About James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams

Who was James Luther Adams?

James Luther Adams (1901-1994) was one of the leading Unitarian Universalist theologians and ethicists. Adams played a pivotal role in the shaping of the discipline of social ethics in the United States. 

Theologian, social ethicist, Unitarian Universalist minister—JLA exerted an extraordinary influence on several generations of students, colleagues, and friends.  His students became ministers and university teachers; many more became life-long friends.  Others have continued to discover the power of his thought and his personality through teachers and his published writings. 

Adams recognized that rising authoritarianism and endemic racism pose defining moral and spiritual challenge to liberal values and democracy.  To rise to the challenge—“to make faithful and responsible response,” he would say—we must ourselves be changed.    

The 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 chief source of its enfeeblement.  We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people.  Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius.

Adams on Liberalism

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As a professor social ethics, Adams became an analyst of voluntary associations and their essential role in creating, sustaining, and renewing democratic societies.  A life-long activist, he saw participation in associations bent on social reform as a mark of authentic faith.  “A purely spiritual religion,” he said, “ is a purely spurious religion.”

Respecting the associational dimension of human existence, we may say by their groups you shall know them. It is through group participation that sensitivity and commitment to values are given institutional expression. It is through groups that social power is organized. It is through groups that community needs are brought to the focus that affects public policy. It is through groups that the cultural atmosphere of a community and a nation is created.

Adams on Voluntary Associations

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Seeking a theology that “takes time seriously,” Adams was a major interpreter of Paul Tillich, a Religious Socialist leader who came to America as refugee from Nazi Germany and became the most important philosophical theologian of the 20th century.

He represents in his whole being a warning against a theology that sacrifices the prophetic for the mystical element. . . . There is a humility in his attitude which I deeply admire. It is ultimately an expression of agape, which cares for the smallest, without itself becoming small.

Paul Tillich on James Luther Adams

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It has been said that theology is biography. This is especially true for James Luther Adams, whose theological and ethical thought is so closely linked to his life story.

The life of James Luther Adams virtually spanned the 20th century. His parents, Leila Mae Bartlett and James Carey Adams, had migrated from Southside, Virginia, to Missouri, to Ritzville, Washington, where he was born in 1901. Only the founder of such a town could imagine it ritzy! His father was an itinerant Baptist preacher and sometime farmer. Luther, as his family called him, went with his father on the preaching circuit, violin in hand, to accompany hymns. His parents, distrusting the modernism they saw as infecting the Baptists, joined the Plymouth Brethren and his father took up the mantel of St. Paul: he would not accept pay for preaching the Gospel. He was “a man of principle,” said the son, and “as otherworldly as the head of a household could be.”

In several respects Adams’s mature thought was anticipated in his vividly recalled childhood experiences. His sharp rejection of the other-worldly stance of “withdrawing sects” (like the Plymouth Brethren) and his call, at the same time, for a “radical laicism,” are rooted there. So too, his re-appropriation of “conversion”—a radical change of heart and mind—even calling it essential to the revitalization of liberal religion. So too, his discovery that the idea of historical periodization, prominent in Augustine, in Joachim of Fiore, in Karl Marx, and in the proclamation of our own “age of Aquarius,” were already familiar to him from the diagrams of Biblical “dispensations” that he saw as a child on church walls. “Epochal thinking” and “eschatological orientation” became important categories in his social ethic and prophetic theology.

The storytelling for which he was renowned was also rooted in his early experience, and contributed to his being dubbed “the smiling prophet.” Ambition and self-deprecation often go hand in hand, as in his story of undertaking serious study of the violin in middle age, because “I just wanted to play a little Mozart and Handel.” After several months under the tutelage of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra violist, with paltry results, he exclaimed, “I don’t understand—I spend hours practicing every day!” His teacher replied, “Mr. Adams, it is not the number of hours you spend. It’s the intelligence you apply to the bow.”

Adams was an over-achiever from the start. At age 16, when his father fell seriously ill, he dropped out of high school to help support the family. He worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad, acquired speed shorthand, and soon rose to the position of secretary to the regional superintendent. To his boss’s astonishment he turned down a lucrative promotion in order to further his education—he called it his “deprovincialization.” In 1920 he entered the University of Minnesota, while continuing to work the night shift in the rail yards.

He soon confirmed his parents’ worst fears of higher education: he rejected all religion. “All of my talks in public speaking class were vicious attacks on religion,” he says, “or as vicious as I could make them.” Then came the day, after class, when he “casually” commented to his professor, Fank Rarig, that he didn’t know what he would do after graduating. Rarig replied: “Why, I have known what you are going to do for some time. You’re going to be a pr-reacher! Obviously, young man, your passion is religion, because you miss no chance to attack it. But apparently you have never heard of a self-critical religion.” With Rarig’s counsel Adams soon found himself enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, preparing for Unitarian ministry.

