2011 Forum Lecture: George Kimmich Beach, “What’s Past Is Prologue”: James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Universalists


November 10, 2011, at 7:00 p.m. at Wilson Chapel, Andover Newton Theological School, 210 Herrick Rd., Newton, Massachusetts.


Prof. Michael Hogue, Rev. Thomas R. Schade



“What’s Past Is Prologue”: James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Universalists

James Luther Adams Forum on Religion and Society, November 10, 2011, expanded  version including footnotes and an appendix on Adams’s engagements with Unitarian Universalist institutions and an appendix on the publication of his writings


By George Kimmich Beach (copyright, 2011)


Part I:  In Charlotte, North Carolina, last June, Professor Gary Dorrien helped mark the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association with an address on the history of liberal theology, starting with Immanuel Kant and moving along smartly to the present.  He drew two conclusions: That the future of liberal theology lies in a form of “liberation theology,” and that the two most important figures in American Unitarian history are William Ellery Channing and James Luther Adams.[1]  I couldn’t have said it better, myself!  Dorrien’s intellectual feast, The Making of American Liberal Theology, leads off a section, “Visions of Liberation,” with a meaty chapter, “James Luther Adams and Unitarian Christianity,” followed by another on Martin Luther King, Jr.[2]   Adams spoke of “prophetic theology,” a theology responding to the crises of his age with protest against all cultural and political idolatries, all works of oppression.[3]

Yet for all this, Adams remains a problematic figure in Unitarian Universalist history.  Dorrien leads off his chapter on Adams with this deftly nuanced observation: “James Luther Adams was a twentieth-century champion of a liberal tradition that the twentieth-century nearly left behind, Unitarian Christianity.”  Ouch!  “Though rather isolated as a Christian theist in the Unitarian (later Unitarian Universalist) denomination, he was the most connected, ecumenical, activist-oriented and least lonely of its theologians.”  Nice, but ouch again!

Although it was Adams’s century, we became increasingly sectarian all through it, leaving Unitarian and Universalist Christianity behind—to create a new religion, tricked out in the “pasteboard and filigree” that Emerson himself saw in “all attempts to contrive a system.”[4]  Nevertheless, we valued Adams  precisely for his ecumenical connectedness, his rootedness, perhaps suspecting we were some kind of air-plant without it.  It must also be said: Jim proudly kept his Unitarian Universalist identity to the end.  He called himself a religious liberal or a liberal Christian, but he knew that such labels are no substitute for engagement in an actual church body, with its many undertakings and its life-long friendships.

Adams embraced Unitarianism, and in turn many Unitarians (never all, to be sure!) embraced him.[5]  But what he embraced he also sought to transform. With regard to 20th century Unitarianism that meant liberation from overweening rationalism, individualism, and spiritualism—or perhaps its dispirited twin, secularism—not to be confused with authentic reason, individuality, spirituality, and indeed, secularity.   In short, Adams sought to thread the needle.  He sought a liberal faith that transforms itself in order to become genuinely transforming.  Nor did he draw much distinction between religious and political liberalism, for he saw that they share a common cultural origin and fate.  Hence the title of my book on his theology, Transforming Liberalism.[6]  The hardest part, Adams knew, is not dealing with others but dealing with oneself; in fact, dealing with others—justly and with kindness—depends upon it.

Allow me to “repeal reticence” (as JLA would say) and speak of James Luther Adams and this Unitarian Universalist.  I first encountered him in 1953 when he came to the “Continental Convention” of the newly christened youth organization.[7]   I was a birthright Unitarian, strongly identified with this vigorous community.  After all, what could be more fun than singing sacrilegious and politically leftist songs, and meeting girls far from home?  We were emphatically not members of “the silent generation,” as our generational cohort had been tagged by Time magazine.  And here was this important professor spending time with us, talking about the novel we had all read, The Catcher in the Rye.  What Holden Caulfield called “phony” in his elders, Adams named “inauthenticity,” and spoke with evident intellectual depth of our twin quests for an “authentic faith” and for “identity formation.”[8]  No wonder I latched onto Adams.[9]

By the time I graduated from college, in 1957, I’d decided to seek Unitarian ministry.  I would have headed for Chicago but chose Cambridge, instead: Adams had migrated to Harvard Divinity School the year before.[10]  Once there I found that, as important as his academic courses, were his and Margaret’s Thursday evenings at home for Unitarian students.[11]  Why did we go “religiously”?  Because it was a chance to sit at his feet, almost literally.  And because this was our primary form of community as Unitarians, and we were relatively few in the hive of Barthian buzz that the Divinity School had become. This was the late 1950s, when nobody had heard of liberation theology and liberal theology was considered passé.  Paul Tillich, who packed large lecture halls for both Divinity School and undergraduate classes at Harvard, was a special case; he was a theological liberal powerfully influenced by neo-Reformation and Existentialist thought—as Adams was also.[12] Adams, then, became a bridge to Tillich’s ontological and existential translation of theological and ethical categories, enabling religious liberals like me to re-appropriate basic symbols and concepts of Christian tradition.  Adams would be a major figure in Unitarian Universalist history if he did only this.[13]

Well before entering Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1957 I had studied works closely related to Adams’s thought, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, on the sociology of knowledge, and Paul Tillich’s The Religious Situation, on religion in a radically changing world.[14]  Then Taking Time Seriously appeared, a slim volume of Adams’s essays, assembled by friends to mark his leave-taking from Chicago.  In the title essay, written in 1939 for the Christian Century series, “How My Mind Has Changed,” Adams describes his spiritual and intellectual pilgrimage to the present.  More than this, he describes something like a midlife crisis, or at any rate a profound transition through which he passed during the decade of the 1930s.  Here is the passage that has had an immense impact on me from the time I first read it:

“At this time two significant changes took place,” Adams says, namely his ambivalent feelings about ministry and his reading of Friedrich von Huegel.  “But before speaking of these developments, I should like to repeal reticence still further by referring to a personal experience.  At the beginning of this decade I was a graduate student of philosophy and comparative literature at Harvard.  During this period I became a member of the Harvard Glee Club.  Nathan Soederblom has remarked that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion music should be called the Fifth Evangelist.  So was Bach for me.  One night after singing with the club in the Mass in B Minor under Serge Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in Boston, a renewed conviction came over me that here in the mass, beginning with the Kyrie and proceeding through the Crucifixus to the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem, all that was essential in the human and the divine was expressed.  My love of the music awakened in me a profound sense of gratitude to Bach for having displayed as through a prism and in a way that was irresistible for me, the essence of Christianity.

“I realize now that this was only the culmination of my praeparatio evangelica.  For suddenly I wondered if I had a right even to enjoy what Bach had given me.  I wondered if I was not a spiritual parasite, one who was willing to trade on the costly spiritual heritage of Christianity, but who was perhaps doing very little to keep that heritage alive.  In the language of Kierkegaard, I was forced out of the spectator into the ‘existential’ attitude.  This experience as such was, to be sure, not a new one: It was simply a more decisive one.  I could now see what Nietzsche meant when, in speaking of the Passion music, he said, ‘Whoever has wholly forgotten Christianity will hear it there again.’”[15]

In these two short paragraphs we feel the reverberations of Adams’s basic concerns.  Broadly speaking, these concerns were (1) religion in relation to the human condition, (2) society in relation to human community, and (3) history in relation to human fulfillment.

First, then, Adams speaks in this passage of a deeply affective experience, an experience calling for a life-reorienting decision, in fact, a conversion experience.  It comes not as a “bolt from the blue” but as a decisive moment culminating a long-prepared process, taking its lasting significance precisely from that praeparatio.  The description is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord of hosts surrounded by the seraphim who cry Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, and the prophet’s responding cry, “I am a man of unclean lips,” and prayer, “Here am I!  Send me” (Isaiah 6: 1-8).  What cut to the quick for me in Adams’s narrative was his responding cry: “I wondered if I was not a parasite, . . . willing to trade on the costly spiritual heritage of Christianity. . . doing very little to keep that heritage alive.”[16]   That’s when I decided to embark on a path of theological re-appropriation, after all the dis-appropriation that was our Unitarian stock in trade.

Here, then, was a first cluster of ideas, relating to religion and the human condition: affection (or “the affections”), volition (he called it “the primacy of the will”), and conversion (or metanoia, the New Testament Greek term).

Second, a personal context underlies this passage, bearing upon Adams’s  vocational commitment.  During the decade of the 1930s Adams shifted his professional footing from Unitarian parish ministry, to teaching and doctoral work in comparative literature (with stringent linguistic demands), to preparing himself for teaching in a Unitarian theological school (with extended studies in Europe).  He tells us he came close to giving up on the liberal church because he found it insufficiently serious and hopelessly caught in a “cultural lag.”[17]  In the end he did not give it up, but reaffirmed his commitment to ministry.  I think the benign influence of Margaret is visible, here.  Intellectual omnivore though he was, she knew that his heart was in the associations of church and community.  Their marriage was a sacred covenant, and as he acknowledges in his autobiography, she nudged him.  He would join his passion for intellectual pursuit to his passion for “spreading the word,” as he called it.  He commented on Jesus’ parables of the sower and the seed, and on Jean-Francois Millet’s famous painting, The Sower—the peasant in intimate relation to the earth’s broad and sustaining field.  So the matter was decided; he would be a theological school professor.  This is how he would make his “contribution” to the sacred and liberating tradition he had received.  In all this I find, then,  a second cluster of ideas, ideas central to his thought on society and social ethics:  vocation, association, and covenant.

The third striking thing about Adams’s reported experience is its religious content.  Bach’s genius mediated for him the elements of a sacred tradition, the Catholic mass, which in turn mediated an historical community’s centuries-long reflection on the life and meaning of Jesus, which in turn “expressed all that was essential in the human and the divine.”  He calls it the “culmination” of something long prepared.   Just so, he begins the essay with his earliest childhood memory—being lost in a dust-storm, till he found his way back to the bosom of the family and heard his father’s prayers for Jesus’ Second Coming, then and there.  He had come full circle, not landing at the same place but a new place.  Hence his insistence on a liberal “eschatological orientation,” the “gesture and posture” that we see in Jesus, one empowered by the new age that he announces.   It can be said prosaically: To find the meaning of God you must seek meaning in the transcendent pattern and directive of history.

Adams goes on to tell that he found in Paul Tillich a theologian who did not see faith as an escape hatch from “the dust and heat” of history, but a way deeper into it.  “In Tillich’s view of the dialectical nature of reality, of revelation, of God, of the Kingdom, of human nature and history, I find an interpretation and an application of Christian doctrine which are far more relevant to the social and divine forces that determine the destiny of humanity than in any other theologian I happen to know about.  Here, if ever, is a theologian who takes time seriously.”[18]   Of course, this tells as much about Adams as it does about Tillich.  The quest for meaning in history is central to his theological quest, and brings a third cluster of ideas to the fore: sacred tradition, eschatology, and Christology.


