George Kimmich Beach, Faculty of Divinity Memorial Minute, Harvard
by Rick Stafford,
James Luther Adams -- "JLA,"
as he came to be affectionately known -- was born in Ritzville,
Wash., 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 story-telling 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 growthand 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, Mass. 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 50 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, Mass., 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 1930s, he sought
out intellectual and church leader 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.
James and Margaret Adams in the 1960s
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.
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 withTillich'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
of James Luther Adams,
by Paul Hertz, 1975.
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,
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 1930s, 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.
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
1930s). 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 1940s 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.
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."