I got an email from Joe Talmadge, a physicist at UW-Madison on the context of the following letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson which features the "awful blasphemy" quote that is sometimes/often repeated.
Recently I came across this quote from John Adams and I am genuinely puzzled as to what it means.
It's from Adams' letter to Jefferson, January 22, 1825.
"Your university is a noble employment in your old age and your ardor for its success does you honor but I do not approve of your sending to Europe for tutors and professors. I do believe there are sufficient scholars in America to fill your professorships and tutorships with more active ingenuity and independent minds than you can bring from Europe. The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices both ecclesiastical and temporal which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschell's universe, came down to this little ball to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world."
I know who Herschel and Newton are, but I am puzzled what Adams is driving at. Here are a few questions:
1- What "great Principle" is Adams talking about?
2- How would Adams characterize Newton's and Hershel's universe?
3- I presume that "this little ball" is the Earth. How did this "great Principle" come down to the Earth.
4- Why in the world would it be "spit upon by Jews"? How would Adams characterize Jewish theology?
5- What prejudices does Adams perceive of Europeans, that they are so tainted with?
6- Am I wrong in perceiving that Adams is sympathetic with Newton and Hershel?
Then why would Europeans be so opposed to their ideas? Why would American scholars be more sympathetic?
7- What "awful blasphemy" is Adams talking about?
8- What is "liberal science"? As opposed to ....?
I'm not sure how to answer all 8 questions (perhaps I'll let my readers do some of the work for me). However, I always assumed the "awful blasphemy" refers to the Trinity, because many other scholars read the passage that way. And apparently (?) Adams is worried that the Europeans Jefferson is trying to recruit will be too orthodox? I would have thought Adams -- a more moderate unitarian than Jefferson -- might be worried that Jefferson's European recruits would be too deistic. But it seems Adams is going in the other direction.
I don't know anything about Hershel but Adams and company loved Issac Newton (one of the first Enlightenment figures) and the rational scientific unitarian Christianity that Newton stood for.
The reader followed up with two other messages:
What I find puzzling is that if "awful blasphemy" refers to the Trinity, then it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the sentence before it. To me it appears he is contrasting the boundless universe of Newton and Herschel to a worldview that focuses only on what is happening on the Earth. Maybe I'm just not seeing how the Trinity folds into this. And why would Jews spit on this view? Did Jews of his time have a more expansive view of the universe? I can't imagine so. If the blasphemy was about the Trinity, then yes, Jews wouldn't agree with a Trinitarian view of religion. But they would reject all of Christian doctrine anyway --- why just pick on the Trinity? The whole thing is quite puzzling to me.
Going back to the quote, "They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschell's universe, came down to this little ball to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world."
William Herschel was a brilliant astronomer and musician. But he had his quirks. One of them was his belief that the universe was full of life -- that life existed even on the surface of the sun.
Could Adams be possibly saying that Europeans believe that in this great and infinite universe brimming with life everywhere, god, the great principle which made all this, picked of all places this little speck of dust, Earth, that lies in the great vastness, to send his son to be spit upon by Jews? The blasphemy is the concept that god would pick this one spot to show up in mortal form. And until this blasphemy is removed, the progress of science will be hindered.
I admit that this is far-fetched, doesn't accord with anything else I know of Adams, but yet it seems to be an explanation that makes sense (to me) based on what I'm reading. I'd be interested to hear what you think.
Honestly I don't know other than it seems J. Adams is ranting about disagreements he had with orthodox Christians in Europe. Doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and Eternal Damnation really rubbed Adams the wrong way.