Hannah Adams (October 2, 1755-December 15, 1831), an early American historian and pioneer in the field of comparative religion, was also the first American author to make a living solely from writing. She was the first historian of religions ever to try to represent sects and denominations in terms which adherents themselves used and from their perspective.
Hannah, the second of five children, was born in Medfield, Massachusetts to Thomas and Elizabeth Clark Adams. Her mother died when she was 12, leaving Hannah and several sisters. Because of illness Hannah did not attend school, but continually read on her own. “[M]y first idea of Heaven,” Adams later recollected, “was of a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified.” Her father encouraged her love of learning, and throughout his life remained one of her favorite conversation partners.
Though Thomas Adams had inherited a comfortable fortune, he failed both as a farmer and a bookseller. The family was in financial need. To earn some income, he took students “on rustification” (country leave for discipline and tutoring) from Harvard. Hannah shared the education of these boarders and eventually became a tutor herself.
During the Revolutionary War one of the boarding students gave Adams a copy of Thomas Broughton’s An Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the World to This Perfect Time, 1742. Reading Broughton “awakened my curiosity,” she later wrote. The Historical Dictionary, and other books she soon consulted, treated most religious faiths with hostility and prejudice. She reported that “she suffered extremely from mental indecision, while perusing the various and contradictory arguments adduced by men of piety and learning in defence of their respective religious systems.”
In reaction to these texts Adams discovered and developed her vision of comparative religious scholarship. “I soon became disgusted with the want of candor in the authors I consulted,” she wrote. In 1778 she began to compile a new reference work according to her own rules. She resolved “to avoid giving the least preference of one denomination above another” and to present the arguments and sentiments of each sect in believers’ own words, according to the group’s “general collective sense.”
In 1784, hoping to provide some income for the family, Adams published the result, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day. The first edition sold out, but her agent got the proceeds. The disappointment awakened Adams to the potential profits and the pitfalls of publishing. She kept a country school for several years and, meanwhile, sought another publisher and also lobbied for the United States’ first copyright law, passed in 1790. James Freeman, the newly installed minister of King’s Chapel in Boston, helped her to garner a long list of subscribers for a second, more remunerative edition titled A View of Religions, published in 1791.
As demand for her dictionary occasioned additional printings in both England and America, Adams began to correspond with clergy and religious scholars in distant places. Engagement in written dialogue deepened her capacity for subtle theological interpretation. Her first compendium was little more than an improved arrangement of the European texts from which she worked. The later editions chart the changing religious landscape of her time. Of particular note are her lengthening descriptions of the emerging Unitarians, which draw heavily on the ideas of the English Unitarian theologian and scientist, Joseph Priestley.
Adams continued to seek income from her historical research. In 1799 she published A Summary History of New England and, in 1801, published her edited version of the volume as a schoolbook, An Abridgment of the History of New England. A legal dispute followed with the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, who was publishing his own book on the subject. Leading members of liberal religious families, in appreciation of her work and disliking the orthodox Morse, provided her with legal services and financial support. Morse was obliged to apologize and pay damages—withheld until 1814. Although Adams disliked the controversy, it strengthened her ties with her supporters.
In this period of legal struggles, Adams collected writings giving different views of Christianity. In 1804 she published her synthesis, The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion Exhibited. “My conviction of the truth of divine revelation,” she later wrote, “instead of being weakened by all my researches, was strengthened and confirmed, and I wished to make a public declaration of my sentiments on this important subject.”
Adams described herself as a Unitarian Christian. In her autobiography she told how she had reached her position. “After removing to Boston, and residing in that city while the disputes upon Unitarian sentiments were warmly agitated, I read all that came in my way upon both sides of the question; and carefully examined the New Testament, with, I think, a sincere and ardent desire to know the truth. I deeply felt the difficulties upon both sides of the question; yet prevailingly give the preference to that class of Unitarians, who adopt the highest idea of the greatness and dignity of the Son of God. I have never arrived to that degree of decision that some have attained on that subject.”
In a society whose elite valued education and faith, Adams became a dinner and house-party star. In this era of slow travel, the stay of a house guest was often extended. Special guests, who could enliven the household conversation, were often invited by the wealthy to stay for several weeks or months. The practice was especially beneficial to women, who could thus receive social and intellectual enrichment within the walls of their own and others’ homes. Adams’s wide knowledge made her a staple in liberal New England’s social whirl. She even enjoyed a two-week stay at the home of her distant cousin, John Adams, second President of the United States.
“Miss Adams” fulfilled her professional ambitions, but did not challenge the customs which barred women from attending or teaching at Harvard or any other New England university. She succeeded, rather, through personal relations with the affluent. Founders of the Boston Atheneum, for example, allowed her to use the library as a visitor, though they would not admit women to membership. Hence her career opened no doors for other women. Challenged about her conservative strategy, Adams responded that as an unmarried woman with a father and sister to help support, she had to give priority to personal duties. She was cherished by affluent New England women as an embodiment of the benefits of permitting female equality in higher education. During Adams’s later years admirers established an annuity for her support.
Despite troubles with her eyesight and sorrow, Adams lived a long, happy and productive life. Her later works included History of the Jews, 1812; Letters on the Gospels, 1824; and A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, 1817, the final edition of her first work. She died in Brookline, Massachusetts and was buried in the prestigious new Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Her contemporaries in religious scholarship respected Adams’s highly collaborative process for getting and refining information, her persistence in research and her well articulated theories. Succeeding generations kept all her books in print except the Dictionary, causing an unfortunate truncation of her reputation. In recent years her contribution to the field of comparative religion has again received scholarly attention.
Adams’s papers can be found in the Hannah Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Massachusetts and at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the items at the Massachusetts Historical Society is the journal of Rev. John Pierce of Brookline, which contains an excellent contemporary record of Adams. Her autobiography is A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams, Written by Herself. With Additional Notices by a Friend (1832). Information on her legal battle with Morse is contained in Jedidiah Morse, An Appeal to the Public (1814); Hannah Adams, A Narrative of the Controversy between the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, D. D., and the Author (1814); and Sidney E. Morse, Remarks on the Controversy between Doctor Morse and Miss Adams (1814). A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations (1817) has been reprinted in 1992 with an introduction by Thomas Tweed, “Hannah Adams’s Survey of the Religious Landscape.” The history writing of Adams is briefly treated in Michael Kraus and Davis Joyce, The Writing of American History (1985). Among short articles on Adams are Conrad C. Wright, “Adams, Hannah,” Notable American Women 1607-1950 (1971); Carol Berkin, “Adams, Hannah,” American National Biography (1999); and Elizabeth Curtiss, “Hannah Adams: Biographical Sketch,” in Dorothy Emerson, ed., Standing Before Us (2000).
Article by Elizabeth Curtiss
Posted May 17, 2002