The Legacy of James Luther Adams


(The singer Merle Haggard died a few days before this sermon was presented.)

You know, the only song of Merle Haggard’s that I was really familiar with before this week is Okie from Muskogee. It didn’t make me a fan of the man when I first heard it years ago, as I felt like my friends and I were the object of his derision. Derision doesn’t usually attract affection.

And because I found that song insulting and derisive, I haven’t been able to figure out the affection some friends have had for Merle Haggard. Still, I thought that his passing might have caused some mourning for folks in the congregation, so I chose a Merle Haggard song for today’s “special music.”

Then, I read the obituary– everyone knows that Merle Haggard died this week, yes? In the New York Times obituary he’s quoted as saying, “I was dumb as a rock when I wrote Okie from Muskogee. I sing with a different intention now.”

So, this illustrates growth, and that’s a model for all of us and the subtext, at least, for every service we offer here every week.

Today, we’re going to talk about theology, dynamics, human dignity, the individual and the community. We’re going to talk about the theology of James Luther Adams, who is generally accounted as the greatest theologian of the Unitarian faith of the 20th century. I’ll tell you a little bit about his background and his ideas.

JLA, as he is most often affectionately called, was born in 1901 and died at the age of 92 in 1994. He lived a life that spanned almost the whole of the 20th century. It was a century of change, for the world as well as for him. JLA “grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family in eastern Washington.” The Unitarian Universalist Dictionary of Biography tells us that “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.” Rather than making him fall in line, this bit of hysteria convinced Adams to “embrace an atheistic form of humanism.”

As a college student, Adams “began to attend meetings of the Saturday Men’s Club of the Unitarian Church.” Here, he heard the humanist minister John Dietrich preach. Here, he learned about a kind of humanism which was both scientific and religious. This caused him to prick up his ears and to engage in lively conversation about the most fundamental human questions. After a while his friends began to call him a “raving humanist.”

So, you can imagine their shock when they found out, as Adams was completing his undergraduate studies in 1924, that he had enrolled in Harvard Divinity School to study to be a Unitarian minister.

JLA did not find his time at Harvard completely satisfactory, though. He found the curriculum stale and lacking adequate intellectual grounds for a modern faith. He was equally suspicious of both mysticism and modernism. His experiences growing up convinced him that an “ungrounded mysticism” is delusional and dangerous. (He was fond of saying that “mysticism” begins in “mist” and ends in “schism.”) But, he sensed that modernism wasn’t grounded in anything deeper than “the spirit of the age,” which seemed awfully insubstantial as a foundation for a sure and lasting faith. Adams would be satisfied by nothing less than “a faith which could be held intellectually accountable.”

Before he graduated from Harvard Divinity, Adams started a new youth group while working on a field assignment in Salem, Massachusetts. He ended up marrying a member of the group, an “accomplished pianist” named Margaret Ann Young. They would have three daughters together, and during their marriage, once a week, they invited any and all Unitarian students in the academic community to an open house in their living room.

Adams served as minister to two congregations after his graduation. He served the Second Church, Unitarian, in Salem, Massachusetts from 1927–34 and the First Unitarian Society of Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts for the 1934–35 church year. Parish ministry was different in several ways then from what it is now. He was able to earn a master’s degree in comparative literature while at Salem and to teach at Boston University.

While serving the Salem church, there was a labor strike at the nearby Pequot Textile Mills. The congregation included the mills’ owners, managers, and workers. He made a call, nevertheless, from the pulpit, for a “public airing” of the workers’ grievances. This led to press coverage and an eventual settlement of the strike. Not a single member of the church objected to his addressing the strike from the pulpit. That did a lot to convince Adams that freedom of the pulpit is a very real thing, a lesson he imparted to the generations of students he was to teach in various theological schools.

Adams was a minister in a liberal tradition, but he was suspicious of a liberalism that was too individualistic, a failure he found as a symptom of its time. It sometimes happens that too great a focus on the freedom of the individual detracts from social justice work, as “a weak liberal religion bestows a spurious blessing on the status quo.”

Adams was at the Wellesley Hills church for only a year before receiving a call from Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Leaders in the Unitarian movement believed that he was urgently needed to “help raise the intellectual standards of theological education,” so that churches could be equipped to meet the challenges of the modern world.

Adams accepted the call to teach at Meadville/Lombard with one condition, that he would be allowed first to spend a year in study in Europe. The year was 1935–36, and it was to leave its mark on him for the rest of his life. In Germany, he watched the rise of the government of Adolph Hitler. It was a government that “stifled any and all dissent” as Hitler’s armies moved across Europe.

Adams became involved in the Underground Church movement, which led to a brutal interrogation by the Gestapo. He used a home movie camera to film meetings with the theologian Karl Barth and the humanitarian Albert Schweitzer as well as meetings of the pro-Nazi “German Christian Church.” The experience increased his resolve to see the church in the United States take an active role in addressing injustice.

