Van Ens: A mom motivates son’s search for life’s meaning (column)
Helpful mothers nurture traits in their children that produce decent citizens. Abigail Adams bestowed on her young son John Quincy (1767-1848), who served as sixth U.S. president from 1825-29, two strengths: a purpose to pursue and a divine power to see life through.
Abigail urged John Quincy to sharpen life’s purpose by using his talents for the common good. In February 1778, she kissed her 10-year-old son goodbye when he sailed to France with her husband, John. Winter crossings of the Atlantic Ocean proved treacherous. Abigail opted to stay home near Boston with her other children. A nearly bankrupt U.S. government had commissioned her husband John to negotiate financial and military deals with the French.
Writing heart-to-heart letters to John Quincy, Abigail urged him to find purpose in virtuous conduct. Displaying a Puritan heritage, this mother worried that decadent French society would convert her son to its vulgarity.
Abigail reminded John Quincy to be vigilant in the fight against vice — “the odious monster” — that would disgrace the family’s Puritan reputation. An early death would rank higher than a long, dissolute life, warned mother Abigail. “For dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or graceless child” (“Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade,” Joseph Wheelan, Public Affairs, 2008, p. 5).
Abigail advised her son to pursue public service marked by what the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr defined as “truth, integrity and respect for others.” Today, we hear much about a politician’s blind loyalty to a president or to the No. 1 nation-state in the world. In contrast, Abigail Adams expected her son to practice a higher loyalty rooted in service to others, rather than self-interest.
Moreover, Abigail convinced her son to depend on God in desperate times. John Quincy didn’t ask of life what he expected from it; rather, he read the Bible in its entirety several times over to discern what God expected from him.
He bounced back from political ruin after serving a lackluster presidential term. Retiring Massachusetts congressman Joseph Richardson urged Adams to run for his House of Representatives seat. Adams won the election. From 1830 to 1848, the year he died, Adams led fights against slavery.
Abolitionist leader Theodore Weld affirmed Adam’s courage to act on principles ensuring equality for all people. He wrote, “‘So the Old Nestor,’ likening Adams to the aged Greek king who inspired warriors at Troy to fight harder, ‘lifted up his voice like a trumpet, till slaveholding, slave trading and slave breeding absolutely quailed and howled under his dissecting knife’” (“Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade,” p. 191).
British Rabbi Jonathan Sachs tells how life inspired with divine purpose and power fills voids caused by a “winners over losers” mentality.
“The great institutions of modernity were not constructed to provide meaning,” observes Sachs. “Science tells us how the world came to be but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot tell us how to use it. The market gives us choices but no guidance as to what choices to make. Modern democracies give us personal freedom but a minimum of shared morality (The Wall Street Journal, “The Challenge of Jewish Repentance,” Sept. 16-17, 2017, p. C-3).
Abigail Adams counseled her son to be led by “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just …” (Philippians 4:8). Such traits grant purpose and power to endure when pursuing worthy causes.
What nobler, helpful gifts does a mother give a child than these?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.