“Search the Scriptures!”: Recommended Reading from John Quincy Adams
American Bible Society honors President John Quincy Adams who served as the 6th president of the United States and vice president of ABS for 30 years.
This Presidents’ Day, American Bible Society celebrates the life of John Quincy Adams, who served as the sixth president of the United States and vice president of American Bible Society for more than 30 years.
Throughout his life, Adams immersed himself in God’s Word. His famous diary—which spans more than 15,000 pages, 51 volumes, and 68 years—details the Bible’s role in guiding his decisions and comforting his soul. His writings also provide us with a helpful example of how to approach God’s Word in our own lives.
Treasure God’s Word
In 1838, Adams received a request from a Baltimore literary society. Its members wished to know what the former president and current congressman would recommend for them to read. Adams wrote a response that upheld God’s Word as “[t]he first, and almost the only book, deserving such universal recommendation.” While he described himself as a “student for life” who loved to learn, he had a deep reverence for the Bible that began in his early childhood.
Born in 1767, John Quincy Adams was certainly his father’s son. The elder Adams once described the Bible as containing “the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy that ever was conceived upon earth.” He and his wife, Abigail, made certain that all of their children grew up reading God’s Word and valuing its teachings.
John Quincy Adams’s early years were full of unusual adventures. He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill at the age of seven and survived a treacherous sea voyage to France with his father in 1778. It was in Europe that he began the task of “journalizing,” a habit he would continue for the rest of his life. He filled his diary with descriptions of his days, sometimes referencing favorite passages of Scripture or describing sermons he heard on Sundays.
When he returned to the United States in 1785, Adams became a lawyer and started his family. He later served as an ambassador and secretary of state for the young nation and gained a reputation for his skill in handling foreign diplomacy. In 1818, American Bible Society named Adams as vice president. He would serve in this role for the next 30 years.
Pursue Biblical Justice
Adams’s political beliefs were guided by biblical values of liberty and justice, and he quickly became known for his strongly held opinions. Nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent,” he often clashed with his fellow congressmen over the issue of slavery. In 1836, pro-slavery congressmen introduced a “gag rule” to silence Adams and other abolitionists. Adams fought against the rule for the next eight years until it was repealed.
In 1841, Adams famously represented a group of 53 kidnapped West Africans from the Mendi tribe before the Supreme Court. The captives, who rebelled against the crew of La Amistad on their voyage to Cuba, were ultimately freed and allowed to return to their homeland. Before departing, they presented Adams with a Bible and a note of gratitude, writing that God’s Word “had been a precious book in prison” which they now “love to read,” as free men. They also promised to bring the good news of the Bible back to the Mendi tribe. Adams replied: “it was from [the Bible] that I learnt to espouse your cause when you were in trouble, and to give thanks to God for your deliverance.”
Find Comfort in Scripture
The Bible was more than a moral compass for Adams. Just a few short weeks after his presidency ended, his eldest son, George, died suddenly. Adams’s diary entries give a heartbreaking view into the family’s shock and grief. In the days following George’s death, Adams’s prayers often found their way into his diary:
Blessed God! forgive the repining of mortal flesh, at this mysterious dispensation of thy will! forgive the wanderings of my own mind under its excruciating torture! have compassion upon the partner of my Soul; … Teach her and me; to bear thy holy will; and to bless thy name.
As he sought God’s comfort, Adams recounted how his prayers were answered:
I walked this afternoon round the square at the back of the College, and in the deepest anguish of my Soul, saw a Rainbow suddenly spread before me. It touched my heart by no superstitious fancy, but by an association of ideas, as an admonition to trust in the goodness and mercy of God.
There would be more grief to bear—Adams outlived three of his four children—but his enduring faith remained a hallmark of his diary and life.
View God’s Word as a Light for the Future
In his reply to the Boston literary society, Adams laid out the pattern for reading Scripture that he’d followed his whole life:
The Bible is the book, of all others, to be read at all ages, and in all conditions of human life; not to be read once or twice or thrice through, and then to be laid aside, but to be read in small portions of one or two chapters, every day…
As “a man of the world,” Adams pointed out the Bible’s useful historical context and its value for social relationships. However, for him, its true value was far greater:
This attentive and repeated reading of the Bible, in small portions every day, leads the mind to habitual meditation upon subjects of the highest interest to the welfare of the individual in this world, as well as to prepare him for that hereafter to which we are all destined.
He challenged the literary society—and all who read his letter today—to “Search the Scriptures!”, promising that, if studied regularly, the Bible would “spread floods of light upon every step you shall ever afterwards take.”
- “6 Quotes About the Bible from the Founding Fathers.” American Bible Society Blog. https://news.americanbible.org/blog/entry/corporate-blog/6-quotes-about-the-bible-from-the-founding-fathers
- “The John Quincy Adams Digital Diary.” Massachusetts Historical Society. https://www.masshist.org/publications/jqadiaries/index.php
- “John Quincy Adams Kept a Diary and Didn’t Skimp on the Details.” Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/john-quincy-adams-kept-diary-and-didnt-skimp-details-180964011/
- “A Vision of Justice: John Quincy Adams.” The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center. https://faithandliberty.org/visions/john-quincy-adams
- “Letter from Hon. John Quincy Adams.” American Quarterly Register, Vol 12 (Boston: American Education Society, 1840), 86–87. https://archive.org/details/americanquarterl12amer/page/86/mode/1up
- “John Quincy Adams.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Quincy-Adams/Second-career-in-Congress
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