John Adams and the Doctrinal Challenge of Extraterrestrial Life

Sometime in the summer of 1786 the fifty-year-old John Adams, graduate of Harvard University, man of science and future second President of the United States, turned up one morning uninvited at The Grove. He was shown round all Herschel’s new telescopes, and they embarked on an impassioned discussion of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the moral implications of there being a ‘plurality of worlds’. This was the sort of metaphysical debate that Herschel had once had with his brother Jacob, touching on the speculations of European authors like Fontenelle and Huygens, but which he tended to avoid with his English contemporaries. Neither Herschel nor Caroline recorded exactly what was said, but it is clear from his own diaries that Adams would have put lively and unorthodox views: ‘Astronomers tell us that not only all the Planets and Satellites in our Solar system, but all the unnumbered Worlds that revolve round the fixt Stars are inhabited … If this is the case all Mankind are no more in comparison [with] the whole rational Creation of God, than a point in the orbit of Saturn.’

Like the poet Shelley a generation later, Adams liked to press this argument one stage further. If astronomy discovered extraterrestrial civilisations, then surely the earth-based doctrines of Christian redemption became absurd, or at least mighty inconvenient for the Lord. ‘I ask a Calvinist, whether he will subscribe to this alternative: EITHER God Almighty must assume the respective shapes of all these different Species, and suffer the penalties of their Crimes, in their stead; OR ELSE all these Beings must be consigned to everlasting Perdition?’


Adams never forgot this spirited meeting with Herschel. Years later, in 1825, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson, his successor as President, complaining of the orthodox Christian beliefs of most British scientists, and advising Jefferson not to hire them to teach at the University of Virginia, where he was Chancellor. Adams contrasted these scientists’ attitudes with Herschel’s untrammelled vision: ‘They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschel’s universe, came down to this little ball [planet earth], to be spit upon by the Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.’ This argument would presumably have been satisfactorily concluded the following year, when both Adams and Jefferson died and went to meet the Great Principle. See Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate (1986).

See also: John Adams, April-May 1756, Diaries and Autobiography, edited by L.H. Butterfield, 1964


If there is life elsewhere in the Universe, Adams argues with Herschel that it challenges Biblical doctrine.

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 The Age of Wonder
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Holmes , Richard (2010-03-02), The Age of Wonder, Vintage, Retrieved on 2012-01-02
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  • Folksonomies: history enlightenment science