By George Kimmich Beach
James Luther Adams—“JLA,” as he came to be affectionately known—was born in Ritzville, Washington, in 1901, the son of James Carey Adams, an itinerant Baptist preacher and farmer, and Leila Mae Bartlett. When his father, who later joined the Plymouth Brethren, went on his Sunday preaching circuit, young Luther (as he was called in the family) often went along, taking his violin to accompany the hymns. His childhood experience of fundamentalist Christianity and of farm life deeply influenced his development, and became a source of the storytelling for which he later became renowned. At age 16, when his father fell seriously ill, he dropped out of high school in order to help support the family. Among other jobs, he worked for 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 the lucrative offer of promotion in order to further his education—his “deprovincialization”—he often called it. In 1920 he entered the University of Minnesota, while continuing to work nights in the railroad yards.
After a phase in which he radically rejected all religion, Adams came to recognize it as his passion and ministry as his calling. He entered Harvard Divinity School in 1924, with the intention of becoming a Unitarian minister. In his autobiographical essay of 1939, he recounted his transitions from the “premillenarian fundamentalism” of his youth, to “scientific humanism” (as expounded by John Dietrich in Minneapolis, during his college years), and then to liberal Christianity. He recalled the words of an influential teacher, Dr. Frank Rarig, who once told him that his problem was that he had never heard of a “self-critical religion.” The entire quest of Adams’s professional career may be seen as transformative responses to his childhood religion in two basic respects: first, his quest as a theologian for “an examined faith”—a faith subject to self-criticism and growth—and second, his quest as an ethicist for a faith that “takes time seriously”—a faith that seeks to embody its ethical commitments in history.
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 in Boston, were married. Margaret went on to study social work and actively promoted social reform movements. In their more than fifty years together they raised three daughters and shared musical and other interests. They hosted weekly informal evening gatherings in their home, a place for communal support and discussion among theological students, during his years of teaching theology. Margaret died of cancer in 1978.
During his pastorates in Salem and, subsequently, in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, Adams pursued graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard; for several years. He also worked as an instructor in the English Department at Boston University while continuing in ministry. Among the Harvard professors whose influence he warmly remembered were Irving Babbitt, Alfred North Whitehead, George Lyman Kittredge, and Willard Sperry, Dean of the Divinity School.
In the course of several extended trips to Europe between 1927 and the late 1930’s, he sought out intellectual and church leaders such as Martin Niemoeller, T. S. Eliot, Karl Barth, Karl Jaspers, and Rudolf Otto. He was especially attracted to Otto, the Marburg University professor and avowed anti-Nazi, and to Peter Brunner, a Lutheran pastor and theological teacher. Brunner, who some years before had become a close friend of Adams at Harvard, was at this time a leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church movement. Adams’s personal encounters with Nazism, including being detained for questioning by the Gestapo, deepened his sense of global political and cultural crisis, a crisis he believed demanded spiritual renewal and social-ethical commitment. It is this sense of historical urgency and engagement that underlies one of the most characteristic accents of his thought.
Adams credited Rudolf Otto with insights into the origin and meaning of Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God, insights which gave fresh relevance to eschatology as a psychological and historical (if not cosmic) phenomenon. Jesus, he learned from Otto, proclaimed the kingdom of God not as a future event (hence, a failed prediction) but as paradoxically sent and yet to come. As a religious “root metaphor” (a concept favored by Adams) drawn from the political realm, the kingdom of God signifies “the pull of the future” toward fulfillment; it is an image of hope in dark times. The present, then, becomes a time of courageous and hopeful decision, a creative thrust toward meaning in history. Socially relevant decision, however, will necessarily involve engagement in groups, and especially voluntary associations, which seek to influence communal, national, and even global, life.
These ideas and concerns formed the central thrust of Adams’s life-work in the church and the university. He developed them with great rhetorical force and charm, as writer, lecturer, raconteur, and conversationalist.
In 1937 Adams joined the faculty of the Meadville Theological School, a Unitarian seminary in Chicago, as professor of religious social ethics. (Since the Unitarian Universalist merger, the school has been renamed Meadville/Lombard Theological School.) From 1943 he was also a member of the newly formed Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago. In 1956 he returned to Cambridge to become the Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Professor of Christian Ethics at Harvard Divinity School. There he taught courses on modern era social reformers, voluntary associations, the Radical Reformation, the thought of Ernst Troeltsch, and the theory of natural law. These were hardly typical fare for seminary course offerings in the field of ethics, but reflected the breadth and depth of his erudition.
By the force of both his personality and his ideas Adams deeply influenced a generation of students for the ministry (in many denominations) and doctoral students in ethics and society. Always an advocate of interdisciplinary studies and inter-professional discussion, Adams—together with Professor Harold Berman of the Law School—conducted for several years a seminar on religion and law, and with Professor Arch Dooley of the Business School, a seminar on religion and business decisions.
In 1968 he retired from Harvard, becoming Professor Emeritus, and accepted temporary appointments to the faculties of Andover-Newton Theological School and, subsequently, Meadville/Lombard Theological School. In 1976 he and Margaret again returned to their Cambridge home on Francis Avenue, within the precincts of the former Shady Hill, originally the estate of Andrews Norton and Charles Eliot Norton. He continued to be active in church life, serving as Minister of Adult Education at the Arlington Street Church, Boston. At the 350th anniversary of Harvard in 1986, he was awarded a medal for distinguished service to the University.
