A Biographical and Intellectual Sketch
In James Luther Adams one finds the curious, and sometimes contradictory, combination of medieval saint, Renaissance humanist, Marxist critic, Enlightenment encyclopedist, sectarian enthusiast, and bourgeois compulsive. Yet he is, in many ways, a prototypical modern man, attempting to find, confess, and, where necessary, carve out a sense of meaning large enough to preserve us from the perennial idolatries and aimlessness that flesh is heir to.
It should be clear that any attempt to delineate the many aspects of his character is no simple task, for he is so multifaceted in his interests and abilities that one cannot be sure where the center is. He sometimes appears, like a model of a complex atom in modern physics, to be primarily a constellation of energy in motion only momentarily and artificially fixed into a given form for pedagogical purposes. Yet it is this dynamic quality that allows such explosive insights and disallows any description that attempts to trace the relationships of all the orbits through which the constituent particulars of his personality move.
In spite of the difficulties, the purpose of this effort is to attempt the construction of such a model, one that remains necessarily a rough sketch by virtue of the subject. The central lines of this sketch will trace the form and development of his thought by means of interlocking analytical and chronological accounts. It will be adorned, as is every conversation with JLA, with anecdotes and impressions.
We begin by characterizing his mode of thinking, for not only must we have some sense of the whole to understand the parts, but it is the quality of his mind and his particular way of approaching problems that is most striking to those who come in contact with him—most striking, that is, besides his sensitivity and personal warmth.
James Luther Adams is a critical and comparative, not a reflective or systematic thinker. He thinks vis-à-vis other minds, external evidence, or objective events. He seldom sets forth a point of view and works through the logical implications thereof, but continually engages one point of view with the historical alternatives. He plays off, so to speak, one set of cultural repositories against another or others. The variety of approaches, the conflicting ways of looking at a problem, the historical settings of various alternatives, and the consequences of dealing with perennial human problems in one way rather than another—these are the issues that are crucial to him.
A paragraph that overdramatizes this point but that is thus representative in an "ideal-typical" way appears in his essay "Basic Causes of Progress and Decay in Civilization," wherein he discusses the relationship of religion to civilization.
How does it occur that Adams should come to such a way of thinking, writing, and teaching? Suggestions for an answer are found in his life's history.
Of his background we know relatively little in a direct way. James Luther Adams was born in Ritzville, Washington, in 1901. His father, James Carey Adams, was a Baptist premillenarian country preacher, later to become a Plymouth Brother. His mother, Lella Barnett Adams, was also a "true believer." The details of the name-giving are not known, except that his given names were of earlier use in the family; but the anomaly of James Luther, in view of Luther's opinion of James and Adams' opinion of Luther, not only is now the source of comment in introductions at various functions, but is somehow prophetic of the creative contradictions inherent in the bearer.
The most significant anecdotes of JLA's early history, the ones that he remembers as being most significant, are spelled out in the autobiographical chapter in Taking Time Seriously and partially recapitulated in D. W. Soper's Men Who Shape Belief. But only the barest outlines are found there, and perhaps the genuine flavor can best be tasted by reading Sir Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, an autobiographical study of a Plymouth Brethren lay preacher (a zoologist professionally) and his son whose interest in literature led him into a larger fold, or, as his father thought, out of the fold altogether.
One finds in Gosse's now almost classic account several themes that are indeed applicable to James Luther Adams. Gosse characterizes the type of thinking operant in his household as more that of an attorney than of a philosopher. Positively, the marshaling of historical witnesses as well as the importance of obtaining explicit consensus among the peers and following the rules of justice are precisely the way in which Adams treats a subject in his writing and lecturing. The fact is supplemented by the interest that Adams has in jurisprudence and the precision he demands in ethical casuistry. His interest in the history and philosophy of law appeared early in seminars under Roscoe Pound, William E. Hocking, and Helmut Coing. In his own seminars he has for years promoted the study of Natural Law. His concern for Althusius as a pivotal thinker in the history of Protestant political theory appears full-blown in the work of his former student Frederick Carney. Much of what JLA has presented in the history of Protestant social ethics he has viewed in connection with the work of the jurists, from Althusius through Friedrich Julius Stahl and Otto von Gierke to Rudolf Sohm. Otto von Gierke's Genossenschaftsrecht has served as a basis for his own associational philosophy and periodization of Western history. JLA often voices lament for the lack of interest in legal literature and problems among contemporary Protestant theologians. He is fond of speaking of the Three R's—Reformation, Renaissance and Reception—as the foundation of modern civilization. But his participation in the Civil Liberties Union is perhaps an equally good illustration, for every intellectual concern that is to have reality for Adams must take form in institutional participation. His participation in the Civil Liberties Union has given him occasion repeatedly to become personally involved in the defense of individuals harassed by superpatriots or unjustly snared by the Walters-McCarran Act. Some of his files on these individual cases cover as much as a decade and have entailed an enormous amount of effort. Very often the injustice to be corrected has been the fault of lawmaking or law-enforcement agencies.
But negatively the concern for legal modes of thinking also plays a role in JLA's thinking. The "legalistic" approach to human problems by Gosse's father (and by Adams') leads one continually to have to establish innocence. This need, so dramatically set forth in the modern mode in the writings of Kafka, leads to such a radical demand for proving innocence that inhumanity is the result. Against this JLA rebelled and continues to protest. One must be willing to get one's hands dirty at the expense of a manicured soul. This rebellion away from withdrawal and toward participation is one of the chief sources of his concern for voluntary associations.