Again, ideas key to his critique of “rational religion” were rooted in personal experience, especially conversion, felt as a “shock of recognition”—self-recognition, bringing with it vocational reorientation and energetic commitment.

In 1927 Adams was ordained and installed as minister of the Second Church (Unitarian) in Salem, Massachusetts. In the same year he and Margaret Ann Young, an accomplished pianist and graduate of the New England Conservatory, were married. Margaret went on to study social work and to promote causes of social reform, including anti-racism. In their fifty years together they raised three daughters and shared interests in music, politics, and the church. Extending a practice begun in parish ministry, they hosted evening gatherings for theological students in their homes in Chicago and later, in Cambridge. Adams loved engaging students, parishioners, and colleagues around currents in religious and cultural life. Hospitality and dialogue were central to his sense of vocation.

Adams came from the era when we still believed in “the learned ministry.” During pastorates in Salem and Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, he pursued graduate studies in comparative literature and served as an adjunct instructor in English at Boston University. At Harvard he undertook graduate studies “with the lions”—Alfred North Whitehead, George Lyman Kittredge, and Irving Babbitt. Babbitt, a self-styled “literary humanist” and student of Buddhism, planted the seeds of Adams’s concept of “the primacy of the will”: the will, he said, responds to the affections, and guides the intellect—and not the other way around. Faith is primarily an expression not of what we love—what we are devoted to in word and deed. Recognition of the life-shaping function of faith is expressed in the ancient formula, credo ut intelligam, “I believe in order to understand”—a formula that is anathema to humanists, “children of the Enlightenment” who insist that we should believe only what we can rationally know. This, my friends, is “the liberalism that is dead.”

In the course of extended trips to Europe between 1927 and 1937 Adams sought out intellectuals and church leaders—Martin Niemoeller, T. S. Eliot, Karl Barth, Karl Jaspers, Rudolf Otto, Peter Brunner. Brunner, a Lutheran pastor Adams had come to know at Harvard, was a leader in the underground Confessing Church in Germany. He was imprisoned at Dachau when he refused to curb his anti-Nazi preaching, saying, “I will be faithful to my ordination vow.” Adams said, “Now that takes starch.” In Marburg Adams was himself detained by the Gestapo for questioning about suspicious contacts with anti-Nazi students. In fact he was smuggling documents, which he kept hidden under drawer liners in his boarding house. When the police came to search his room the landlady—“wonderful woman, a war widow and an anti-Nazi,” Jim said, “she sputtered at them to get out.” His experiences in this period deepened his sense of a global political and spiritual crisis, to which the German universities and the churches, he said, “gave but feeble resistance.” On return he pressed the case against the isolationism and the pacifism rife in American politics, and against our home-grown anti-Semitism and racism. “How different are we?” he would ask.

Adams was especially drawn to Rudolf Otto, renowned author of The Idea of the Holy and professor at Marburg. He credited Otto’s Kingdom of God and Son of Man with introducing him to an understanding of Jesus’ preaching as prophetic: calling people into a new reality, a “kingdom” which is neither other-worldly nor spiritually inward; it is a realm of justice and healing waiting to be realized. Adams favored Joel Henry Cadbury’s translation of Mark 1: 15: “The kingdom of God is available.” The call to “repent and believe,” Adams said, is often distorted by moralism and legalism. Rather, to repent is cast off cynicism and despair. To believe in is to trust and hold dear. The gospel is the good news of the power and presence of God. This faith, we can say, equips resistance

Liberal piety regularly depicts Jesus as a compassionate healer and a captivating teacher. James LutherAdams reminds us of another dimension of ministry: a charismatic vocation that made him the most successful community organizer in history! He directly organized not just “the twelve” but a large following with women and children, and they in turn organized what we call Christianity! Adams ascribed Jesus’ persuasive power to his invention of parables, works of imagination and artistry. Dean Donald Shriver once suggested that Adams’s own stories are parables that display the workings of divine judgment and grace in the lives of common folk. Adams’s creative rhetoric, including his numerous stories, is not incidental embellishment; it is the substance of his Christology, the lens by which God comes into focus.

Unitarians have been so allergic to evangelical language that Adams’s claim that liberal theology “requires eschatological orientation” sounds like heresy. He was saying that courageous and hopeful decision is always latent in the present, and affirms faith in the ultimate directive of history. Such a faith sets us to work. Adams insisted that “socially relevant decision” requires personal engagement in groups, voluntary associations which seek to influence public life at all levels, from local to global. They equip resistance, going to work at the cutting edges of social change. Jesus’ word, “By their fruits you shall know them,” is artfully turned, in Adams’s rhetoric: “By their groups you shall know them.”

