George Kimmich Beach: From Out the Rind of One Apple Tasted: Reflections on the Autobiography of James Luther Adams

  1. What’s in a name?

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed on Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed.  It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leaped forth into the world.  And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. . . . I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

John Milton, Areopagitica—A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England (1644), italics added

That’s what you get when a great poet writes a political tract!  James Luther Adams, like John Milton, had no small streak of Puritan piety and, more to the point, “moral athleticism” in his make-up.  While meeting with Jim—it must have been the mid-1980s—he was engaged in an absorbing labor, writing his autobiography, and told me that he would take his title from John Milton: Not Without Dust and Heat.  When I looked up the passage—at the time I was assembling the first volume of his essays and addresses that I had proposed to Beacon Press—it struck me that Milton’s fabulous image of “two twins cleaving together” was apt for Jim’s own dialectic.  He thought in pairs: the intimate and the ultimate, gift and task, the mystical and the prophetic, spatial and temporal, Kierkegaard and Marx, and so on—an endless catenation of twins, cleaving together and cleaving apart.  I suggested calling my book “From Out the Rind of One Apple Tasted.”  My too-clever-by-half proposal amused him but, mercifully, he didn’t bite!

In the end I suggested a phrase of his own coinage, The Prophethood of All Believers.  This fit the dialectical pattern, for its cleaving twin came from his namesake, Martin Luther, who proclaimed “the priesthood of all believers.”  I have wondered how many laypersons today would understand the reference to Luther, or feel positively about being “believers.”  Be that as it may, both terms are consonant with Adams’s advocacy of a “radical laicism,” embracing the two basic forms of ministry, the priestly and the prophetic.  These signify, he said, “the ministry of healing” and “the ministry of prophesying,” or in commonplace terms, “caring” and “teaching.”  Together they name the ministry, the service and vocation, of all members of the community of faith.

When I set out to edit a second book of Adams’s essays and addresses, a few years later, I looked for another example of his rhetorical creations.  I recalled how he had turned Socrates’ assertion that “an unexamined life is not worth living” to his own purposes: “An unexamined faith is not worth having.”  I proposed An Examined Faith; this time he bit.  It captures Adams’s stance as a religious liberal, namely, commitment to a faith that is not static but continually engaged in critical examination, including self-examination.  Still, it remains a faith: morally, a committed stance, and theologically, an original decision that enables critical and self-critical reflection.  The idea of faith as opening the way to knowledge—credo ut intelligam—is both ancient and key to a post-modern liberalism.  In “enabling faith” and “critical reflection” we again have “two twins cleaving together,” perhaps even “leaping forth into the world.”  These are not  characteristic pathways into liberal theology; they are, nevertheless, characteristic of Adams’s dialectical path.

In Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir[i] Adams refers to but never pauses to explain his titleWe first hear of it in Chapter 10, “Sowing New Seeds,” when he has settled (briefly!) into parish ministry in Wellesley Hills and become active in denominational affairs.  He was increasingly distraught by the lassitude—organizational and intellectual—that he saw in the Unitarian denomination.[ii]  He begins with this self-revealing comment: “As I look back, it seems to me that I was driven by an inner goad to call both myself and everyone around me to some kind of accountability.  I found myself often at the center of a cloud of dust and heat.  Just as I was willing to land hard on the executives of Pequot Mills”—during his preceding pastorate, in Salem, where he publicly supported an historic labor strike—“so I was ready to launch vigorous attacks on my own denomination.”  When challenged by a colleague—Why do you stay in a church you criticize so sharply?—he replied, as he recalls, “I am indeed at times tempted to leave.  Still, I find the Unitarian tradition so intellectually vigorous, that it provides a soil that is not lying fallow, but which should readily accept new seeds.”  To his surprise, “a substantial portion of the audience applauded.”

Adams labored with astonishing vigor in, for, and against his adopted religious home.  Ascribing “intellectual vigor” to the Unitarians of this period seems like a back-handed compliment; perhaps he imagined that the “new seeds” he was intent on planning would soon come to fruition.  His critique of liberal religion began with lamentations for its theological “loss of depth” and went on to indict it for failure to take the forces of economic and racial injustice fully seriously.  He honored Unitarianism for its openness to scientific and cultural currents and its bold initiatives to re-make religion for the modern age.  He also saw that its ranks were progressively thinning, and related the decline to a loss of “the element of commitment, so evident in the Gospels.”  Within the proud story of liberalism’s advance in all realms of human endeavor, he saw the need for a fundamental course-correction—a metanoia, a change of heart and mind.  The basic thrust in his thought is reflected in the title of my book on his theology, Transforming Liberalism.[iii]  His critique turned, at root, on his conviction that the secular and the sacred dimensions of life depend on each other.  They stand in dialectical tension; break that tension, cut that vital nerve, and the liberal project collapses.