Another significant factor mentioned by Gosse is the fact that professional interests are spoken of as avocations. Again we see a factor that appears in JLA's life and thought. His service to God, to the church, and to other human beings is his real vocation, and the various professional abilities that he has developed are means to that end. Since his early days when, carrying his violin to accompany singing, he went from village to country crossroad on horseback with his father, he has traveled and preached, using his secular excursions as a means for "evangelism." The full vocation of the ministry combines scholarly research, administration, cure of souls, social criticism, and citizenship responsibilities as well as preaching the Word and performing the sacraments. Although other institutions must differentiate in our society, the church must maintain an integrative center, and pastors must be capable of leading the flock in many and varied ways. JLA believes in the prophethood as well as in the priesthood of all believers.
The premillenarian expectation of "meeting Jesus," with all the attendant implications, are an aspect of Gosse's account which also shows up in Adams' own memory.
My father was as other-worldly as the head of a family could possibly be. Very often he would tell us after family prayers before retiring at night that we might not see each other again on this earth.
Several themes appear in this passage that are of considerable significance for the understanding of Professor Adams. One is the tension between the necessities of this worldly living and the professing of other-worldly interests. This theme, treated systematically by Troeltsch and Weber in regard to Calvinistic Puritanism, not only describes a major tension in JLA's life and thought, but also accounts for his fascination with the problem of alienation, which, according to the Marxian definition, means having an ideological theory that obscures rather than reveals the true state of affairs.
On the positive side, however, the tension of eschatology with history, and the continual searching in the events of history for signs of the times, is an unceasing endeavor of his life which perhaps derives from this eschatological watching of his youth. Although he recognizes the mechanical way in which this was done by his father and other adherents of "the whole plan of salvation according to the Scofield Reference Bible," the crucial significance of repeatedly asking the whence and whither of human events remained, and indeed has become a dominant theme of his thinking.
One result of the mentality imbued accidentally in his earlier days, but later accepted in a series of self-critical decisions, is the radical "work ethic" that JLA exemplifies.
An account of his working and moneymaking (he has never had difficulty making money, although he has carried heavy responsibilities in view of his father's fiscal incapacity and although he is radically critical of people who make decisions on a financial basis alone) has been sent to me by J. Bryan Allin, his friend since 1920.
At ten years of age JLA (his family called him Luther) was the janitor of the little country schoolhouse for the pay of one dollar a month. During the summer months, he shocked oats and did other farm chores, and for a while he drove a derrick for two dollars a day. He had the constant care of two horses. He was also, part time, a night clerk at a University Club, and sold brushes house to house.
By twelve years of age he was the office boy of Dunham Engineering Company, and sold newspapers on the street during the noon hour. He raised rabbits, besides selling some aluminum goods, knickknacks, and home furnishings made by other boys. A newspaper article in his home town appeared at this time with his picture, saying, "Luther Adams has banked $100."
At fourteen he worked in a carriage shop and carried two paper routes, netting about $15 a week. On the side, he ran errands for a combination collection agency and matrimonial bureau.
At age fifteen, family finances forced him to leave high school. He learned stenography in night school inorder to get a job with the prosecuting attorney, at $75 a month. While employed there, he developed his shorthand to the point that his secretaries could still read his script before he switched to tape-recorded dictation. By 1918, when he was seventeen years old, he was the private secretary to the superintendent of the Northern Pacific Railroad and was earning $113 a month. He next became Chief Clerk of the Operating Division.
During these several years it appeared that he might succumb to sheer exhaustion and fatigue. Doubtless the question of the meaning of what he was doing crossed his mind several times, but he persisted, returned to high school, and graduated at the top of his class.
He went to college, where his busy schedule continued, as, indeed, it has until today, although intellectual, cultural, and human interests began to displace commercial ones. Some of the jobs that he held from 1920 to 1924 while he was attending college full time are:
The significance of t his energetic involvement is that a pattern was set, a style of life developed, that demanded the utilization of every available moment. He not only takes time seriously in its theological and philosophical senses, but tries also to fill each moment with some useful effort. One manifestation of this is found in his regular attendance at gatherings where decisions are being made. He once said that history in a democracy is made by those who take the time to go to important committee meetings and to stay to the end. By participating in those political, ecclesiastical, and associational organizations that make decisions, JLA is ever engaged in the business of defining and redefining the changing cultural needs, sensitivities, and perceptions of modern social existence.
However remarkable, it is not this aspect of his life in college that was most notable at the time. Rather it was the germinal process of deprovincialization (as he calls it), accompanied by a rather agonizing shaking of the foundations (as Tillich calls it), that really allowed James Luther Adams to become what he is instead of a tycoon, an organization man, or a religious fanatic (although, as he reports, "I preached on the street and at the Salvation Army during my earlier years in college"). Deprovincialization is a painful exorcism for anyone, the more so for one strongly conditioned to an absolute and explicit faith and by continual success in business. The more one was rooted in faith before, the more he must rebel. As JLA himself puts it:
This Nicodemus indeed arrived at Harvard Divinity School at the start of the following semester. He came as a flaming... but he didn't know what noun was to follow. People who knew him during this period remember him as one passionate for learning, drinking in more than several average students, and moving into conversation with professor, janitor, and cook alike, receiving-antennae constantly sensitized. He was assigned field work at All-Souls Church in Lowell, where his own enthusiasm for scholarship and literature, even if unfocused, was transmitted to people previously untouched or unmoved by the world of letters. The picture of a young theolog, sitting on the woodpile reading to and discussing with workers who swore and smoked as well as ate during the noon hour, made several respectable eyebrows rise.
