Young JQA and the preacher who hated dancing
More than fifty years before he became an outspoken crusader against slavery, 18-year-old John Quincy Adams was an unlikely champion for the right to boogie.
Hoofing in Haverhill
At 10 years old, young Johnny accompanied his father John Adams to France on a diplomatic assignment. Johnny’s education in Paris included the fine art of dancing, until his father had his focus shifted to Latin, Greek, and French which he said would “be more useful and necessary” in his home country.
The elder John Adams turned out to be right, but too late. When Johnny came home to interview at Harvard he was rejected because his Greek and Latin weren’t good enough.
Harvard agreed to test him again if he beefed up his skills, so in the winter of 1786 he was shipped off to live with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air Haverhill, Massachusetts for some hardcore tutoring. The boy who was used to hobnobbing with European elites soon found out Haverhill was no Paris, but it did have one thing going for it – dances.
The frequent dances gave Adams plenty of opportunities to mingle with the town’s young ladies before going home to do one of his favorite things: judging them in his diary. Entries like this one read like a snotty male counterpart to Jane Austen:
“Miss Fletcher appears to be about twenty… but unfortunately she is in love, and unless the object of her affections is present she loses all her spirits, grows dull and unsociable, and can be pleased with nothing…. And as I found she could talk only in monosyllables, I was glad to change my partner. Miss Coats is not in love, and is quite sociable. Her manners are not exactly what I should wish for a friend of mine; yet she is agreeable. I am not obliged with her both to make and support the conversation; and moreover, what is very much to her favor, she is an only daughter and her father has money.”
Dances helped John Quincy Adams practice his pride and prejudice and break up his tedious studying. For him, they made Haverhill habitable. There was only one problem. The town’s imposing Baptist preacher was “violently opposed to dancing” and wanted it banned.
Reverend Hezekiah Smith was a force to be reckoned with. A fiery reform Baptist preacher and former chaplain in the Revolutionary War, he had the distinction of having preached in every colony. He was described as both genteel and intimidating, sometimes in the same breath. One person who saw him preach called him “a son of thunder to the wicked, and a son of consolation to the saints.” Another said, “His preaching caused my very soul to tremble.”
This soul-shaker was “a man of venerable appearance and stately form,” his looks “white as wool, his eye-brows retaining their natural dark hue; his face full and fair, bearing almost the flush of youth, and beaming with intelligence and good-will.”
That good will did not extend to dancing.
A biography of Smith recounts one likely apocryphal tale where the preacher stopped a dance just by praying. He arrived late one night at a public house hoping to get some sleep when the local merry-makers enticed him to come to a ball. He reluctantly agreed and told the crowd he “always made it a principle, through life, never to engage in any employment, without having first asked the blessing of God.”
He then launched into a long fervent prayer that moved the crowd to tears. “Many, who, to that hour, had been immersed in the gay and dissipating pleasures of this life, now resolved to break off their sins by righteousness, and seek a more solid and substantial good.”
Hezekiah Smith prayed the will to dance right out of those kids, and when he returned to the same town months later he found it transformed into a bastion of the “genuine virtues of Christian character.”
The story of Reverend Buzzkill sounds too good to be true, but we know from church records that Smith considered dancing as a nearly unforgivable sin, especially for women.
One young woman, Miss Morrill, was excommunicated from the church for the “sin of dancing.” They told her the “glory of God and the interests of religion have much suffered by your wickedness, in which if you continue you may justly expect the wages of sin.”
The wages of sin, by the way, is death, according to the Bible. Apparently Hezekiah believed God was so fragile that his glory was threatened by Miss Morrill’s milkshake, and God’s best bet was to kill her.
In his diary, John Quincy Adams wrote that Mr. Smith considered dancing such a “heinous sin” that he preached against it and even handed out printed copies of his anti-dance sermon. Adams wrote, “There are many people here so warped in prejudice that they are really persuaded they should incur the divine displeasure, as much by dancing, as by stealing, or perhaps, committing murder.”
Dance Dance Evolution
To understand Hezekiah Smith’s opposition to dancing, you need to trace New England’s Puritanical efforts to control women’s bodies going back over a hundred years. In 1684, Increase Mather wrote a tract called An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing, drawn out of the quiver of the Scriptures. In it, Mather rails against “gynecandrical” or mixed-sex dancing. He explains that dancing in general was whorish, invented by the devil, and “cannot be tolerated in such a place as New-England without great sin.”
