Adams, James Luther

James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams (November 12, 1901-July 26, 1994) was a Unitarian parish minister, social activist, journal editor, distinguished scholar, translator and editor of major German theologians, prolific author, and divinity school professor for more than forty years. Adams decisively shaped the minds of hundreds of students in preparation for the liberal ministry, and other scholarly professions as well.

Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists of the 20th century, and one of the finest 20th-century American liberal Christian theologians generally.

Path to Unitarianism

Adams’s path to Unitarianism was similar to that of many members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family in eastern Washington. At home and at church, the Day of Judgment heralding the end of time was constantly held up as a real possibility, perhaps coming very soon. As a college student at the University of Minnesota, Adams was, in his own words, “on the rebound from fundamentalism.” He railed against organized religion and briefly embraced an atheistic form of humanism. Eventually, however, he began to attend meetings of the Saturday Men’s Club of the Unitarian church, and was soon listening to the Unitarian preaching of the Rev. John Dietrich, a leading proponent of another type of humanism, at once scientific and religious. One of his professors, Frank Rarig, a Unitarian, saw that young Adams’s outbursts against religion came from a passionately religious impulse. In a career counseling session, Rarig calmly told Adams, much to his consternation, that he would be a minister. The “raving humanist” astonished his friends when, upon completion of his undergraduate work in 1924, he left for Harvard Divinity School to begin preparation for the Unitarian ministry.

At Harvard, Adams found the divinity school curriculum stale, and lacking adequate intellectual¬†grounds for a modern faith. Though he took courses “in the Yard,” i.e. in other schools of the university, he found many of these inadequate as well, and for the same reason. Growing up, he had learned firsthand the warping effects upon institutions and individuals of an ungrounded mysticism, which, he often said, “begins in mist and ends in schism.” Having overcome these effects, he found an ungrounded confidence in modernism, based on nothing more substantive than “the spirit of the age,” to be equally unacceptable. Adams would settle for nothing less than a faith which could be held intellectually accountable. When he graduated from HDS in 1927, he was not yet the spirited Christian humanist he would become after several more years of study. Before graduation, working on a field assignment at the Unitarian church in nearby Salem, Adams had started a new youth group. He married a member of the group, Margaret Ann Young, an accomplished pianist. Margaret Adams remained all her life an active church member and also an important, lively presence in the life of his Unitarian (later Unitarian Universalist) students. Throughout his teaching career, Jim and Margaret welcomed, every week, any or all Unitarian students in the academic community to an evening open house in their living room. The Adams had three daughters. Margaret Adams died in 1978.


After graduation Adams served as minister of two congregations, the Second Church, Unitarian in Salem, Massachusetts, 1927-34, and the First Unitarian Society in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, 1934-35. During his Salem pastorate, he earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard and taught in the English department at Boston University, 1929-32. In Salem, in response to a labor strike at the Pequot textile mills, Adams looked into the workers’ grievances, which had received no press coverage. His call from the pulpit for a public airing of their grievances led to press coverage and settlement. The mill’s owners and managers, as well as workers, were members of the church. Not one of the members objected to his having addressed issues of the strike from their pulpit, a fact which illustrates, Adams told generations of students, what freedom of the pulpit means.

His Salem experience strengthened Adams’s already firm conviction that a liberal church can and should make itself a faithful voice for the voiceless oppressed. He was sharply critical of the prevailing liberalism which, because of its excessive individualism, barely noticed and never decisively addressed issues of social justice. A weak liberal religion bestows a spurious blessing on the status quo. The point never ceased to be a major theme of his classes.

Meadville Lombard and Germany

In 1935, after only a year in Wellesley Hills, Adams was called to join the faculty of the Unitarian and Universalist Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago. He was called because certain others believed the Unitarian movement urgently needed him to help raise the intellectual standards of theological education, lest the churches be unequipped to meet the challenges of the modern world. He accepted the call, on the condition that he might study for a year in Europe before assuming his teaching duties.