Part II.  Jim had a story fit for every occasion.  Here’s one for the present occasion:  Once he was asked to give a paper on “Sin and Salvation” for an academic study group in Chicago.  After speaking at length on “Sin” he begged indulgence for not completing the assignment.  He said, “Salvation will not fit in the same envelope.”  Neither will my self-assigned topic, “James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Universalists.”  But rest assured, lots more information is available in the footnotes and appendices![19]

At the University of Minnesota, as a semester drew to a close, he told his public speaking prof, Frank Rarig, that he was not sure what he would do after college.  Rarig then delivered a blow that Adams received as “a shock of recognition.”  “Right there, in the face of my enemies, the fundamentalists, he smote me. ‘I’ve known for some time what you are going to be, young man.  You’re going to be a pr-eacher!’”   Later, Adams says, he went “like Nicodemus, by night, to confer with this strange counselor.”  He knew Adams’s heart better than Adams himself.  His vocation was a mystery only to himself, he confesses, for his class talks “had all been vicious attacks on religion, or as vicious as I could make them.”  The trouble, Rarig told him, is that “you’ve never heard of a self-critical religion.”  It’s a definitive liberal principle.  Adams’s own version is his paraphrase of Socrates, “An unexamined faith is not worth having.”[20]

What remarkable good fortune Adams had in his personal encounters throughout his life!  During his college years in Minneapolis he sought out the local and notable Unitarian leaders, John Dietrich and Frederick May Eliot—the Humanist and “the blue blood,” respectively.  But the Unitarian who affected him most was Frank Rarig, the professor of rhetoric from whom he learned, and learned well, that “an effective speaker is one who elicits involuntary attention.”

The idea of going to the more-or-less Unitarian Harvard Divinity School no doubt appealed to this farm boy, keen to “deprovincialize” himself.  Adams leaves it for us to infer why he adopted Unitarianism.  I infer that it liberated his spiritual and intellectual energies, giving him “elbow room” to redefine both himself and the tradition in which he’d been raised; further, it provided a pathway into ministry, his deeply felt calling.

Adams liked to quote Colonel Rainsborough, one of Oliver Cromwell’s champions: “Every English, he hath his contribution to make!”  Unitarianism invited Adams “his contribution to make.”  However sharp his criticisms of this adopted faith community became, he accepted it with lifelong gratitude, as his autobiography richly attests.  It was within this community that many of his closest friendships were formed.  I especially remember his very moving memorial tribute for his old friend, Frank Holmes, at a Collegium gathering.  Then in his nineties, he called up the spirits of a whole cohort, colleagues in Unitarian ministry who had labored together for something larger than any individual career or congregation.  I wished I had had a tape recorder.  It seemed to me he was grieving also for himself.  And even we for him.

Despite disillusionments (he confesses that once he thought of joining the Episcopalians, and he did begin to teach English at Boston University), Unitarian ministry is where he had parked his soul.  But his new religious identity brought with it the task of reinventing himself.  He says, “Coming as I did from a provincial background, one of my concerns throughout my college years and into my years of graduate school was to formulate a standard for myself that would serve as an alternative to that with which I had been raised.  . . . I was learning a new code, new languages, and new rituals of behavior and interaction. . . .  I think that there was also in my mind the question of what it meant to be a native to this world of the intellect and the arts which I had chosen to adopt as my new homeland.”[21]

We sense the awkwardness he felt as he entered this reputedly sophisticated world of “the intellect and the arts.” Some Divinity School faculty come in for honorable mention, but his over-all experience of the School evoked remarkably ambivalent feelings.  This future professor of Christian ethics argued on a final exam that there was no such thing as Christian ethics![22]  In time Adams came to see social ethics as a byproduct of the encounter of a theological conviction with contemporary history.  Indeed just this is what it became at his hand. “Perhaps the greatest influence that the Divinity School had on me was the assumption that the crucial discipline for the study of religion and theology is history,” a view he reached “under the influence of von Huegel.”

This budding Unitarian found his most stimulating teacher in a Roman Catholic!  Friedrich von Huegel “brought me to emphasize, with regard to the divine power, its intimacy and its ultimacy.  The sense of the intimacy of God meant that God is active everywhere, that even the appearance of evil itself is a manifestation of a human or corporate response to that divine power.  . . . Religion, he would say, is evidential.  It has to do with is-ness and only secondarily with ought-ness.  Before religion can inspire an intelligent desire for what ought to be, it must induce a humble, ‘costing,’ teachable interest in, as well as a ‘fear, love and adoration’ of what already is.   . . .God is not simply a cluster of human ideals; God is.  Religion begins in the declarative mood and moves from there to the imperative mood.”

Religion as affective, as at once intimate and ultimate, as irreducible to ethics, as paradoxically present even in demonic striving, as rooted in a profound sense of the real: these were building blocks for Adams’s reconstruction of liberal faith.  During my days at Harvard, Hans Hoffman’s course on the psychology of religion gave students the choice of writing on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, or von Huegel’s massive study of St. Catherine of Genoa, The Mystical Element in Religion.  Influenced by Adams, I chose the latter.  Adams no doubt had von Huegel in mind when he called “the mystical element in religion. . . a taste for the infinite,” an essential element, but one standing in dialectical relation to the prophetic taste for the immediate.  He also heartily approved von Huegel’s criticism of James’s famous work, namely, that it abstracts religious experience from any institutional and historical context, as if spirituality were disembodied.  The Humanist Manifesto of 1933, which some Unitarians joined and many were to follow, denied any distinction between the sacred and the secular.  Writing shortly thereafter, Adams praised von Huegel’s emphasis on the interaction of culture and religion and “his insistence that there should exist a tension between the sacred and the secular.”[23]

Adams was forging a radically divergent path within the Unitarian fold, becoming a kind of Unitarian Reinhold Niebuhr, simultaneously moving to the left politically and to the right theologically.  Some followed him in one direction, some in the other, and a few of us, in both.

When Adams as a student was unsure whether to choose parish ministry or teaching, Samuel McChord Crothers counseled him to consider that personal relationships extend over years in a parish, in contrast with the casual relationships that professors typically have with students.  He was persuaded, and in 1927 was ordained by the Second Church, Unitarian, in Salem.  The Cambridge minister, Dr. Crothers, gave the sermon.  Adams was delighted when a delegation of the mill workers, men he had engaged for some months in discussions, mostly Catholics, came to the ordination reception.   In the contest between church and academy Adams ultimately had his cake and ate it: He became a teacher in theological schools, and together with Margaret regularly brought students into their home, forming a kind of ecclesiola in academia.

The discussion group was a favorite form of ministry.  It also found him a wife.  Margaret Ann Young was a young Unitarian in Salem when her mother encouraged her to go with other young people from the First Church to a group led by the aspiring young minister at Second Church.  How could he miss her, decked out in flaming red hair?  Adams tells the story of their first embarrassed date, going to see Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in Boston, and of their marriage in 1927.  Her influence on his life and career was profound, with their three daughters, their constant home hospitality, their multiple engagements in social justice causes.  He said that their marriage was the best sort, one underlined both by “creative tensions”—left unspecified—and by shared enjoyments.  This “last Puritan” mentions music, play reading, and folk dance.[24]

Some of Adams’s most vivid memories from his first years in parish ministry concern his involvement in supporting the textile strikers in nearby Lowell, the local publicity these activities attracted, and the displeasure of his father-in-law, a prominent banker.  He also notes that his own congregation never criticized these involvements.  Unitarians honored the principle of “freedom of the pulpit” even when it became uncomfortable; and it must be said that Adams did not shrink from “afflicting the comfortable” and the super-patriots during his two Unitarian pastorates.

He became increasingly prominent as a denominational leader.  He edited the long-lived Christian Register, briefly, and the short-lived Journal of Liberal Religion, less briefly.  With friends he founded Greenfield Group, a ministerial study group which practiced disciplines of agreed-upon topics with reading and writing assignments.  It continues today and has been a model for numerous other study groups.  He also formed and led a group to develop and pursue contemplative spiritual practices, Brothers of the Way.  He and his friends also helped gain inclusion of classic Protestant hymnody, especially German chorales harmonized by Bach, in the new Unitarian hymnal—a tough sell, so the hymnal commission put them in a special section in the back!

Most significantly, he became Secretary on the newly minted Commission of Appraisal, a reformist push he had himself conspired with friends to create. The Commission’s chairman, Frederick May Eliot, was subsequently elected President of the American Unitarian Association and undertook strong leadership on several fronts.[25]  Adams complains that Eliot had contravened the Commission’s call for decentralization; he wanted to see a “dispersal of power,” believing that revitalization required “radical laicism” and establishing “standards” of commitment.  But Adams was swimming against the tide that had begun to lift Unitarian growth.  The winning line in ads run by the Laymen’s League in magazines like The Saturday Review asked, “Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?”  So much for “standards.”

Adams left Salem after “only six years” for a larger and more prestigious congregation in Wellesley Hills.  Two years after that he was invited to teach at Meadville Theological School, in Chicago.  He speculated that his selection was due to his being “articulate and passionate—even aggressive—about the things that concerned me.”  The “humanist-theist debate” was in full swing.  His call for “a doctrine and a discipline”—shared beliefs and practices—would fall on deaf ears among those preaching “individual freedom of belief” and “personal conscience” as the first principles of liberal religion.  He was by this time clearly identified with the “liberal Christian” wing.  Seeing him enter a denominational meeting with a gaggle of allies, the Humanist leader, Edwin Wilson, announced, “Here comes Adams and The Twelve.”

Looking back, Adams said: “As an active minister . . . I began to feel an increasing uneasiness about religious liberalism. It appeared to me to represent a cultural lag, the tail end of the laissez-faire philosophy of the nineteenth century.”  He notes the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Marshall Horton, John C. Bennett, T. S. Eliot, and Rudolf Otto on his thinking.  “Through these writers as well as through personal experience I came to see that religion lives not only by means of universally valid ideas, but also through the warmer, more concrete, historical tradition that possesses its sense of community, its prophets and its ‘acts’ of the apostles, its liturgy and literature, its peculiar language and disciplines.  ‘The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life’ [T. S. Eliot’s memorable reversal of St. Paul.]  Not that I doubted the validity of the principle of disciplined freedom.  Rather the question was: Is there a liberal church, or are there only aggregates of individuals, each claiming to search for the truth—as though none yet had been found?”[26]

In sum: He was against Enlightenment rationalism, Emersonian individualism, and a-historical spiritualism and secularism alike; he was for their dialectical contraries: “raised affections,” covenanted community, and sacred tradition.