Indicative of the kind of man that JLA is, are reports of his constant efforts to provide acquaintances with something to "stretch their minds." He bought records, books of poetry, or reprints of paintings to give to landladies, bakers, or other friends. He conducted three-hour sessions of listening to symphonic recordings, relating the music to the other arts, the religious movements, and the events of the period. That this love for music did not express a narrowly artistic interest is shown by JLA's interpretation of the role of Johann Sebastian Bach in his own spiritual development.
From his training at Harvard Divinity School three influences are recorded as being most significant, although the fruit was slow in coming and he was still to pass through the stage of classical humanism. One was the tradition of social responsibility in Unitarianism and of pluralism ("the uses of diversity") coupled with the historical, critical method promoted at Harvard. JLA was inducted into this tradition through his acquaintance with some of the leading young Unitarian ministers of the New England area. It might be said, for those not familiar with old Yankee Unitarianism, that it is much less subject to the charge of theological poverty or to the epithet "non-Christian" than are some of the syncretistic and scientistic strains of Unitarianism. (JLA, his friends, and former students are responsible for the journal, The Unitarian Christian, an inherent contradiction only for those not familiar with Unitarian history.) The issue of these acquaintanceships has been "The Greenfield Group" and subsequently in the Middle West "The Prairie Group." These groups with their somewhat rigorous disciplines of study have been a main bulwark against atomic individualism in Unitarianism. Similar organizations have formed more recently in New York, Washington, and California. JLA sometimes explicates one aspect of his doctrine of God as "a community-forming power," and further explicates the community as necessarily having some form of explicit faith and discipline. If this definition is correct, the Greenfield and Prairie Groups are evidence of God's working. The participants formed a fellowship, or koinonia,and self-consciously assumed a discipline to attempt hammering out a theology of the church, a more adequate hymnology, liturgy, biblical criticism, and conception of history, by intensive engagement with the outstanding theologians of main-line Protestant and Catholic orientations.' Following a pattern adopted by von Huegel, they pursued an elaborate program that combined the study of theology (or the Bible) and the study of some other discipline (economics, art, political science)— the dialectic between grace and its medium. Another group of which JLA was a charter member, while related to Harvard, was the "Brothers of the Way." They, too, maintained a discipline, this one requiring every member to adopt devotional disciplines and also to be a participant in a controversial "secular" organization, feeling that only by means of the abrasive clash of important disputes are deepseated values exposed. These groups and other relationships that JLA has maintained in Unitarian circles have been a theological, intellectual, and social leaven for many in the denomination for over three decades. One long-time associate, Professor John F. Hayward, wrote in his preface to Existentialism and Religious Liberalism,
JLA was also influenced by Harvard Divinity School, Dean Willard L. Sperry, especially as he directed Adams' attention to literary studies, to devotional literature, and to the writings of Baron von Huegel. Adams writes:
Much of this side of von Huegel was the more impressive because of the way in which he showed how James Martineau, a Unitarian theologian, espoused similar views. The issue of these themes was not to come to the fore until several years later.
The third influence, although much less direct since he was no longer at Harvard when JLA arrived, was Francis Greenwood Peabody. "Peabody was not only one of the early proponents of the 'social gospel' but also the first teacher in the United States to demand and create a permanent place for systematic Christian social ethics as a University discipline in a liberal education as well as in professional theological education.'' Further, Peabody "took into account German theological scholarship; he also attempted to come to terms with Marxist literature and with the thought of the European Christian socialists." JLA, as Peabody's spiritual descendant, occupied the Mallinckrodt Chair at Harvard.
He graduated from Harvard Divinity School, was ordained a Unitarian minister, assumed the pastorate at Second Church, Salem, Massachusetts, spent the summer in Europe, and returned to marry a student of music and a Unitarian, Margaret Ann Young, all in 1927.
The trip to Europe in 1927, just as Hitler and the Nazis were beginning to flex their political muscles, was highly significant, for during that stay JLA first became acquainted with the philosophy and social criticism of Paul Tillich, an acquaintance and an influence that was to stay with him for some time.
Margaret Young was a member of the First Church (Unitarian) in Salem. JLA's business sensitivities of long standing were undoubtedly touched when he took her on an early, if not first, "date" to hear a Bach Passion and she requested that he get inexpensive tickets. Puritan frugality, cultural sensitivity, a liberal outlook in politics, and personal charm claimed his heart.
During his pastorate in Salem, where Mrs. Adams' father was a banker, a major strike occurred. It was one of the bitter, townsplitting affairs that occur when workers become articulate and organized, when management feels its prerogativesthreatened, when a small number of industries dominate the economy, and when the first signs of structural instability are blinked away. The issues were muddied by Communist agitation. Resolving that something had to be done, the Reverend Mr. Adams proposed to a group of ministers that they take collective action and look into the matter. Several of the clergymen called members of their churches who were managers of the factories, and were assured that the situation was well in hand and that nothing needed to be done. So they did precisely that. But JLA was not to be so easily dissuaded even though his church, too, had its strong share of managers and of managerial sympathizers. He singlehandedly tried to find the facts of the matter. It turned out that the workers (mostly Roman Catholics) had a just grievance, that the managers were distorting the facts in paid advertisements in the newspapers, and that other reporters had not gone beyond the surface. From mill managers in neighboring towns he uncovered the real scandal of the situation, how dishonest the Salem owners were, and decided in the eleventh week of the strike to deliver a sermon on the dispute. The situation became more serious, bitterness increased, and talks between management and labor were on the verge of breakdown. Adams not only preached his sermon at a joint summer service, but went to the newspaper editors and asked them to print his analysis of the situation, at least to let the public look at the other side of the disagreement. When they hesitated, he told them that he had a pulpit and would preach on their reluctance if they would not cooperate. The newspaper hit the streets at 11 a.m., Monday, with the sermon starting on page one and continuing inside. The bargainers were recalled by late afternoon. By 8 p.m. agreement was reached, the strike was over.