Adams’s autobiography chronicles, along with the history of his century, both kinds of seeds, those of benevolent friendship and those of opposition and outright antipathy.  He was saying: the moral life is not a life lived without engagement with others, both friends and foes.  Neither are these clearly demarked groups you can, by  legalistic rule, sort out and separate: they are “in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned.”  Not for him “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed”—the virtues of keeping your hands clean and your conscience clear; they are the virtues of commitment and involvement, of struggle and risk.  If “the garland” is to be won, it will happen “not without dust and heat.”  A person of free faith does not believe, as Adams said with characteristically pungent phraseology, in “the immaculate conception of virtue.”

I have called him “the last Puritan,” for in many ways Adams exemplifies the sense of achievement, moral rectitude, and civic responsibility that marked the Puritans of England and America at their best.  That is what I hear when Adams speaks of his strong sense of “accountability” and “vocation.”  Accountability—he also calls it “the response of responsibility”—is at once both personal and social, twin dimensions of human life that are knit together is the Biblical history of covenants.  To be in covenant is to be accountable for your deeds and the community’s deeds under “the great Taskmaster’s eye”—another Miltonian metaphor that Adams calls up.  So when he writes his personal history, his autobiography, he is seeking himself—seeking to place himself—in relation to a sacred history.

Autobiography, then, is self-discovery, abetted by the sense of being accompanied by “a single hound” (an image Adams drew from Emily Dickinson), by One who is inescapable and knows us through and through, knows us better than we know ourselves.  Such a spiritual sensibility is implicit in Adams’s words.  He was a man with many themes.  A little-recognized but pervasive theme is identity-formation, the humanizing task he kept in mind also for himself.  “Now why did I do that?” he will ask himself.  For Adams self-revelation—sometimes coming in the radical form, “shock of recognition”—was essential to the achievement of identity.  To be human is to be a distinctive personalityThe autobiography records not a seamless progress “onward and upward” but a series of existential decisions—concrete, unpredictable, timely, often risky—driven by hope.

  1. “God made humans because he loves stories” – Hasidic saying

The observation that human lives are like stories is commonplace; recognition of its moral implication, less so.  We have the opportunity to decide what kind of story we want our lives to be—within limits.  There is, then, a further recognition: the awareness that these stories, however well or poorly we tell them, however good or bad we have been, are inherently “good stories.”  So every human life has a story to tell; when it is our own, personal story, told in our own distinctive voice and told and full blown, it is called autobiography.

Adams’s book chronicles major parts of the religious, cultural, and political life of 20th century America.  His memories of persons and events, ranging from trivial to portentous, recalled and retold in detail, is a treasure trove for historians of his century.  Unfortunately, less than half of the original manuscript was published in Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir.  In consequence, much of the story Adams tells in the full typescript is available only from the archives of Syracuse University and Harvard Divinity School, or from the few individuals who possess copies.

The book treats Adams’s childhood in a small farming community in eastern  Washington state and his early education; his upbringing in a home with devoted parents and two sisters; his stern father, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher—later a Plymouth Brethren who was, he said, “as otherworldly as the breadwinner of a household could be”; his multiple jobs and enterprises during his youth; his college education at the University of Minnesota, chosen over what could have been a lucrative career on the railroad; his studies at Harvard Divinity School; becoming Unitarian and a minister—always an important part of his identity, as his penultimate chapter, “Being Unitarian,” testifies.[iv]

The book goes on to treat his graduate studies, especially with “the lions” of the Harvard faculty, Irving Babbitt and George Lyman Kittredge; his courtship and marriage to Margaret Ann Young, a musician, mother of their three daughters, and later, a social worker (Margaret’s bathroom towel always hung to the left of his—just like her politics, he said).  It treats his pastorates in Unitarian churches in Salem and Wellesley Hills, with simultaneous graduate studies leading to a part-time appointment teaching English composition at Boston University; pursuing arcane literary interests in England and France; his further sojourns in England, France, and Germany, to prepare himself for a new appointment—to the faculty at Meadville Theological School, in Chicago; his experience of and reflections on the churches and the universities under Nazism; his subsequent labors to save Unitarianism from what he and his friends saw as terminal lethargy, including a temporary editorship of The Christian Register, the Unitarian  denominational magazine, and sparking the formation of the first Unitarian Commission of Appraisal; his friendships with remarkable individuals, including Rudolf Otto, Leo Szilard, T. S. Eliot, Charles Hartshorne, Paul Tillich, and a heroic anti-Nazi pastor, Peter Brunner; teaching in Chicago, along with a good dose of urban politics and anti-racism work; his subsequent “return to Harvard,” being one of the new faculty infused into the Divinity School by President Nathan Pusey; then, after mandatory retirement from Harvard, his teaching for several years at Andover Newton and once again at Meadville/Lombard; returning to Cambridge, where he held court with countless visitors; and the death from cancer of Margaret, in 1977, not long after their return.