As his discontent with Unitarianism rose Adams sought new channels for his seemingly boundless intellectual and moral energies.  His thirst for “Studying with the Lions”—especially George Lyman Kittredge, Irving Babbitt, and Alfred North Whitehead—drew him back to Harvard. [27]

Babbitt, professor of French and leader of the movement called “literary humanism,” became his primary doctoral studies tutor, and welcomed conversations with him, often during long walks by the Charles River.  Adams even calls himself a disciple.  He seems to have found in Babbitt a father-figure—one as imperious as his own father.  His thought helped fill the hole that remained when his father’s faith fled him. This seems odd, at first blush, since Babbitt had no use for theology or metaphysics; in Adams’s mature view Babbitt replaced a doctrine of grace with a humanistic doctrine of “higher will” by which we can master the human propensity for willful domination, and the self-disciplines found in Confucian and Buddhist traditions.[28]

In 1927 Adams went on study leave to England, to pursue research begun under Babbitt on Bishop Richard Hurd, an important critic of early Romantic era literature; and to Germany, where he had his first encounters with Nazis.  Such contraries!  In the mid-1930s he returned to Europe to prepare himself for teaching at Meadville, spending months in England, France, and Germany.  His vivid memories of the scholars and clerics he met, admired, and sometimes challenged is a fabulous chronicle of the age.  Germany was at once the avant-garde of theological scholarship and the cauldron of Nazi fury, already unleashed upon the Jews, soon to be unleashed on the world: this is the post-modern experience of human nature.  Adams judged European academics and church leaders alike to have failed to understand and oppose Hitler early in his rise to power.  His experience of Nazi Germany fueled his critique of liberalism, secular and religious: We were morally and institutionally ill-prepared to face the economic and political crises of the 20th century.

Many of his best stories come from his experiences in Germany, including the elaborate story of  being called in for questioning to the Gestapo office in Marburg, what all his friends advised him (“you can’t go there alone”), and how the anti-Nazi mayor “accompanied him” even without being physically present.[29]  The moral of the story? To venture into a dangerous place you need the paradoxical faith that, although you can only go alone, precisely then you do not go alone.  I call it the parable of “You can’t go there alone,” but of course we’ve heard it before: “Jesus walked this lonesome valley,” and “You have to walk this lonesome valley /you’ve got to walk it by yourself. . . .”

To understand Adams, the power of his words and witness, one must hear his stories.  They are utterly unlike the parables of Jesus, except in their import: like his parables, they reveal the judgment and grace of God, just under the surface of things, ready to break through—for those with ears to hear!  He said of his experience in Germany that it induced in him “something like a conversion,” and that on his return his first sermon at Meadville Theological School was on “conversion.”  Far from resenting the resistance he met, he seems to have enjoyed his contrarian path—one of the ways he earned the epithet, “the smiling prophet.”

In time Adams relented, he tells us, from his strident anti-humanism, for he saw how the Humanists often had a keener sense of social justice than many Christians.  The Christians were as likely to be worried about matching the color of the altar cloth to the liturgical season.  Deep into a late-night dialogue, Adams tells, he asks Erich Fromm,  “Erich, what makes you tick?”  And Fromm replies, “Jim, I think I know the answer to that question.  It’s the Biblical prophets—they saw the meaning of history in the demand for justice.”  I call it the parable of The Righteous Non-believer.

How, then, did Adams come to understand himself?  In a letter responding to my inquiry in 1984 Adams said: “A thread in my development may be traced from the early fundamentalism to my studies under Irving Babbitt, through the experience of Nazism, on to the study of Tillich.  Babbitt, with his emphasis on the ‘higher will,’ defends the primacy of will over intellect, and then Tillich does the same.”  He goes on to note the centrality of “the will of God” in the Bible, and “in Augustine, where the authentic will is love. . . .”   He emphasizes that this intellectual interest in “the primacy of the will” was closely related to his “reactions to the world the world about me,” a world of crisis and change.[30]

Probably the most significant influence of Adams on the Unitarian Universalists is their reception of the idea of covenant.  In 1977 he gave a short address at the first meeting of the Collegium Association, “From Cage to Cage: An Intellectual Agenda.”  Characteristically, his concern was not simply the church, but the church as engaged in the great issues of the age. He spoke, then, of “the modern industrial corporation with its oligopoly and power even greater than the government” as producing a new industrial cage, not unlike “the iron cage” of the modern industrial system, so-named by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Adams called us to “consider as our intellectual agenda the devising of a doctrine of the church and a theology or philosophy that has an institutional thrust that deals with these issues. . . .”  The crux of the problem was a liberal ideology born of “atomistic individualism.”  We need, he said, to develop “a new meaning for the consent of the governed” and “a new doctrine of covenant.”  Adams proceeded to outline several dimensions of covenants—interpersonal, ontological, political, economic, legal—and in a subsequent lecture at Meadville Lombard, further elaborated the analysis.[31]   It was “an idea whose time had come,” for in the 1980s covenant language entered powerfully into Unitarian Universalist thought about institutional “right relations.”  Now we meet it at every turn.  Adams put it on the intellectual agenda, and it has borne many fruits.

Prominent among these fruits is the new Principles statement in the Constitution of the UUA.  The movement for change was initiated by the women’s groups demanding that the language of our “principles and purposes” be gender-neutral.  A revision commission was appointed, excluding the very people who sought a fundamental re-thinking, a denominational metanoia!  Well, they did invite everybody’s input.  Remembering my Adams, I proposed language in the form of a covenant, naming the sources of our gratitude and the shared principles of our responsibility.  The Humanist chair of the revision commission said, in effect, we don’t use that kind of Biblical language; but then, after a few months he resigned.  He said he feared the whole effort would tear us apart!  But of course: absent deep deliberation, it could!  The final result was adopted in not-so-ominous year of 1984.  It started, “We, the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote. . . ,”  and followed by certain enumerated “principles” (commitments to the future) and “sources” (religious blessings from the past).   A few years ago Walter Royal Jones, who had taken over as  chair of the Commission, confirmed my suspicion that Adams himself proposed the language of one of the “sources of our living tradition.”  It’s pure, vintage Adams: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”[32]

The Principles effort became part of a 1980s movement for renewal, following the drastic denominational slump of the 1970s.  To this end it took on the liberal original sin, vagueness.  The UUA for the first time made a corporate statement that the spiritual and moral principles it stands for are rooted in traditions of faith and value that run deeper than “personal authority” and longer than “reason and modern experience.”  If we were inching toward a new self-understanding, it was in no small measure due to the decades-long influence of James Luther Adams.


Part Three:  “What’s past is prologue, / What to come, in yours and my discharge”—a valedictory from Shakespeare’s valedictory play. (The Tempest II.1.252f.)  Adams’s own tempestuous life and work were of a piece, and together form the magnum opus we kept wishing he would write for us.  He did, but we’ve barely begun actually to read it.[33]   That’s what’s past; what to come, what we make of his legacy, is “in yours and my discharge.”

Finally, I want to revisit the three clusters of terms that I lifted up in the first section.  These identify lines of thought needing to be developed in earnest—lest some erudite Professor Dorrien of the future come along and speak of the Unitarian Universalism that the 21st century left behind!

First, then, with respect to an understanding of our “incurably religious” humanity, we will develop Adams’s conceptions of the religious affections, “the primacy of the will,” and conversion.  And bear in mind that all these ideas, as Adams conceives them, turn on a conception of transcendence—an idea or a doctrine of God.

Here I follow the lead of the late Don Browning and suggest that these Adams Forums can serve as agenda-setting exercises for the development of liberal religious thought in the tradition of JLA.  In his 2009 lecture Browning said, “A theory of the affections and the pre-moral goods they imply is the dimension of his ethics for voluntary organizations that the followers of Adams need to address most.”[34]  “Pre-moral goods,” the goods we receive as gifts even before we choose them, appear in Adams’s work when, for instance, he speaks of the love and gratitude that underlie our covenants and keep them from degenerating into legal contracts.  He noted that William Ellery Channing found in “the natural affections”—filial love, benevolence, reverence, aesthetic appreciation, gratitude, esteem, and joy—ample evidence “that our nature is formed for religion.”[35]

Adams’s “affectional” understanding of theology stands in marked contrast to our usual “intellectualist” understandings.  He says, “Theology is, in the language of Bonaventura, ‘an affective science,’ the science of the love of God.”[36]  For Bonaventura, as for Adams, theology is a form of knowledge, a “science” or a systematic inquiry.  But it is driven by the sense of an “ultimate” already held in “intimate” feeling.  Beliefs are not propositions; they are things held dear, as the etymology of the word indicates, be-liefed, that is, beloved.

Adams often pairs terms that operate in both the affectional and the intellectual spheres: the intimate and the ultimate, doctrine and discipline, gift and task, power and grace, creation and covenant.  Surprisingly, for a theologian who made so much of the concept of power, he calls himself “a theologian of grace.”  We note, then, that he speaks of power as the capacity to participate, as equally receptive and assertive, as gift and task.  He said that the central doctrines with which religious liberals must learn to deal are grace and covenant: the gift of grace and the tasks of covenant.

I was also puzzled, at first, by the connection Adams drew between the “soft” affection, love, with the “hard” one, will.  Then I heard him paraphrase Augustine’s psychology: “We give attention in accord with our basic will, with our basic desire, our basic orientation or our love.  Ultimately our love determines what we give our attention to.”[37]  I have referred to the long intellectual lineage Adams finds for his intellectual conversion to “voluntarism.”  Now faith is seen as an inclination of the heart, freely affirmed.  Although emotionally affected by it, still we must deliberately choose it.  As Barbara still reminds me, “Nothing goes without saying.”

Modernist rationalism has taught us to think: “I know what ‘God’ means, the only question is, does such a being exist?”   Adams notes this fact and offers a post-modern alternative.  Giving ones faith and loyalty to something is humanly inevitable; the question, then, is whether or not this faith, this God, is reliable, in terms of what follows from it. “If we speak of a reality as ultimately reliable, as dependable, as sovereign, as sacred,” he said, “we are speaking of the divine, whether we use the word ‘God’ or not.”[38]  This allows us not to use (or over-use) the word “God,” but it also means that the reality of God is not an optional luxury.[39]

In his magisterial essay, “Natural Religion and the ‘Myth’ of the Eighteenth Century,” Adams argues that the rationalist idea of “natural” as distinct from “revealed” religion fails because of its a-historical assumptions.  He cites the historian, Adolph Harnack, “Like any living plant, religion only grows inside the bark,” and comments,  “Any natural religion that loses touch with the historical and the concrete substitutes ideas about religion for piety.”[40]  Piety—“spirituality” is today’s preferred term—must be a living plant, growing within its own bark, or it will be rejected by its own children—as phoney!

Adams often refers to “conversion” and relates it to the New Testament term, metanoia, usually translated “repentance.”  He distances himself from moralistic connotations of “repentance,” but is very much interested in fundamental change on the emotional, intellectual, and volitional levels.  Bernard Lonergan describes three interrelated levels of conversion—spiritual, intellectual, and moral; I have previously interpreted Adams’s life in these terms.[41]   Meta-noia or “re-pent” literally means to re-think or to change your mind;  I have found Richard R. Niebuhr’s translation, “new-mindedness,” to be helpful.[42]

Adams declares, “It is not reason alone, but reason inspired by ‘raised affections’ that is necessary for salvation.  We become what we love.”[43]  This vision is central to Adams’s quest for a transformed and transforming liberalism.  Already in 1941 he declared, “This element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that it is its prime source of its enfeeblement.  We liberals are an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people.”[44]  “The smiling prophet” wasn’t smiling.

