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Two Men Named James

By Polly Peterson.

Two famous twentieth-century Unitarians were James Luther Adams, born in 1901, and James Reeb, born in 1927. Both men were deeply committed to a search for truth and both reached the conclusion that the highest good is found, not in prayer or in personal spirituality, but in how a person relates to other people. They both believed that actions, not words, are the proof of a person's faith.

James Luther Adams was the son of a fundamentalist preacher. In college, he rejected his parents' rigid beliefs and frequently spoke out against religious fundamentalism. His college friends were probably very surprised when this young man, who was so outspoken in his dislike of religion, went on to divinity school after graduation. But for Adams, becoming a minister made sense. He continued to reject fundamentalism, but he was deeply interested in religious thought, and he found a home for his liberal ideas in Unitarianism.

Adams became a leader among Unitarians; he was an influential speaker and teacher who was never afraid to challenge the status quo. Despite his passion for free thinking, Adams steadfastly refused to let his fellow Unitarians take an easy, "anything goes" approach to their faith. One of James Luther Adams's well-known sayings is: "An unexamined faith is not worth having."

He believed in certain bedrock truths. Among these is the idea that to be human is to be a member of a community. Freedom, justice, and virtue can exist only through human interaction. We express our faith through the institutions we create—our religious communities, our schools, and our political and social organizations.

Adams believed in Jesus' principle for identifying authentic faith: "by their fruits you shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). In other words, true faith is not just what people say they believe in; people show true faith by their actions and the consequences that result from them. Adams believed that people of faith must expose the evils of society and speak out for change. He believed we have a moral obligation to confront injustice, no matter what the cost. He used the pulpit to speak out against injustice. In Nazi Germany, he worked with the Underground Church Movement. As a result, the Nazis held and questioned him more than once, but they did release him.

James Reeb is probably the best example of someone who followed Adams's teaching. Like Adams, Reeb grew up in a rigidly fundamentalist Christian home. He continued to embrace fundamentalist views throughout high school, military service, and college, and sometimes he preached them publicly. As a young preacher, he believed that love of self should yield to love of others. He had a natural inclination to care about people in need and to want to help them.

After college, Reeb began studying to become a Presbyterian minister—but his studies, instead of deepening his faith, caused him to question his beliefs and his calling. When he completed his seminary training, he became the chaplain of a large, inner-city hospital instead of the minister of a Presbyterian church. He believed that patients in a hospital needed him far more than people in church pews did. While a hospital chaplain, Reeb's ideas about religion continued to evolve. He decided to leave the Presbyterian Church when he realized that he no longer believed in many of its doctrines. He was in despair about his career until he chanced to read a book by a Unitarian whose ideas agreed with his own vision of truth. He immediately applied to become a Unitarian minister. All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., offered him a position as Assistant Minister and he accepted it. He brought with him his message that the ultimate concern of religion must be "the supreme worth and dignity of every human being."

Aside from his work as a parish minister, Reeb was heavily involved in the community. By 1963, after only a few years at All Souls, he realized that his work for improving conditions in the inner city was more important to him than preaching was. Although he was much loved as a minister, Reeb left his Unitarian ministry for a job in Boston, where he focused his efforts on fair housing. When he moved his family to Massachusetts, he took the unusual step of living with his family in the inner city and sending his young son to an inner-city public school. He was determined to understand the situation of the people he was there to help and to gain their friendship and trust.

During this time, the civil rights movement was happening; one of its goals was to help the many blacks who were unfairly denied the right to vote. Civil rights activists, especially in the South, were trying to convince Congress to pass a Voting Rights Act. One evening, Reeb and his wife saw an appalling sight on the television news. State police stopped nonviolent protesters who were marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; they attacked the innocent marchers with clubs and tear gas. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr., called for ministers from the North to join him and the marchers in Selma for another protest march. Reeb decided he must go.

Thousands of marchers gathered in Selma, and the police again stopped them, although this time without violence. That evening, with tensions in Selma at a boiling point, four angry white men shouting racial insults attacked Reeb and two other ministers. One of them clubbed Reeb on the head and he fell to the sidewalk, unconscious. James Reeb never recovered from the blow. On March 11, 1965, at age 38, he died in a Montgomery hospital.

James Reeb's death stirred the conscience of the nation. Thousands of people protested outside the White House and in other cities throughout America. On March 15, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at James Reeb's funeral. That same day, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Bill, which became law five months later. Was James Reeb's belief in social justice worth the price? According to his widow, yes. He "thought the movement worth any sacrifice."

James Reeb was a man whose actions proved him to be a man of authentic faith. By his fruits, we do know him.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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