2019 Forum: Jared A. Farley, The Political Life, Influence, and Philosophy of James Luther Adams

Jared A. Farley, Ph.D.

New Mexico Military Institute

Presented at the University of New Mexico, November 10, 2019

Respondents: The Reverend Angela Herrera and the Reverend Judith Deutsch



The Political Life, Influence and Philosophy of James Luther Adams


Scholars regard James Luther Adams as the most influential Unitarian theologian of the 20th century (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 2).  The scholarly world recognizes Adams most in for translating and disseminating liberal Protestant Paul Tillich’s writings to American audiences.  In total, Adams translated, edited, or wrote five books concerning Tillich’s theology.  Adams is renowned within Christian Ethics scholarship as a seminal advocate of active membership in voluntary associations.  Finally, Adams is notable because of his familiarity with the German Confessing Church movement inside Nazi Germany in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II.  His remarkable academic career spanned nearly fifty years, earning degrees from and teaching at such distinguished institutions as Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago.  During that time, he published 348 separate articles, book chapters and books, which listed in a bibliography consumes 25 pages in an appendix of his 1995 memoir Not Without Dust And Heat (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 428-452).  In addition, Dr. Adams found time to serve terms as editor for seven theological journals, including The Journal of Liberal Religion (Meadville) and The Journal of Religion (Chicago).  All of his awards and honors are too numerous to mention, but he was a Fulbright Research Scholar, awarded 3 honorary doctorates, including one from the prestigious University of Marburg in Germany, and recognized with the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Liberal Religion by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in 1973 (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 79-87).


Less acknowledged are James Luther Adams’ political life, political influence and political philosophy.  During the first part of his career, Professor Adams became heavily involved in Chicago politics and founded the organization Independent Voters of Illinois, which continues to be active in that state and the city of Chicago.  In the process, Adams became close friends with Illinois Governor and two-time Democratic Party presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson and U.S. Senator Paul Douglass, and acquainted with a host of other national political figures.  Adams’ organization became so powerful in Chicago politics that it once stood down the Democratic boss mayor of Chicago with Adams at the helm, regarding a party nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives.


In this paper, I explore the political side of James Luther Adams.  This part of his life has not been adequately investigated, but we should not ignore his experiences and philosophy as they were forged during a critical moment in history, and they potentially hold important lessons regarding the possible benefits and perils concerning the confluence of religion and politics.  The format of this paper is distinctive.  The first section will provide a lengthy amount of background information on Adams’ life with special emphasis on his experiences in Nazi Germany and his education at Harvard Divinity School.  I will reference many of these events and experiences later in the paper.  The second section will provide details about the theology Adams ultimately developed.  The third section plays upon many of the themes developed in the second, describing how Adams’ political philosophy coincided with his theology.  The final section provides details about one aspect of James Luther Adams’ life, which few have given the attention it fully deserves, his political life and influence.




James Luther Adams, or Luther as he was known growing up, was born on November 12, 1901 in Ritzville, Washington to James and Lella Mae Adams (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 12).  He was the first of three children for the couple, with younger sisters Emma Lula (1905) and Mary Ella (1908) arriving thereafter (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 10).  Luther’s father was a circuit riding Baptist preacher, but mostly earned his living by farming.  The family did not live well, and was continuously selling and purchasing smaller plots of land to free up money for expenses.  Throughout his childhood, Luther helped both his mother in the house and his father in the fields.  He also remembered joining his father on Sundays traveling to neighboring communities to accompany the hymn singing with music from his violin.  As a result, Adams became quite familiar with both the Bible and his father’s fundamentalist theology.  Nightly scripture readings and devotions were common and Adams remembered a strict religious upbringing in which misbehaved children were punished with a razor strap.  Despite this religious rearing, Luther did question his inherited faith.  He recounts one occasion when he resisted his family’s urgent appeals for him to accept Jesus as his personal savior, using against them what he later considered cruel logic:  “’You say Heaven is perfect bliss and if I’m not saved I’ll go to Hell?’  ‘That’s right,’ they replied.  ‘And you’re so concerned because you love me?’  ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, if you love me and you’re up in Heaven while I’m down in Hell, how can that be perfect bliss for you?’” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 12-13).


In 1914, shortly after the family moved to Spokane, Washington, a teaming railroad center, where Luther’s father accepted a position as a baggage clerk at the rail station, the family disaffiliated itself from the Northern Baptist Convention because of its move toward Modernism and joined the Plymouth Brethren, an even more traditionalist sect.  Plymouth Brethren believed in a strict interpretation of the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, as all members sat in a circle during meetings and men spoke when the spirit moved them.  Women were required to keep their heads covered and were not allowed to talk, based upon a very rigid interpretation of Paul’s instructions in his epistles.  Church doctrine revolved around the Scofield Reference Bible’s schema of dispensations, and no ornamental dress or icons were tolerated within the community.  Perhaps most importantly, Plymouth Brethren believed in withdrawing as much as possible from the secular world; as it was evil and would corrupt those who engaged it (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 27-30).  As Luther continued to mature, his intellectual curiosity increasingly prevented him from adhering to this last principal and strained his relationship with his family.


Especially in high school, Luther began to encounter ways of thinking which were foreign to the absolutist world of his family and their Plymouth Brethren congregation.  In history classes, not only was Jesus and the other figures from the Bible not the center of attention, they were hardly ever mentioned.  Additionally, Adams became familiar with some of the classical works of literature, like Nathanial Hawthorne’s lustful The Scarlet Letter.  Sometimes he would even visit the local movie theater using some of the money he earned delivering newspapers.  Eventually, Luther decided to make a religious break with his family.  “My differences with the Plymouth Brethren (and perhaps my need to establish some distance from my father’s religious authority) led me during my second year of high school to leave that ‘meeting’, and to join a Presbyterian church in the area” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 35).  However, this break was not as dramatic as one might suppose, as the minister at this new congregation was also a fundamentalist dispensationalist.


Two years later, when Adams was 15 years old, his father contracted typhoid fever and never fully recovered. This left him weak and unable to do manual labor, and requiring a young James Luther Adams to become the main source of financial support for his family.  Adams dropped out of school and started working as a legal secretary in his paternal Uncle Oscar’s law firm in Ritzville, Washington.  While Oscar and Luther’s father were brothers, the two of them could not have been more different.  “Although he belonged to the fundamentalist Baptist Church in Ritzville, at the same time, he was a graduate of college and law school; he had already freed himself from the strictness to which my father adhered” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 37).  Moreover, unlike his father’s apolitical Plymouth Brethren, Uncle Oscar “took a vigorous interest in politics, and was the chairman of the Democratic Party in Adams County” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 37).  Luther would sometimes accompany his uncle when they went out to stump for various candidates, and Adams first real involvement in partisan politics occurred when he reported to his uncle that the local chair of the Republican Party was wondering the streets of Ritzville drunk.  He was so intoxicated that he fell down a small embankment in front of the local Baptist church.


Despite the enjoyment Adams received working for his uncle, one day in 1917 he noticed a job advertisement for the position of private secretary to the Superintendent of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Despite his youth, he was only 16 years old, Adams used his previous experience as a legal secretary and some stubbornness to convince the superintendent to give him a chance.  This was a well-paying position, but Luther still felt under the authority of his father.  “Not surprisingly, this job brought me a certain degree of independence from my family.  At the same time, I was still expected to turn over for their support all my wages to my father.  He would then parcel out the money, treating me as a child who received an allowance.  His actions increasingly violated my growing sense of autonomy” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 44).  To protest against this, one night Luther did not return home from work and instead rented a room at the YMCA for “four or five nights.”  With his point made, Adams returned home.  His father thereafter gave him greater independence (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 44-45).


While continuing to work for the railroad at night, Luther returned to high school to earn his diploma.  Upon graduation, the Northern Pacific Railway gave him the position of assistant chief clerk to the head of the operating division.  Adams succeeded at this position and even found the energy to take on a second job at night in order to save money so that he might someday enroll in college.  His recollection is that between his jobs he was making about $1,000 a month, a considerable amount of money for that time.  When Adams asked for a demotion with Northern Pacific so he could transfer to Minneapolis and attend the University of Minnesota, a top official of the railway came to the office and asked Adams to talk with him.  He inquired, “Why do you want to go to college anyway?”  James Luther Adams’ replied, “I don’t know, I just want to see what it’s like.  I’ve heard the name Shakespeare, and I don’t know anything about him.  I’d like to find out what that’s all about.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 47).


Adams informed his family by telegram of his decision to resign from his top position with the railway in his home state and transfer to Minnesota.  He knew they would be completely against the idea and he desired to avoid the conflict and the inevitable ensuing arguments.  “Had I told them that I was planning to attend the fundamentalist bulwark, the Moody Bible Institute, they would have rejoiced mightily.  Most of my relatives—particularly on my mother’s side—had warned me at every opportunity against my going to college, for fear I would lose my faith” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 48).  Still, his family expressed their lamentations about his decision.


In the fall of 1920, James Luther Adams, or “Jim” as he was now known, entered the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate.  Despite working most evenings and then attending classes during the day, he quickly began to flourish in the open and stimulating environment, challenging even more aspects of his fundamentalist upbringing.  During the middle of his first year, he helped organize a freethinking social club, named “The Ben Johnson Club” which published a mimeographed student magazine called The Angels’ Revolt, “in which we denounced organized religion in as vitriolic an idiom as we could command” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 49).