A recurring theme in the essays and teachings of James Luther Adams is a “concern for the… structures of human life that stand between the isolationism of the individual and the flood tides of collective authoritarianism.” In other words, his concern is bridging the gap between the rights of the individual taken to an extreme and the forces of the collective will taken to the other extreme.

What is it that modulates the extremities? What is the healthy way to connect the individual with the group or community in a way that preserves the rights of the individual while creating groups worthy to be part of?

In his introduction to the book of essays called On Being Human Religiously, Max Stackhouse writes that Adams had an “affinity for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s freewheeling style, with its sense of minority resistance against pretentious and mystifying forms of piety, and its religiously profound drive toward social involvement” (p. xiv).

But, he was also drawn to the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible and the call of the New Testament, seeing that “the meaning of life … touches the theological ground of existence and calls us into significant community” (p. xv). One of the profound questions that Adams recognizes that we human beings must struggle with is “What is our basic situation: chaos needing order, or uniformity needing diversity?” Perhaps both questions lie at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be human in community.

He recognizes a truth that the pagans taught, that “there is a diversity of realities and powers.” But he also recognizes a Biblical truth that “there is a center, but it is heard in the midst of diversity, and most clearly only in community.” One of the reasons we gather here in community each week.

For Adams, the individual cannot be understood except “in the context of a wide variety of concrete relationships, loyalties, and networks of obligation.” He sees our “salvation,” if we wish to use that word, as members of a voluntary association. Each “unique individual is the point of intersection of a wide variety of physical, social-cultural, and religious forces.” No individual can understand himself or herself without paying attention to these interdependencies.

“Freedom is a decisive human quality, (but) it can only be exercised within a context of relations to other people and according to the range of real options in the social environment.” If we want to know the meaning of “responsible selfhood” and “freedom,” we can do so only “when we see what social patterns (these aspects of being human) support or oppose, what forces they enhance or inhibit, and what structures they sustain or destroy” (p. xviii). The social patterns help to form us, and our awareness of that allows us to understand ourselves and our roles in the world better.

There are threats on two sides. One is an idealistic embrace of mysticism that does not recognize the need for interdependence. He says that “Nothing is so marketable as egoism wrapped in idealism.” You may see in that the sheen of narcissism.

On the other side is a kind of collectivism he calls “patriarchal collectivism,” which acts as if there is a “natural, and hierarchical order,” a primordial order in whatever social, cultural and political hierarchy that exists. That’s the enshrinement of the status quo as “the way it should be,” in other words– God’s plan.

One last big general statement before delving in a little deeper into Adams’ theology: “For Adams, the church is the prototype of the networks of meaningful life that stand between the privacy of the individual and large social-political structures, influencing both. It has its own internal integrity, and it carries out its mission by caring for the least and the lost and by… discerning the signs of the times (like the prophet it is called to be) (all the while celebrating the meaning of life together)” (p. xxiii).

So, the function of the church is to hold us together, to provide a place for meaning-making in which we all have a role and a responsibility, and a place from which to discern from the conflicts of the present the path to a brighter, healthier, salvific future.

James Luther Adams, once he got past his fundamentalist upbringing, once he incorporated the teachings of a religious-scientific humanism, and once he experienced and survived the threat of totalitarian authoritarianism, was, for the rest of his life, a liberal Christian theologian.

But one who did not worship liberalism, one who understood that there are valid objections to the perspective—one who matured in his faith, in other words. “Liberal Christianity must protest the confusions in liberalism itself” (p. 6). “Liberalism” is to be praised for being “the chief critic of the idolatries of creedalism,” (and) of… “authoritarianism” in church or (politics)” (p. 10). It is “the chief critic… of… chauvinism,” whether it comes in the form of the glorification of the nation, the glorification of the race or the glorification of the male sex (p. 10).

If you idolize in the name of “individualism and the ‘free market,” you abandon your responsibility for the social consequences of economic power.” This is as true today as when Adams wrote.

What is the “necessary condition” for apprehending “either truth or justice, and… for the preservation of human dignity”? Adams finds that necessary condition squarely in the democratic process, “the method of free inquiry” (p. 15). “This method of free inquiry and persuasion is the only one consistent with both the dignity and the limitations of human nature, and it is the method that yields the maximum of discovery and criticism” (p. 15).

At the same time, “The faith of a church or of a nation is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape (these) institutions… of common life” (p. 18).

In Adams’ formulation, liberalism can be well understood within a concept he calls the “five smooth stones of liberalism.” See if you agree.


The First Stone

First of all, “religious liberalism depends… on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous. Meaning has not finally been captured.” Meaning constantly reveals itself because reality is in a constant state of dynamic change, growing, deteriorating, interacting, unfolding. And the senses that we use and the tools that we develop are also constantly in evolution.

Discerning meaning in our lives is an ongoing process that will continue as long as we live and will never reach a state of completion, because completion implies a static state which is never an accurate description of what reality is.