Three hundred years after Mather’s Arrow there were still some famous religious holdouts to mixed dancing, including Elmore City, Oklahoma, the small town whose ban on public dancing inspired the 1984 film Footloose.
The town’s Pentecostal preacher Reverend F.R. Johnson was vehemently against the school holding a prom and told People Magazine, “No good has ever come from a dance. If you have a dance somebody will crash it and they’ll be looking for only two things—women and booze.”
Reverend Johnson desperately wanted to protect the high school’s precious supply of booze and women from roving gangs of prom crashers, and he knew dancing was just the tip on a slippery sin slope: “When boys and girls hold each other, they get sexually aroused. You can believe what you want, but one thing leads to another.”
If the town allowed a prom, there would be nothing stopping the junior and senior classes from devolving into a writhing Bacchanalia, their rock and roll music barely covering the combined sounds of their lustful grunts, the tearing of taffeta, and the squeaking of dress shoes on the freshly waxed gym floor. Not today, Satan.
Cooler (and groovier) heads prevailed, and the Elmore City school board voted 3 to 2 in favor of allowing the prom. By all accounts it went off without a hitch – no pillaging and no spike in teen pregnancy. The strict religious prohibitions against dancing were simply no match for the power of the 1980s, the decade that taught us that kids gotta dance.
Attitudes about dancing have continued to evolve since the 1980s. We’ve stepped up, stomped the yard, gotten served, but we still have plenty of room to evolve as a society. And as individuals.
Speaking personally, until not that long ago I held some antiquated views about a certain kind of dance — pole dancing. I looked down on it as an intentionally tawdry strip club activity, not so far off from what Increase Mather might call promiscuous and profane dancing. I laughed at the line from Crazy Stupid Love, “The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.”
Since then I’ve learned a little more about it thanks to a friend involved in the pole community. Now I understand that beyond my narrow definition, it’s a way for women to own their bodies and eroticism. And it’s a much more artistic, athletic, competitive, and empowering way than I ever realized for people to get gnarly bruises.
Despite the backwards thinking of Increase Mather, Hezekiah Smith, F.R. Johnson, Me-A-Few-Years-Ago, and the bad guys in all those 80s movies, women aren’t sinful temptresses who exist solely to titillate and be judged for titillating men. And they’re probably not witches. (And even if they are, it’s still not cool to drown them.)
Haters Gonna Hate
Two hundred years before Footloose debuted, John Quincy Adams pondered, “How one of the most innocent and rational amusements that was ever invented can find so many opposers is somewhat mysterious.” He concluded that “there are many who do not participate of the diversion and are envious to see others amusing themselves.”
The haters were jealous and the solution was to ignore them: “The subscribers wisely take no notice of all these things, but go on, their own way, and despise all these senseless clamors.” His message to the “old-womanish people in town” was to keep their noses out of his balls; he was feelin’ hella good so he just kept on dancing.
His diary from that winter is filled with passages of staying out dancing until three or four in the morning, or later. One time he wrote that a “number of lads, after conducting their women home, retained the music, and went a serenading all over the town till day-light.”
He partied so hard he had to take breaks:
“We drank and smoked and sang there till nine o’clock; but, notwithstanding a forced appearance of hilarity was kept up, there was no real mirth. All were fatigued by the last night’s siege, and unable to bear another, such as the inexhaustible spirits of amory would have relished. At nine therefore we retired, and not long after I got home, I went to bed.”
Thanks for summing up my twenties, Quincy.
Even though he probably wasn’t a very good dancer (he told Louisa the “dancing-master must give me up, as a man of whom nothing can be made”), John Quincy Adams never let that stop him. He danced in taverns in Massachusetts as a student, he danced through the royal halls of Europe as a diplomat, and he danced in the White House as president. He even saw to it that his sons were educated in what he considered the “essential qualification” of dancing.
No preacher or anyone else could convince him dancing was a sin because for him it was a fact of life. Like Voltaire, Adams firmly believed, “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
And like Kevin Bacon in Footloose, he felt in his soul that this is our time to dance.
Thank you for bringing young Mr. Adams to life for me. I really enjoyed reading this piece.