Adam, William

William Adam (November 1, 1796-February 19, 1881), born in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, began his ministry as a Baptist missionary in India. His labors in India made him into a linguist, a biblical scholar, and a Unitarian. Thereafter for years, Adam tried to elicit support for his work as a Unitarian missionary, first in India and later in the United States and Canada. His career illustrates the meager support for and the difficulties of Unitarian missionary endeavors of the 19th century.

As a young man Adam was deeply influenced by the famous Scottish churchman Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers interested Adam in India and got him to join the Baptist Missionary Society. The Society sent him for his education to the Baptist College in Bristol and to the University of Glasgow. Adam set out in September, 1817, for William Carey’s Baptist mission station in Serampore, India, north of Calcutta. He reached his destination in six months, in March, 1818.

After mastering the classical Sanskrit and Bengali languages, Adam joined a group of men who were revising the Bengali translation of the New Testament. The group included the cordial and scholarly Hindu, Rammohun Roy. Roy convinced Adam that the meaning of the Greek preposition dia required that Jn 1:3, a verse of the prologue to John’s Gospel, be translated as the Bengali equivalent of the English words, “All things were made through the Word. . .” not “by the Word.” Translators of New Testament Greek in later generations would come to agree, but in 1821 the view of nature of Christ, supported by this translation and espoused by Adam and Rammohun, was rejected by orthodox Christians as the Arian heresy (named for the 4th century CE dissident, Arius). For this reason colleagues nicknamed him ‘the second fallen Adam’.

Adam soon resigned his position as a Baptist missionary and, along with Rammohun and a few other Indian and European friends, formed the Calcutta Unitarian Society. Adam sent ardent appeals to British and American Unitarians for financial support. Support was both slow in coming and quite inadequate when it came. Nevertheless, the Calcutta Unitarian Society remained fitfully active and viable for seven years. But in 1828 its Hindu supporters finally chose to create a new Unitarian form of Hinduism, Brahmo Somaj, leaving behind Unitarian Christianity.

In need of income, Adam turned to clerking and journalism. Working for the British governor of Bengal, he did a three volume census and analysis of native education in Bengal.

With help from the Dixwell family, New England merchants in the India trade, Adam’s wife and family left India to go to the United States. Adam followed four years later, in 1838. Travelling from Boston, he attended in London the first meeting of the British India Society, an anti-slavery organization. Members of the Society introduced Adam to leading Garrisonian abolitionists from the United States. When he returned to Boston he took up the position of professor of Oriental Literature at Harvard, which he had been offered before his trip. Adam found Harvard’s academic atmosphere did not suit him, however, and he resigned after just one year.

Finding himself consumed by the anti-slavery cause, he returned to London for the World Anti-Slavery Convention in June,1840. He vigorously protested the exclusion of women from the meetings. Afterward, remaining in London, he began working as editor of the British Indian Advocate, the journal of the the British India Society, then called for his family to join him.

Eighteen months later the Adam family once again journeyed to America to join a new utopian community in Massachusetts, the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. Adam became the Association’s secretary and director of education. He also invested money in the project, but after control of the capital was taken away from investors, he resigned. For a while the Adam family lived in the town of Northampton. William sought work as a lecturer and conducted classes for Boston women during the winter of 1844-45.

He met Charles Briggs, Secretary of the American Unitarian Association, who told him Unitarian ministers were desperately needed in the “west,” which at that time meant west of the Appalachian Mountains. On his way to Illinois, Adam stopped in Syracuse, New York where the Rev. Samuel J. May, also an active Garrisonian, was minister of the Unitarian Church. May told Adam of a new opening for a Unitarian minister in Toronto on the British side of Lake Ontario. After hearing Adam preach, on two Sundays and one mid-week evening in early July, 1845, Toronto Unitarians called him as their first minister.

But the match between minister and congregation was not a good one. After some early success—the securing of a church building and a strengthening of the congregation—financial problems soured relations. Adam, with a family to support, was feeling constraint. He also felt let down by Charles Briggs, the AUA and Toronto Unitarians. Only the Toronto physician, Joseph Workman, tried hard to raise fit support for him. He resigned and resumed his journey to Illinois. There, within weeks, in late July, 1846, the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, without a minister for two years, called him as minister.