Despite his misgivings concerning organized religion, Adams continued to attend church services in Minneapolis.  The first church he attended was that of W. B. Riley, the major fundamentalist preacher in the Midwest.  “Riley was a doctrinal preacher.  He divined the word of truth while, at the same time, making contemporary application and excoriating the sins of the world” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 50).  Nevertheless, even while attending this fundamentalist congregation, Adams happened upon a brochure of a sermon delivered by the minister at the local Unitarian church, Reverend John Dietrich.  Soon Adams was making it a habit of purchasing a copy of Dietrich’s sermons most weeks.  He described Dietrich’s sermons as approximated university lectures, which were as demanding on the congregation as the lectures to the students.  “He used no rhetorical devices, but instead presented sermons that were straight expositions and reflections.  These included a careful analysis and assessment of his sources….What attracted me to him was his striking and unmistakable emphasis on the idea that all knowledge imposes upon us a sacred obligation” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 50).


The dual impact of the university curriculum and Rev. Dietrich began to have a moderating affect upon Jim Adams.  “However, bit by bit, pieces of my fundamentalism began to fall away…Although I did not tell my parents about the extent to which I was turning away from the faith to which they adhered so steadfastly, some of this could not help come through in letters, which were difficult to compose on both sides” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 51-52).


Indeed, during the spring of his first year in Minnesota, Jim decided to leave Pastor Riley’s fundamentalist church and began attending the University Baptist Church, which was adjacent to the campus.  The minister, Dr. Norman Henderson, was a liberal modernist interested in the Social Gospel and biblical criticism.  The membership of this congregation included many highly educated professionals from the Minneapolis area, including a large number of faculty and students from the University.  Adams’ experience at the University Baptist Church along with his exposure to the printed Unitarian sermons of Rev. Dietrich, opened his eyes to aspects of a different kind of Christianity than he had ever encountered before, which further moved him away from his parents’ fundamentalism (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 52).


In addition, Jim’s coursework at the University of Minnesota exposed him to new critiques of American society and politics.  His curiosity perked, he started reading on his own outside of the classroom.  He read Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check (1920), a devastating analysis of capitalist control of the press in the United States and The Jungle (1906) with its unmasking of the working and health conditions in Chicago slaughterhouses.  Adams also described himself as “a devout reader of H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun” and he “listened to all nine symphonies of Beethoven over and over” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 53).  To earn extra money, Adams would read aloud to an aged millionaire, Mr. Samuel Bean, during the evenings before reporting to the railroad.  Among the works he often read to him was Collier’s magazine “from cover to cover”, which forced him to become familiar with what was going on in American politics (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 55).


One professor who made a lasting impression upon Jim during his studies in Minnesota was a professor of rhetoric and public speaking, Professor Frank Rarig, a Unitarian.  Professor Rarig was demanding of his students, but he also gave them the freedom to speak about those topics that interested them.  Adams remembered that, “Most of my speeches were high-pitched diatribes against organized religion.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 60).  One day Professor Rarig’s class was discussing what each of the students planned to do with their lives after graduation.  Jim, a senior on the verge of graduating, said he was unsure of his plans.  Professor Rarig said in front of the entire classroom, “Jim Adams, it’s clear what you’re going to be—you’re going to be a preacher.”  He explained to Jim after class, “You’re talking against religion all the time.  Don’t you see that it is your major passion?” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 60).  He then pointed out that Adams had acquired an unsophisticated, pre-rational type of religion, and that as a result, this background had engendered in Jim a vigorous concern to liberate him from it through radical criticism.  However, Professor Rarig declared, “your speeches reflect your passionate interest in the matter, but your presentation is always one-dimensional.  You are not aware of any of the intelligent alternatives.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 60).  The more Professor Rarig talked and the more Adams thought about the possibility of studying theology, the more attractive the possibility became.  His friends were shocked that one of “the village atheists” would contemplate entering the ministry.  “They said, ‘How could you decide to go and study to be a minister?’  One said, ‘I thought you were against religion.’ It proved not to be so.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 60).  After several days of further reflection, Jim went to see the Unitarian minister, John Dietrich, whose printed sermons had made an impression upon him.  Rev. Dietrich confirmed many of the things about liberal religion that Professor Rarig had described to Adams, freedom of their ministers, concern for secular matters, and allowance for self-criticism and multiple theological perspectives within the tradition.  Thereafter, Jim decided to go to Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister.  When Adams announced his intention to leave the Baptist fold and become a Unitarian minister, his pastor Dr. Henderson tried desperately to dissuade him, but to no avail.  Jim Adams had discovered his passion (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 60-61).


In the fall of 1924, after graduating with an A.B. from the University of Minnesota the previous spring, Adams moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and enrolled in Harvard Divinity School (HDS), funded partially by a small scholarship from the American Unitarian Association.  He soon became enthralled with the ideas of many of the theologians he was learning about: Albert Schweitzer’s conception of “consistent eschatology”; Alfred North Whitehead’s argument that religious organizations should organize separately from the state and act as a countervailing force against its power; Baron von Hugel’s doctrine of God’s power being active everywhere and all human activity being either an acceptance or rejection of that spirit; and, most importantly, Rudolf Otto’s thesis that the Kingdom of God was not something exclusively reserved for the future, but was constantly breaking forth and partly available here and now (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 80-82).  While Adams enjoyed being exposed to these intellectually stimulating ideas, he also found the curriculum at HDS devoid of any discussion of contemporary economics, politics and social issues.  Unlike many of his classmates, Adams, because of his upbringing and his work on the railroad, did not come to HDS shielded from an awareness of the hard economic realities in the real world.  This pressed upon him the conviction that too much of modern theology was abstract and needed reformulated so it was applicable and meaningful to the world.  Thus, a metamorphosis started to happen within James Luther Adams while attending Harvard Divinity School.  He recalls, “Something in that experience caused these other factors to draw together, forming a new interpretive constellation.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 82).


In addition to his academic work, the faculty of HDS assigned Jim to be a student assistant to Rev. Arthur C. McGiffert, Jr., of the Second Unitarian Church of Salem, Massachusetts.  However, after only one year of service under Rev. McGiffert, Jim became the student minister of Second Unitarian because Rev. McGiffert unexpectedly died of a heart attack while delivering a sermon in the pulpit one Sunday.  While assuming the ministerial role was a tremendous opportunity for Adams, it was also an enormous amount of responsibility to be both a graduate student and a full-time minister.  It speaks volumes about Jim Adams’ personality and capabilities, considering he was successfully able to do both.  Two years later, when Jim was nearing graduation, Second Unitarian offered him the permanent position of minister upon completion of his studies.


During this time, Jim met Margaret Ann Young, a congregant at another local Unitarian church.  Margaret had “wonderful red hair” and was a drama student at the Jewett School of Drama, and studied piano at the New England Conservatory of Music.  She, like Adams, was raised in a very conservative household and had developed a rebellious liberal nature as a result.  After several dates, Margaret’s older sister and her mother decided to encourage their relationship.  The family began inviting Jim to join them for Sunday dinners.  Within a year, the two had formalized their engagement (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 115-116).


During the spring before his graduation from HDS, James Luther Adams entered a competition held to judge student sermons.  Adams composed an Easter sermon, which stressed the paradox of the proximity of Easter to Good Friday.  Reminiscing, he wrote, “I went on to say something to the effect that we all too often smother the cross in the lilies of Easter.  Instead, I said, the cross should remain a part of the Easter presentation” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 119).  Rather than dividing the prize money between the top three sermon presenters as had usually been the tradition, the judges awarded the entire cash prize of $150 to Adams.  He decided to use it to pay his fare to Heidelberg University for a summer course in German theology.


Before leaving for Germany, however, James Luther Adams was ordained, as promised, as the permanent minister of the Second Unitarian Church in Salem on May 15, 1927 at 7:30 p.m.  Dr. Samuel McChord Crothers, senior minister of the First Parish Church of Cambridge, delivered Adams’ ordination sermon (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 128).  Adams reflected, “One of the reasons I invited him was because of his idea, which he memorably expressed again in the ordination sermon: ‘There is no social problem that is not first a personal problem and no personal problem that is not also a social problem’” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 128).


One scholar, who has compiled numerous edited editions of Adams’ sermons and essays, has described this first trip to Germany as one of the most pivotal periods in the development of James Luther Adams’ personal theology.  Becoming quickly bored with the unserious nature of the curriculum offered at Heidelberg, Adams began traveling through Germany.  On one occasion, he traveled to Marburg University, one of the epicenters of Germany theological study, and attended “two or three of [Rudolf Otto’s] lectures at the university which he delivered in the largest hall there; even then, it was packed to capacity, with many foreign students present.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 124).  Despite persistent attempts to arrange a personal meeting with Professor Otto, the young Adams was unable to secure one.


On another occasion, Adams was visiting Nuremberg and happened upon a large Nazi parade.  Jim asked several Nazis in the crowd about their attitudes toward Jews and the meaning behind the swastika symbol.  Soon the discussion became rather heated.  “They almost flung me to the pavement,” Adams recalled (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 124).  Suddenly, someone seized Jim from behind and walked into a dead-end alley away from the parade route.  Adams reminisced, “I was sure that I would be hurt, when suddenly the fellow pulled me up and said, ‘Don’t you know that in Germany these days, if you talk like that, you’ll be beaten up?  I’ve just saved you.’” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 124).  Adams proceeded to thank the man and his savior invited Adams home for Sunday dinner.  Over the meal, this German merchant marine informed Adams of the dire political and economic situation in his country.  Jim later recalled, “He was the first person I talked with who told me about the Nazis and who opposed them” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 124).


Upon returning from his experiences in Germany, James Luther Adams and Margaret Ann Young wed on September 21, 1927 at the Second Unitarian Church of Salem, Massachusetts.  They soon settled into life together, at first living with her parents in Salem and then across the street in their own home.  In the decade after their wedding, they would have three daughters: Eloise born in 1929, Elaine born in 1930, and Barbara born in 1937 (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 125-126).