A second cluster of terms, association, vocation, and covenant, arise when Adams deals with social, cultural, and political themes, as he so frequently does!  These terms form a bridge between religious and secular focal points of his thought are applicable both to the churches and to society.  He was most interested in the inter-relationship of faith communities and a democratic society; in fact, he sees modern democracy as rooted in the “free church” tradition, and sharing its fate today.  Churches as voluntary associations work most effectively on public issues in coalition with other religious and secular bodies, forming the associations of civil society.  Cooperative work is not easy to generate and sustain; there is a tendency for church communities, including the free church tradition, to feel under siege from outside forces and jealous of their independence; the effect is self-isolating.  So not all associations are created equal; authentic civic associations, Adams says, bring together diverse individuals and groups around shared concerns.  Institutional change is often effected by instituting controls from a central administration, but a better way lies in an old idea given new currency by Adams, the ecclesiola in ecclesia, the small group that sets out to call the large group “to task,” working from within and maintaining the bonds of affection.[45]

I have commented on Adams’s cardinal success, putting covenant on our “intellectual agenda.”  The idea has found myriad applications, from intimate “covenant groups” within congregations to a fresh understanding of congregational polity as much more than a charter for “autonomy.”  The Commission on Appraisal effectively redefined congregational polity as a covenant of interdependence, that is, an explicit recognition of  mutual affection and responsibility among self-determining congregations.  In these various ways a discipline and even a doctrine of the church—I call it “the religious necessity of religious community”—have begun to emerge.[46]  The theological dimension of “covenant” is still in need of development.  An authentic covenant is not to be reduced to a legal contract; it is a voluntary agreement formed in love and gratitude, as Adams invariably reminds us.  Ultimately it is a manifestation of the “community-forming power” which we call God.  History is formed by the making, breaking, and remaking of covenants; the creation itself is a “covenant of being.”[47]  Adams emboldens us to remove the humanist veto-power over theological language—language capable of re-connecting us with sacred tradition.

Association, vocation, and covenant are terms that link theology and sociology.    Theologically, Adams speaks of the one “human vocation,” the calling to authentic humanity that is common to all; sociologically, he speaks of the many vocations through which women and men achieve personal identity and serve their communities.[48]  The latter is not less important than the former; in fact, the former depends on the latter for its authentication.

Finally, a third cluster of ideas, sacred tradition, eschatology, and Christology, arise in relation to history, Adams’s central, motivating interest.  An insight he drew from his dear friend, Rudolf Otto, became a key to his thought: eschatology is a form of historical consciousness, a way of inviting the future through present discernment and decision.  Its liturgy dramatizes “the future present.”  In my essay, “Awakening to History,” I said, “For James Luther Adams, living with the lively awareness of the community-forming power of God in every present situation is the heart of the matter.  This inner-historical eschatology is the spring of an ethical urgency and an ultimate confidence.  Adams refers to the capsule statement of Jesus’ proclamation, in Henry Joel Cadbury’s translation, ‘the kingdom of God is available’  (Mark 1: 15). . . . Hence Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is within our grasp.  We need only to respond to this power which otherwise remains hidden in the present.”[49]

Adams recognized that his personal history was not a straight line from fundamentalism to liberalism.  He recognized that vitalities and interests rooted in his childhood and youth were present, in new form, in his maturity.  As a child he learned about “dispensationalism” as a key to the meaning of history.  Even the Bible has its Old and New Dispensations, but what gives us hope today?  Joachim of Fiore and Karl Marx, as far removed from each other as they were, were alike in their belief in the coming of a Third Great Age, an age of the Holy Spirit or an age of the Proletariat.  Years later, learning about Joachim, Karl Marx, and others, Adams said to himself: “Periodization!  I learned about that from the chart on my Sunday school wall!”  In my own Unitarian Sunday school I also learned about the great sweep of history from the “Histo-map of Religions,” likewise posted on the wall.  Good, but how do we find ourselves on this chart, and what directive does it give?

Adams’s seminal essay, “The Ages of Liberalism,” takes up Joachim’s vision of three great ages of the world, corresponding to the Persons of the Trinity.  But Adams’s great ages fall in a different order: Liberalism’s “Age of the Spirit” comes first, in the 16th and 17th centuries, with the rise of the Radical Reformation and the Renaissance.  Its “Age of the Creator” comes in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticist individuality and feeling—including Emerson’s version, called Transcendentalism.  But our shock of recognition comes with Adams’s Third Age: the 20th century and beyond as the Age of the Mediator, that is, the age of taking time seriously—that is, taking seriously the historical embodiments of religious meaning.[50]

Adams’s rhetoric is luminous: “The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth.”  That is the gift, and from it follows our task: “In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making.”[51]  That is, no one will even be able to hear such religious witness absent our own costing ethical commitments  to “the history that is in the making.”  That’s the “eschatological orientation” to which Adams would awaken us.

Asked if he were a Tillichean or a Whiteheadian, the Smiling Prophet answered, “There is always Troeltsch.”  Of the three he is most like Ernst Troeltsch, the liberal Christian scholar who wrestled continually with questions of truth in an age most conscious of how everything changes in time. “Historical relativism” may seem to deprive us of all certainties, and therefore of faith itself; but seeing in each distinctive historical moment a unique embodiment of truth, we gain the paradoxical sense of what Troeltsch called “history overcoming history.”  Adams explains: “Faith that is informed by a lively historical consciousness . . . gathers up [a] whole world of ideas at its point of departure,” embodied in what Troeltsch calls “a paradigmatic figure.  In Christianity this paradigmatic figure is ‘its founding prophet,’ Jesus, [who] in turn presupposes the prophets of the Old Testament.”[52]

Much liberal theology today illustrates the contrast between an intellectualist understanding of its task and Adams’s voluntarist understanding.  The former seems mainly concerned to rescue religion from the skepticism rooted in “modern knowledge and experience.”  Rather than accommodate to modernity Adams challenges “the vaunted spirit of the times” and re-appropriates the meaning-giving symbols of the past, seeking to grasp how God speaks to us in the present.[53]  A particularly straightforward statement on the nature of theology came in a letter Adams wrote in response to questions I put to him: “A way of defining theology, is to say that its function is to explicate the major symbols [of a religious tradition] in the light of a changing historical situation.”[54]   Thus theology is rooted in the symbols of a sacred tradition, and the language of religion is “symbolic action” (Kenneth Burke’s term).  Biblical symbols to which Adams often appealed are creation, fall, and redemption.  The definition is also inherently “liberal” in its assertion that theology must speak in contemporary terms to “the changing historical situation.”

Adams’s friends have tried to pin this protean figure down and extract the secret of his genius.  James Gustafson said his theological center was what he called “a creative reality that re-creates.”  Paul Tillich said “he represents the prophetic element in Christianity.”  Max Stackhouse said he was a “Pneumatological theorist,” for his  emphasis on the third Person of the Trinity.  George H. Williams said that “the main dynamic of his thought is indeed Binitarian,” the missing Person of the Trinity being the Second.  How odd, in view of the opposite suggestion of Donald Shriver, the former Union Seminary dean and one of his students!  At once playful and serious, Shriver said, “The Gospel is potentially seductive, especially in the person of James Luther Adams. . . . [He] introduced some of us to the possibility of a Unitarianism of the Second Person.”

Say what?  “It is hard to identify for a stranger what James Luther Adams taught us,” Shriver continues, “apart from telling that stranger who James Luther Adams is and who he became to us in our idiosyncratic autobiographies.  We all have our tales of how we were seduced. . . .  Adams resorts to [his stories] in glad abandon to historical concreteness, exemplifying that art in the narrative form alone seems to embody both history and synthesis.”  How is Adams’s storytelling and the continuous play of rhetorical language Christological?  It’s not just that many of his stories, drawn from his vast experience of humanity, are parables, just as Jesus’ utterances (Mark tells us) were continuously parabolic.  It’s that they are mediate awareness of judgment and grace, and do so in concrete, humanizing ways.  The Incarnation did not happen one day long ago; it happens everywhere and always; this is the start of a radical Christology.

I incorporated dozens of Adams’s stories in Transforming Liberalism, not because they are illustrative of an otherwise abstract message but because they are central to the substance of the message.  Donald Shriver suggests this when he recites several of Adams’s stories and then says: “Truth finally bears a human likeness, is revealed in human shape, emptying itself and humbling itself to our condition, becoming our servant, colleague, teacher, friend.  If this is not a Unitarianism of the Second Person, it is something equally remarkable.”[55]

My final suggestion to those intrigued by the improbable idea that we will find in Jim Adams’s past the prologue to a liberating faith for the 21st century, is this:  See theology as a rhetorical art, that is, as persuasive speech rooted in God’s ancient and continuing speech.  The erudite Erasmus scholar, Marjorie O’Rouke Boyle, has thrown a bright new light on a theological tradition in which Adams placed himself, namely, the Renaissance humanism that flowered in his “Age of the Spirit.”  Erasmus of Rotterdam, the early 16th century Christian humanist, satirist, New Testament scholar, and church reformer, sounds point by point precisely like Adams when you read Boyle’s description of his “rhetorical theology.”  Erasmus sought to displace the logic-chopping “dialectic” of the late Scholastics, in order to bring theology back to its true purpose, and Christianity to its true sources.  He spoke of (1) the centrality of love (caritas), (2) the primacy of the will, and (3) the vocation of theology to seek religious conversion.  Boyle writes, “Rhetoric seeks an act of the will, assent, and secures its religious end in conversion.  Conversion involves charity [caritas] alone. . . . The humanistic reform in theology was. . . [in] continuity with the medieval tradition of those mystical theologians from Bernard to Bonaventure and beyond who identified human excellence with will rather than the intellect, and who, not fortuitously, wrote rhetorically rather than dialectically about God.”[56]

Erasmus got in serious trouble when he challenged the authority of St. Jerome himself by translating the key word, Logos, in John 1: 1, “In the beginning was the Word,” not by the Latin Verbum, meaning “word,” but by Sermo, meaning “discourse” or “speech.”  He meant to convey: In the beginning was the full expression of the inner thought of God.[57]  Adams quibbled only with the past tense when he gave a baccalaureate sermon at Meadville Lombard, date uncertain, called, “In the Beginning Is the Word.” The present tense makes the discourse, the self-expression of God, continuous and contemporaneous.  As if to say: This prologue is not past!  Adams often spoke of the persuasive power of Jesus the parable-teller down through the centuries.  In this sermon he speaks of the liberal church as a “community of dialogue, a community of communication.”  And he adds, “one may say that this cosmos itself depends in a fashion upon communication—what happens on the sun affects us at every moment on earth.”  He asks, “Why should be not . . . seek a theology of communication, a theology of language, a theology of speech?”[58]

If this is not a call for a rhetorical theology, a theology whose aim and method is persuasive speech continuing the ancient and sacred tradition of God’s speech, it is something equally remarkable.  Toward the end of his sermo Adams sounds an Erasmean note: “’In the beginning is the word’ says that it is within the power of God to communicate with us.”  Astonishing sentence!