An example of Adams’s generosity: In 1988 he welcomed a small group of my parishioners, from Arlington, Virginia, for most of a day, responding to questions and regaling us with stories.  He sought to convey the genius loci of his home, a modest house that he and Margaret built on the site of the Norton family estate, “Shady Hill,” and the cultural and social interests of the Unitarians who frequented it.  The video recording made on that occasion, called “JLA at Home: Conversations with James Luther Adams,” provides glimpses of his charisma.

There is no way to summarize the autobiography, but a few threads from its tapestry may convey a sense of the whole.  His people, he tells, had migrated from Pittsylvania County—Southside Virginia—to Missouri and eventually to the rich farmland of eastern Washington State, where he was born in 1901.  Years later, in Salem, he was asked, “And which branch of the Adams family is yours, Reverend Adams?”  Broadly smiling, he replied, “The po’ white trash branch, ma’am.”

He was sensitized to classism and racism from a young age.  He enjoys telling Margaret’s story about one of their three daughters: “When Eloise was seven or eight years old, she stood up in social studies class during a discussion of the American Indians and announced very firmly that she was related to Pocahontas.  Her teacher said, ‘Yes, we know, Eloise.’  ‘But I mean it, and you’ve got to believe me,” Eloise protested.  Her teacher wrote a note to Margaret, who wrote back that it was true.  Later, a hostess at a faculty party was eager to clarify this rumor.  ‘I suppose that your husband’s ancestors came over on the Mayflower,’ she said to Margaret—who replied, ‘No, they were on the shore waiting to greet you.’”

His is the story of 1001 encounters.  With nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, raising alarms about the coming nuclear arms race—an effort that he and Charles Hartshorne and other professors at Chicago initiated shortly after the Hiroshima atrocity.  With his friend and intellectual mentor Paul Tillich, whose seminal writings on religious socialism as “historical kairos” he translated and published; he tells how Tillich, met with a bevy of psychoanalysts in New York to talk about theology and “depth psychology,” after which one complained, “Professor Tillich, you’ve taken away my right to be an atheist!”  Later, when Adams moved from Chicago to Harvard, he reports that Tillich told him his academic work would suffer if he kept up his political activism; but of course he kept it up and, indeed, never got around to writing a book. Why?  He was always accepting another speaking engagement or writing request, and these came first; also, if he were to write he had to read, yet there was always some relevant corner of the library he hadn’t delved into.  Friends said (and he enjoyed repeating) that he believed in “salvation by bibliography.”

I never heard him express regret for a book he didn’t write.  Yet curiously, the autobiography is the one book he did get around to writing.  How come?

“The smiling prophet,” as he was dubbed, was not all Miss Congeniality.  He was drawn to confrontation: With Joseph Campbell, in Japan, where they talked about mythology and religion.  Why, he recalls asking Campbell, was only Christian myth to be despised?  With Harvey Cox going to the offices of Playboy magazine in Chicago to talk with Hugh Heffner about his “Playboy philosophy.”  Learned Puritan that he was, Adams informed “Hef” that sex without love was a snare and a delusion.  On a public platform with Billy Graham, challenging him to say what, on the day after you’ve given your life to Jesus Christ—what difference would that make in your attitude toward, say, labor unions?  In Germany, with a Nazi churchman: “What if you discovered that God was against you?”  The man shouted back, “How could God be against us?  God is in us!”

This is Adams the theologian: Where the distinction between the human and the divine is collapsed, idolatry rushes in.  This goes to the heart of his prophetic theology.  He subsumed, but also saw the necessity of “the element of mysticism”—“a taste for the infinite,” he called it.  Adams brought the Catholic scholar of mysticism, Friedrich von Huegel, to the attention of Unitarians: in religion “isness” precedes “oughtness,” which is to say, faith testifies to the reality of God, and moral conviction follows from this affirmation.  Humanist leader Edwin Wilson was heard to remark, upon seeing Adams coming into the AUA May Meetings with an entourage, “Here comes Adams and the Twelve.”  He loved that story, too.

With Rudolf Otto, his closest friend in Germany, author of The Idea of the Holy and of Kingdom of God and Son of Man, the book that Adams credits with enabling him to understand eschatology, not as apocalyptic expectation but as living in the present toward the future. They took long walks in Marburg and sat together in a bay of the Hohenstaufen castle ruin—the same perch from which Otto later fell, never to recover, as if portending the descending night of Nazism, spreading its doom over the vaunted intellectual culture of the German nation.

Pathos hangs over other encounters, as well.  Adams tells of an exchange with a labor organizer in Chicago; they had become friends through various battles, and one day Jim urged him to try out the First Unitarian Church—an imposing Gothic structure.  The man came once, with his wife, but didn’t return.  Some time later Jim encountered him: “Why haven’t you been back?”  The man replied, “Well, the service, the sermon and all, they were fine.  But afterward, over coffee, we were talking to some of the people and this man kept looking down at my necktie.  We went home and I asked my wife, ‘What’s the matter with my necktie?  I ask you, what the hell’s the matter with my tie?’”