In 1937 Adams joined the faculty of Meadville Theological School. In 1943 the Meadville faculty joined in the new Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago, a step away from the Unitarian tendency to self-isolation. The expansion of Harvard Divinity School, at the initiative of university President Nathan Pusey, brought an ecumenical group of established scholars, including Paul Tillich and James Luther Adams. So in 1956 Jim and Margaret returned to Cambridge. He become the Edward Malinckrodt, Jr. Professor of Christian Ethics, teaching courses on social reform movements, voluntary associations, the Radical Reformation, the thought of Ernst Troeltsch, and natural law theory. Among the journals that published many of his essays was the, The Unitarian Universalist Christian, now lamentably suspended.

By the force of his charisma and his erudition Adams influenced several generations of ministerial and doctoral students of diverse affiliation. One doctoral student called Adams’s curriculum “idiosyncratic,” for it largely bypassed traditional moral philosophy. Another celebrated the way his enthusiasms enlarged cultural awareness: “Imagine,” he said, “an entire lecture on the significance of an apple painted by Cezanne.” I missed that one, but I did hear him hold forth on Anton Webern’s atonal music as a harbinger of post-modern sensibility. He lamented Webern’s tragic death while being held as American prisoner of war during World War I; he stepped outside his tent, lit a cigarette, and was shot by a guard. Adams’s colloquies often celebrated intellectual and cultural creativity. He would describe the achievement and exclaim, “Now isn’t that remarkable!”

An advocate of interdisciplinary studies, Adams co-conducted seminars in Harvard Law School on religion and law, and in the Business School on religion and business. He excoriated the superficiality of grad schools in which ethical reflection was superficial and individualistic—“just live by the golden rule.” He held the “case study” method of pedagogy adopted by professional schools in contempt. Such methods ignore the history and philosophy of economics and law—fields of study replete with ethical issues. By asking only “what works” they by-pass fundamental issues of values, and social aims, environmental impacts, etc. In many ways Adams brought his prophetic social ethics into the secular realm.

In 1968 Adams accepted mandatory retirement from Harvard and began short-term teaching appointments at Andover-Newton Theological School and subsequently at Meadville Lombard Theological School. In 1976 he and Margaret returned to their Cambridge home on Francis Avenue, within the precincts of Shady Hill, once the estate of Andrews Norton and his son, Charles Eliot Norton. Margaret—he called her “the beloved”—died of cancer in 1977.

Colleagues and former students formed the James Luther Adams Foundation to support Jim’s work during his retirement. It provided secretarial and editorial services, and it initiated the continuing annual James Luther Adams Forum on Religion and Society. The Foundation has also preserved his priceless eight millimeter films taken in Germany in the 1930s, with commentary by Adams and his colleague and close friend, George Huntston Williams.

Through his last years Adams experienced constant back pain from disintegrated vertebrae. He wore a back brace but finally cast it off as more trouble than it was worth. He continued during this period to maintain voluminous correspondence and to entertain a stream of visitors at home. Some of us lamented that Adams never managed to publish a magnum opus, but I would suggest that his great work was his life itself. Perhaps he saw it this way, himself, for during his last years he dictated an autobiography running some 1400 type-written pages. Unfortunately, less than half of the original text has been published (posthumously) by the JLA Foundation. Adams took a phrase from John Milton for the title, Not Without Dust and Heat (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1994). An apt moniker for his triumphant life!

At the 350th anniversary of Harvard, in 1986, Adams was awarded a medal for distinguished service to the University. When Dean Ronald Thiemann remarked that both he and Amos Wilder had published books in their 90th years, Jim looked up and said, “Well, Dean, I just heard it was publish or perish.” He perished at home in 1994, having maintained, in my observation, his full mental faculties into his last year of his life. His reputation as an intellectually great and personally beloved figure lives on.

— George Kimmich Beach

Adams' theology was closely related to his actions. It shaped and he was shaped by his vital role in a labor strike as a young pastor and by his participation in the resisting underground church in Nazi Germany. He founded and was a major participant in scores of voluntary associations, including the presidency of [the Society of Christian Ethics]. During his Chicago years on the Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago in the early forties and fifties, he was heavily involved in Chicago politics and in resisting racism. At Harvard from the mid-fifties through the sixties, he continued to implement his conception that the theological school must be in the midst of the university and that Christian ethics should be taught and worked out in the context of other spheres of life, especially law, business, and the arts.

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Foundation President Stephen Mott, in tribute to JLA at the Society of Christian Ethics