In addition to continuing his ministerial duties in Salem, Jim soon found his way back to Harvard University and began taking graduate coursework in the English Department.  After a few years of study, he also became a part-time instructor of English at Boston University.  Adams graduated from Harvard University with a M.A. in English in 1930.  One graduate school professor, who left a lasting impression upon Jim Adams, was Dr. Irving Babbitt.  Adams describes Babbitt as a very well read individual who was never boring.  Professor Babbitt was a humanist, but Adams declares that he learned more about Christianity from Babbitt than almost anyone else.  “Despite his anti-theological humanism, he gave me my first vivid understanding—for that matter, recognition—of the meaning of Christian doctrine in a way that made sense.  He attempted, for example, to give a humanist statement of the doctrine of original sin, yet without the added element of grace” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 103).  Professor Babbitt thought that the doctrine of grace allowed Christians to depend on repeated episodes of forgiveness, rather than relying and emphasizing one’s own discipline and self-reliance.  Perhaps most influential was Babbitt’s condemnation of contemporary liberalism for being overly optimistic about human nature.  Adams recalls Babbitt describing, “the capacity of human nature to deceive itself, to promote a sham spirituality, and to find a rationalization for doing what one wants to do, and then calling it the will of God” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 103)  While Adams did admire Babbitt, he also attempted to make him reconsider his anti-theism philosophy, but their discussions never negatively affected their friendship.


James Luther Adams was also starting to make a name for himself within the Unitarian community in New England and nationwide.  In 1928, he joined two colleagues and formed a regional liberal Protestant ministers association known as the Greenfield Group, which met informally several times a year to discuss assigned reading and debate raging theological issues of the day.  In 1933-34, James Luther Adams served as the editor for the Christian Register, then official periodical of the American Unitarian Association with a nation-wide distribution.


In the fall of 1934, the First Unitarian Parish in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, one of the largest Unitarian congregations in New England, offered Jim Adams their pulpit.  In addition to its size, the parish at Wellesley Hills was distinguished for the civic involvement of its members; a characteristic that Adams wished was more prominent at Second Unitarian in Salem.  Adams’ acceptance of the offer came as something of a surprise to his Salem parish, as he had only been with them for six years, but Adams’ colleagues urged him to accept the position.  Adams’ installation at First Unitarian took place on March 4, 1934 (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 151).  However, his tenure there would prove to be short.


In 1935, after only two years at First Unitarian Parish, Adams received further recognition of his growing prominence, when he received an invitation to become a professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.  Adams accepted their offer, but requested that his appointment to Meadville be postponed until 1937, so he could be free to travel to England & France to conduct research.  However, “I knew that in addition to going to England I wanted to go to Germany for a time, aware that the political changes I had experienced in 1927 had intensified.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 153).


Quickly discerning that the original research project he came to undertake was too vast to complete, Adams returned to Germany for six months, arriving in April of 1936 and staying until September of that year.  On the way to Germany, Adams ran into Dr. W. A. Visser t’Hooft, the Secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.  In the midst of their discussion, when Adams informed the Secretary that he was traveling to Germany for an extended visit, Dr. Visser t’Hooft warned him not to waste his time reading old books in some dark library or going to conventional lectures.  Adams recalls him advising, “Something unusual is happening in Germany.  There is an underground in operation there.  One of the great movements in the history of Christianity of opposition to demonic power is taking place.  Church history of a unique sort is being made” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 190).  He further encouraged Adams to become acquainted with members of the movement and report back to his office what was actually happening in Germany.


Upon arriving in Germany, the first thing Adams attempted to do was to seek out his old friend from Harvard, Peter Brunner.  When he arrived at Giessen, the town where Brunner lived and taught, Adams found the place heavily bombed and the university nearly destroyed.  He investigated and learned that Brunner’s wife was in the local hospital.  “When I arrived there, she was disturbed that I had come to see her, as she thought it was very risky for me to talk with her.  Frau Brunner did say, ‘Peter is in the Dachau Concentration Camp and that is the reason you have not heard from him.’” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 190).  Brunner had become one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi movement in western Germany and the Nazis arrested him for his involvement with those groups.  Brunner would later be released and reunite with Adams at a later point.


Before his arrest, Brunner prepared for Jim’s visit, including arranging for his accommodations at a boarding house that typically rented out to theological students who were also involved with the underground resistance movement.  Adams quickly gained their confidence as a friend of Professor Brunner, and they took it upon themselves as a favor to their imprisoned friend to watch out for this young American theologian.  Adams remembered them saying, “You are the only foreigner we’ve seen who takes the trouble to run the risk of being with us, and therefore able to tell our story with detail and vividness” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 191).  Just a few minutes thereafter, one of the theology students yelled, “Scatter, scatter.  The police are coming!”  In the midst of the confusion that followed, two students raided a nearby cabinet filled with pamphlets.  They filled Adam’s coat pockets with their brochures and sent him off into the kitchen.  When they answered the door, the police announced that they had come to seize any remaining pamphlets that were mailed in protest against the Nazi treatment of certain Christian ministers.  One student then bravely announced to the police, “You have come at a very bad time.  A young professor from America had just arrived five minutes ago, and he is in the kitchen now.  This is quit embarrassing for you.  He comes to Germany and the first thing he witnesses is this.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 191).  Apparently, this was a brilliant strategy, as the police officers quickly apologized and abruptly left.


The major religious group that opposed the Nazi regime was the ‘Bekennende Kirche’ (Confessing Church) that emerged after the issuance of the Barmen Theological Declaration of 1934.  These Christians in Germany were opposed to the Nazis, but remained loyal to the German state, vowing their loyalty if war ever came.  The Confessing Church was established as an alternative to “the official ‘Church of the Reich’ (‘Reichskirche’) of which eighty percent of German Protestants belonged (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 198).  To win political backing, Hitler had made promises for a moral regeneration of Germany, so many German Christians agreed to follow him.  He rhetorically promoted “family values” and “traditional values”, which appealed to many Germans’ sense of traditional morality (Adams and Williams, The Adams Tapes 1936-1938).  The allure of Hitler was so strong in some German Christian communities, that Adams reported seeing a photograph of Hitler on the altar of a church in Thuringia (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 172).  Many German Catholics also supported the Third Reich following the early directions of the Vatican, which officially recognized the Nazi regime in July 1933 (Adams and Williams, The Adams Tapes 1936-1938).  While the Confessing Church was opposed to the Nazi regime, they showed little concern for the plight of the Jewish minority in Germany, which led some liberal Protestants, like Paul Tillich, to break with them.  Adams recalled, “anti-Semitism was a major part of the Nazi gospel and in various ways was accepted not only by the German Christians, but also by many of the people who were ostensibly opposing the Nazis.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 195-196).  At another point Adams writes, “The German Christian point of view was already heavily loaded with anti-Semitism.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 170).

Within Germany, Adams noted that one of the first things the Nazis did was to make most types of dissenting organizations illegal, especially ones that were independent and established voluntarily by citizens.  Therefore, there was little opportunity for dissenters to exercise any countervailing power against the ruling regime.  Adams later remarked, “Political dictatorships have always recognized the voluntary organizations to be one of their principal enemies, for it provides the citizen with the opportunity of disseminating “dangerous thoughts” and of promoting social policies inimical to the power of the central authorities.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 176). Observing the acquiescence of many Christians and academics, and watching the impact of the prohibition on dissenting voluntary organizations had a lasting impact upon James Luther Adams’ personality, his theology and his political philosophy.  Speaking of the experience he wrote, “The totalitarian process had begun.  Freedom of association was being abolished…I was to see at first hand the belated resistance of the churches to this attack upon freedom of speech and freedom of association.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 181).  He continued, “At this juncture I had to confront a rather embarrassing question.  I had to ask myself, What in your typical behavior as an American citizen have you done that would help to prevent the rise of authoritarian government in your own country?  What disciplines of democracy (except voting) have you habitually undertaken with other people which could serve in any way directly to affect public policy?  More bluntly stated: I asked myself, What precisely is the difference between you and a political idiot?” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 127, 181).[1]


In addition to his general observations concerning the political realities inside of Germany, Adams spent considerable time meeting and discussing the rise of Nazism with the leading German theologians, inquiring about their understanding of the unfolding situation.  He met with prominent Nazi dissenters Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Edmund Husserl. He spent some time with both Albert Schweitzer and Martin Niemoller.  Adams remembers attending one of Niemoller’s heroic sermons, delivered while the Gestapo was jailing as many as 300 dissenting ministers every week, which he described as “an unambiguous attack on the Nazi regime” (Adams and Williams, The Adams Tapes 1936-1938, Vol. 2).  Adams spent much of his time during these six months in Germany, in conversations with liberal Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto, whose lectures at Marburg University Adams attended in 1927 and whose book The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man (1933) had greatly influenced Adams’ developing  theology.  Adams also discussed theology and the Nazi philosophy with some Christian apologists for Hitler, including Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologist of the Nazi Party, Reichbishop Ludwig Muller, the head of the  ‘Reichskirche’ (the official Nazi Christian Church), and theologians Emanuel Hirsch and Georg Wunch (Adams and Williams, The Adams Tapes 1936-1938, Vol. 2).


One day, after having gone with a Jewish teacher to visit an influential rabbi in Marburg and stopping briefly in a synagogue, Adams returned to his boarding room to find it ransacked and all of his papers searched.  Neighbors informed him that the Gestapo was after him and they had been to his apartment with two bloodhounds.  Fortunately, for Adams, he had learned from members of the Confessing Church how to hide incriminating documents.  He had carefully cut cardboard the size of his desk drawer bottoms, creating a faux bottom, and placed all incriminating materials linking him with the underground church movement underneath.  Adams had also strategically placed pro-Nazi books and material throughout his quarters, as to appear conformist.