We vastly underestimate, and so we stumble over, our consciousness of class and race.

III. Blessed Are the Powerful

Many stories come from Adams’s years in Chicago, urban and academic.  It is told that he would not, on principle, buy a copy of the Chicago Tribune, bulwark of isolationism and anti-New Deal politics.  Still, he had to know what the Tribune was saying, so Sunday mornings he could be seen in the ally behind the faculty residence, in his bathrobe, rummaging in his neighbors’ trash cans for a copy of the Trib.

Apocryphal?  He neither confirmed nor denied it; manifestly, he enjoyed it.  Not only right-wing isolationism stood in the way or confronting Nazi Germany; so did left-wing pacifism, a strong political current in the aftermath of the First World War.  Adams’s neo-liberalism led him to fight against both tendencies, as I think it would today in response to U. S. inaction on the Syrian civil war.

Adams’s ethical theory was guided by his ethical practice; it was not an ethics of conscience but of consequences; not deontology but teleology.  He believed that history is going somewhere; the truly ethical are not those who strive above all to keep hands clean and conscience clear, but those who take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  He cites a wise political scientist on candidates for Congress: “Never trust ‘a man of principle.’  He is self-righteous.  You can’t get a compromise out of him.”  Politics is the art of compromise not only because it is the craft of getting things done; also because community is created through responsible consideration of others.  For instance, Appalachian coal miners.

Adams’s social ethic is intimately related to his activism; he believed that social change is effected in a democracy through voluntary associations.  Their aims are legitimately formed through processes of group deliberation and decision, leading to consensus.  A vibrant democracy nurtures and protects freedom of association; so too, citizens are acting responsibly when they fully participate in public-regarding  associations.  Not to be personally engaged, not to deal with “the power of organization and the organization of power,” he said, is to be “a political eunuch.”  Everyone should be engaged somewhere along the cutting edge of social justice work, and serving on the board of the public library doesn’t count, he said, “unless the librarian has been  accused of being a Communist.”

Just so, Adams regularly makes his point in an absolutely unforgettable way.  He “commands involuntary attention.”  Rhetoric, too, figures in exercising “the power of organization.”

Adams’s European sojourns in the 1920s and ‘30s brought encounters with academics and church leaders, friends and strangers, in a time of fundamental cultural and political crisis.  “The experience of Nazism induced [in me] a kind of conversion,” he said.  Returning home he called attention to the similarities of Nazi racism (focused on Jews and others) to American racism (focused on African-Americans and others).  He insistently asked: Then what were we fighting for in World War II?  Conversion—a fundamental reorientation of ones life—began to play an important role in his thought.  The scorned evangelical demand for rebirth came back in new form.  “I became acutely aware of the necessity for explicit commitment, in contrast to a vague sort of liberalism opposed to prejudices and promoting openness of mind.  So the [New Testament] idea of metanoia became important to me. . . .”

In Adams’s dialectic love and power are expressions of “the intimate and the ultimate” dimensions of existence.  The autobiography cites his theology in a nutshell: “The power that is reliable and sovereign in history offers itself as the basis of a fellowship among persons.”  His conception of God is bound up with his social ethic.  God is not the coercive power of an external authority, nor an over-powering power, but the Power that works from within, an empowering power.  God is “the community forming power,” the power that is alone “reliable,” and available to us when we reach out and grasp it.  Adams cited Joel Henry Cadbury’s translation: “The kingdom of God is available”—not “at hand” in the sense of “about to descend from on high” but in the sense of “near” or “impending,” hence eliciting your faithful response, your grasp.

From Adams I have learned to speak of the kingdom of God as the power and presence of God.  “Power,” he says, “is the capacity to respond creatively to others, to the needs of others.”  After all, who is more powerful than a parent in the life of a child, or than a teacher in the life of a student?  In this light, we see that violence is not an expression of power but of powerlessness—the irrational outbreak of frustration and failure that, because it cannot create, seeks to destroy.

Here too Adams’s dialectic is at work.  Inverting Lord Acton’s famous saying, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Adams says, “Powerlessness corrupts, absolutely powerlessness corrupts absolutely.”  He lent support to the Black empowerment movement that challenged and divided the UUA in the 1960s.  It moved him to “venture a new beatitude: Blessed are the powerful,” for they “acknowledge that their power is a gift that imposes new responsibilities and offers new, though costing, joys.”  Some blessing!

Adams does not romanticize it “power,” as revolutionaries have often done; rather, he asserts it a corrective to liberal idealism.  He knows that philosophizing about such abstractions without reckoning with human self-interest is an illusion.  “Power engenders conflict,” he says, “for in crucial matters of public policy one encounters competition for a share in power.  A society which is not to be diminished by the overreach of coercion must make space for openness and variety”—and for dissent, including civil disobedience.  These are the characteristic themes of Adams’s social ethic.