The negative reaction was strong on some sides, but JLA maintained that he had not "taken sides" and had only made demand for informed public opinion and open discussion.
No one knows, of course, what the many factors playing into this resolution were, but about three thousand workers, wives, and families thought they knew. They started a victory procession that ended on the front lawn of the Reverend and Mrs. J. L. Adams. Further, when he started to speak at their request and was interrupted and almost attacked by one Communist agitator, the latter was physically (and somewhat indelicately) removed from the area by the workers.
The significance of this painful siege in the life of James Luther Adams is twofold: ( 1 ) Like his earlier reaction to Nazism, it is empirical evidence that his thought would be shaped by participation in political and economic struggles, and (2) it appears to have been for him an existential confirmation of Millhands and Preachers that those churches claiming to have eternal foundations for their faith are also subject to the dangers of culture-religion, justifying the ways of their contributors.
JLA had previously embarked upon a master's program in English and Greek at Harvard, in part to find another vocation since he saw little of significance in the church, in part to pursue his literary concerns, and in part to study under George Lyman Kittredge, John Livingston Lowes, and Irving Babbitt.l9 Much of his time was devoted to philology, but he became, as his friends report, a raving humanist, almost unbearably so. The influence of Irving Babbitt—whose conservative, classical humanism, with accents on the importance of identification and involvement, shaped several generations of Harvard students—appears to have been internalized and radicalized by JLA. The very intensity of his involvement in this literary humanism was highly significant for Adams in the early 1930's; for while many of the young intellectuals, disillusioned with the Social Gospel in its superficial post-World War I form, and disenchanted with the "American Way of Life" after 1929, turned to scientific humanism, or to various types of relativism, the young Adams was able to maintain a critical attitude against these even while having them broaden and deepen his concerns. While he was indeed to become associated with liberal causes in the 1930s, it is only the undiscerning who could not see the radical differences between his position and dogmatic Marxism. Further, with the realistic view of man involved in the literary humanism of Babbitt, he asserted that "the central problem of civilization [is] . . . ethical standards and, without being obscurantist, . . . stressed the necessity of something like conversion, of a change in the will whereby a man would develop inner ethical control and work toward a richly human, universal norm." As he continues, "Through Babbitt's stress on these ideas I came to understand and value Greek and Chinese humanism, the Christian doctrines of sin and grace, and the Christian emphasis on conversion and humility. I also thus acquired a skepticism of the romantic liberal conception of human nature which was later to be so severely scrutinized by 'realistic theology. And by the end of the '20's and into the early '30's, JLA was devouring these "realists." Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Marshall Horton, Alfred North Whitehead, John Bennett, and von Huegel became crucial figures in opening the doors of criticism, even against the humanism that he endorsed.
The question was asked by this generation, In what kind of context is man to be seen? Surely he does not stand alone, divorced from nature and history, and just decide, metanoia without trying to discern where the kingdom is. He is supported, sustained, altered, and influenced by environmental factors of all kinds. The ideational, natural, and temporal settings of man and the influence of these on his decisions became increasingly clear to JLA as he became self-conscious of the provincialized decisions that he himself had made in the past. In short, he began to ask what historical and natural conditions were necessary for mature, self-critical decision-making and for the preservation of a civilization that attempted to have a wide dispersion of decision-making and power.
Suggestions for provisional answers came from several sources, and the style of thinking that we have called comparative-critical began to appear in his scattered essays. Although he was still a pastor (not only in Salem, 1927-33, but later also in the Wellesley Hills First Unitarian Society, 1933-35), his interest in literature found expression in the teaching of Eng]ish (he still abhors nothing so much as a dangling modifier) at Boston University (1929-32), and in journals such as Hound and Horn, whose list of contributors, including T. S. Eliot Archibald MacLeish, Conrad Aiken, Robert Oppenheimer, Francis Fergusson, and Austen Warren, to name a few, reads like a Who’s Who of that period. His personal acquaintance with T. S. Eliot is particularly treasured. JLA saw Eliot once a week at tea for graduate students in English when Eliot was the Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer at Harvard. They had a chance to renew their acquaintance in London in 1935, when Adams went to Europe to do some research on the literary sources of Bishop Hurd's literary criticism and to devote a year in preparation for his new teaching assignment in Chicago. Through Eliot (also a pupil of Babbitt) he became personally acquainted With certain literary and philosophical figures in England and later in France
To this observer, one Hound and Horn article, perhaps only of secondary importance when written, appears to be particularly significant. In the review of Vigile, a Paris journal, we see several themes that suggest those percolating concerns that appear repeatedly and increasingly in his writing and lecturing.
One theme is his dialogue with other-worldliness in its more sophisticated expression. Mysticism, in the classical sense and as represented to the modern world in the works of Baron von Huegel and Rudolf Otto, is ever a concern of Adams, for it raises the question of the mediacy or immediacy of revelation and knowledge. He wrote in a commentary on Jacques Maritain's article on St. John of the Cross, "Mysticism, Protestant or Catholic, is always in danger of regarding the means which the church furnishes for uniting God and man as 'intermediary,' as separating God from man. Common sense, as well as tradition, demands that mysticism be always aware of the need for mediators, Christ and the Church." The notion that "nothing but the infinite can save us" just does not fit with "salus extra ecclesian non est." The questions became, therefore, (a) since Christ and his church must mediate, how may these best be understood and structured? Or to put it in quite another way, the movement from spiritual bondage to spiritual freedom demands changing the types of social organization. Freedom, to stay free, must organize. And (b) how can an adequate hermeneutical principle be devised to discern where in the plethora of God's creation, human action, and man's thought, God's will is to be known?