Again we come full circle and land in a new place.  Where Channing rang the changes on “the free mind,” Adams chanted: “I call that church free which is not bound to the present, which cowers not before the vaunted spirit of the times.  It earns and creates a tradition binding together past, present, and future in a living tether, in a continuing covenant and identity, bringing forth treasures both new and old.  God speaks, God has also spoken.”[59]

May James Luther Adams continue to elicit our involuntary attention.






Appendix A   Notes on Adams’s Unitarian Universalists activities

Adams was widely recognized as an intellectual leader among the Unitarians.  In 1934 he served briefly as Editor of the weekly journal, The Christian Register, seeking to increase its intellectual and social justice heft.  In the late 1940s Adams contributed essays to the two volumes of Together We Advance, books promoting Unitarian renewal, “A Faith for Free Men” and “The Evil That Good Men Do.”  Both treated the ambiguities of good and evil in human nature, especially the paradox that “good” people can be malicious under conditions that seem to them and others to be “reasonable and right” but in truth are deeply irrational.  To make such judgments requires, of course, philosophical or theological assumptions, the kind of reasoning that goes against the rationalist grain.  Adams emphatically did not participate in the AUA publication, “What Is This Neo-Orthodoxy?” which attacked Reinhold Niebuhr and other theologians for reviving the “anti-liberal” doctrine of original sin.  As a young Unitarian I found this booklet in my home church and was fascinated by it.  Years later, when Adams suggested that I research the question, was Reinhold Niebuhr a religious liberal? I asked him about it.  He said that Niebuhr had reacted to the Unitarian booklet with anger, calling it ignorant if not malicious.

This theological comment feels irresistible: Niebuhr did not call the liberals’ response itself evidence of original sin, but if he had, he could have moderated his anger, since it would then be more readily forgivable!  To believe in original sin is to believe that we are all morally fallible, and actually do fail, and still are responsible for our deeds. Therefore all are in need of the grace of forgiveness, all along the way.  This way of thinking I can ascribe to the influence of Adams, a self-styled “theologian of grace.”

In 1947 he was among fifty Unitarian ministers and lay leaders who published a statement “taking the National Committee of Free Unitarians to task for arguing for pure ‘spiritual’ religion with no social ethic,” as  reported by Charles Eddis (e-mail, May 3, 2011).  The words bear Adams’s linguistic fingerprints.  Decades later, when the same issue of individual freedom arose in relation to corporate denominational statements on social issues, Adams issued a short essay to the UUA General Assembly, “Why I Oppose the ‘Freedom of Conscience’ Resolution.’”  In a statement written for the Arlington Street Church, Boston, in 1981, he said the vocation of a liberal church is “to deliberate and decide the concerns of a people of free faith.” The controversy over “General Resolutions” has never entirely abated, but the system he supported has survived and been strengthened as the UUA has taken greater responsibility for its ways of formulating and following up on social pronouncements.

After the formation of the UUA out of its Unitarian and Universalist parent bodies in 1961, Adams became a member of an advisory board for the newly formed Department of Social Responsibility, directed by the Rev. Homer Jack, with whom he had previously worked on social justice issues, especially racism, in Chicago. Urban ministry, such as the inner-city project that engaged me in Cleveland in the mid-1960s, was one of several associational programs that Adams outlined for the Department.  He took part, as I did, in the 1967 conference in New York City, “Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion.” We witnessed the emergence of the Black Caucus among the participants.  The separatist stance of the movement for “black consciousness” and “black power” came as a shock to liberals who had long supported  racial integration, and this movement became highly controversial within the denomination and its congregations.  Adams joined with other “radicals” as a supporter of the briefly successful effort to fund a Black Affairs Council, in Cleveland in 1968 and in Boston in 1969.  In “Blessed Are the Powerful” Adams “ventures a new beatitude” to affirm the positive theological meaning of power—power as the capacity both to affect and to be affected—and the need of a relatively powerless group to adopt a radically new consciousness in order to empower themselves and effect social change. (This essay, and another on “The Black Rebellion and Greek Tragedy,” are found in Prophethood.)  This puts a complex matter too simply, but illustrates how Adams’s personal and intellectual engagement led him to join theological and sociological ideas in response to changing historical situations.

Adams also served on the advisory board of Beacon Press, a denomination-owned publishing house; in this role he promoted  the publication of significant scholarly works in translation, by Otto von Gierke, Gabriel Marcel, Rudolf Otto, and others.  Adams may also have promoted publication by Beacon Press of works by  Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion,  and by Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion. Otto is best known  for The Idea of the Holy, a work that deepened understanding of the experience of transcendence; Adams was especially influenced by Otto’s Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, which helped overcome the idea that had become prevalent in liberal theology, that Jesus’ “thoroughgoing eschatology” (as Albert Schweitzer named it) made his thought meaningless to the modern mind, even if his spirit still inspired.

Adams continued to enjoy influence among the Unitarian Universalists during the period following his return Harvard, but my casual observation suggests that his influence waned, except among his students and close friends, during this period.  He begins “Being Unitarian,” the penultimate chapter of his autobiography (35 pages in the original manuscript) by recounting his and Margaret’s decision, in 1971, to leave the nearby but politically conservative Cambridge church and join the Arlington Street Church, in Boston.  There his vocation was continued under the title Minister of Adult Education.

In 1973 Adams was honored with the UUA Distinguished Service Award.  In 1975, for the celebration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the founding of the American Unitarian Association, he delivered his prose poem, “The Church That Is Free,” an analogue to the famous passage by William Ellery Channing, “I call that mind free.”  Adams goes beyond Channing’s individualistic vision of “spiritual freedom” to affirm corporate commitment to what I have called “the covenant of spiritual freedom.”  I submitted this classic statement of Adams’s vision of “the free church” for a reading in the new UUA hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition (1993); a somewhat truncated version was included among the responsive readings (see no. 591). The full test is found in  Prophethood, pp 313-14 and The Essential JLA, pp. 17-19.

For many years Adams was honored with the title “Second Vice President” of the Unitarian Univeralist Christian Fellowship.  The growing prominence of the UUCF in the denomination has been abetted by Adams, who often published in its journal, The Unnitarian Universalist Christian, edited for many years by Thomas Wintle.

The James Luther Adams Foundation has promoted his legacy through an annual Adams Lecture, given at the UUA General Assemblies from 1977 to 1995, and at other venues, usually academic, from 1996 to the present.  The Foundation also maintains a website and has secured the editing and publication of his video-tapes on Germany in the 1930s and his autobiography, Not Without Dust and Heat. The earlier series of Adams lectures include my 1995 lecture given in Spokane, Washington—I was delighted to find Jim’s sister, Ella Adams, in attendance—and the 1985 lecture on “The Church as Witness to Peace” given in Columbus, Ohio by the distinguished Mennonite, John Howard Yoder; the latter can be read on my blog, www.campicello.wordpress.com.

Unitarian Universalist students deeply influenced by Adams who went on to university or theological school teaching careers include J. Ronald Engel, James D. Hunt, Carl Wennerstrom, and David B. Parke; an excerpt from Hunt’s dissertation, “James Luther Adams and His Demand for an Effective Religious Liberalism,” appears in the Adams Festschrift, edited by D. B. Robertson, Voluntary Associations: Essays in Honor of James Luther Adams (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1965).   During his teaching career at Meadville, Harvard, and finally at Andover-Newton several generations of Unitarian Universalist students (as well as others) were influenced by him.  Following my S.T.B. work at Harvard Divinity School, I began the Th.M. program under Adams, writing a dissertation on “Dialectic in the Ethics of Paul Tillich,” work completed in 1965 while serving as a parish minister in Marblehead, Mass.


Appendix B  Notes on the publication of Adams’s writings

My work editing Adams’s essays, sermons, reviews, and various other writings for publication began in the 1980s; the project was undertaken to fill what I saw as an enormous gap in the availability of his writings.  Many had appeared in scattered journals and books; others had never been published.  If he did not publish these works in accessible form, how would his legacy survive?

At the time only three books of Adams’s writings had been published: the 1945 doctoral dissertation on Paul Tillich, first published in 1965; a small collection of essays; Taking Time Seriously, published by friends as a gift marking his departure from Chicago (Chicago: The Free Press, 1957; long out of print); and the book of his essays edited by his student and former JLA Foundation President, Max Stackhouse, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press,1976, reprinted several times).  Herbert F. Vetter edited and secured publication of Adams essays and sermons in a 1977 issue of The Unitarian Unversalist Christian journal.  But for a decade that’s all we had in print.

I had communicated with Adams over the years, during parish ministries and an urban ministry, in Cleveland; he had given the sermon for my ordination, in Buffalo in 1961, and on the morning of my installation in Arlington, Virginia, in 1978.  I saw him at the annual conferences of the Collegium Association of Liberal Religious Scholars, meeting on Cape Cod.  The best brief but fairly comprehensive introduction to Adams, in his own words, is “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium,” which I edited from his extemporaneous responses to questions posed by Ronald Engel and me in two long sessions (see An Examined Faith, pp. 19-46).

Adams readily agreed when I said I would like to assemble some of his writings for publication.  The selections for The Prophethood of All Believers were made by me, often from works that Adams called to my attention and provided copies from his files.  I did not want to replicate works available On Being Human Religiously, but I did want to restore to their original form some texts, such as the important essay from 1946, “A Faith for Free Men” (published as “A Faith for the Free.”)  The section of this essay called “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” became “three tenets,” as in the original; the other two “stones” had been imported from other essays.  These and other changes, especially the arduous task of removing gender bias, were done with Adams’s consent and review of final versions.

Beacon Press wanted to publish Adams but was skeptical of sales potential; it would only publish a new collection if it came in with a subsidy, which I raised from the Veatch Committee foundation and a handful of individual donors.  Prophethood was published in hardback in 1986 and then in paperback.  Also in 1986 J. Ronald Engel edited and secured publication of Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation, a major collection of Adams’s essays on social ethics and theology; he undertook the project, he said, so that these works would be accessible to his students at Meadville Lombard.  I was aware of many works that had not made it into the Prophethood volume (1986); again with Adams’s encouragement (and approval of important editorial questions) I edited and gained publication of An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991)

I was disappointed when Prophethood was allowed to go out of print after only a few years.  I argued that the book would sell moderately over a long period, but Beacon responded that they couldn’t afford to warehouse it.  A decade later the other UUA publishing arm, Skinner House Books, declined to put Prophethood back in print but proposed a new, smaller compendium of Adams’s most accessible writings.  This was the origin of The Essential James Luther Adams (1998); it includes some of his more important essays drawn from the various previously published collections, including Stackhouse’s and Engel’s.  In 2005, having retrieved the copyright to Prophethood, I returned the book to publication through the printing-on-demand publisher, Lulu.