He does something more, as well, for he is at heart a theologian.  He links ethical themes to faith and its traditions.  An example: “The learned Harry Wolfson [a colleague at Harvard] used to stress the fact that ‘we Jews are always proud that when a decision was made by the rabbis, the dissenting opinion had to be recorded.’” In the same vein Adams celebrated the argument of Puritans fighting for democracy in 17th century England: You must not silence the dissenting voice.  Why?  Because the Holy Spirit most often speak through a minority.  We could add: the marginalized, the oppressed, the “profiled.”

  1. “Of making many books there is no end” – Ecclesiastes 12: 12

 During his last years Adams incurred unrelieved pain due to a back condition that required him to wear a supporting metal brace.  In my observation during occasional visits to his home in Cambridge, his mental faculties remained sharp up to the last months of his life.  He died at home in 1994, a year before his autobiography was published.

How did this man, born in a farming community to strict, Baptist parents, become JLA—the teacher, activist, scholar, and minister who has regularly been named the most important Unitarian Universalist theologian and social ethicist of the 20th century?  In some ways he fits the mold, even calling himself a “come-outer.”[v]  More significantly, he breaks the mold in quest of a new liberal religious identity.  He devoted a good part of his last decade to telling us how he became “JLA”:  by writing his autobiography.  The book was literally mid-wifed by others, especially Linda L. Barnes and, subsequently, Louise M. Des Marias.  They transcribed his dictation, located sources from his voluminous personal files, and helped edit the resulting texts.  These comprise 34 chapters covering his entire life, from “Earliest Childhood Memories” to “Latest Memories.”  Each chapter is separately paginated, totaling 1400 double-spaced, typescript pages.  The work of Barnes and Des Marias was made possible by the James Luther Adams Foundation, a Boston-area group formed in the 1970s to support Adams’s continuing work.  The birth of the manuscript was a labor of love.

In his introduction professor Max Stackhouse, then President of the James Luther  Adams Foundation, gives a brief account of how the published version of the autobiography emerged from the original manuscript—“more than 1200 pages” which were “reduced by half for publication.”  We are not told why this drastic cut was deemed appropriate or necessary.  The published book, titled Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir, runs 425 pages, including a short, finely-wrought “Tribute to the Life of a Teacher,” by George Huntston Williams, Jim’s colleague and close friend.

In his Introduction, Max Stackhouse names eight people, including myself, who assisted in the process of editing the work for publication. Each was asked to read several chapters, spotting corrections and suggesting sizable cuts.  I was assigned to review several chapters on Adams’s early years; I recall finding a few mistakes and a few extraneous words, but no large cuts that seemed warranted.  I did not think that we could make wholesale cuts without compromising the integrity of the whole, or limiting its usefulness as a source of historical information.

Another unfortunate decision, in my view, was designating the book “A Memoir,” even though Adams never uses the word and several times in the text itself calls it an  “autobiography.”  As a result each time “autobiography” appears in the original text the word “memoir” is substituted in the published book!  A distinction without a difference?  Must we correct the one-time professor of English comp?  Here is Stackhouse’s explanation: “What appears in this volume is neither quite an autobiography nor a biography.  A full biography, especially an intellectual biography, is yet to be written about Adams.”  True, in both matters, but irrelevant.  Stackhouse continues, “And ‘memoir’ has been chosen for the title of this book for several reasons.  It is obviously a personal record of remembered events, many of which can be easily confirmed by family and friends but others of which reveal the impact of more distantly-related [sic] people had on Adams’ [sic] memory of significant moments as he has recalled them in the last decade.”  In view of the fact that the question whether the complete autobiography should be published is an open question, today, it is unfortunate that Stackhouse obfuscates the issue with comments on the book not being a biography, that no full biography has been written, and that “fact-checking” Adams’s familial memories could have been done.  The question is, why the concern to delimit our expectations of the book, publishing half of it and re-titling it A Memoir?

Stackhouse continues: “At the same time, these memoirs are not in the modern sense fully self-disclosing.  Very little here will excite the psycho-biographer”—as if an autobiography were required to provide “true confessions.”  There is more—even an excursus on Alma Mahler’s idea of personality.[vi]  All this is extremely odd, coming from one who was the author of an excellent biographical sketches of Adams, found in the Festschrift volume published at the time of his retirement from Harvard.[vii]

It is true that Adams has little to say about his children; one suspects that family life was less than the children and their mother wished for, due to the number of days and evenings that pater familias spent in the library and at meetings of all sorts; I’m not really in a position to judge.  Ironically, one of the chapters excised from the published book is titled “Margaret,” about his courtship and fifty-year marriage to Margaret Ann Young; he dedicated his book on Tillich “To Margaret, the beloved.” Also excised from the Memoir is his penultimate chapter, “Being Unitarian,” reflecting his deep commitment to Unitarian (and Unitarian Universalist) ministry, continuing to the end of his life with his appointment as Minister of Adult Education at Arlington Street Church, Boston.  That he was always intent on personal engagement, and at a level that went beyond social pleasantries, is amply on display in this work.

