November 16, 2008


Freedom Fighters: What Samuel Adams learned from the Jewish story (Ira Stoll, 11/12/08, Nextbook)

The Congregationalist Protestant Christianity Samuel Adams practiced was less distant in its trappings from Judaism than are many forms of modern-day Christianity. One of the places Adams worshipped, Old South Church in Boston, still stands today. A visitor there can't help but be struck by the absence of Christian imagery. There are no crosses, no crucifixes, no Madonnas. The Massachusetts Congregationalists shared with the Jews an aversion to graven images. And that was not all they shared. Samuel Adams, one of the most significant moving spirits behind the American Revolution, was related to and influenced by Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in Boston and one-time head of Harvard College. Mather, in his 1726 book Faithful Account of the Discipline Professed and Practiced in the Churches of New England, cited Jewish practice as a guide, though not law, on everything from how many congregants were required for a new church (“The Jews of old held, that less than Ten Men of Leisure, could not make a Congregation”), to the reading of scripture aloud on the Lord’s day (“The Pentateuch was divided into fifty four Parashoth, or Sections, which they read over in the Synagogue every year”).

Part of the required curriculum for Harvard students from 1735 to 1755, which includes the time Samuel Adams was there, was the study of Hebrew grammar from a textbook written by Judah Monis, who had converted to Christianity from Judaism one month before joining the Harvard faculty. One of Adams’s nicknames, "the psalm-singer," refers to the joy he took in singing texts that are part of the Jewish Bible. Even the names Samuel Adams gave to his children—Hannah and Samuel—could have easily belonged to Jews.

But the link between Samuel Adams, the strand of New England Congregationalism he personified, and Judaism goes well beyond the formal or stylistic, extending into the ideology and rhetoric that motivated Adams and his fellow New Englanders against the British. Again and again, both subtly and directly, Adams placed the American colonists in the role of the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt, and likened the British to the oppressive Egyptians.

Writing in the Boston Gazette on August 8, 1768, Adams referred to the British as “taskmasters,” a term the Bible uses to describe the Egyptians. Earlier, he had referred to the Stamp Act as “a very grievous & we apprehend unconstitutional tax,” echoing the language Exodus uses to describe the “very grievous” hail, cattle disease, and locust plagues. From Philadelphia, Adams wrote home to Massachusetts that the heart of the British King, George III, “is more obdurate, and his Disposition towards the People of America is more unrelenting and malignant than was that of Pharaoh towards the Israelites in Egypt.” In a speech to his fellow members of the Continental Congress, Adams is said to have credited God with providing the Americans a “cloud by day and pillar of fire by night,” which had, according to the Bible, also guided the Israelites in the wilderness after Egypt.

In a private letter on December 26, 1775, Adams wrote of the people of Massachusetts, “Certainly the People do not already hanker after the Onions & the Garlick!” It was a reference to Numbers 11:5, which recounts the restless Israelites in the desert, complaining to Moses about the manna, and recalling wistfully the food back in Egypt: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.

When, after the Revolution, Adams became governor of Massachusetts, one of the annual election day sermons went so far as to Adams to Moses. “Moses affords such an example to human governors. He was wont to apply to God for direction, in guiding his refractory people,” Samuel Deane preached to Adams, one of the more religious of a set of founders that included some famous skeptics.

Adams was not alone in linking the Israelites to the Americans.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2008 6:33 AM
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