In Germany during 1935-36, Adams watched as the Nazi government of Adolph Hitler ruthlessly crushed any and all dissent as it marshaled forces for its coming march across the continent. Interrogated by the Gestapo, he narrowly avoided imprisonment as a result of his engagement with the Underground Church movement. Using a home movie camera, he filmed Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer and others, including those who were involved in clandestine, church-related resistance groups, as well as pro-Nazi leaders of the so-called German Christian Church. Adams returned to the United States more convinced than ever that the tendency of religious liberals to be theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness could only render liberal churches irrelevant and impotent in face of the world’s evils, and he stated his convictions loudly and frequently.

Adams taught at Meadville/Lombard from 1936 to 1943, and also served as a professor in the Federated Theological Faculties of the University of Chicago, of which Meadville/Lombard was a member institution, from 1943 to 1956. In 1945 Adams earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He worked vigorously with the Independent Voters of Illinois, an independent, grassroots political organization whose goal was open and honest government. Adams’ work with the IVI brought him friendship with liberal politicians Paul Douglas and Adlai Stevenson.

Harvard Divinity School

In 1957 Adams left Chicago to join the faculty of Harvard Divinity School. After age-mandated retirement from Harvard in 1968, he continued to teach at Andover Newton Theological Seminary and Meadville/Lombard. In the realm of academia, Adams is credited with making the works of liberal German theologians Paul Tillich, Ernst Troeltsch, and Karl Holl accessible to the English-speaking world by translating, editing, and interpreting their writings. His many other essays and articles focused largely on the theology of social ethics, addressing an exceedingly broad range of topics, from politics to the grotesque in the arts, from the significance of angels to AIDS. Especially notable was his work on the history and theory of voluntary associations in a democratic culture.

Adams’s conception of the meaning and importance of voluntary associations grew directly from his understanding of authentically free spirit in the free church. He described the free church as a body of believers freely joined in a covenant of loyalty to the holy spirit of love, intentionally inclusive of dissent, governed by its own members and fiercely independent from government control, with the reign of the spirit of love among members to be seen in their voluntary assumption of responsibility for the just character of their whole society. He came to see the idea of the free church as the root idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition of which Western civilization is the fruit, especially as it is manifest in the deliberate and carefully preserved limitation of the government’s power to control thriving, independent voluntary associations in a democratic society. He interpreted participation in voluntary associations, whatever the character of the government, as the chief means by which beneficial social change has been effected throughout history, and as key to the meaning of human history. To Adams, the notion that any group might hold a monopoly on the spirit of love was preposterous and idolatrous. In the Western world, the free church provides the historical model for many other voluntary associations, whose purpose is to maintain high standards or to promote constructive change. As a theologian, Adams was interested in voluntary associations because his experience and his studies had brought him to the belief that through voluntary participation in groups humanity may respond in all times to “the community-forming power” of God’s love, present in and available to every human heart and mind.

Paraphrasing Jesus, Adams gives voice to his theology with the expression, “By their groups ye shall know them.” It is also briefly summarized in a short piece of his writing, often read antiphonally in Unitarian Universalist worship services, “I Call That Church Free.” The free church, in Adams’s theology, is an institution of special value only insofar as it meets two other criteria. If its membership is varied and includes people of all ages and social ranks, many occupations, various types and levels of ability, degrees of wealth, etc., then the church will address a much broader range of human concerns than do other, more narrowly based groups.

Moreover, the primary purpose of the free church is worship, which is experience of renewed loyalty to the spirit of love and all its ways. This means the church must have an explicit theology, capable of intelligent formulation in fresh, living language and forever subject to informed criticism and reform, lest it slide unawares into idolatry, which is loyalty, in actual practice, to some far less worthy reality. Adams believed that all organizations embody a theology, implicit in their assessments of legitimate and illegitimate uses of power, but careful attention to terms used in articulation of religious loyalty is not the task of other organizations, whose primary purpose is not worship. Adams insisted that the language of the liberal free church must be richly flexible, not doctrinaire. “People can die,” he often said, “from hardening of the categories.” He mourned the confused weakness of liberal churches whose members will not strive, in the ongoing mutual dialogue of their church, to examine and explain their own personal, central, essential loyalties. Said Adams, paraphrasing Socrates,”An unexamined faith is not worth having.”