Challenges in creating these volumes were selection and organization, that is, imposing some order on the notoriously “unsystematic” JLA.  My introductions to the three collections and section introductions provided editorial rationale and interpretation.  I had numerous discussions with him—at home on Francis Ave., with peanut butter on toast as the preferred fare for lunch—about these matters.  He made suggestions about works to include but left most of the decision-making to me to a surprising extent.  Engel, Stackhouse, and Vetter probably had the same kind of experience.  JLA did not try to micromanage his own legacy, and greatly appreciated the interest others took in it.

In 1999 I gave a series of six Minns Lectures, two each at Harvard, Meadville Lombard, and Starr King theological schools, under the title “The Parables of James Luther Adams.”  I felt that the stories and rhetorical expressions of Adams were not only an enduring part of his literary legacy but also much more than embellishments or illustrations of his thought.  They were essential to his way of “doing theology,” namely, what has been called rhetorical theology, rooted in Renaissance humanism and recently developed as “logology” by Kenneth Burke in The Rhetoric of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).  The Minns Lectures were revised and greatly expanded to become Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House, 2005)..  The only other book-length study of Adams’s thought is Taking Time Seriously: James Luther Adams, by John Wilcox (University Press of America, 1978).





Notes on the lecture

The titles of books frequently cited are abbreviated as follows:

Prophethood:  James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).

An Examined Faith:  James Luther Adams, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

Essential JLA:  James Luther Adams, The Essential James Luther Adams, edited and with an introduction by George Kimmich Beach (Boston: Skinner House, 1998).

Dust and Heat: James Luther Adams, Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir (Chicago:Exploration Press, 1995).

Transforming Liberalism:  George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House, 2005).


1  Gary Dorrien, “Theology in a Liberal, Post-Kantian, Postmodern Spirit,” UUA General Assembly, Charlotte, North Carolina, June 24, 2011.

2  Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, & Postmodernity 1950-2005 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), pp. 134ff.

3  “Prophetic Theology: Interrupting the Meeting,” An Examined Faith, pp. 145ff.

4  Quoted from Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” (1838), David B. Parke, The Epic of Unitarianism (Boston: Starr King Press, 1957), p.110.  See also Parke’s concluding selection in this documentary history, from James Luther Adams, who he describes as representative of “a new frontier of faith. . . conceived not in optimism but in the chaos, suffering, and anxiety of the modern world.  Believing that the traditional liberal answer of Man’s primary and ultimate dependence on his own powers to solve his problems has proved inadequate, it is willing to explore new sources of power and truth, most notably Christian theology, Existentialist philosophy and the social and personality sciences” (p.149).

5  Prescott H. Wintersteen, ironically in view of his book’s subject, criticized  Adams’s theology as offering little; see Christology in American Unitarianism (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, 1977), p. 127.

Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (2005), is one of only two books on Adams’s thought.  The other is John R. Wilcox, Taking Time Seriously: James Luther Adams (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1978).

7  The Continental Conference of Liberal Religious Youth was held in June, 195? at Cheshire Academy, Cheshire, Connecticut.

8  Authenticity in the existentialist sense of the term is a key to Adams’s thought.  See “The Existentialist Thesis,” in An Examined Faith, pp. 172ff.

9  A couple of years later, at Oberlin College, I was at Channing Club, meeting Barbara (who’d come trolling, I believe), and devising a way to put Unitarianism in the map of this liberally unreligious student body.  Not easy.  I’d been casting about for a positive religious stance, myself.  From my home minister, Wayne Shuttee, I’d heard about “the new naturalism” of Henry Nelson Wieman.  I read Kenneth Patton on the new Universalism as a humanistic “universal religion.”  Scientific humanism was exemplified by the philosophy professor—our Channing Club faculty adviser—who taught that “mind” was a myth, since there was only a “brain.” (An acerbic classmate quipped, “When his kid stubs his toe and cries, he says, ‘There, there, Sonny, never brain!’”)  I also remembered James Luther Adams.  So we secured a Billings Committee grant for promoting Unitarianism on college campuses, and once again this remarkable professor made himself available. Adams spoke at Finney Chapel, the large hall named for the famous evangelist and former President of Oberlin, but the only thing I remember of it was his opening with a Biblical text: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”  It baffled me.  Remember, I went to a Unitarian Sunday school!

A major address from this time, “Our Responsibility in Society,” bears the same Pentecost text and addresses several of Adams’s characteristic themes: faith as “response to reliable power,” “love made concrete in the new community,” “the institutional consequences of belief,” “radical laicism and the dispersion of power,” “the free churches and the growth of democracy”—in sum, “the vocation of social responsibility” in which all are joined by the Holy Spirit. (See Prophethood, pp. 151ff.)  Adams made audible a faith and an ethic shaped by the rhetoric of “prophetic theology.”

Years later I gave a sermon on why Pentecost, embodying the miracle of “unity in diversity,” should be a chief Unitarian Universalist holiday, as it is for the Transylvanian Unitarians; see “Our Truest Myth,” The Unitarian Universalist Christian, 48:1-2 (1993), pp. 27ff.  Was anybody listening?  Recently I attended the dedication for a new building of an old UU church; the fact that it was Pentecost Sunday was not even alluded to by the several ministerial and lay participants!  Adams affirms “unity in diversity” in “The Church That Is Free,” with a reminder that in the end diversity trumps unity; see Adams, Prophethood, pp. 313f.

10  Gary Dorrien comments that Adams “tended to speak his most direct words to Unitarian Universalist audiences.” Why so?  Because this was the community in which he was personally invested.  I observed how quickly people meeting him for the first time came to feel a personal connection with him; a dominating presence, he nevertheless went out of his way to connect with them.  He sustained relationships, too, corresponding with myriad friends and acquaintances.  Dorrien, op. cit., p. 143.

11  This continued his practice at Meadville, and before that with high school students in his congregations.  Sessions began at 9 p.m., after your evening hitting the books, for talk and refreshments (nothing stronger than cider).  Which meant that Adams  held forth and responded to concerns we raised about classes and theology and the denomination. Or he would just hold forth, perhaps about Stravinsky, or perhaps Cezanne.

Here is an example of what was for me a memorable insight from one of those evening sessions: The question was raised of God as “personal.”  Adams said that if you start with an impersonal concept of God, you are likely to end with a sub-personal concept, a God who cannot rise to the level of our personal, concern.  To develop this idea in my own terms: If God is “relational” not simply in an abstract sense but with actual people, then God must be in some sense “personal”—certainly not “a person” but underlying and evoking the personal level of existence.  Sacred tradition nourishes this understanding; for instance, consider that Yahweh calls to Moses out of the unconsumed burning bush by name, “Moses, Moses!”  Moses asks for God’s calling card in return.  Moses’s prophetic vocation arises not from a “God concept” but from an encounter that calls upon him in person, even by name (his particular person.). It’s an idea that can only be captured in an eventful story, here a “call and response.” God’s action activates and directs Moses’s consciousness and action.  This illustrates the volitional character of Adams’s theology: An existential concern is one that rises to the level of personal decision.

12  Adams had long been a translator of Tillich and a leading interpreter of this thought, notably in The Protestant Era (1948), essays largely drawn from his “religious socialist” period in Germany, and in his doctoral dissertation, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (published 1965).  See also his inaugural address at Harvard, “The Chief End of Human Existence” in regard to the line he drew against Barthian “proclamationism,” also known as “kerygmatic” or “neo-orthodox” theology.  But he takes a more positive view of Barth in “Prophetic Theology: Interrupting the Meeting”; he sees Barth’s original intent, to stand against “culture religion,” as prophetic.  See An Examined Faith, pp. 145ff.  Adams’s grudging admiration for Barth is seen here; the “meeting” he interrupts is the deliberate accommodation to modern thought promoted by liberal theology; “modern experience” may simply represent what Adams called “the vaunted spirit of the times.”

13  Adams gathered many seemingly contradictory ideas into his thought.  He could be scathing toward “pietism” and religious “inwardness”: “A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion.”  But the print of Albrecht Duerer’s The Praying Hands, which hung over his desk at home (a study for the altarpiece of the Dominican church in Frankfurt, 1524), has become a cliché of popular piety. He spoke about this image in 1985 on Herb Vetter’s Cambridge Forum radio series: “The praying hands point to the source of being and meaning beyond all creatures.  As Boswell’s Dr. Johnson would say, ‘These hands express more than wonder.  They express awe before the divine majesty.’  Or as Augustine would say: They warn us against giving to any creature the love that belongs alone to the Creator, whether that creature be a liturgical formula, an institution, or a document.  Each of these creatures may point to the ultimate ground, but none can exhaust it or define its bounds.  It cannot be spatialized.”  (An Examined Faith, p. 48.)

Adams has often been at odds with what have become typical liberal attitudes, as we see in his reading of “The Praying Hands” as a symbol of the Creator’s absolute transcendence over “the creation,” the whole natural order.  A Humanist denominational leader said that this concept of God is exactly what Unitarian Universalists reject!

Another point of tension raised by Adams’s words underlies his temporal / spatial polarity.  He tends to extol the former and to denigrate the latter, and in this some hear in this a denigration of nature, a neglect of environmentalism.  Adams did express the centrality of nature in his comments on his friend George H. Williams, also a liberal Christian.  (See An Examined Faith, pp. 94ff.; on p. 104 he comments on Williams’s Wildernes and Paradise in Christian Thought [1962]).  But I don’t think Adams adequately addressed this issue.  To him, “spatialization” was what fundamentalists do with the Bible, or what the Nazis do with “blood and soil,” whereas prophetic faith seeks God in the temporal dimension.  It is a question that calls for making distinctions between authentic and inauthentic (or idolatrous) uses of symbols.  Adams followed Tillich’s concept of an authentic symbol as one that “points beyond itself”and, paradoxically, also “participates” in the transcendent power to which it points.

14  The spiritual power that he felt in Duerer’s The Praying Hands I had felt in Wolfgang Stechow’s course on the history of printmaking at Oberlin, especially Duerer’s astonishing drawing, Agony in the Garden (1524), with its unusual prone figure of Christ and disciples in deep sleep.    Anomalous as it may seem for a young Unitarian, this image deeply affected me.  A reproduction of the Duerer drawing appears, with commentary, on my blog, www.campicello.wordpress.com (April, 2011 posting).  Adams knew Stechow and his work; Stechow took part in the symposium initiated by Adams on “The Grotesque,” giving a paper on Hieronymus Bosch; see The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections, ed. James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

15  “Taking Time Seriously” is reprinted in Prophethood, pp. 33ff., and in The Essential JLA, pp. 87ff.