Stackhouse reveals the problem he feels when he says, “Indeed, some of his closest friends wonder whether he could not have written another memoir entirely, elaborating key aspects of his relationships. . . .”  He was not alone in wishing that Jim Adams would do something other, or more, than what he did, rather than simply recognize that he did what he did because that’s who he was.  Apparently, Stackhouse thought that by labeling the book “a memoir”—a term sometimes used for delimited forms of autobiography—he would make allowance for the kind of introspection or personal reflection he wished to find in Adams’s text.

Most frustrating to Adams’s admirers was his failure to write books.  The underlying feeling was, He failed us!  He did write one book (in addition to the autobiography), namely, his doctoral dissertation on Paul Tillich, completed at the University of Chicago in 1945 and published twenty years later.[viii]  The only other book for which Adams was directly responsible was The Protestant Era, a collection of Tillich’s early essays on religious socialism and historical interpretation, many of which he translated from German, together with his own 43-page “Concluding Essay.”[ix]

Adams wrote hundreds of essays, addresses, reviews, and introductions, in addition of sermons and prayers.  Many of these have been collected and published, but in each case at the instigation of colleagues and friends.  The two major collections I edited were made in consultation with him in multiple sessions at home.  Yes, for lunch he invariably had peanut butter on toast, and offered it to guests.  He encouraged me to shape these books according by my own lights.  He did the same, I presume, with several others who have collected his writings for publication: J. Bryan Allin, Max L. Stackhouse, J. Ronald Engel, and Herbert F. Vetter.  Adams was always grateful to these volunteer editors for their labors and, perhaps for this reason, prone to be accepting of their editorial judgments.  My own practice was to review with him which works I thought should be included and gain his own suggestions.  Proposed cuts were reviewed with him, and the decision to use gender-neutral language.  For instance, “A Faith for Free Men” became “A Faith for the Free.”

Max Stackhouse edited and introduced the first collection of his essays since his departure from Meadville Lombard, On Being Human—Religiously, published in 1977.  When I remarked to ministerial colleague Clarke Wells that I disliked the way Stackhouse conflated several essays into one in two instances and re-titled essays in several instances, he replied: Be grateful, this is all the Adams we have!  I thought, we can do much better in the propagation Adams’s work, and began my own efforts to collect and publish works I felt were of central significance to liberal theology and social ethics.  The first of these, The Prophethood of All Believers restored a major essay, “A Faith for the Free,” which Stackhouse had combined with parts of seven short essays and re-titled “Guiding Principles of a Free Faith.”  Stackhouse’s version includes a sub-section that he titled, “The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism.” The Biblical image  (David’s ammunition for slaying Goliath) is absent from Adams’s original, as is the  enumeration of five “principles of liberal religion.”  In “A Faith for the Free” Adams speaks, rather, of “three tenants of a free faith”; the other two “stones” have been imported from other essays.[x]  Ironically, “The Five Smooth Stones” has become Adams’s most famous work, even appearing (in highly abbreviated form) on the back of UU tee-shirts!

Stackhouse’s “improvements” of Adams were no doubt well-intended, but they leave us wondering, why?  I suspect that the urge to improve arose from the wish, variously felt among Adams’s admirers, that he would give us more than he was willing or perhaps able to give.  He certainly never apologized for falling short of our wishes!  We wanted a magnum opus, a major, sustained statement, an up-to-date theological and ethical platform on which to stand.  He seemed uniquely qualified to provide what others had not.  In an age when Neo-orthodoxy to the right of us and secular Humanism to the left of us “volleyed and thundered,” we longed for a major statement, even a tome!

When neither that nor even a self-published collection of essays was forthcoming, several former students of Adams set out, independently, to publish his “fugitive essays.”  He readily consented to these undertakings and was genuinely appreciative of the results.  In 2005 Skinner House Books published Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams, in which I systematize and synthesize Adams’s major and minor themes, copiously citing the stories and rhetorical inventions that enliven his thought.  In short, the book was my attempt to write the book that I wished he would write for us as a platform for theological renewal; the result cannot, of course, be attributed purely to him.  Chris Walton, editor of the Unitarian Universalist World, featured the book with a cover story, and Max Stackhouse praised the book as “a magnificent achievement, done with nuance, art and accuracy.”  He adds a comment that echoes my own wish: “I would not be surprised to see this volume trigger a resurgence of liberalism in theology and social thought.”  Quixotic expectation though that be, it moves me to echo Clarke Wells’s rebuke for my criticism of On Being Human Religiously: whatever my criticisms of the “Memoir” version of the autobiography, we owe Max Stackhouse our gratitude for having what we have.

