James Luther Adams (1901-1994) was the leading 20th century Unitarian theologian and a skillful proponent and defender of religious and political liberalism. A major American social ethicist, he combined a concern for the Christian tradition with openness to the social sciences and active involvement in religious and secular associations.
Adams was born in Ritzville, Washington, on November 12, 1901. His family background prepared him hardly at all for a role as a champion of liberalism. His father, James Carey Adams, was a Baptist country preacher, a premillenarian who later became a Plymouth Brother. Letta Barrett Adams, his mother, was also a devout believer. It was his educational experiences that provided the foundation of his liberal thinking. The "new law" he came to live by at the University of Minnesota was the scientific humanism of John Dietrich and the "new prophecy" he proclaimed was the anti-Rotarianism of H. L. Mencken. But Adams's railing against religion was a turbulent eddy, catching the eye but hiding the deep currents of a profound religious sense. He entered Harvard Divinity School in 1924 and was greatly influenced by Unitarianism, the tradition of social responsibility, and the historical, critical methods of the school. Marxism and Anglo-Catholicism, with their emphasis on community, provided Adams with a necessary complement to humanism's "individual psychology of self-culture."
Adams's journey to Europe in the summer of 1927, following his ordination as a Unitarian minister, had a lasting effect on his approach to ethics and theology. While there, he became familiar with the writings of Paul Tillich and witnessed the Nazi festival in Nuremberg. These experiences deeply influenced his understanding of culture and human nature and his assessment of liberal theology. Upon his return from Europe he married Margaret Anne Young in September of 1927 and became pastor of the Second Church in Salem, Massachusetts.
Given his active involvement in and commitment to the development of the Unitarian Church, it was no surprise in 1935 that he was called to teach at the Unitarian Seminary in Chicago. Before taking up that charge he returned for a year of study in Europe where he placed himself under the spiritual direction of a Roman Catholic priest and researched the liturgical movement at Maria Laach (a Benedictine monastery). In Germany he studied the relation of religion to fascism and democracy. He sought to bring both secular and sacred together in his personal religious journey, a journey which led to his detention by the Gestapo on more than one occasion. Adams supported the Allied cause in the war, a war which he understood as related to a wider issue: the linkage between the totalitarianism of the Axis and the social inequalities in the United States. The strength and vitality of his religious liberalism and the constant interplay between principles and events are evident in his criticism of all parties in the war.
On his return from Europe in 1936, Adams had begun a teaching career at the University of Chicago, a career he continued at Harvard Divinity School and other universities. His influence on ethicists and theologians is legendary. He wrote several books and hundreds of essays and reviews. He continued to teach informally through prolific correspondence, lectures, writing, translating, and, most importantly, personal contact. One consistent way in which he interacted with events and societal problems, thereby fleshing out his teaching and writing, was through memberships in associations. He was president of the Society of Christian Ethics, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the American Theological Society, as well as an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union along with a host of other religious and political organizations.
Over six decades he strongly influenced American Christian ethics through his translation and introduction of European thinkers to American theologians. Paul Tillich's theology is widely known in America primarily due to Adams's editing and translating. Adams's interpretation of Tillich's thinking in Paul Tillich's Philosophy of Culture, Science and Religion is the classic text on the German theologian's early years. Conversely, Adams's influence on Tillich was strong: in the latter's words: "I have learned from him (Adams) the emphasis on the practical, social as well as the political, application of the principle of agape to the situation of the society in which we live."
The influence of metaphysicians such as Tillich on Adams is counterbalanced by the strong historical sense evident in his biblical prophetic awareness and his analysis of the left wing of the Protestant Reformation. Concern for the person in society and history consistently led him to the field of sociology. Karl Marx, Ernst Troeltsch, Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, and Ferdinand Toennies profoundly affected Adams's interpretation of social ethics and the historicity of men and women.
One of Adams's most important contributions to 20th century theology was his reformulation of religious liberalism. His method of reformulation was forcefully dialectical, focussing now on community, then on the individual, now on God, then on man. Adams's dialectical sense fostered in others a willingness to engage in the task of translating ethical formulations for a new age, yet cautioned that new understandings were not the final answer. Thus, vital reformulation results only if theory and practice exist dialectically. They do in Adams primarily because no answer is final and because community facilitates discernment of the interaction between theory and practice. Theory may be correct, but the test is application to the present situation and reflection upon the interaction of event and theory.
Adams was a driving force in the United States in social ethics for the second half of the 20th century. His last book, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (1991), was published when he was 89 years old. Through his writings and teachings, Adams developed a version of natural law doctrine based in liberal religion. His aim was to critique contemporary social injustices while simultaneously informing action to reshape these unjust practices. Adams died of heart failure at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1992.
Further Reading on James Luther Adams
The best introduction to James Luther Adams is his volume of essays entitled On Being Human Religiously, edited and introduced by Max L. Stackhouse (1976). An analysis of Adams's theological ethics and an extensive bibliography will be found in John R. Wilcox's Taking Time Seriously: James Luther Adams (1978). His last book is An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment, Beacon Press (1991). Adams is profiled in "Remembering James Luther Adams," The Christian Century, December 7, 1994; and his version of natural law is discussed in Douglas Sturm, "Natural Law, Liberal Religion, and Freedom of Association: James Luther Adams on the Problem of Jurisprudence," Journal of Religious Ethics, Spring 1992.