While protesting repeatedly against the "un-Catholic desire for pure spirituality" which he sees variously formulated in St. John of the Cross, Rousseau, and Descartes (and others), he appears nevertheless to be continually troubled by and attracted to the self-validating reality of immediate experience. Rudolf Otto, not only because of his sense of the encounter with the Holy, but also because of his historical and eschatological sensitivities as seen in Kingdom of God and Son of Man, was influential.
These themes had been present earlier. After assuming the pastorate in Wellesley, JLA turned to a more systematic reading of theology and began to see a significance, not previously clear to him, in the religious life. Indeed, while studying in Europe several years later (1935-36), he followed the example of von Huegel and secured a spiritual director for a while at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. He reports of that experience:
This concern with spiritual direction was an analogue to his interest in public worship. The Greenfield Group had given much attention to problems of public worship. They had produced a revision of liturgy which had been adopted in a number of churches; in this connection they had also promoted the adoption of the German chorale in substantial measure in the Unitarian hymnal. During this period (1935-36) in Europe JLA studied liturgies for a semester with Robert Will of the Strasbourg Theological Faculty. He then proceeded to study the Liturgical Movement of the Benedictines, especially at the famous monastery of Maria Laach in Germany. (Later on, Ernst Koenker under Adams' stimulus would write the major Protestant work on the Roman Catholic Liturgical Movement.) In this period he also spent much time with Rudolf Otto in Marburg, considering "the renewal of liturgy" in Protestantism in its relation to New Testament studies. Liturgy, in Adams' view, is always in danger of becoming a static rite and of inhibiting the prophetic element of Christian faith. Rudolf Otto with his paradoxical "realized eschatology" injected the dynamis of directed time into the space of the sacrament.
The problem of history, of time, plagued him. The content of supposedly pure spirituality was subject to temporal influence. That was empirically and existentially so. One must see the mediate character of the spirit. What are the factors that mediate the spiritual reality? Increasingly he came to the conclusion that language is insufficient. Writing, confessing, speaking, and preaching, even the whole literary heritage he loved, as important as they were, did not finally determine the spiritual destiny of nations. It is concrete historical institutions that shape life most massively. Institutions, indeed, provide the nexus for preservation, transmission, and alteration of language and cultural memory, as well as the conditions for receptivity to alternative choices in conversion. Selection and definition of terms and remembered events are primarily, although not exhaustively, social processes. It thus was not accidental that Adams, during this period, became acquainted personally with the French Protestant religious socialist, André Philip, a professor of law in Lyons and a member of the Chamber of Deputies. In the efforts of the religious socialists Adams found an attempt to link theology and the world in a way that took history and institutions seriously, even if they, like the members of the Kairos circle in Germany, were sometimes more theoretical than participating.
The problem of history also began to become clear to him in other ways, for even as he had been aware of the importance of the Radical Reformation through his involvement with the Unitarians and through his reading of Troeltsch, it was during the next decade that he became more systematically concerned with a "third history" of the Reformation. As the Catholics could not be counted on for a full account of the Reformation movement and the Lutheran and Calvinist historians tended to read the data of the Reformation in a way not to the liking of Catholic historians, so neither could be counted on to portray accurately the "Left Wing." The Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Münsterites, and all the other varieties of wilding growth are not to be dismissed out of hand just because they were successfully suppressed during the sixteenth century. This concern has flowered, as do many of his interests, in Adams' students—in this case most notably in George H. Williams. Even more important to American history are the proto-democratic and quasi-equalitarian sectarian movements in and around the Cromwellian Revolution. The Diggers, the Levellers, the Seekers, the Separatists, and the whole range of such groups represent a variety of social creativity that has shaped the modern world more than it acknowledges. (It was the study of these movements that initially brought Adams and D. B. Robertson into association; Adams read D. B. Robertson's doctoral dissertation, The Religious Foundations of Leveller Democracy, before it went to press in 1951.)
Adams came to see that the Marxists and the sectarians themselves, while treating the material in a highly ideological way, had done a service in turning attention to these movements and figures once again. Even more important became the theorists of voluntary associations who recognized the crucial importance, limitations, and perversions of these groups—Figgis, Maitland, Barker, and Channing.
Further, the problem of the relation of nature to immediate history struck James Luther Adams at this time in full vigor. It appeared in two ways: politically and theoretically. Both during the 1935-36 trip to Germany and later in 1935, JLA was inevitably concerned about the emerging power of Hitler and the inability of the church, even where willing and sensitive to the need, to head off the demonic appeal to "the German nature.”
The fact that so few effective, free-wheeling, voluntary associations had ever developed in Germany since the assassinations of the leaders of the Left Wing in the Reformation was, according to JLA's perspective, a contributing factor. The limited historical possibilities of human action and association had not been able to contain the laws of tooth and claw inherent in nature in the time of crisis. Indeed, the historical church and the theological tradition in many cases contributed to their own dissolution.
More personally, he began to ask what he was doing to prevent something like that from happening in America. (He had once resisted the organization of an anti-Nazi demonstration on Boston Common.) This reflection and self-examination resulted ultimately in many efforts and actions. Among these are some of the earlier protests against racial segregation.