Nonetheless, the police left a message with Adams’ landlady that he should come to the local Gestapo headquarters immediately upon his return.  However, this concerned both Adams and the proprietor, who warned him, “You can’t go there, not alone.  We’ll never know what happened to you.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 173).  Adams telephoned the Gestapo office and played the role of “Herr Professor” claiming his schedule that afternoon was tremendously packed and asserted that the earliest he could come see them would be first thing in the morning.  They finally agreed and told Jim to be at their headquarters at 8:00 a.m. the following morning.  Through that anxious night, Adams contacted his various friends in the underground church movement and finally they directed him to the mayor of the town, a secret Nazi dissenter.  The mayor placed a call to the Gestapo in the early morning hours, informing them that Adams was with him and he would be just a few minutes late for his scheduled eight o’clock appointment with them.  The phone call served its purpose by letting the police know that Adams was an acquaintance of the mayor and if he came up missing, there would be an investigation (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 173-6).


Adams described the experience at the Gestapo office as a “harrowing experience”.  When he arrived, three Nazi officers in full Gestapo regalia stood him up in the corner of the office and began pelting him with questions.  Adams answered in the fashion that members of the underground church had taught him, honestly, but evasively and careful not to provide incriminating details.  The interrogation lasted for approximately two and a half hours.  Towards the end, they pulled out a file folder labeled “J.L. Adams” and began reading to Adams the contents.  It contained a full and very accurate report about every place Adams had been during his trip and even a detailed listing of his activities during his 1927 trip.  Finally, they allowed him to leave the office, but they confiscated his passport and prohibited him from leaving Marburg until further notice.  Three weeks later, they returned Adams’ passport with no further instructions, except “Herr Professor is a guest in Deuschland and he will obey the law.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 173-6).


During one visit with Karl Jaspers, Adams asked him what he thought the significance of liberalism was, both religious and political.  “Of no significance whatsoever,” replied the theologian.  “Young man, I’ll tell you one thing, if I were interested in the church, I would find the most orthodox branch of my heritage and would return to it.  The orthodox people are the only ones who have the guts to resist.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 180) (Adams and Williams, The Adams Tapes 1936-1938, Tape 1).  Jaspers’ advice seemed to coincide with what Adams was witnessing inside Germany.  The intellectuals and the religious liberals were too willing to acquiesce and comply with the Nazi government because there was too often nothing of substance, little non-negotiable, in their respective philosophies and theologies.  Based upon Adams’ experiences, the religious conservatives were largely resisting the Third Reich and the religious liberals had fled the battlefield.  Adams concluded that something was missing from modern religious liberalism; a defect needing attention and correction.


Before Adams left Germany, he had “the most vigorous argument I ever had with Peter Brunner” his former classmate from Harvard (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 193).  Brunner insisted that the Pauline doctrine of support of the state required his support of Nazi Germany if it were engaged in a war.  The argument continued unabated, with Adams voicing his skepticism concerning the legitimacy of the Pauline doctrine and the dangers of the prevalent Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.  Fortunately, the argument did not affect their friendship and after the war, when Adams returned to Germany he called upon Brunner once again.  Brunner informed him that after their heated exchange, he had continued to think about Adams’ argument and that he had changed his mind, agreeing that blindly submitting to all governmental authority could not have been what Paul intended.  In fact, even before the start of hostilities in 1939, Brunner said he delivered a sermon at a well-attended union service, in which he asserted firmly that no Christian should feel obligated to support the war (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 193).


Adams returned to the United States and assumed his position as the new Chair of the Psychology and Philosophy of Religion Department at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois.  Adams, who signed his notes with his initials “JLA”, which became his students’ informal moniker for him, was a popular professor and soon enrollment and demand for his classes rose.  It was during this period in the 1940s and 1950s in Chicago, Adams became heavily involved in state and local politics, an area of his life that will be covered more in depth later in this work.  Adams reflected, “My political experiences, so affected by my early exposure to Nazism, fed into my lectures, especially my course, “Ethics and Society”, giving the course vitality and specificity.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 225).  After six years of teaching at Meadville, the University of Chicago invited JLA also to assume the role of Chair of their Department of Religious Ethics.   In addition, he completed a Ph.D. with the University of Chicago in 1945, with his dissertation topic concerning the theology of Liberal German theologian Paul Tillich, the first substantial work in English on Tillich’s philosophy, which was later revised and published as Adams’ first book.


After teaching in Chicago for twenty years, Harvard Divinity School invited Professor Adams to return to Cambridge as their new Professor of Christian Ethics in 1957.  The decision to leave Chicago was difficult, but Adams could hardly resist the opportunity to return home and finish his career at such a prestigious institution.  In addition to his teaching, he remained active, serving as one of thirty-eight Protestant Observers at the Second Vatican Council in 1961-62, spending a year as a Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of Marburg in Germany in 1963, and visiting the major learned academies of Europe from 1966-1968 as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He also served terms as president of both the American Society of Christian Ethics and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, an association he helped to establish.  He continued teaching at Harvard Divinity School until he reached their mandatory retirement age of 65 in 1968.


Not willing to cease teaching, Adams served as a Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School from 1968 to 1972 and then returned briefly to Chicago from 1972 until 1976 to teach at the University of Chicago and held the title of Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Meadville Lombard Theological School.  Two years after his full retirement, Margaret died of cancer on January 4, 1978.  JLA kept busy in her absence, continuing to publish two to four articles every year throughout the 1980s.  He also remained active in his religious community, serving for long periods as both the Minister of Adult Education at the historic Arlington Street Church in Boston, and as the Vice President of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship.  He died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 26, 1994 (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 79-87).





James Luther Adams writes towards the end of his memoir, “From the time I moved away from my parents’ fundamentalism to become a Unitarian, I have remained a Unitarian.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 415).  Adams was a classical Unitarian Christian.  Much of the theological dogma and authoritarianism associated with other sects of Christianity did not appeal to him.  For Adams, the purpose of true religion is to improve human society and bring it closer to divine perfection, a condition we, as humans, can only move towards, but cannot totally conceive.  Yet, with our reason and divine revelation, we can move closer to the goal.  His life experiences largely shaped his theology: gaining independence from his parents’ fundamentalism, his introduction to major theologians at Harvard and his experiences in Nazi Germany, all contributed to its development.


Rev./Dr. George K. Beach, the nation’s leading expert on JLA and a former student, has described the formation of Jim Adams’ theology as arriving in two stages.  The first was his “intellectual” conversion, which took place during his years of study at Harvard, under the tutelage of Irving Babbitt.  During this developmental phase, Adams completely detached himself with most remaining ties he had to the fundamentalism of his upbringing.  He had acquired a broad knowledge of the leading theological perspectives of the time during his studies at Harvard Divinity School.  Yet, it was his time with Babbitt at Harvard Graduate School, which provided Adams the time to contemplate these philosophies.  It also provided him the opportunity to work out a grand system of theology he was comfortable accepting. (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 14-16).


However, his theology would have remained the rational “cold-corpse Unitarianism” of old, which Emerson so poetically railed against, if he had not experienced a second “moral conversion”.[2]  According to Beach, this gradual conversion experience commenced after Adams partook in a rendition of Bach’s Mass in B Minor with the Harvard Glee Club at Boston’s Symphony Hall while still in graduate school.  “At first exhilarated by the experience, he began to feel like a parasite—feeding on the body of a ‘costly spiritual heritage’ but not contributing to its sustenance or renewal” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 15), Adams promised himself that he would reorient his vocation in a way that would enable him to make his own social and cultural contributions.  His moral conversion ended after his experience witnessing German Christians’ inability to resist effectively Nazism and anti-Semitism, politically, socially and theologically.  After his experiences in Germany, Adams believed that religion was not primarily about right or orthodox belief, but fidelity to those transcendent purposes and values that improve human communities and move them toward greater fulfillment of justice and peace.  In an essay published in the early 1950s, Adams defined the purpose of religion as “the belief that there are divine powers with which humanity must enter into relations for the maintenance or fulfillment of meaningful existence.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 202).  Turning to a more explicitly Christian outlook in the same essay, he wrote, “For a Christian theology of social action the definitive conception of divine power is set forth in the New Testament—the conception of power (dynamis) as forgiving healing love working toward the fulfillment of the divine purpose of history.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 205).  In his 1975 essay “I Call That Church Free”, Adams further described good faith, “It protests against routine conformity or thoughtless nonconformity that lead to deformity of mind and heart and community.” (my emphasis) (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 18).   Adams believed that each person must choose what he or she will honor, trust or rely on.  In this sense, faith is humanly inescapable.  The only question becomes, within what will we choose to place our faith, our trust?  “What he loves, what he serves, what he sacrifices for, what he tolerates, what he fights against—these signify his faith.  They show what he places his confidence in.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 26).


A definition of “God” for Adams, therefore, closely follows his definition of true religion.  Adams’ God was “the community-forming power.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 174).  Rev./Dr. Geore Kimmich Beach describes Adams’ God as “experienced at those points where our creative energies are evoked and our lives are given impetus and direction.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 3).  In his 1946 essay “A Faith of the Free”, Adams defines God as “that reality which works upon us and through us and in accord with which we can achieve truth, beauty, or goodness.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 33).  Thus for Adams, God was not necessarily a personal deity with human-like characteristics, but rather a force, “an inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence” and actively “fulfilling himself in nature and history” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 32).


The opposite of the good faith for Adams was not atheism or rejection of some doctrine of salvation, but ignoring or actively resisting God’s aspirations for humanity.  While Adams did not identify the divine power with the world, he believed that it did have the potential to act within the world through those humans who worked toward achieving the divine demand for love and justice.  Those who did not participate or labored to obstruct these efforts were guilty of sin.