16  Unlike Adams I grew up Unitarian, and have known the joys of  “being set at liberty,” in John F. Hayward’s felicitous phrase, that it has brought me.  I believe that’s what it brought to Adams, too, and that’s why he chose it.  The essence of Unitarianism, I believe, is “spiritual freedom,” an idea rooted in Channing, Luther, and St. Paul. But I have also seen our almost compulsive drive to dis-appropriate sacred tradition, losing any sense of that which has made us, and on account of which we are able to make whatever worthy things we can.  I think that this is why Adams was so interested in “the use of symbols” in theology and in uncovering the “root metaphors” of philosophy, and why he developed so effectively his “rhetoric of religion.”  These were the means of a critical and creative re-appropriation.

17  See Prophethood, p. 32.

18  “Taking Time Seriously,” Prophethood, p. 41.  His accent on the “dialectical” character of Tillich’s thought is striking.  Adams discusses the way Tillich was influenced by Friedrich Schelling, especially his “existential dialectic,” in “The Existentialist Thesis” (date uncertain), first published in An Examined Faith, pp. 172ff.; see especially the section “Theological Existentialism—Paul Tillich,” pp.180ff.  These matters are dealt with briefly in my book on Adams’s theology, Transforming Liberalism, p. 54, and more fully in my Th.M. dissertation written under Adams, “Dialectic in the Ethics of Paul Tillich,” Harvard Divinity School, 1965.

19  See the lengthy chapter “On Being Unitarian,” in typescript version, a small portion of which appears in Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1995).   See also: In The Prophethood of All Believers,  “Taking Time Seriously,” “Changing Frontiers of Liberal Religion,” and “The Church That Is Free,”  and in An Examined Faith,  “A Come-Outer,” “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium,” “The Latest Word,” “Reminiscences of Paul Tillich,” and “The Liberal Christian Holds Up the Mirror.”  The Essential James Luther Adams includes other works bearing on his biography, “Taking Time Seriously” and “The Evolution of My Social Concern.”

20  The story is told with small variations in “Taking Time Seriously,” Prophethood, p. 34, and “A Come-Outer,” Examined Faith, p. 17.  Subsequently, Norman Henderson, pastor of the University Baptist Church, advised against joining the Unitarians: he’d find them too far out of the main stream, and added, soto voce, that he was himself theologically Unitarian!  Adams went on to talk to John Dietrich, and said he wasn’t sure he was cut out for the pastoral side of ministry.  Dietrich replied, not at all soto voce, that as a Unitarian he was free to address any secular concern, and he didn’t feel constrained to make home visits.  Ah, true confessions!  The Unitarians offered him scholarship aid for theological school, even though he said he wasn’t committed to Unitarian ministry; they said, that’s okay, no strings attached, and he went for it.

21  Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 79. It was not an easy switch for one raised Plymouth Brethren.  His father, a dominating figure in his childhood and adolescence, was appalled by his “loss of faith in Jesus.”  Already as a teenager he created a serious breech, leaving home after a wrenching argument to live at the Y.  After several days he relented and returned home.  In a veritable re-enactment of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he tells how his father came to him and embraced him with tearful tenderness.  Such a breech is only healed, as he learned and also taught, by love and forgiveness.  Still, years later when his mother visited him in Salem, she could not, despite Margaret’s entreaties, bring herself to hear her son preach.  When Adams called himself a “come-outer,” like many Unitarians, he knew whereof he spoke.

22  His mature view is more affirmative; as theology is “faith seeking understanding,” ethics is “faith seeking understanding in the realm of action,” thus inviting us to seek both the faith that guides meaningful action and action that fulfills meaningful faith.  At heart he was a theologian most interested in the way religious belief-systems shape social-ethical commitments.  See “Ethics” entry by Adams in A Handbook of Christian Theology, ed. Marvin Halverson (New York, 1958), pp. 110ff.

23  Citation from Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 81.  Dean Willard Sperry originally sparked his interest in von Huegel.  In “Taking Time Seriously” Adams says of von Huegel: His “philosophy of critical realism, his emphasis on the role of the body [in liturgical worship], history, and institutions in religion, his attack (along with Maritain’s) by the ‘pure spirituality’ of unhistorical , non-institutional, non-incarnational religion became determinative for my conception of religion.”  His essay, “The Sacred and the Secular: von Huegel”—approving the very distinction that the Humanist Manifesto denied, appeared in the Unitarian journal, Christian Register; it is reprinted in Prophethood, pp. 61ff.  Adams’s statement on “the mystical element in religion” is cited in Transforming Liberalism, p. 51.  His discussion of von Heugel’s critique of William James is found in the essay on James, “No Man for Committees” (what James said of himself!), in An Examined Faith, pp. 83ff.

24  Concluding his chapter on Margaret he cites part of his sermon, “God Is Love”:  “In the moment of greatest enjoyment of musical forms are burst and transcended, and our individual forms are somehow broken through. The song of the stars at the morning of creation is sung in us and through us again,  . . . a song of love that is sung through vital and healthy natural love, through the love of friendship, and through the agape of the New Testament.  The same could be said of the dance, an old religious rite.” (An Examined Faith, p. 218)  Perhaps he was thinking of Wagner’s “Liebestod”!

25  Eliot promoted new programs for religious education, youth work, church extension, publications, and international social service; no doubt abetted by propitious sociological trends, these led to strong Unitarian growth in the 1940s and ‘50s.  On this chapter in Unitarian history, see Carol R. Morris, “Frederick May Eliot and the Unitarian Renaissance,” A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism, Conrad Wright, ed. (Boston: UUA, 1975), pp. 125ff.

26  Prophethood, p. 37.

27  Adams’s autobiography (especially the full MS) tells much about his studies with these scholars.  See also his essays, “The Classical Humanism of Irving Babbitt,” in An Examined Faith, and “The Lure of Persuasion: Some Themes from Whitehead,” in Prophethood.

28  “Babbitt’s appeal is essentially religious,” Adams writes. “The humanist’s point of reference is an ‘immortal essence,’ the proper relation to which develops humility.  The immediate awareness of it furnishes him the ‘psychological equivalent’ of the doctrine of grace and the doctrine of original sin.”  (An Examined Faith, p. 72.) Adams felt that Babbitt provided a more serious treatment of such fundamental ideas than he found in his Divinity School studies, especially ideas correcting the romanticist understanding of human nature that characterized religious liberalism; Babbitt’s term, “the primacy of the will,” entered into Adams’s vocabulary as a counterpoise to “intellectualism.”

Relative to my own development, I see Babbitt doing for Adams what Tillich did for me, namely, give impetus to a re-appropriation of Christian  theology in ways that made existential sense.  Adams saw Tillich’s way of translating and re-vivifying theological language as a key to his creativity; for this reason “The Need for a New Language,” from his dissertation on Tillich, was selected for the Prophethood collection.  Again following his suggestion, his last written essay on Tillich, “The Storms of Our Times and the Starry Night,” was selected for the An Examined Faith collection; it develops what he felt it was his most important contribution to Tillich studies, namely, seeing that he fell within the voluntarist philosophical tradition.

29  The full story is related in Transforming Liberalism, pp. 225-28.  His experiences in Germany in the1930s are the source of many of Adams’s most memorable stories, including: Arguing with young Nazis at a rally in Nuremberg and being rescued by a socialist worker who saw he was about to get his “head bashed in.”  Meeting his old friend Peter Brunner who returned from imprisonment in Dachau to preach against the regime because, he said, he “must be faithful to his ordination vows.”  Having his baggy overcoat pockets stuffed with subversive literature by students at the underground Confessing Church seminary—who calculated, as the police arrived, that they would not search an American.  Asking professor Hans Balla, at a farewell reception in Marburg,  “What shall I tell them of your warm  hospitality here in Germany, when I return home?” and Balla crossing the room, shaking the newspaper in his hand, and shouting Nichts, nichts!” –that is, don’t lie for the sake of being polite!  Arguing with the Nazi “intellectual” who finally shouted, “How could God be against us?  God is in us!”  These stories and many other entered into my Minns Lectures for 1999, given at Harvard, Meadville/Lombard, and Starr King theological schools; the lectures were revised and greatly expanded in Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams.

30  Adams’s voluntarism might seem to invite anti-intellectualism, as when he says that believing that history has a meaning is more important than believing in God; for we still need to ask what authenticates any particular view of “the meaning of history.”  At other times he was highly critical of liberals who reduce religion to morality, such as the 19th century President of Meadville Theological School who “betrays the intellectual disciplines with a kiss.”  See Transforming Liberalism, pp. 30f.  On the dialectical relation of religion and morality, see “Neither ‘Mere Morality’ Nor ‘Mere God’,” An Examined Faith, pp. 305ff.

31  See “From Cage to Covenant,” Prophethood, pp.136ff. and “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern,” An Examined Faith, pp. 234ff.  Covenant, Adams notes, is one of the great political metaphors imported into the religious realm.  Archeological research has shown that early “covenants” were suzerainty treaties between a king and a vassal state, announcing the gifts of peace and prosperity of the king to the subject people and stipulating their responsibilities in return.  The term came to be used in the Bible—see especially  Joshua 24—as a way stipulating the responsibilities of the Israelites to their (past and continuing) divine benefactor, Yahweh, and to each other.  Hence “the two tablets” of the Decalogue.  The idea has a long history, significantly touching the role of social contract theory in the emergence of democracy, and the “covenant theology” of the American Puritans.  Drawing on Adams and on this history, I have proposed a conception of ethics rooted in the covenant-sustaining value commitments named by the Biblical prophets.  See “Covenantal Ethics,” The Life of Choice: Some Liberal Religious Perspectives on Morality, ed. Clark Kucheman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 107ff., and “The Moral Covenant,” Questions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House, 2002), pp. 91ff.

32  Letter to the author from Walter Royal Jones, dated 200?.  Ironically, in view of Adams’s role in the original Commission of Appraisal, and his call for “explicit faith,” the Commission on Appraisal recently proposed to revise the Principles statement in a way that would wash out the strongest ethical and theological terms named among “the sources of our living tradition.”  In its place they proposed generalized language in paragraph form, arguing that enumerating specific sources could be incomplete, or  misunderstood, or cause for dissent.  Some of us succeeded in beating back this “improvement,” but only narrowly; I was shocked by the apathy of most ministers, and heartened by the concern of many laypersons, who spoke of the Sources section of the statement as important to efforts to develop an effective Unitarian Universalist narrative.

33  Tempestuous is the way he liked it, as the title of his autobiography, a phrase from Milton, indicates: Not Without Dust and Heat.  The published autobiography runs 465 pages, including about half of the typescript of some 1200  pages, in 35 chapters, drawn together by Linda L. Barnes and Louise M. Des Marais. The full manuscript was deemed too long to publish in full; copies are available to students at Harvard Divinity School Archives and the Arents Research Library, Syracuse University.  Adams’s essays and addresses are also important sources for his biography.