Manuscripts of some of Adam’s Toronto and Chicago sermons and lectures survive in Dr. Williams’s Library in London. Their titles show the range of issues addressed by this scholarly, socially active world traveler. They include ‘Truth and falsehood in man,” “Labour,” “The River and Harbour Convention,” and “Temperance.”

After yet another negative experience in Chicago, Adam withdrew from the Unitarian parish ministry. He is known to have traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana shortly afterward. There is no record of Adam’s activities over the next five years. Sometime before 1855, he returned to Britain, perhaps without his family. He is known to have preached in December, 1855, at a small Unitarian church in High Garret, Essex, England. Charles Dall, the missionary to India of the American Unitarian Association, 1855-86, visited Adam in London in 1861 on his way to India. Adam made it clear to Dall that he had altogether renounced Unitarianism and its ministry. He was writing a book critical of Comte’s philosophy of history, which was published anonymously that year.

Adam lived obscurely another twenty years. He died at Beaconsfield in Hampshire in 1881, aged 84, and was buried, on his instructions, without ceremony in Woking Cemetery. He left his money to Dumfermline Grammar School for University scholarships, stipulating that the funds should be distributed “irrespective of sex or creed or no creed, parentage, colour or caste, nationality or political allegiance.”

Adam was the first international Unitarian of modern times. His convert’s enthusiasm was much damped by the lukewarm response of both British and American Unitarians to his requests for their support of his work as a Unitarian missionary in India. Ultimately, he was disappointed in the Unitarian movement as a whole.

At the time Adam regretted that Rammohun Roy and his Hindu friends chose a Unitarian Hindu faith in preference to Unitarian Christianity. Yet without Adam’s dedicated initiative and drive, the reformed Unitarian Hindu movement, the Brahmo Somaj, might never have come into being. The distinguished leaders of the Brahmo Somaj nurtured and propagated what became, in effect, a “school of thought,” which flowered into the famous Bengal Renaissance, a great burst of modern, yet distinctively Indian political theory, idealism and poetry. The Brahmo Somaj, first established in part by an ill-supported and mostly forgotten Unitarian missionary, influenced immensely the intellectual and political culture of all India.

There are letters from and referring to Adam in the Baptist Missionary Society Library at Didcot, Oxfordshire; in the Houghton Library at Harvard, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the anti-slavery collections in the Boston Public Library. The minute book of the Calcutta Unitarian Committee is at Unitarian Headquarters, Essex Hall, London. There are 50 manuscript sermons from the Toronto and Chicago period at Dr. Williams’s Library, London. Correspondence regarding Adam’s appointment at Harvard is in the Harvard University Archives. The minutes of The Society for the Promotion of Christianity in India and the record of the 1860 conversation between Charles Dall and William Adam are in the Andover Harvard Theological Library. The Dixwell family papers, with their many references to Adam and his family, and the archives of the Northampton Association are at The Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. The recent discovery of the Calcutta Unitarian Society minute book gives primary documentary support for the reports published in the Unitarian periodical press in both Britain and America. Letters from, to, and referring to Adam and members of his family appear in Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists: an episode in transatlantic understanding (1974); Walter M. Merrill, Collected letters of William Lloyd Garrison (1971); Sophia Dobson Collet, The life and letters of Raja Rammoun Roy, 3rd ed. (1962); and Dilip Kumar Biswas, The Correspondence of Raja Rammohun Roy (1997). There are several biographical articles on Adam: S. C. Sanial “the Rev. William Adam,” Bengal Past and Present (1914); Andrew Hill, “William Adam: Unitarian Missionary,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1995); and Andrew Hill, “William Adam: a noble specimen,” Canadian Unitarian and Universalist Historical Society (1995). For general information on Unitarianism in India, see Spencer Lavan Unitarians and India (1977). For more on the Northampton Association, see Christopher Clark, The Communitarian movement: the radical challenge of the Northampton Association (1995).

Article by Andrew Hill
Posted July 17, 2000