JLA happened to be chairman of the library committee of the Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago during a WPA project to catalogue a huge stack of some 70,000 pamphlets dating before the Civil War. Adams noticed that no Negroes were among the employed, brought the matter before the committee, and got unanimous agreement that the personnel should be integrated. After carrying on correspondence about the matter for some time, with no results, he went in person to see the director of the projects in that area. He confronted the executive, a prominent businessman weighing some 250 pounds who enjoyed, as Adams tells it, "physically and spiritually throwing his weight around." The executive resisted any recommendations concerning his authority, his policy, or the program in the libraries. Finally the time came for a showdown session.
The administrator invited Adams to his office (in the midst of an enormous outlay of glass-partitioned bureaus) at 5:15 after all other employees had left. For about an hour and a half, the conversation became more and more heated until finally something like the following climax was reached:
"Obviously, you are just a professor; you have never had to meet a payroll, and haven't the slightest notion of the problems of an executive. We're going to have great trouble if we introduce Negroes into the project. The workers won't stand for it!"
"Well, I'm not convinced that they won't stand for it. I am convinced, and I have talked with some of them, that some of them are also displeased. There are others, of course, that won't like it, but after all, the Negroes are American citizens, they pay taxes, WPA is a federal project, and the WPA ought to join the United States. I am speaking to you in the name of a committee that agrees unanimously on this policy. And if you don't want to follow he policy, which is, really, in accord with the United States Constitution, you can just take the project out."
The executive was shocked. He could scarcely believe this, but Adams continued:
"And I think that we ought to take it out right now. We want nothing to do with it."
"You mean you don't want those books, you don't want those thousands of pamphlets catalogued?"
"No! They have not been catalogued for over a century, and they can wait until this becomes a possibility within the framework of the American Constitution."
"But you don't realize the complexity of executive decision-making. There would be pandemonium if I tried to introduce such a policy overnight. You have to realize the problems of being an administrator and an executive."
"I don't have to discuss with you my executive abilities. You are the executive, and you are the one who has the executive ability, as I understand it. But I have to tell you that in this instance I have the authority and the power to tell you what to execute. Perhaps you do not often find yourself in a position when others have power over you,
but you are in one now. So, if you have such great executive ability, will you show me
how? Do your stuff. Now, what are you going to do with me, and what are you going to do with the library committee? I am your 'problem.' They are your 'problem.' Do your stuff."
The executive had to surrender.
"Well, there will be a lot of trouble!"
"I don't think there will be trouble. But if anybody doesn't want to work for the WPA, and if he would rather be unemployed, he is free to leave the job. But, despite my alleged lack of executive ability, I venture to predict that no one will leave just because Negroes are brought in."
So the project was integrated. No one left the project.
But not all efforts were so successful. In one lecture that he gave recurrently to American servicemen (in officers' training) to teach them about the Nazi enemy, he outlined the Nazi racist philosophy in such a way that the audience became thoroughly incensed. Many of them would not recognize, however, that their attitudes about the Negroes were closely allied with the dominant racist motifs of the Axis, nor would they admit that "America First" and "Deutschland uber Alles" were close cousins. He was quietly relieved of his duties.
But even while he was still in Germany, his interest turned to those groups actually involved in resistance. By 1938 this interest was more intense, and Adams in the company of Peter Brunner (now on the Heidelberg faculty) spent several months observing underground movements and the behavior of the churches in the face of this "natural nationalism." He interviewed numerous Nazi and anti-Nazi leaders, taking some home movies that would make several leading German theologians, some of whom are still living, quiver in their boots with many a mea culpa. "The Cult of Authority," to quote Georg Iggers' book title out of context, was in full reign and was not to be vanquished, as Bonhoeffer (if not many Bonhoefferians of today) learned, by confessional statements alone.
Never one to stand in the wings of a dispute, JLA became so involved that he was apprehended by the Nazis and had his passport withheld for a while. Ostensibly, he was questioned for having been seen on the streets with a Jew, but he has always felt that his involvement with resistance groups was known to them.
Several important events occurred between his visits to Europe. Upon his return from the 1935-36 visit, the Reverend James Luther Adams became Professor James Luther Adams, teaching Psychology and Philosophy of Religion at The Meadville Theological School in Chicago. The impact of this young teacher on the students at Meadville, according to their reports, cannot be overestimated. The excitement of the intellectual enterprise, the expanding of horizons historically, internationally, and socially, and the direct importance of commitment and involvement left its mark on a whole generation of Unitarian pastors and scholars. For Adams himself, it was in this position that he began to deal with the theoretical aspects of the relationship of nature and history.
Since 1927, JLA had been intrigued by the thought of Paul Tillich, eventually writing his doctoral dissertation on "Paul Tillich s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion" (published in 1965 by Harper and Row). Tillich, along with Troeltsch, has been a crucial influence on Adams' thought. And in Chicago, he encountered again "process philosophy," confirming a philosophical interest initially stimulated by courses taken under Whitehead at Harvard. Both Tillich and the "process philosophers" had a sense of the ontological rootage of man in the nature of being and the pertinence of that problem to the human situation in history. Sensitivity to Being, Becoming, and Time were necessarily bound up with discerning "the times." The attempt to relate ontological, historical, and institutional matters, a concern of long standing, was a crucial part of Adams' critical reading of the conflict between Tillich and the process thinkers. While he always pressed the question of what the more theoretical formulations mean in terms of social organizational structure and the distribution of authority, the continuing dialogue on the relationship of history, metaphysics, and politics in which Tillich tends to ontologize history and the process philosophers tend to historicize ontology fed and nurtured Adams' ever-questioning drive. Even while he can say, "There is much in Tillich which still remains for me obscure and where understood unacceptable," and while he can call some process philosophy an ontological evasion of the institutional dimension of existence, the fact remains that this debate strongly influenced his view of the relationship of nature and history, and the theological importance of that relationship. One might say briefly that he has become an historical contextualist, taking the cultural epoch as his context, and always asking what principles are in operation therein and what view of Being or Becoming is implied by making one decision rather than another. The fact that he edited Wieman's The Directive in History in 1949, only one year after his translation of Tillich's The Protestant Era, is more than coincidental.