Busy as he was in his profession and many other voluntary associations, Adams was ever an active participant in his own church and always present at Sunday worship services. He was active, too, in the Unitarian Universalist Association, serving on numerous UUA committees, most notably on the Commission on Appraisal, 1934-36. His and others’ work on this Commission resulted in a significant reorganization of the Association.

Adams was a brilliant teacher, so much so that his classes always drew students from many faith traditions. Through them, his influence extends to the many institutions his former students now serve, not a few with high distinction. He had a capacity to expand the horizons of his students’ minds and fire them with his own enthusiasm for the life-giving spirit of ideas, especially ideas of freedom and justice. He was impatient with lifeless abstraction. He wanted to know and be able to document the dramatic stories of ideas, the situation of their origin, the struggle for their acceptance, whose interest their suppression served, and how they worked out in ongoing, daily human lives. And that is what he required that his students learn and scrupulously document in their assigned coursework. Once, at a conference, Adams repeatedly challenged Edwin Wilson, leader of the Unitarian humanists, to cite the sources of the ideas that his group promoted. Adams delighted to recall and quote to students Wilson’s public dig at himself: “James Luther Adams believes in salvation by bibliography.” Adams’s retort: “There is no such thing as the immaculate conception of an idea.”

Adams’s acquaintances affectionately refer to him as “JLA,” after the signature he used on his thousands of memos and letters to hundreds of correspondents around the world. Among ministers especially, JLA stories abound. Most end with one of JLA’s memorable punch lines and bursts of laughter, as well as the illumination of some important issue. In his early days, Adams’s criticism of liberal religion rankled his more established colleagues. He was occasionally told that if he found so much wrong with the Unitarian church he was welcome to leave the Unitarian fellowship, but over the years he came to be respected by a great many Unitarians as a constructive reformer, worth listening to for the depth and breadth of his concerns.


Adams suffered painfully from a disease of the spine in his last years. Even in his late 80’s and not well, he kept up his lively correspondence and continued his studies, gracious as ever to his many visitors. He died, 92 years old, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1994.

Published Works

Adams wrote an autobiography, Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir (1995). Wilcox’s work, Taking Time Seriously: James Luther Adams, is partly a biography, but is mostly a study of Adams’s ethics. Biographical articles include Max L. Stackhouse, “James Luther Adams: A Biographical and Intellectual Sketch” in Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Societies (1966) and George W. Pickering, “James Luther Adams: Religious Liberalism at the Intersection of History and Biography,” in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy (2000).


The primary collection of Adams papers and films is at the George Arents Research Library for Special Collections at Syracuse University. Additional materials are found at the James Duncan Phillips Library at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, and the archives of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at the Harvard Divinity School. The James Luther Adams Foundation was set up in 1977. One of its stated purposes is “assisting, encouraging and engaging in the collection, maintenance, and publication of the records of the life and thought of James Luther Adams.”

Because he could never resist a summons to any series of meetings aimed at reshaping yet another institution, Adams never got around to organizing his published work. His principal editor, George Kimmich Beach, has published three volumes of Adams’s papers: The Prophethood of All Believers (1986), An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (1991), and The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses (1998). These volumes include Beach’s own illuminating essays, written to introduce each of the volumes and each of their sections. Beach’s work lifts up the sytematic nature of Adams’s thought. Adams essays have also been collected in Taking Time Seriously (1957); On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays in Religion and Society, edited by Max L. Stackhouse (1976); Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation, edited by J. Ronald Engel (1986). In addition, there are two special editions of the Unitarian Universalist Christian devoted to Adams’s essays and sermons (1977 and 1993). Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (1965) is a revised version of Adams’s doctoral dissertation. Comprehensive bibliographies of Adams’s writings may be found in D.B. Robertson, ed., Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Societies. (1966) and John R. Wilcox, Taking Time Seriously: James Luther Adams. (1978).

Article by Van Eric Fox and Alice Blair Wesley
Posted October 28, 2000