Rather than associating sin with the world, as was the doctrine of the Plymouth Brethren and most fundamentalist Baptists, Adams defined it as rebuffing or disregarding this divine community forming power.  He explained, “Sin does not derive from the fact that the human being participates in a material world but rather from disobedience to the divine demand for love and justice.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 210-11).  In his memoir he explained sin, or as he often called it “the demonic”,  as occurring, “When human beings put lesser things before their love for God’s way, they, in effect, are saying that they hold these things above God.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 105).  To Adams this was idolatry, and it could be either a secular or materialistic form of idolatry, or a religious form of idolatry.  Those who yielded to the secular form of idolatry were guilty of placing their selfish desires above God’s will.  For example, those who focus their lives on their professions, but ignore contributing any of their time or talents to the betterment of their communities.[3]  Those who yielded to the religious form of idolatry, blaspheme the divine by placing rituals, officers, books, doctrines or organizations above the divine call of loving community in their lives.    In short, Dr. Adams agreed with Baron Friedrich von Hugel’s assertion that “religion has primarily to do with is-ness and only secondarily to do with ought-ness.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 147).


Jesus’ ministry, for Adams, was not about saving souls for some future existence.  Adams believed this interpretation of the Gospel was a human corruption of Jesus’ original message, which focused on challenging the centers of power in his homeland.  Adams believed that Jesus was crucified because he had criticized both the religious elites in Jerusalem and the Roman imperial authorities, not because his death was required in some grand plan of human salvation.  Those wealthy and powerful elites who had power over Christianity in the centuries that followed (especially those elites within Christianity) co-opted his original message, manipulating it away from a message against injustice, suffering and poverty and transforming it into a non-threatening message of personal salvation and personal morality.  These privileged individuals altered the good news into a message that protected their own interests and refocused the masses away from the revolutionary social gospel of Jesus and his hope to usher in God’s Kingdom. At the forefront of this movement was the development of the doctrines about Jesus’ divinity, death and birth, which most Unitarians reject.


Showing the influence of Irving Babbit, Adams was often critical of religion and believed that people of faith must always reflect upon the resulting actions and inactions that resulted from their religious beliefs.  “Evidently one of the greatest mistakes we can make is to suppose that all religion is good, or that religion is something sacrosanct, something that should be exempt from criticism, something that can escape from the wrath of God.” (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 13).  He warned, “’religion’ is our human trick for rejecting justice; it is our way of ‘using’ God as an instrument of an ungodly policy.” (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 13).  For Adams, organized religion had too often become an instrument of justification, which never called upon its adherents to make significant personal sacrifices, especially concerning public policy issues.  Concerning the possibility that religion could become demonic, he warned, “The prophets of Israel and the prophet of Nazareth knew better.  They knew that the Devil is a gentleman, that evil in order to make headway in the world needs the clock of religion” (Beach 2005, 150). Faith had become about internal salvation, allowing persons of faith too often to pursue their earthly wants unabated, while ignoring those at the margins of society.  It was cheap, idolatrous faith, rather than costly authentic faith.


One particular form of religious idolatry Adams cautioned against was blasphemously elevating the Bible above God.  Adams, like most Unitarians and other liberal Christians, did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible.  Therefore, he revered the Scriptures, but believed they did not adequately define God, the words, at most, pointed toward God and some religious truth.  Other parts of the Bible, however, were human creations and stories having little or nothing to do with the divine.  As a Unitarian, Adams did not believe that the Scriptures were a complete revelation, therefore he was always ready to embrace the possibility that new truth would break forth and new understandings of the divine love would reveal themselves.  In his 1939 essay “Why Liberal?”, Adams addressed this point, “…we may say that liberalism presupposes that revelation is continuous in word, in deed, and in nature, that it is not sealed, and that it points always beyond itself” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 149).  Considering revelation finished, complete, or “capsulated” would be idolatrous, as to limit the ability of the divine to produce further enlightenment. Thus, to believe the Bible was the sole source of divine wisdom was blasphemous.


Another form of idolatry Adams frequently warned against was “a flight into the privatization of piety.”  He first witnessed this type of blasphemy in Germany when many Christians seemed more concerned about their own souls rather than the events unfolding around them.  During a baccalaureate sermon delivered at the University of Chicago in 1944 titled “Our Enemy: Angelism”, Adams said, “The religion that is purely spiritual is purely non-existent.  We often hear it said that the greatest enemy of religion is materialism.  This is by no means true.  The greatest enemy of religion is sham spirituality, pure spirituality.  It is angelism, an indifference to the needs of the body and especially of the body politic.” (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 10).  In a published essay a few years later, Adams reiterated this theme: “Freedom requires a body as well as a spirit.  We live not by spirit alone.  A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion; it is one that exempts its believer from surrender to the sustaining, transforming reality that demands the community of justice and love.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 42).  In short, James Luther Adams agreed with the author of the Epistle of James, “faith without works is dead.”[4]


Adams completely disagreed with Dutch theologian Soren Kierkegaard’s position concerning the relationship between the individual Christian and society.  While Kierkegaard thought that right internal belief would lead to proper behavior in society, Adams believed that answering the divine’s call for proper behavior in society would internally heal the individual Christian.  Adams addressed this difference in a 1957 essay:

“In his pietistic individualism Kierkegaard was in his way as lopsided as was Karl Marx is his sociologism.  In contrast to Kierkegaard, Marx tried to understand history and society purely in terms of social forces and institutions.  Thus Kierkegaard and Marx are in complementary ways lopsided.  What Marx emphasizes in terms of social texture, Kierkegaard almost entirely ignores.  What Kierkegaard stresses in terms of individual inwardness and integrity, Marx ignores.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 80).


Adams heavily criticized Bill Graham and the neo-evangelical movement in the United States for adopting Kierkegaard’s stance.  For Adams, this type of privatized spirituality in the United States was the most significant barrier to the Kingdom of God breaking forth, similar to what Dietrich Bonheoffer labels “cheap grace”.[5]  What individuals needed was not the personal conversion experience and personal relationship with God that evangelicals often described, which often “ends in pious and uncritical attachment to the status quo of the social order, but a conversion where one recognizes fundamental issues at stake and then makes a commitment.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 80).   As one of his namesakes, the famed Reformation leader Martin Luther, exclaimed, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”


It is here in Adams’ theology that we see the influence of Rudolf Otto’s conception of Christian eschatology.  Adams believed that there would be a future fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, but that parts of this Kingdom were already available to humans if they only answered the divine’s call for transforming their communities in justice and love.  Adams described the influence of Otto in his classic 1939 essay titled “Taking Time Seriously”.  “In Rudolf Otto’s interpretation of Jesus I saw again the man who took time seriously: ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  Already it has partially entered into time, it grows of itself by the power of God (here again was the seed growing of itself), it demands repentance, and it is an earnest of the sovereignty of God.  It is a mystery.  Yet the struggle between the divine and the demonic is evident to all who can read the signs of the times.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 101).  Adams believed that the prophet Jesus taught that there was a struggle between the divine and the demonic underway, a struggle against greed, callousness and injustice in the world.  During a 1984 address at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Adams ended his remarks with this description of this Kingdom, “The special quality of Jesus’ teachings is, however, to be discerned in the parables.  By devising these parables, Jesus points beyond himself to the gift, the potential reign of the mysterious good that is beyond our comprehension.   This mystery is a creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, community-forming and –transforming power that grows not old, ever calling for individual and corporate response.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 147).  According to James Luther Adams, the defining characteristic of a true Christian was whether they answered Jesus’ call to help usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.


His concerns about the possibility of religious idolatry and Christianity becoming no more than personal spirituality led Jim Adams generally into liberal Protestantism, and specifically into the Unitarian fold.  What attracted him was Unitarianism’s tradition of free congregations, free pulpits and free pews.  Adams held that since humans were not omniscient, nothing, either ecclesiastical or worldly, should be above criticism.  This criticism rightfully expanded to all doctrines, traditions, practices, organizations and people.  Even suggesting that something was above reproach was, in itself, demonic, according to his theology.  “For Adams, the genius of a liberal faith is that it is self-critical and, therefore, open to—even demanding of—self-reform.”, concludes Adams authority George Beach (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 4).  Adams acknowledged this appreciation of the Free Church in his article “The Faith of the Free”: “The free person does not live by an unexamined faith.  To do so is to worship an idol whittled out and made into a fetish.  The free person believes with Socrates that the true can be separated from the false only through observation and rational discussion.  In this view the faith that cannot be discussed is a form of tyranny.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 48).  He concludes, “An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident.  A faith worth having is faith worth discussing and testing…No authority, including the authority of individual conviction, is rightly exempt from discussion and criticism.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 48).


Adams held a special place in his theology for the prophets of the Bible, because they were the characters in the Scriptures who “called their contemporaries, particularly the rulers, to task for abandoning the covenant to love God above all things and to embrace God’s will.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 105).  The prophets were those figures who “speak in the name of God who above all else seeks justice, mercy, righteousness, faithfulness and peace.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 7).  Adams credits Ernst Troeltsch, whose works he was assigned to read at Harvard, for first making him aware “of the ultimately rural orientation of the prophets, for whom the development of the city and the money economy was depersonalizing.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 142).  This was important because the role of the rural prophets was much different from the function of the elite court prophets of Babylon and later Jerusalem.  They were often criticizing powerful religious and governmental authorities, an establishment which often enjoyed the benefits of the status quo.  Adams notes that, “We see the Old Testament prophets’ repeated emphasis on the idea that fulfillment of the covenant requires concern for the weak and the deprived.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 233).  Adams strongly believed that “a holy spirit not under governmental, bureaucratic or ecclesiastical control must be allowed to voice itself and criticize the powers that be.” (Adams and Williams, The Adams Tapes 1936-1938, Tape 2).