This concern for historical context, and especially for the relations between theology and social organization, is reflected in the critique of individualistic existentialism which for years has punctuated JLA's lectures. Thus he has viewed Kierkegaard as a one-sided proponent of Christian faith: he centers attention upon personal and interpersonal aspects of piety to the neglect of institutional implications and responsibilities. The Marxists for their part exhibit indifference to personal virtues. What Kierkegaard lacks Karl Marx has, and what Karl Marx lacks Kierkegaard has. To both of them JLA likes to apply the
Sainte Beuve maxim that nothing is so much like a swelling as a hole. The Kierkegaardian lack of concern for institutional problems and responsibilities appears today in the ontologism of Heidegger and in the Innerlichkeit and "pietism" of Bultmann. Warnings against false securities do not provide any substitute for a positive social theology or for political participation. Adams predicts that the inadequacy of Bultmann "pietism" will become evident the moment the German economic miracle begins to fade. This "pietism" presupposes the stability of the socio-political order, it does little to give shape to that order. In this respect it ignores a basic presupposition of the Bible. This presupposition lies behind the doctrine of the covenant namely, that God is a community-forming power and that man's response to it entails full social and political participation.
The manner of working through the problems of the world are almost as interesting in JLA's life as the problems themselves. For instance, when he becomes wrapped up with an author or problem he cannot sleep. Many students report that his lights burn late into the night. One evening in Chicago, after going to bed he found he could not sleep and, slipping his robe over his pajamas, crossed over to the nearby library to make use of the wakeful hours He became so involved that he failed to notice the hour and only belatedly started on his way back home. He arrived at the library door just in time to greet the librarian coming to work. Both he and she were embarrassed.
During this period he began to develop a propensity to answer questions with bibliography. It became part of the lore of the school that if one wanted a complete, cross-indexed, annotated bibliography on almost any topic, he had but to capture JLA at the corner of Woodlawn and 57th Streets, on his way home from classes. At Harvard, the same point is made by graduate students, who tell incoming B.D. candidates that Adams has nightmares that somewhere in Widener Library is a book he has not read.
Adams' academic interests are always supplemented by activity. I shall only report a partial, indeed selected, list of organizations and activities in which Adams has been involved, but these should show how seriously he took his own injunctions regarding the importance of voluntary associational participation.
The major trends of JLA's life have been suggested. The dominant, overarching result of his thought has been the development of an as sociational interpretation of history. The various periods of history and the various philosophies of each epoch are exegeted primarily through, and find much of their importance in, the kinds of social structures characteristic of the period. A typical statement from his lectures is, "If you want to know what a man means by a given set of theological concepts, ask him what his ecclesiology is," although he recognizes that theological meaning is not thereby exhausted. The ways in which power is distributed, authority functions, and institutional requirements are met in the church are the best place to take the pulse of theology. Further, if a man sets forth a political philosophy or a set of moral principles, ask him how he is to implement this in the community—that will give you some notion of what it actually means. But this is not merely a theoretical concern for JLA; it is a quite practical matter. While it is true that it is various refinements on this set of fugues that provide the center of his lecturing concern and the substance of his correspondence, these concerns find their embodiment in his own involvement. He is still active and holds office in a variety of organizations, most notably in ADA and Civil Liberties Union, although the move to Harvard did cut him off from certain channels of inside information and some organizations that he had cultivated for two decades in Chicago.
The impression should not be left, however, that it is only political and parapolitical efforts that occupy him. While these are important, two other areas of activity and sensitivity should be mentioned. Both are interests of long standing, but have come to focus especially since Professor and Mrs. Adams came to Harvard and began spending their summers in the Berkshires. Since his youth Adams had an interest in music, nurtured in his youth even though his parents feared that it might turn to jazz, and at Chicago in lunch-break chamber music sessions with some friends. Also for nearly two decades while Adams was in Chicago, students would gather in the Adams' living room once a week to listen to recordings, discuss composers and compositions, and attempt to relate this art form to other aspects of cultural life. (Adams now has one of the finest hi-fi and stereo component rigs I have seen.) Mrs. Adams had studied at the New England Conservatory and was considered an accomplished pianist. Dr. and Mrs. Adams had been also, respectively, members of the Glee Club and of the Radcliffe Choral Society. (Mrs. Adams attended Radcliffe for three and one-half years, although she actually received her degree from the University of Chicago.) The interest in music has persisted; they then spent their summers only seventeen miles from Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony plays almost daily, regularly attended these concerts. Also they became interested in Ted Shawn's School for the ballet at nearby Jacob's Pillow. For Adams, this has, characteristically, become a passion. The expression of ecstasy, creativity, and spirit through disciplined form and the body could not but intrigue one of his persuasions.
But the majority of their time in the Berkshires was taken up by their involvement with Gould Farm, a therapeutic halfway house for those who have emotional disturbances and are on their way back to society. Gould Farm is located near Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow. Frequent weekends and most summers were spent at Gould Farm in working, talking, and discussing with those trying to break free of bonds that inhibit existence by establishing new associations.