Through his last years Adams experienced continuous discomfort and often intense back pain due to the progressive disintegration of his vertebrae. For several years he wore a back brace which, like a turtle shell, encircled his chest with a steel arm. He ultimately cast the brace 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. Colleagues and former students formed the James Luther Adams Foundation to promote his thought and enable continuation of his work. Secretarial service provided by the Foundation enabled him to dictate and edit more than a thousand pages for his autobiography; which was posthumously published—cut by half—as Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1996). Adams died on July 26, 1994, at the age of 92, having maintained his full mental faculties into his last year of life.
Adams was a major transmitter and translator of the work of the German theologians and historians Ernst Troeltsch, Karl Holl, and Paul Tillich. In 1948 the University of Chicago Press published his translations of early essays by Tillich, The Protestant Era, with a major afterword by Adams. His doctoral dissertation at Chicago became the basis of his major work on Tillich, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1965; New York: Schocken Books, 1970; Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982). Tillich, who became his colleague at Harvard, once said—probably without exaggeration—that Adams knew more about his work than he did himself. Adams published several major essays interpreting Tillich’s thought; the last and definitive of these appeared in The Thought of Paul Tillich (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), edited by Adams, Wilhelm Pauck, and Roger L. Shinn. He translated and wrote introductions for two other books by Paul Tillich, What Is Religion? (1973) and Political Expectation (1971). It would be fair to say that he was less enamored with Tillich’s later work (on depth psychology and systematic theology) than his early work on the theological interpretation of history and the history of Christian thought (especially Augustine and Luther).
Adams wrote an introduction to Ernst Troeltsch’s major work, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971). With Professor Walter F. Bense of the University of Milwaukee, he translated and introduced a volume of essays by Troeltsch, Religion in History (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, and Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991). Also with Bense, Adams edited and introduced several volumes of essays by Karl Holl, an initiator of modern Luther studies and a critic of Troeltsch, including What Did Luther Understand by Religion? (1977) and Reconstruction of Morality (1979).
Many of the hundreds of published and unpublished essays, reviews, introductions, lectures, and sermons of James Luther Adams have been published in several books: Taking Time Seriously (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1957); On Being Human Religiously, edited and with an introduction by Max L. Stackhouse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1977); The Prophethood of All Believers, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986); Voluntary Associations: Socio-Cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation, edited by J. Ronald Engel (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1986); An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach; The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998).
Two videotapes, No Authority But From God (28 minutes) and Religion Under Hitler (26 minutes) with Adams and George H. Williams commenting on figures and events in Germany, along with original films taken in Germany by Adams in the 1930’s, were produced by The James Luther Adams Foundation (First and Second Church of Boston, 1990). Another videotape featuring Adams as storyteller, JLA at Home: A Conversation in Six Parts with James Luther Adams, was produced by George K. Beach (Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Va., 1988). A Festschrift volume was published at the time of his retirement from Harvard, Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Societies, Essays in Honor of James Luther Adams, edited by D. B. Robertson (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1966). The book includes a foreword by Paul Tillich, a biographical sketch by Max L. Stackhouse, an interpretive essay by James D. Hunt, and a bibliography to date.
Adams’s name is most closely associated with the study of voluntary associations and their role in a free society. He practiced what he preached. Adams founded groups for study and devotional discipline (The Greenfield Group, Brothers of the Way), participated in a therapeutic community (Gould Farm), and was active in church life and reform (as a founder of the Unitarian Commission of Appraisal in the 1930’s). He served as president of the American Theological Society and of the Society of Christian Ethics; he was a founder and president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and president of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture. He founded and edited The Journal of Liberal Religion, and served for various periods as editor of The Christian Register and The Protestant.
In the 1940’s Adams was a founder and leader of the Independent Voters of Illinois, a grassroots organization in Chicago. Later, for the American Civil Liberties Union (Massachusetts branch), he served for fifteen years as Chairman of the Committee on Church and State. He helped found FREE, the Fellowship for Racial and Economic Equality, which continues today as the Southeastern Institute.
A listing of the voluntary associations that engaged his energies over the decades hardly conveys the intensity of his activities in the struggles against racism, poverty, anti-Semitism, and the violation of civil liberties and rights. For example, he tells of an all-night vigil in a new federal housing project in Chicago from which whites were excluding blacks: “A brick thrown at the police paddy wagon in which I was riding demolished the windshield.” He tells of representing race-relations organizations before officials of the Red Cross in Washington, D.C., to demand an end to the racial segregation of blood for soldiers in World War II. He tells of being ejected from a ministers’ meeting in South Chicago, in the midst of racial hostilities, on grounds that he was an “outsider” from the University of Chicago. He tells of carrying on a project of “aggressive love” to bring blacks into the First Unitarian Church of Chicago (Hyde Park) — “and to insist that they be given responsibilities other than that of ushering on Sunday morning.”
Each experience has its story, lending drama to the message within Jim Adams’s many messages: In the struggle for social justice the prize will be won, in John Milton’s phrase, “not without dust and heat.”
George Kimmich Beach, S.T.B. ‘60, Th.M. ‘65