From all accounts John Adams was a product of a very godly Calvinistic heritage. As was the case for most of those living in colonial America, Adams lived and breathed in a society in which the Judeo-Christian worldview was the default structure for interpreting the events and happenings of the day. Many of his journals include reference to a “divine being” or to a guiding “Providence.” He even wrote against Thomas Jefferson when the latter cast aspersions on the Christian faith. There are, however, indicators that John Adams was more of Unitarian than a Christian. He felt the pressure at an early age to go into the ministry, but realized he did not want to wrangle over biblical passages. From my reading of John Adams, it appears he was appreciative of the Christian faith and even well-versed in Christian doctrine and history, but it was more of an appreciation for the faith of his fathers than an actual appropriation of that faith for himself. This in no way diminishes his earthly accomplishments or what we as pastors-in-training can learn from him. Below I will offer a brief biographical sketch and then draw one overarching leadership lesson from his life.
By all accounts John Adams led an extraordinary life. He was born on October 19, 1735. He was reared in a hardworking family from Braintree (a little town outside of Boston, Massachusetts). From an early age he exhibited a keen intellect. There came a point when Adams would beg his father to be allowed to till the land with him rather than attending a school that was dull and uninspiring. He attended Harvard University at the age of fifteen. There he excelled and upon graduation became a tutor. His intellectual prowess coupled with his confident personality came in useful when he sought a position under one of the foremost litigators of the day, James Otis. He learned much under Otis, and it served him well as he would in few years’ time be given the chance to defend a band of British soldiers who stood on trial for the shooting of protesting colonialists, later known as the Boston Massacre of 1770.
The rising mood of discontent in colonial America was not lost on Adams. In many ways the thoughts of revolution were already percolating in his mind for some time. As the age of 40 loomed near for Adams, he believed that the best was already behind him; he figured the rest would be downhill from there. Little did Adams know that he would find himself at the center of the revolution to come and become a central intellectual figure in the newly formed Continental Congress. It was Adams who suggested to the Congress that General George Washington, a valiant and accomplished soldier from Virginia, to command the nascent continental army. Additionally, it was Adams that prodded Thomas Jefferson to draft The Declaration of Independence. Adams was an instrumental figure not only in the events leading up to the war, but he was crucial in ensuring the success of the war. Through correspondence and many vote-wrangling with delegates from other colonies, Adams persevered in seeing the commitment to separation from England and support of the army remain steady and strong.
As the war came to a close in 1783, the country was now on the path to establish its own system of democracy. With the most votes, General George Washington was elected as first president of the United States. John Adams was the next runner-up with the most votes and thus became America’s first vice-president. (The voting structure we now have came at the ratification of the twelve amendment in 1804.) For the ambitious and vivacious man that Adams was, he found the vice-presidency to be a dry duty. He felt helpless, and yet saw it as a privilege and duty to serve his country in this role. After the end of Washington’s two terms as president, it was Adams who became America’s second president. By and large, I don’t think he was a good president. There were many failings in his leadership, most notably his signing of the “Alien and Sedition Acts” (1798). But no one could deny that he was a man of integrity who was committed to the success of the nation.
With the conclusion of his one-term in office, Adams retired and lived out the rest of his days with little fanfare or applause. He returned to his farm, the same farm at Braintree that he as a boy had wanted to till with his father in order to escape the unchallenging lectures at school. He kept a lively and frequent correspondence in his latter years with many of key leaders like him, including Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson. On July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—Adams died in his home. For a man who led a spirited life, full of patriotic verve and loyal sacrifice to America, it was indeed a fitting dénouement for Adams to die on the anniversary of his nation’s birth.
Leadership Lesson: Selfless Service for a Cause Greater Than Your Own
John Adams was a man who tirelessly gave of himself to anything he committed himself to, much of which can be traced back to the sturdy work ethic from his Puritan forebears. Adams endured many hardships in order to see through the success of the Revolutionary War. At various points during and after the war, Adams served as America’s ambassador to France, England and the Netherlands. The arduous transatlantic voyages that Adams journeyed on were nothing short of heroic. The dangers were many: enemy ships, merciless pirates, and the elements of wind, wave and rain that beat upon the vessels at sea. I believe Adams was willing to undergo such excruciating sacrifices to his life was because he saw the end goal to which he was committed: a free and independent United States of America.
For those of us in pastoral ministry we need to be reminded that we are laboring for a kingdom not of this world. We can all stand amazed at the level of commitment that Adams displayed for his country, but as Christians we must be willing to selflessly give of ourselves to the building of the kingdom of God as we serve and minister to others with the gospel. Our “indivisible” America will one day pass in a fleeting moment and give way to the city of the divine architect. This reality does not cause us to abdicate our responsibilities in the here-and-now, but it does put our priorities in proper perspective. It calls on us to examine what we are toiling and laboring for.
Some in this life are given immediate success in their ministries: people are coming to faith, sin is being viciously fought, evangelism is vibrant and genuine, and discipleship is taking place within healthy relationships. But there are those who hardly see any fruit for their labors in this life: few are believing, mockery seems to be the constant refrain, persecution is relentless, and Satan appears to have the upper hand. Ministry is tough. And at times the rewards for faithful gospel ministry are not received in this life. From the life of John Adams we learn that we must faithfully persevere in the task to which we have been called. We do this with the prior commitment to see it through. One of the most freeing and encouraging realities is that as pastors we already know the outcome: Christ will be victorious and we will reign with him. How can that not inspire our often discouraged hearts? In the life of John Adams we find a helpful antidote to that poisonous tendency and we’re encouraged to selflessly serve and persevere.
Source: David McCullough, John Adams. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2001.