Revelation is not sealed; it is constantly occurring, and to the extent that we are perceptive and intentional in our truth-seeking, it constantly makes itself known to us. It is one part submitting to wonder (“Into thy hands I commend my spirit” (p. 13)) and one part describing with whatever scientific precision we are capable of, the “order of nature and of history.” We may not ever know “the destiny of the planet or of the individual life,” but “a sustaining meaning is discernable and commanding in the here and now.”

Adams says that one way to “characterize this meaning is to say that through it, God is active or is in the process of self-fulfillment in nature and history.” So, God is not static and God is not stable and God is not monolithic. God, too, is in the process of self-fulfillment. Revelation is not sealed because God is always in the process of self-creation, self-revelation, self-unfolding. (Cool, huh?)

Because Adams is not didactic, he does not insist on the term “God.” He says that “God (or that in which we may have faith) is the inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence… God is the reality that works upon us and through us and in accord with which we can discern truth, beauty or goodness. It is that reality which works in nature, history, and thought and under certain conditions creates human good in human community” (p. 13). The first smooth stone: “Revelation is continuous.”


The Second Stone

“The second major principle of religious liberalism is that all relations between persons ought (to) ideally rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion” (p. 14). If you are a “responsible liberal,” “you recognize the necessity for certain restrictions on individual freedom.” Still, without “free choice… religion, or society, or politics, cannot be liberal.”

Liberalism challenged the established hierarchy of the church during the Reformation. It challenged political and economic hierarchies after that. Liberalism challenges established hierarchies to justify themselves. If they cannot, the pressure to change mounts, and history is made of that process.

Adams challenges the established orthodoxies that “sometimes tell us that the mortal sin of the liberal is the unwillingness to submit to divine authority, and that this unwillingness grows out of intellectual pride. What the orthodox overlooks, he says, “ is this: the most pretentious pride of all is that of (people) who think themselves capable of recognizing infallibility, for they must themselves claim to be infallible in order to identify the infallible” (p. 15).

The Third Stone

The third “smooth stone of religious liberalism” “affirms (that we have a) moral obligation to direct (our) effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.” Adams says that “The reign of God, the reign of the sustaining, commanding, transforming reality is the reign of love, a love that fulfills and goes beyond justice, a love that cares for the fullest personal good of all” (p. 16).

It does three things, this love, and they are all interrelated. “It is the power that leads to integrity of personal life.” It is the power that “leads to… the struggle for justice in social-institutional life.” And it is the power that leads to a “creative tension between (personal life and our life in society and the institutions that we create for ourselves).

There are plenty of destructive impulses in life. They may “seem… to possess people, blinding them, inciting them to greed, damaging the holy gifts (that) God provides. This is precisely the reason for the need for the redemptive, transforming power” that love is. It’s not just a “spirit of love.” It’s the love that is embodied in us through nature and history as we move towards what we understand to be justice with an understanding of human weakness and complexity.

The Fourth Stone

This leads to the fourth smooth stone: “There is no such thing as goodness as such.” “Goodness” must be embodied in a form, and the form is specific.

“There is no such thing, Adams says, as a “good person,” per se. “There is the good husband, the good wife, the good worker, the good employer, the good layperson, the good citizen” (p. 17).

We live in societies, so we embody goodness to the extent that we do at all, in social forms, in the way that we interact with others. There is no “adequate faith” unless there is a faith that “inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the… institutions… of common life” (p. 18).

The Fifth Stone

Finally, liberalism says that because there are resources available (both divine and human resources) for us to use to “achieve meaningful change,” we are justified in taking “an attitude of ultimate optimism” (p. 18) Which does not necessarily mean “immediate optimism.” Human nature is ambiguous. Sometimes values dissolve as societies evolve. The forces of anger, resentment, jealousy, violence and destruction never sleep. But, we are endowed with the resources that allow for hope, what Adams calls “dynamic hope.”

James Luther Adams is a spokesperson and an advocate for “prophetic religion.” “History,” he says, “is a struggle in dead earnest between justice and injustice,” which looks “towards the ultimate victory in the promise and the fulfillment of grace.”

If you do not enter into the struggle for justice with the affirmation of love and beauty, you miss the mark. You “thwart… creation as well as self-creation.” As we evolve, the animating and unfolding spirit of God also evolves. Our movement towards justice through the realistic understanding of the nature of hatred and injustice allows for that thing called “grace,” God’s unfolding presence, to enter into history.

Theology tries to capture the nature of everything, God and nature, science and history, space and time, love and fear, humanity and divinity. The theology of James Luther Adams offers Unitarians and Universalists a way to hold our individualism and our desire for a loving community in the dynamic tension that allows for meaning-making through love, discipline and the grace beyond all understanding.



  • Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography: James Luther Adams:
  • On Being Human Religiously by James Luther Adams. Beacon Press. Boston, MA. 1976.


Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY on April 10, 2016

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