34  Don Browning, “Religion and Civil Society: In James Luther Adams, Abraham Kuyper, and Catholic Social Teachings,” James Luther Adams Lecture (Chicago, 2009), MS p. 20.

35  Channing discusses “the natural affections” in “The Religious Principle in Human Nature,” Works (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1895), pp. 933-34; see also p. 393.

36  The Essential JLA, 76.

37  An Examined Faith, p. 38.  Tillich also said in a lecture at Harvard, “Love is an act of will.”

38  An Examined Faith, p. 361.  I have found that, when ministering to congregations that are edgy about God-language, sacred circumlocutions have a theological up-side: your prayers need to speak to God in ways that name God’s presence in concrete terms.  Authentic faith knows that God is hidden, a creativity and a mystery, as Adams’s colleague, the late Gordon Kaufmann emphasized.  Idolatry, the old name for inauthenticity, worships lifeless objects of our own devising, as the Psalmist asserts (see Ps. 115: 3-8).

39  A prominent minister, recently addressing a large audience of Unitarian Universalists on “Theology for a Secular Age,” cited Augustine, “I believe, therefore I understand,” and commented, “Children of the Enlightenment move in the opposite direction: not from belief to understanding but from understanding to belief.”  At first I thought he was going to say we must move on from Enlightenment to “post-modern” forms of thought, but I was wrong; he was differentiating “our liberal way” of thought from that of traditional religion.  Adams moves, rather, from belief to understanding—“I believe in order that I may understand,” in Anselm’s famous formulation.  He sees, with Wittgenstein, that religion is not an answer-book but a frame of reference that enables us to speak out of a total orientation to life.  See Transforming Liberalism, p. 287.

40  Prophethood, p. 123. “Revelation” is a historical category in the sense that revelatory events, although depicted as supernatural, become paradigmatic for a community of faith.

41  See my Introduction to Prophethood, pp. 14-17.

42  See George Kimmich Beach, Questions for the Religious Journey, Chapter 6, “Newmindedness,” pp.111ff.

43  The Essential JLA, pp. 77ff.

44  Ibid. p. 78.

45  On “authentic voluntary associations,” see An Examined Faith, pp. 40ff.  It would be interesting to know what Adams would have said about the recent decision of the Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association to abolish the entire category of  “Affiliated Organizations,” as defined in the denomination’s Bylaws, thus removing their right to an independent voice in UUA meetings, an action “justified” by allegations that some groups were abusing their privileges.  Under the newly established system the participation of “independent groups” is managed by the heads of denominational departments.  He probably would have said that, rather than subvert the independence of these voluntary associations by subjecting them to bureaucratic controls, the UUA should have pursued more thorough discussion of mutual responsibilities between ecclesiola and ecclesia in quest of  a new covenant.

46  Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity, Commission on Appraisal (Boston: UUA, 1997).  I was project manager for this work and wrote the pertinent section, “Theological Perspective” (pp. 7-17).  In “Awakening to History: The Prophecy of James Luther Adams,” I said, “Adams has taken hold of the liberal religious chain at its weakest link: the doctrine of the church.  He has made the historical community central, and around it hs forged new links”; many are then named (op. cit., p. 69).  Adams apparently approved of this summary of his thought since he cited it in his autobiography (unpublished version).

47  In a surprising lapse of memory Adams was uncertain, when I asked him, about the origin of the term, “covenant of being.”  He thought it might have been used by Jonathan Edwards, in “On Being” or another philosophical writing, but after researching the question he came up blank.  Some time after his death I discovered that Fritz Kaufmann published an essay, “On the Covenant of Being,” in the Journal of the Liberal Ministry,(Vol. III, No. 3 [Fall, 1963], pp. 154-157).  I don’t believe that Adams had used the term prior to this time.  He would have liked Kaufmann’s essay.  Adams was on Alan Deale’s Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal when Kaufmann’s essay was published,  and mentions having had “a personal attachment [with Kaufmann] because he combined religion and aesthetics.”  See Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 322.

On “the covenant of being,” see Transforming Liberalism, pp. 276ff.  See also, George Kimmich Beach, “James Luther Adams’s ‘Covenant of Being’ and Charles Hartshorne’s ‘Divine Relativity’,” The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 58 (2003), pp. 57-70.

48  In his writings Adams dealt frequently with education, a central function of which he saw as “identity formation.”  He defines this concept in a way that again shows the influence of Babbitt: “the capacity to understand ones relationship to the past as one works to articulate ones own relationship both to the present and the future, and to some ground of ultimate meaning.”  He notes that he includes the dimension of transcendence, as Babbitt’s humanism did not.  See Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 110.  An inveterate self-improver, Adams tells that in mid-life he managed to secure a violin teacher, a first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra!  His rationale?  “The insistence on discipline enables one to think and enrich the memory and ultimately to achieve self-identity.” See The Essential JLA, p. 1.

49  George K. Beach, “Awakening to History: The Prophesy of James Luther Adams,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 7:2 (May, 1986), pp. 59-74.  In this essay I noted that “many modern interpreters have dissolved the eschatological dimension of Jesus’ teaching with the conclusion that he was, after all, ‘mistaken’, [for] the imminent coming the kingdom of God on which his entire ministry seems to have been predicated did not materialize. . . . [Thus we] assume we already know the meaning of a transcendent reality—the only question is whether it exists.  We beg the very question on which radical insight depends.”  The Jesus Seminar generally rejects eschatology and conversion from their picture of the historical Jesus, e.g., commenting on Mark 1: 15, “In the gospels, Jesus is rarely represented as calling on people to repent. . . . Like the apocalyptic view of history, the call to repentance may well have been derived from John [the Baptist] and then attributed to Jesus.”  The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 41.  Adams believes that Jesus was motivated by a  conviction that he lived in a time when God’s in-breaking kingdom—Richard R. Niebuhr calls it “God-ruling”—empowered him and all who so believed.  We may note also that this is in keeping with Adams’s Unitarian view: “Jesus did not come bringing the Reign of God, rather the Reign of God comes bringing such as he. . . .” (An Examined Faith, p. 370).

50  “The Ages of Liberalism” (1957), An Examined Faith, pp. 337ff.

51  In Adams’s original version, the latter two ages were called the Age of the Father and the Age of the Son; by opting for gender-neutral terms, with his explicit approval, I have provided “functional” theological terms: Creator and Mediator.  This is consistent, I believe, with seeing the Trinity functionally, not as “persons” but as persona, like the masks used in ancient drama.  In this understanding, the historical Jesus becomes the paradigmatic figure called Christ, the Mediator between the Creator and the creation, bridging the chasm of estrangement however deep it may become.

A whole volume could be—indeed, should be—assembled from Adams’s numerous references to Jesus and to Christological themes.  They do not draw an entirely consistent picture, but they are often insightful and suggest new lines of thought.  Jesus in his view witnesses to the power of God at work in the world in ways that, like “the seed growing secretly,” are hidden from “the violent” and revealed (or perhaps to-be-revealed) to the eyes and ears of faith.  When this Jesus-the-parable-teller becomes the model for our ministries of teaching and healing, and his life becomes the master parable of God’s presence, then, as Adams says, “a Christology becomes inevitable.”  The modernist Jesusology gives way to a post-modern, functional Christology; the Age of the Mediator is the age when metaphor and symbolism reshape the theological imagination.

52  An Examined Faith, p. 307.

53  Prophethood, p. 55.  Adams elsewhere comments that no religion thrives without its “sacred text,” a source of continuing reflection and commentary, debate and discussion; he cites Goethe, “A tradition cannot be inherited, it must be earned.”  I would add: We don’t have “the historical Jesus,” we have the Gospels; as I learned from Adams long ago, their diversity is not a scandal of mutual contradictions but a banquet of diverse witness.   Such texts carry forward what Troeltsch called “a concrete content of ideas,” a sacred tradition that forms the core of a viable religion.

54  From a letter to the author, June 8, 1988.  For reference to three ways in which Adams has defined theology, see Transforming Liberalism, p. 22.  On his use of “Creation, the Fall, and Redemption” as the substantive pattern of  Christian faith and the liberal Christian accent on relating these and other symbols to contemporary concerns, see Transforming Liberalism, pp. 288-89.  Regarding contemporary concerns, Adams sees liberalism as addressing questions of history and ethical will: What should we choose in the face of forces that are destructive of human freedom and community?  See the brief essay, “Why Liberal?” (The Essential JLA, pp. 149-51.)

55  See Transforming Liberalism, pp. 41-43.  Shriver’s essay, “Truth Befriended: James Luther Adams as a Teacher,” appeared in Union Seminary Quarterly Review  XXXVII: 3 (November 3, 1982) pp. 197ff.

56  Boyle on Erasmus: “The theologian’s task is the faithful transmission of creative Speech for the rebirth of civilization.  Even the unlettered may aspire to this profession because its method begins simply enough in the cultivation of ones own humanity, in the maturation through learning that is the true imitation of Christ.” Erasmus said, “All can be theologians”; and Adams said, “All are theologians,” for all people have some sense of ultimate concern, at least if they’re not utterly stuck in nihilism.  Boyle continues, “Erasmus’ rhetorical theology is both rich and diffuse enough to accommodate generously many perceptions of its designing genius, even conflicting ones.  Thus contemporaries thought him paratactic and protean.”  The same has been said of Adams:  Stop already, Jim, we can’t pin you down!   See Marjorie O’Rouke Boyle, “Rhetorical Theology: Charity Seeking Charity,” Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, eds. Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 87ff.  See also Transforming Liberalism, pp. 62-63.

57  A fuller explanation is in order: In his Latin translation of the New Testament based on research of ancient manuscripts, Erasmus made bold to correct St. Jerome where the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Logos” (John 1: 1).  For Logos he uses sermo, meaning speech or discourse, rather than verbum, meaning word.  Logos does not simply mean “a word” but bears multiple gradations of meaning in Greek.  In the controversy which followed Erasmus was attacked for deviant interpretation, if not heresy, on grounds that his translation might imply that the Incarnation of Christ was not a singular historical event but is continuous and multiple, as the full and ongoing expression of God. He defended both the accuracy of his translation of Logos and his orthodoxy, but as Boyle’s scholarly study shows, Erasmus also sought a fresh and vivid understanding of the Second Persona of God, in keeping with his humanizing theological vision.  She expresses Erasmus’s root idea thus: “Theology artfully discloses the hidden meaning of the gospel, the heart of which beats beneath the skin of the letters.”  See Marjorie O’Rouke Boyle, Erasmus on Language and Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), pp. 3ff, and p. 119.  The same ground is briefly covered in Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 140.

58  An Examined Faith, p. 367.

59  Prophethood, pp. 313f.   Also The Essential JLA, p. 18.