And yes, Adams did give us his magnum opus.  Only it came in a form we didn’t expect; we should have, had we reflected on the whole course of his career.  It was his life-experience, all of it, including parts of the autobiography about which he had never before written and hundreds of published and unpublished writings, and even videos.  And aspects he never wrote down, or spoke of, for reasons of his own sense of privacy and propriety.  Not Without Dust and Heat, whatever we label it, is his written record of his life.  It is flawed and incomplete, just as his life (or our own) can be judged flawed and incomplete.  When, during his last years, he set out to write—not a treatise or even a tract, but a description of his experience of an age and his encounters with some of its remarkable people—he knew what he was doing.  He was writing his own Divine Comedy, his life-long pilgrimage in the company of sinners and saints.[xi]

In his mid-life autobiographical essay, his single most important writing, Adams describes his quest for a philosophy and a faith that do not provide escape hatches from time and history but ineluctably lead us, rather, into the habit of  “taking time seriously.”  Not Without Dust and Heat can be read as his final report on a life driven by such a philosophy and such a faith.[xii]

  1. From Dust Storm to Dust

James Luther Adams was a fabulous raconteur.  He loved to hold forth before an audience.  One story tells how professor Frank Rarig helped change the course of his life from “campus atheist” to committed religious liberal.  After class one day he remarked to Rarig that he didn’t know what he would do after graduation.  With classmates standing about Rarig said that since his classroom speeches invariably included attacks on religion, religion was obviously what interested him most.  “Then he smote me, in the face of my enemies, the fundamentalists, declaring, ‘I’ve known for some time what you’re going to do.  You are going to be a prr-reacher!’”  The next day Adams went to see “this strange counselor, like Nicodemus, by night.”  Rarig told him he was ignorant and obviously had never heard of a “self-critical religion.”  Rarig turned out to be a Unitarian, and after conferring with some Twin Cities clergy—Baptist and Unitarian—young James Adams enrolled in Harvard Divinity School, in quest of a self-critical, which is to say, an examined, faith.

The autobiography begins with his earliest memory, of a huge dust-storm, in which he lost his way, but finally found his way home to the bosom of the family, and his father’s fervent prayers “then and there for the Second Coming.”  On the last page Adams comments on the affection showered upon him by friends and colleagues in multiple celebrations, for birthdays and other occasions, in 1981, 1988, and 1991:

This book, Not Without Dust and Heat, is a show of my affection for those who have come into my life.  The writing of an autobiography is an exercise in memory with interpretation.  The use of memory is a creative act.  The memory as it functions attempts to achieve coherence of understanding, but at the same time, due to the vanity of the human being, memory can function as attempted self-justification.  The preparation of an autobiography, therefore, is the use (or misuse) of memory, a reflection on the past from the perspective of current sensitivity to or interpretation of meaning.  In a sense, it is also a theological enterprise in that it is an attempt to discern the subject’s definition of, achievement of, frustration of, corruption of vocation.  I have not travelled alone in pursuit of my vocation as the pages of this book attest.

With regard to the enterprise of preparing an autobiography, Augustine characterizes it as an account of a journey of self-discovery and self-revelation in the experience of God.  Years ago I was struck by his description of friendship in view of the fact that everyone’s life, including my own, is enriched by his or her relations to friends: “For though they cling together, no friends are true friends unless you, my God, bind them fast to one another through that love which is sown in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us.”[xiii]

 Whatever you call it, the book is certainly “a show of my affection.”  In between the first and last pages a whole parade of people come, astonishing in their numbers and variety, the obscure and the famous.  His admiration and appreciations run wide—just this was a major ingredient of his charm.  His disagreements and criticisms could also be sharp.  Yet he seems to have felt animosity toward virtually no one; he tells their stories, and a certain admiration seems to animate the telling.

During our last meetings I got the idea that his longevity was perhaps due to the great number of people with whom he maintained lively acquaintance and correspondence.  The autobiography is his Thousand and One Nights; like Scheherazade, he would survive as long as he had another tale to tell.  When he and Amos Wilder in their 90th years were honored at a Divinity School commencement, Dean Ronald Thiemann remarked that both had just published books.  Adams piped up, “Well, Dean, I’ve heard it’s publish or perish.”

Several of us spoke at his 85th birthday celebration, at the Arlington Street Church, Boston.  The program assigned him a concluding part, titled, “The Last Word.”[xiv] He rose with some difficulty and said, “I would like to make a correction.  What is meant is, the latest word.”  As if to say: you aren’t done with me yet!  He took the extraordinary adulation that came to him in his last years gracefully, without a trace of embarrassment—the sign of a very robust ego.  He responded to all the praise with remarks that included, typically, two literary and one Biblical references:

I remember reading the literary critic, Kenneth Burke, years ago.  He said that there is no happier moment in our lives than the moment when we can give utterance to unambiguous vituperation.  I can name a happier moment, namely the moment when one is the recipient of unambiguous hyperbole.  I do remember that Christopher Morley years ago said that after he had published a book, he was very anxious to read the reviews because he would then find out what he had been doing.  And so today, I have been the recipient of many a surprise.