It is little wonder, then, that James Luther Adams would become one of the sharpest critics of religious liberalism.  He condemned liberals for being overly rational and not opening themselves up to the need of spiritual transformation.  Too often, Christian liberalism had consisted of nothing more than a negative critique of orthodox Christian doctrines and practices.  He faulted them for being uncommitted to anything positive and for placing too much importance on a rationalistic rejection of traditional religious beliefs.  According to Beach, “Adams sought to shift liberal religious thought from rationalism—giving primacy to the intellect—to voluntarism—giving primacy to the will.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 51).  Adams reproached religious liberals for being excessively optimistic about human potential, while conveniently ignoring those episodes from history that clearly demonstrate the potential for humanity to embrace great evils.  He concludes, “It cannot be denied that religious liberalism has neglected these aspects of human nature in its zeal to proclaim the sparks of divinity in humanity.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 71).  Speaking of these episodes of inhumanity, Adams writes, “The general tendency of liberalism has been to neglect this tragic factor of history.  It is true that most of the theorists of liberalism were definitely pessimistic concerning humanity’s worthiness of being entrusted with concentrated political power, but the general and prevailing trend of their thinking was nevertheless lopsidedly optimistic.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 69).  Adams warns that liberals, “cannot correct this ‘too jocund’ view of life until they recognize that there is in human nature a deep-seated and universal tendency for both individuals and groups to ignore the demands of mutuality and thus to waste freedom or abuse it by devotion to the idols of the tribe, the theater, the cave and the marketplace.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 71).


However, this is where Adams’ conception of the Kingdom of God comes into play.  Because humans have the God-given ability to choose, the divine has provided us the ability to help save our neighbors and ourselves.  Yet, raising awareness, breaking through old forms of behavior, achieving new levels of justice, and creating new patterns of community are difficult, especially among those who have found security in their worldly status quo and private religions.  Adams argues that helping to break forth the Kingdom of Heaven is not an intellectual problem, but a motivational one. It is a dilemma of commitment.  Adams finished his May 1941 Berry Street Conference Address[6] to the American Unitarian Association with the following charge, “This element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement.  We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people….Only by some such conversion can we be possessed by a love that will not let us go.  And when that has taken place, we shall know that it is not our wills alone that have acted” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 78).


It was also this desire to see those in power subject to criticism that explains why Dr. Adams so stringently promoted involvement in voluntary, independent associations.  Governments could just as easily come under demonic possession.  Adams’ experience in Germany taught him that without countervailing organizations to hold the government accountable, disaster could result.  Thus, he urged fellow Christians to become involved in groups that would get them to participate in their communities.  He writes in his memoir, “There is no such thing as a good person as such.  There is only a good citizen, a good parent, a good worker, a person who is involved, committed, engaged (one hopes) for the common good” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 403).  Because Christians could engage the community with the transforming power of the divine, they had to act in social organizations collectively with other individuals.  The possibility that non-Christians might influence Christians did not bother Adams in the least.  He hoped for as much.  He believed that non-Christians or non-religious individuals served an important function in voluntary organizations because they could call into question and hold accountable those people of faith within which they were working.  Moreover, who was to say that the divine could not speak through, or work though, the non-religious?[7]  To make such a claim would be blasphemously limiting the power of the divine.


Adams believed that Christians had a moral obligation to become politically involved, and Christians could not ignore this responsibility.  According to Adams, “In a democratic society citizens are responsible for the character and policy of the power that are ordained.  They are part of them and have the capacity to participate in making social decisions” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 47).  This was not just a civic responsibility, but also a religious duty because this opportunity to help shepherd in the Kingdom of God was indirectly a gift from the divine.  Adams continues, “Blessed are the powerful who acknowledge that authentic power is the capacity to respond to the covenant, the capacity to secure the performance of binding obligations” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 147).  Above all, “…we humans must choose.  We cannot escape making a choice, nor can we escape the responsibility for the choices we make, any more than we can escape their consequences.  We cannot hide behind someone else’s authority or choice” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 28).  Power in itself is not evil, but humans must make two decisions.  First, they must decide whether to participate in the exercise of power, and secondly, what the characteristics of their exercise of power would be.  Adams cautioned, “Love without power is obviously impotent.  Power without love and justice is tyranny” (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 11).


Exercising your rights in these organizations was important because, “The organization of dissent is required if the persons concerned are to follow through and bring about change.  When institutionalized dissent does not appear, then the individual has to bear too heavy a burden; and the so-called loyalists can frown him off as one who is disrupting unity, weakening the union by introducing disunity, and ultimately dispose of the individual as psychologically unstable, vain, in search of publicity” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 408).  Moreover, Adams’ experience in Germany had taught him that, “Political dictatorships have always recognized the voluntary organizations to be one of their principal enemies, for it provides the citizen with the opportunity of disseminating ‘dangerous thoughts’ and of promoting social policies inimical to the power of the central authorities” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 176).  Throughout his years of teaching, students would continuously ask him why the Germans adopted to Nazism so readily.  His answer was that they had no tradition of organized dissent, institutionalized dissent.  At another time, a member of an audience asked Jim Adams what the one greatest deficiency was in Germany Christianity that could have prevented the rise of Nazism.  His response, “Germany needs a heavier dose of Calvinism, which it’s tradition of political responsibility and involvement” (Adams and Williams, The Adams Tapes 1936-1938, Tape 3).[8]


Political Philosophy


Jim Adams saw the world engaged in a constant cosmic conflict between the powers of the divine and its opposite, the power of the demonic.  Therefore, he saw engagement in the political process as having the potential to be a divinely inspired opportunity.  He believed that “Every Christian has the obligation to also participate in those processes that may bring criticism through processes that attempt to transform social institutions in the direction of justice and mercy.” (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 43).  For Adams, his Christian faith was not about conformity to rules or involvement in pious rituals, but was rather about the New Testament instructions to love your neighbor and provide for those who are less fortunate.  His God was not the strict disciplinarian who demanded obedience, but rather a loving parent who only wished what was best for her children.  At the same time, Adams was not a soft pacifist.  He believed there was evil in the world, both domestically and abroad, thus Christians had an obligation to confront it and stop it.  His political philosophy reflected this outlook.


His political point of view is best described as an elitist perspective of American politics.  He thought there were powerful individuals and business groups in the United States who exercised considerable influence over the nation, especially through what he labeled “engineered consent”, or the manipulation of public opinion through the news media (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 28-29).  In Nazi Germany, Adams had witnessed the dark side of humanity and he did not believe for a second that the potential for exploitation of power was any less on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.   One of the reasons he so strongly advocated participation in voluntary interest groups was that he believed they had the potential to act as a “countervailing power” for the general interest against the more narrow interests of the business and corporate communities and their lobbyists.  After describing how some organizations adhere to the public good, while others are often willing to sacrifice the public good for their own selfish interests, Adams wrote, “In face of these two types of associations we can say that the health of democracy depends on the capacity of general welfare associations to function as countervailing powers against the narrower purposes of the special interest associations” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 191).   Adams once concluded, “There are many repressive people in democratic American society who talk as though they really agree more with the spirit of The Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes than with the spirit of The Federalist Papers, which insist that there must be differentiation and freedom to express differentiation and freedom to form associations to express separation of powers” (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 41).


Adams thought the problem with American democracy was that too many non-elite Americans had become apolitical and avoided their responsibility to get involved, and many of those who did get involved were easily manipulated by the elite powers within the society.  Once Adams declared, “The Hitlers of any age or community are always grateful for, indeed they rely on, the sins of omission committed by these retreating, uncreative eunuchs.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 155).  In an address to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 1966 General Assembly he said, “Let me be boldly unharmonious and say that there is probably no more deceptive enemy of creative controversy than the strategy of ‘harmony’….The demand for harmony all too often means, ‘Don’t disrupt the present power structure!  Sit down!  You are rocking the boat!’” (Adams, James Luther Adams Papers 1993, 35).


Adams described his personal political views as a type of socialism and he frequented meeting of democratic socialist party organizations.  Once he wrote, “When I studied the writings of Paul Tillich in which appeared the analysis of the economic-political orientations and consequences of different segments of Christianity, including Catholicism, I came upon his religious socialism.  I felt that I had arrived at a new heaven.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 367).  While he believed in the processes of democracy and the concept of social freedom, he also was in favor of a large powerful government that could redistribute wealth throughout society via government programs.  His conception of freedom in the economic sphere was a freedom from poverty, not a freedom of unchecked capitalism (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 352,369). As a social scientist, it is unclearly from Adams writings if he believed in full socialism, or simply a large social welfare state. The difference being that socialism requires public ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods and services in a society, whereas welfare states can coexist with private ownership and competition in the marketplace. Based entirely upon Adams’ associations in the political sphere (Adele Stevenson and Paul & Emily Douglas), I would have to deduce that Adams did not believe in full socialism, and probably would be better labeled as a social democrat, as nothing in his writings suggests that he advocated for complete state ownership of any means of production.


However, Adams was also an individualist.  He strongly believed that minorities and their respective rights had to be protected in any society.  Adams did so, not only to prevent the majority from politically silencing them, but also because Jesus showed much concern for those on the margins of society in the Gospels.  Yet, Adams’ political liberalism and his links with the democratic socialism movement also placed him under the suspicion of the government.   “I was warned from time to time by friendly lawyers that the FBI had been collecting a dossier on me…” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 255).  One day a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent came to see him about Dr. Emile Gruenberg and his wife, refugees from Nazi Germany, who had lived for well over a year in the Adams’ guest room.  The FBI had suspicions that Dr. Gruenberg was a communist, but Adams had spent many nights in deep conversations with him, including conversations about Nazism and Marxism, and was quite convinced that he was not a member of the Communist party.  Adams described him as more of an academic, armchair socialist and told the FBI agent all he knew of him and his activities.


