The skinny-dipping, poem-writing, Bible-loving US President

John Quincy Adams by Stuart Gilbert, 1818 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

I’m currently busy writing a Good Friday service for a Christian congregation in Cape Town’s central business district. The service will include a string quartet playing five short but beautiful classical pieces (including Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, and Massenet’s Meditation from Thais), and a selection of poetry by Eliot, Phillis Wheatley, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others.

As part of my preparation I’ve been reading Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba’s American Religious Poems (a title my wife struggled to believe was real. ‘Didn’t they want to sell any?’ etc).

Still very much in the early section of the anthology, where the quality isn’t consistently high, I came across a little gem that struck me as very clever and remarkably disciplined.

John Quincy Adams. John Quincy Adams? Now, was he a President or a leader in the Revolutionary War? I couldn’t quite recall (the American revolution never having been a substantive part of a British education). It was his dad, John Adams, the first vice-President (to Washington) and the second President of the US, who was the philosophical revolutionary. Both father and son were intellectuals, both Harvard graduates, and both men of prayer. In fact, when John Adams took up residence in the White House, writing to his wife, he says, ‘Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.’[i]

Son was to follow father to the White House several years later, but John Quincy did not enjoy his four-year term. He was something of an eccentric, known for bathing naked in the Potomac River[ii], highly disciplined, a bit grumpy, but he began every day by reading his Bible. And he wrote many poems and hymns.

This poem is his adaptation of Psalm 139.

O Lord, thy all-discerning eyes
O Lord, thy all-discerning eyes
My inmost purpose see;
My deeds, my words, my thoughts, arise
Alike disclosed to thee:
My sitting down, my rising up,
Broad noon, and deepest night,
My path, my pillow, and my cup,
Are open to Thy sight.

Before, behind, I meet thine eye,
And feel thy heavy hand:
Such knowledge is for me too high,
To reach or understand:
What of thy wonders can I know?
What of thy purpose see?
Where from thy Spirit shall I go?
Where from thy presence flee?

If I ascend to heaven on high,
Or make my bed in hell;
Or take the morning’s wings, and fly
O’er ocean’s bounds to dwell;
Or seek, from thee, a hiding place
Amid the gloom of night—
Alike to thee are time and space,
The darkness and the light.

When Adams’ wife heard that their pastor was preparing a hymn-book for use in the congregation she showed him Adams’ adaptations of the psalms and, to his delight, some were included.

The former president couldn’t hide his joy and wrote, ‘Mr. Lunt preached this morning, Eccles. III, 1. For everything there is a season. He had given out as the first hymn to be sung [from] the Christian Psalter, his compilation and the hymn-book now used in our church. It was my version of the 65th Psalm; and no words can express the sensations with which I heard it sung. Were it possible to compress into one pulsation of the heart the pleasure which, in the whole period of my life, I have enjoyed in praise from the lips of mortal man, it would not weigh a straw to balance the ecstasy of delight which streamed from my eyes as the organ pealed and the choir of voices sung the praise of Almighty God from the soul of David, adapted to my native tongue by me.’[iii]

I’m not sure why I am surprised to discover that those who are, or who have been, in public office should spend quality time creating verse, but it is a practice worth commending.

©2017 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

[i] https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/johnadams
[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qnVpC4zXpM
[iii] http://www.hymnary.org/person/Adams_JohnQuincy