But I have been a pastor, and from time to time become aware of the limitations of the endurance of the people in the pews.  I can remember when I used to preach occasionally in the Danvers [Unitarian] church.  There was a clock at the other end of the sanctuary and around the clock was the legend: “Redeem the Time.”

This is the gospel according to JLA: the present time is ours to redeem, to rescue from drifting into the oblivion of meaninglessness.  In sharpest contrast to an individualism that ignores institutions, a mysticism that pretends to transcend time and history, or a spiritual inwardness that feels good and costs nothing—to take time seriously is to be engaged with and for others.  Jim Adams concludes his autobiography with these words, from his 90th birthday celebration:[xv]

For my friends I repeat the closing words of George Pickering’s birthday tribute

in 1991:

All glory, laud and honor

To the only Lord of life there is,

In whom we live, and move, and have our being.

The inexhaustible possibility of friendships

Like these – and more

Yes, so many more . . .

In which the intimate and the ultimate

Engage in an embrace—

It’s all so natural

But that’s the way with grace.


[i] James Luther Adams, Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir, with an Introduction by Max L. Stackhouse and a tribute by George Hunston Williams (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1995).

An earlier version of this paper, “Reflections on the Autobiography of James Luther Adams,” was presented as the James Luther Adams Lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in Spokane, Washington, June 17, 1995.

[ii] Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 137.

[iii] George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005).  The paperback book is out of print, but Skinner House will make it available as an eBook, available from or

[iv] This chapter is one of many that do not appear in the published book; parts of these chapters are incorporated into other chapters but it is difficult to sort out what and where.


[v] See James Luther Adams, “A Come-Outer,” An Examined Faith, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), pp. 17ff.

[vi] “It is said of Alma Mahler, to select one dramatic example of a ‘personality’ in this period, that she found her purpose in life as one who nurtured large souls. . . .  As wife of the famous Neo-Romanic composer and conductor, Gustav Mahler before his death, and wife of Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school of simplicity in architecture, and sill later wife of Franz Werfel, the rhapsodic poet with whom she escaped from the Nazis to the United States, she understood, with her generation and with James Luther Adams, ‘personality’ to be neither individualism nor autonomy, but a set of cultivated relationships that evoked as much genius as was present in others and prompted giftedness to find company.  This memoir reveals in this sense, ‘personality.’”  I would say that professor Stackhouse reveals, rather, just how far into the weeds he is prepared to wander to justify re-labeling the book “A Memoir.”  Max L. Stackhouse, Introduction, Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir, op. cit., p. x.


[vii] Max L. Stackhouse, “James Luther Adams: A Biographical and Intellectual Sketch, Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Societies, Essays in honor of James Luther Adams, edited by D. B. Robertson (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1966), pp. 333-357.  Another fine essay on Adams in this same volume is by the long-time member of the Collegium Association, James D. Hunt, “Voluntary Associations as a Key to History,” pp. 359-373.


[viii] James Luther Adams, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1965, republished 1982).  The book is dedicated “To Margaret, the Beloved.”  The book reflects Adams’s broad reach for historical interpretation.  Adams found in Tillich what interested him most, a drive to integrate “culture, science, and religion” within a theological framework.  At Adams’s suggestion I included “The Need for a New Language,” a chapter from his book on Tillich, in The Prophethood of All Believers.  Tillich, he held, had generated a fresh theological vision in large measure by generating a new language—faith, for instance, as “ultimate concern,” and God as “the ground of Being.”  This “new language” is experiential and existential, thereby tapping into contemporary consciousness in ways that traditional religious language does not.  Speaking at the memorial service for his friend and mentor, Adams concluded, “We who have known Paul Tillich have known greatness.”


[ix] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, Translated and with a Concluding Essay by James Luther Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[x] The eight essays combined, in part, to create “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” are listed in a footnote; see James Luther Adams, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1977), p. 3.  The section titled “The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” (alluding to l Sam. 17: 40) is found on pp. 12ff.  The restored and gender neutral essay, “A Faith for the Free,” originally published in 1946, is found in The Prophethood of All Believers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 43-56, and in The Essential James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998), pp. 21-44; both books edited and with introductions by George Kimmich Beach.


[xi] Hyperbole?  Not really.  Adams was especially interested in Dante, as several stories he told reveal.  He remarks about the interest of 19th century Unitarians in Dante, including discussions at the Norton estate in Cambridge where he and Margaret built their home.


[xii] James Luther Adams, “Taking Time Seriously,” originally published in 1939, reprinted in The Prophethood of All Believers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 33-42.


[xiii] Not Without Dust and Heat, op. cit., p. 424.


[xiv] An Examined Faith, op. cit., pp. 55ff.


[xv] “Latest Memories,” Not Without Dust and Heat, typescript version, Chapter 34, p. 57.

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