In the course of the inquiry, the agent asked Adams whether he read The New Republic and The Nation and what he thought of them.  Frustrated with the line of questions, Adams finally said, “I don’t understand why you’re asking me what I think about any of these things because I would assume the FBI has a dossier on me as an unreliable citizen, isn’t that right?”  The agent laughingly responded, “Yes.  You certainly haven’t used good judgment in the organizations you have belonged to, and even in the things you read.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 280).


During their years in Chicago, Jim and Margaret had befriended a Czech economist, Oldric Prochaska, who had fled Europe after the war because he had been placed in a mental asylum since he refused to participate in the conflict because of personal pacifist beliefs.  However, he had also been an advisor before the war to the Coalition Government of Edward Benes, a coalition government that included Communists.  When Congress passed the Smith-McCarran Act in 1954, the government threatened to deport Oldric back to communist Czechoslovakia.  Oldric became despaired by his situation and attempted suicide.  Jim and Margaret began a letter writing campaign to try to assist Oldric and to get an official statement that Oldric was not a communist so he would no longer be threatened with deportation.  Finally, after a considerable amount of time and effort, they were able to gain the attention and win the sympathies of their local Massachusetts congressional representative, who assisted Oldric in clearing his name (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 245-47).


Perhaps the closest time Adams ever came to actually staining his reputation with an association with an actual communist was when he and Paul Tillich worked with Kenneth Leslie on the left-wing The Protestant magazine.  Unbeknownst to either Tillich or Adams was how radical Leslie was and some of the associations he was keeping.  Finally, Reinhold Niebuhr urged them to be cautious with Leslie and they eventually broke off relations with him when they discovered Leslie had not been completely honest with them about his agenda and his associations. (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 291-94).


The main focus of Jim Adams’ political philosophy was its focus on little “d” democracy. Adams believed in political democracy, but also social and economic democracy, meaning he believed that everyone should be empowered in all three realms. I have never been able to determine if JLA believed that this distribution of political, social, and economic power should be completely equal, but he certainly believed that they should be more equal. It was also Adams’ belief that the powers and principalities which worked throughout the world against political, social, and economic equality were demonic in nature and vestiges of the fall of mankind. However, with God’s power and knowledge, humanity could overcome their inherent nature to promote unjust levels of political, social, and economic inequality. However, any efforts to overcome these societal ills and produce a more just society had to be democratic. Adams was not a revolutionary socialist and did not believe that governments should force its population into an involuntary state of equality. Any movement towards the Kingdom of God had to be supported by the majority of the population.


One type of institution that Adams believed could help foster a growing trust in society that could produce such a movement towards greater social, political, and economic equality was the voluntary association. Not only could voluntary associations be effective vehicles for influencing the decisions of government, they also helped forge mutual trust between its membership and cultivated the members’ leadership skills. Voluntary associations additionally created the opportunity to organize the masses into effective political action and created organized impediments to those how would use the power of governments for harm. Members could keep each other informed about current events and work together to establish strategies for achieving group goals. But, similar to the importance of church denominations and communities, civil associations were important for holding their members accountable and correcting those who were misusing the organization’s influence.


Adams came to believe that one’s life was a gift and an opportunity provided by God to help move human society towards the Kingdom of God. Adams was enough of a realist to know that humans could not create the Kingdom of God by their own understandings and efforts, for we are “a little lower than angels.” However, by channeling a higher understanding and a higher power, humans could potentially move in the direction of God’s Kingdom. Adams call to “take time seriously” was a call to take the time we have during our lives to improve human society, toward the ideal type of the Kingdom of God. Adams calls us to have, “Faith in the Lord of history, the Lord of all nations who has made us all of one blood” and that faith “demands that our earthen vessels to open to that which is beyond them, to that which breaks open the self-styled holy race, the holy nation, the holy economic system, the holy status quo. From on high comes the command, Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Adams, An Examined Faith, p. 280).




Even before Adams experienced the repressive and demonic Nazi regime in Germany, he had already started to develop a political element to his theology.  Once while still serving as the minister at First Unitarian in Wellesley Hills and right before he left for his fateful trip to Germany, Adams delivered a provocative sermon describing the difference between being a proud and loyal citizen of a nation versus supporting demonic nationalism.  “In the course of the sermon, I pointed to the American flag, which was in the chancel, and said that demonic nationalism had sacrificed more martyrs than the Christian churches had ever done.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 154).  Word spread about the incident throughout Wellesley Hills, and the following week Adams received a formal visit from several representatives of the American Legion.  They advised him that it would be wise if he never did that again and JLA agreed that to avoid the situation in the future, it would be best to remove the flag from the chancel.


Of course, James Luther Adams’ experiences in Germany had a tremendous impact upon his political life and outlook.  “Filled with memories of my friendships and  acquaintances among German theologians and members of the Confessing Churches in Nazi Germany, I had upon my return an almost irrepressible desire to challenge any injustice I encountered, to set things right.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 204).  In an essay titled “The Evolution of My Social Concern”, Adams expands upon the impact of his experiences in Germany, “I plunged into voluntary associational activity, concerning myself with race relations, civil liberties, housing problems….I began to learn at firsthand about Moral Man and Immoral Society.” (Adams, The Essential JLA 1998, 129).[9]


One of Adams most important contributions to the political world was his help establishing and running the organization Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI), whose purpose was to galvanize into action “the intelligent, but unorganized” liberal voters of Chicago and Illinois. (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 267).  IVI served three main purposes.  First, they were an educational organization dedicated to providing voters accurate information about electoral contests in their communities.  As part of this mission, IVI would often provide an opposing voice when they felt conservative or isolationist rhetoric was going unchallenged in the state.  For example, part of the organization’s purpose was to offer a counter-message directly after conservative Father Charles E. Coughlin’s popular radio show would be broadcast in Chicago from four to five every Sunday.[10]  Representatives of IVI also made it a point to be available to the news media for comments whenever Senator Joseph McCarthy would be in town for a speech.


A second focus of IVI was voter mobilization.  Whenever Election Day rolled around, IVI would get-out-the-vote making sure that liberal voters would get to the polls with a sample ballot supplied by IVI in their hand.  At its height in Chicago politics, Adams boasts that IVI “controlled” the outcome in over 100 precincts.  He notes, “We simply had to pass out sample ballots.  Because so many people were convinced that we were not self-serving…” (Adams, An Examined Faith 1991, 43).


A third focus of IVI was to recruit and endorse candidates for elective office.  Considering the liberal, internationalist bent of the organization, it is not surprising that they frequently endorsed Democratic candidates in contests.  Adams recalls, “Occasionally, we would support an anti-isolationist Republican candidate instead of a Democrat, though the Chicago Tribune called us simply an adjunct of the Democratic Party.  Actually, the Democratic Party never considered us an adjunct, nor were we invited to any of their pow-wows.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 269).


In time, the Independent Voters of Illinois grew into a powerful organization in Chicago and the State of Illinois.  Their overall electoral strategy was to demonstrate their political power by organizing precincts so that when the returns were coming in on Election Night, they could say, “That precinct or that ward got this many votes, and that candidate won, because we secured the crucial number of votes to produce the majority.”[11] (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 270).  The importance of thoroughly organizing to demonstrate their power “proved to be one of the first major lessons that a number of us ‘good-willed citizens’ learned—politics is not only a matter of having power; it is also a matter of demonstrating it.  We had to show that decisive votes in favor of a candidate were the consequence of careful organization.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 270).


As the organization became more respected, they began promoting their own members for elective office through the two-party system.  According to Beach, “In time the I.V.I. developed sufficient political clout to command the respect of the local political establishment.  Candidates were promoted, several were elected to local offices and to Congress, and the national Democratic party took note of its grass roots work.” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers 1986, 18).  Once when IVI refused to support the handpicked candidate of the Democratic mayor of Chicago, the mayor telephoned Adams and demanded that IVI change its endorsement.  Because IVI was so displeased with the Democratic nominee in the contest, they indicated they were going to endorse his isolationist Republican opponent instead.  When Adams refused to comply with the mayor’s demands, the mayor’s candidate withdrew from the race the next day and the Democrats replaced him on the ballot with a candidate more acceptable to the IVI. (Adams, An Examined Faith 1991, 43).  Adams recalls, “The politicos took notice and realized that they had better listen to us.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 270).


Through his work with IVI and serving as one of the organization’s first co-chairs, Adams became acquainted with many leading figures in local, state and national politics.  He became close friends with both Adlai Stevenson, the two-term Democratic governor of Illinois and a two-time Democratic Presidential nominee, and Paul Douglas, the longtime U.S. Senator from Illinois.  In addition to their friendship, Stevenson found Adams useful as a political ally.  Once when Stevenson was receiving bad coverage from the Chicago Tribune, he retaliated by having Adams, whom the Tribune despised and had labeled a “communist” on its pages, join him on stage during a prestigious speech.  Simply promoting Adams and IVI in this fashion served Stevenson’s purposes better than launching a rhetorical attack on the conservative Tribune.  It turns out that IVI was the first organization in the United States to propose Stevenson’s candidacy for the presidency.  Adams also made contacts with other figures in national political circles, like Harold Ickes, the long serving Secretary of the Interior for President Franklin Roosevelt, Jonathan Daniels, FDR’s advisor on race relations and press secretary, and David Niles, the head of the Twentieth Century Fund and close friend of the FDR White House.  At one point Adams reminisced, “Whenever I arrived in Washington, urgency rang.  ‘What are we going to do about such and such?’ they would ask.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 270).