His energies were still not exhausted, in the summer of 1952 he was asked to become a member of a Study Tour of the Middle East under the auspices of the American Christian Palestine Committee. During the course of the extended trip he lectured in England and at the Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland. In 1953 he delivered the Noble Lectures at Harvard, and it was soon thereafter that he was called to Harvard Divinity School. In Tokyo in the summer of 1958, he was a participant in the Ninth International Congress for the History of Religions, an experience that provided the occasion for the development of many friendships in the Orient as well as in Europe. During that summer he also lectured in Rangoon, Calcutta, and Bangalore. In 1960, he delivered a paper at the Arminius Symposium in Amsterdam and had the opportunity to renew European acquaintances.
In the school year 1962-63, he traveled in Europe on his sabbatical, being relieved at Harvard by his former student, James Gustafson of Yale. He delivered the Hibbert Lectures in England, lectured widely in Germany and Italy, and was a guest professor at Marburg University. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these trips was JLA's ability to sustain the contacts and friendships made during his excursions. From all over the world came letters, manuscripts, and reprints. His daily mail was a funnel through which theologians and ethicists from many countries channeled their products and from which they derived much sustenance.
One could continue and supplement such a chronicle at nearly every sentence, for if one can prevail upon JLA to "repeal reticence," as he says trying to get others to talk of themselves, the stories flow like an artesian well—and with the artistry of a master bard. But space forbids. One can now only ask briefly what is the significance of such a constellation of concerns in the modern theological scene.
In a day when the harsher shouting of THE WORD by self-conscious Neo-Reformation theology is getting somewhat smaller audiences, when the radical existentialism produced by the anomie of the post-World War II period is recognized as insufficient for full understanding of modern man, when the Ecumenical Movement within Protestantism and within Christianity at large is the dominant mood, even if we are not sure why or whither, it is instructive to listen to one who has heard, really heard, many speakers for some time. JLA is a liberal who refused to be intimidated by the attempts of some branches of Neo-Protestantism to shout down a caricatured straw man. At the same time he was sensitive and receptive to the just criticisms against the false securities of a liberalism that was becoming LIBERALISM. While he persisted in unmasking the pretensions of a liberalism that attempted to erect itself into an inverted dogmatism, he continued to demand that the neo-orthodox theologians acknowledge (1) their indebtedness and continuity with certain aspects of the 19th century, and (2) the power that the social situation exerted on their efforts, lest they erect culturally determined temporality into a presumptuous and false eternality.
Hence, he has provided some helpful hints for the new generation that must attempt, as each generation must, to construct a theological and associational framework that is adequate to the understanding, fulfillment, and transformation of the life that we now live interpreted by the faith we know. JLA suggests again and again a possible direction for what appears to be an emergent, chastised neo-liberalism.
The critical-comparative approach with which we started our tale is one that is necessary not only for understanding his life nor only for suggesting his significance for theology at large but also for understanding his students. For it is in the theologically sensitive social witness of pastors trained under him and in the theses and books of his graduate students that the seminal, if diffuse and sometimes even fragmented, ideas of Adams are worked out systematically. Yet it must be said that any student who has tried to grasp the depths of these efforts has felt frustrated at the inability to measure up to the standards set by Adams. And while, working under JLA, the student becomes sure that he will never really be a scholar, that he will never be able to box the intellectual compass in a comparable way, he also becomes sure that he will henceforth know a scholar when he sees one.
Again, his style of teaching is as interesting as the subject matter and the results. He strides into his 9:00 a.m. class, having just come from a committee meeting or from two hours of dictating correspondence. He greets the brethren as he takes off his hat and coat, which, after class, he will invariably forget to recover until the next class is about to start in the same room. He opens his briefcase, and hauls forth voluminous notes and often several books to which he plans to make reference .Then, like an old evangelical who has memorized the Bible, he consults the pages before him only long enough to trigger his mind. Stalking around the room, he then delivers himself of his lecture.
The lectures themselves have been variously characterized, partly, I suspect, because of the variation of the lectures from year to year. While the main concerns remain the same, surrounding these is an ever differing way of painting the picture. The concerns are the perennial efforts of humanity to discern the realities of the situation under God and in history, but the treatment is ever changing. If one reads the lecture notes of students ten years ago and compares them with one’s own, one finds the outline strikingly similar, but the interlinear excursuses are a catalogue of what Professor Adams has been reading or experiencing, a chronological account of alternating sensitivities that occur in the literature on the subject under discussion.
But his teaching is not confined to the classroom, nor has it ended. His teaching long has reached as far, one is tempted to say, as the mails will carry.
It is not inappropriate that we speak of his correspondence when we speak of his writings. His letters flow with incredible volume and scope to every corner of the globe. For innumerable theologians, philosophers, former students, friends, politicians, and acquaintances, James Luther Adams has served as a one-man clearinghouse of information, knowing where the research on such and such topic is taking place and where one might find a bibliography on a given subject, and also often knowing the wives and children and private interests of most of the correspondents. Perhaps, thus, it is appropriate to close with a quotation from a letter that could be duplicated a dozen times from as many countries.
Franklin Littell spoke for us all when he wrote, on hearing of the preparation of this biographical sketch:
The thing I hope you will emphasize is his extraordinary generosity to scholars everywhere. For example, I have never taken any classes with him. Nevertheless, he has sent me reprints, bibliographical notes, etc., for all these years (since 1938) and taken the most direct personal interest in helping me learn.
During the years I spent in Germany, nearly a decade, he was my best correspondent and advisor on what was happening in intellectual circles here, what books to read and so on. This generosity of spirit is typical—the most typical thing about Jim besides his encyclopedic knowledge.
From Voluntary Associations: A study of Groups In Free Societies, Essays In Honor of James Luther Adams edited by D.B. Robertson (John Knox Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1966.)
Taking Time Seriously • A Biographical and Intellectual Sketch • Memorial Address
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