novanglus letters in 1774–1775, he turned to the past for a political assist. Adams believed that the Puritans offered a sterling example of intellectuals who defied royal oppression thanks to timely providential aid. This idea, that an omniscient God turned the pages of history and intervened in human events, powered American revolutionaries questing for independence.
  3. Next stop, early republic. Liberal Congregationalist John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, wed the Anglican Louisa Catherine Johnson in 1797. They explored foreign faiths abroad, stocking the Stone Library shelves with Bibles in Hawaiian, Latin, French, Spanish, and English. Whenever they returned to the family’s ancestral home of New England, they eagerly sampled different churches and used their diaries to spin out spiritual reflections or critique sermons. For a snapshot of the dynamic Congregational world in this moment, check out the records, journals, and local biographies that bloom to life in New England’s Hidden Histories.
  4. When Civil War splintered the nation, related questions of faith and Providence magnetized Americans like Charles Francis Adams and his wife, Abigail Brooks Adams, to explore faith. Blending together manuscripts, family memories, and material culture, I reconstructed the kind of Christian space that Abigail created at Peacefield (now the Adams National Historical Park). She prominently displayed a gilded Bible in the foyer as a welcoming signpost to visitors. She kept old Dutch fireplace tiles that taught scripture stories at a child’s height during cozy nights. And when winter closed in, freezing out their best intentions to walk to church, Abigail led the family in singing hymns and reciting prayers. More than once, I turned for reference to Colleen McDannell’s Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900, and I eavesdropped on the past thanks to Susan S. Tamke’s Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord: Hymns as a Reflection of Victorian Social Attitudes.
  5. As a new century swept in, modern descendants of the Adams clan, like historians Henry and Brooks, traveled widely and investigated Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist practices and beliefs. They mined religion to understand what it said about the course of the past, and to project what might come next in the American Century. To see how and why 20th-century Protestant elites grappled with Puritan ancestry (real and imagined), I sought out CLA’s deep holdings on the cultural politics of Puritan memory studies. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth’s The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past supplied rich source leads. A quick scan of the CLA’s catalog unveiled plenty of promising research webs between the rhetorical systems of commonwealths and covenants. For slightly competing views of religion’s future from John and Abigail’s decidedly cosmopolitan descendants, check out Brooks’ Emancipation of Massachusetts and medievalist Henry Adams’ true autobiography of the soul, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.

And! Visit the CLA reading room now, open by appointment, to get your own playlist humming.