In addition to his activities with IVI, James Luther Adams also became active in a host of other organizations, including Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Committee Against Nazi Persecution and Extermination of the Jews, and the National Committee of the American Association for a Democratic Germany.  Adams recalls that, “From time to time I was asked if I intended to run for public office.  My answer was that long ago I had chosen my vocation as a theologian and a churchman, and that I intended to adhere to that decision.” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 245).  Adams spent so much of his time involved in the political realm while in Chicago, that he later mentioned that he felt like he had neglected his duties as a scholar.


While Adams was concerned about a host of political issues, his activities with three deserve special mention: labor rights, nuclear disarmament and racism.  In what can be considered the first true instance of JLA’s political activism, he spoke up while serving as minister of Second Unitarian in Salem on behalf of striking workers at the local Pequot textile (cotton) mills.  This was a courageous action, as some of the members of the upper-level management of the mills were members of his congregation and powerful members of the community.  At first, Adams attempted to rally the entire local ministerial community to take a stand on the conflict or at least to act as mediators.  However, he met resistance: “Generally speaking, the attitudes of the ministers toward labor organizations tended to be negative” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 133).  Thus, Jim Adams took it upon himself to bring the concerns of the striking workers before the Salem community.  He was especially troubled that the local newspaper seemed to be providing its readers with a skewed version of events, which had swayed local public opinion in favor of management in the quarrel.  When it came time in the rotation for Jim to preach at the community’s “Union Service” of all of its Protestant churches, Adams spoke about the strike and argued “that with the increase in violence, the struggle between the employers and employees was no longer a private battle—that the peace and orderliness of the whole city was at stake” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 133).  He further objected to the coverage of The Salem Evening News.  He ended the sermon with a call for impartial judges to assess the claims and statistics of both sides in order to inform the people of Salem of the issues of the strike and to help settle the dispute.  Within 48 hours of Adams delivering his sermon, the mill owners, fearful of a public expose of their operation, yielded and the sides reached an agreement.  Adams described the celebration- “At least a thousand workers, with their wives and children, paraded through the streets of Salem and ended up on the lawn of our home.  Some of their leaders came into the house and persuaded me to go and stand under a large tree to make a speech” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 135).  As either a democratic socialist or social democrat, one could usually count on the support of Jim Adams when it came to the issues of workers’ rights and issues of poverty.


A second policy issue, which Jim Adams became personally involved, was nuclear disarmament.  Adams became acquainted with physicist Leo Szilard when the famed scientist came into the offices of the Independent Voters of Illinois to make a financial contribution.  Because they shared similar political interests, the two became friends.  Szilard was in Chicago working on the secret Manhattan Project.  When Szilard realized the potential horrible destructive power he had helped create in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, he went to see Jim Adams.  Adams recalls that, “He came to me in my office immediately after the bombings and said that after a century of separation, ‘It is time for religion and science to work together’” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 286).  Thereafter, Adams and Szilard assembled sixty-nine leading theologians and scholars to issue an official statement against atomic proliferation.  The statement was first sent to President Truman on August 27,1945 and subsequently published in the New York Times, on September 21 (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 287).  The statement warned of an impending nuclear arms race and advocated a complete nuclear freeze and empowering the United Nations to enforce it.  In the years since the release of this initial statement Adams helped initiate, numerous groups in the United States and across the world have echoed its warnings and recommendations.  While not a pacifist, James Luther Adams always looked for opportunities to avoid destruction of human life and unnecessary suffering of innocent bystanders.


Perhaps the issue which Jim Adams devoted the most amount of his time and efforts combating was racism, unquestionably one of the main issues of his era.  Several events from his life demonstrate his convictions.  Once in the midst of the Trumball Park riots in Chicago, one of Adams’ former students, who was then working for the mayor’s office, asked Jim to stay overnight inside a largely white housing project as a symbolic gesture and to provide the white inhabitants a good role model.  However, on the way to the project, the police paddy wagon Adams was riding in through the riots was attacked and pelted with a barrage of rocks, one of which shattered the vehicle’s windshield.  When asked by the driver if he still wanted to stay the night in the project, Adams decided to continue.  He spent the entire night there in the midst of the riots (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 257).


On another occasion, the University of Chicago’s campus had become embroiled in controversy because its Billings Hospital refused to admit a non-white graduate student who was in labor.  The hospital authorities sent her by car to Providence Hospital, the city’s black hospital.  On the way, the woman suffered a miscarriage.  Adams, deeply moved, preached a powerful sermon at the University against racial discrimination.  When it was further disclosed in the news media that the couple were having difficulty finding housing in the area, Jim and his wife invited them into their home to live, which they did for nearly a year (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 259).


At a different time in Chicago, Adams was appointed chairperson of the committee for all theological libraries in the University of Chicago library system.  During the course of his tenure in that position, the Works Progress Administration awarded the committee a grant to reorganize and better catalog their holdings.  The federal government sent a contractor to oversee the project and he quickly informed Dr. Adams that Negros would not be eligible for employment on the job with him at the helm.  Adams quickly replied that he was no longer willing to accept the grant if accepting the money required him to violate the U.S. Constitution and engage in bigotry.  In short, the contractor, fearful of losing the contract, reneged on his requirement and completed the job with both white and African American workers (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 258-59).


When Jim and Margaret announced their decision to leave Chicago in 1957 for Cambridge, about twenty organizations pulled together to throw them a farewell reception.  One speaker, a Rabbi Jacob Weinstein, recognized Adams’ efforts in the “social battlefield for better schools, better politics, civil rights and the abolition of restrictive covenants” (Adams, Not Without Dust & Heat 1995, 282).  Another speaker, Professor Rheinstein, who was both Jewish and a German exile, honored Adams for how he had spent the last twenty years in attempting to tell the American people the meaning of Nazism and its internal threat in the U.S.A.[12]




James Luther Adams’ life is important to study because he is one of the unique figures in history who witnessed the evils of humans, the evils of governments and the evils of religious organizations.  These experiences had an incredible impact upon his theology, his political philosophy and his life.  The meaning of his life also holds within it an important message for contemporary religious liberals.  Too often religious liberals have abandoned the political realm to engage in philosophic debates, trusting that in the end rational humans would figure out the right course to take politically.  It was James Luther Adams’ message to his fellow liberals that this course of action was dangerous and potentially demonic.  Adams’ political life and philosophy hold important lessons for the emerging Christian Left in the United States.  For decades, American liberals have been docile in their reactions against the rise of the religious right, abandoning the battlefield rather than engaging in unpleasant arguments.   Adams believed not only that religious liberals had the opportunity to act, but were theologically obligated to confront demonic forces in the political realm.  His political life and philosophy were both bold and cutting in their unwavering demand to help usher in the Kingdom of God.  If liberals truly believe their God is foremost concerned about justice and love, those are not just concepts to think about and praise, but on which to act.

Responses to Jared Farley Forum Lecture:



Adams, James Luther. An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment. Edited by Geroge Kimmich Beach. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1991.

Adams, James Luther. “James Luther Adams Papers.” Edited by Herbert F. Vetter. The Unitarian Universalist Christian (The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship) 48, no. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 1993): 1-87.

—. Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir. Chicago, Illinois: Exploration Press, 1995.

—. The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses. Edited by George Kimmich Beach. Boston, Massashusetts: Skinner House Books, 1998.

—. The Prophethood of All Believers. Edited by George Kimmich Beach. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1986.

The Adams Tapes: “No Authority But From God”; “Religion Under Hitler, Germany’s Churches in the 30s”; and “Liberalism and the Barmen Declaration in Nazi Germany”. DVD. Directed by James Luther Adams. Produced by The James Luther Adams Foundation. Performed by James Luther Adams and George H. Williams. 1936-1938.

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

Fox, Van Eric, and Alice Blair Wesley. James Luther Adams. Unitarian Universalist Association. 1999. http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/jameslutheradams.html (accessed April 21, 2009).



[1] James Luther Adams reflects on this moment and his belief that he needed to become more involved politically once he returned to the United States in Tape #2 of “The Adams Tapes” and on page 17 of Prophethood of All Believers.

[2] See Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address”, delivered in 1838 to a graduating class at Harvard College, aroused considerable controversy because it attacked formal religion and argued for self-reliance and intuitive spiritual experience.

[3] See page 324 of Not Without Dusk and Heat for more of this line of reasoning.

[4] See the Book of James, chapter 2, verse 20, “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”

[5] See Bonheofer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” from 1937, which begins “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”

[6] The Berry Street Conference Address/Essay is a prestigious award in the Unitarian tradition.  The annual conference originated when Unitarian Rev. William Ellery Channing, known as the “Father of American Unitarianism”, invited all of the known liberal ministers in the Boston area to his church on Berry Street in Boston in 1820.  For more information see: http://www.uuma.org/BerryStreet/index.htm .

[7] See JLA’s 1946 essay “A Faith of the Free” reprinted in The Essential James Luther Adams edited by Beach (1998).

[8] Adams certainly did not mean Germany needed a full-blown Calvinistic Geneva theocracy.  He simply thought that a little more Calvinistic tradition of political involvement rather than reliance upon the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, would have

[9] Moral Man and Immoral Society was a book by fellow liberal Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr from 1932.

[10] See page 274 of Not Without Dust & Heat.

[11] Emphasis in the original text.

[12] See Not Without Dust & Heat pages 282-3 for details.  One of Adams’ former HDS students, Chris Hedges, writes at length about these types of warnings in American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2006).

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