Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Activity 2: Introducing James Luther Adams

Part of What Moves Us

Activity time: 20 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Prepare to project or make copies of Leader Resource 1.
  • Review the story so you can present it effectively.
  • Copy the handout and story for all participants.
  • Arrange for a volunteer to read the story. If possible, give the volunteer the story ahead of time.

Description of Activity

Project or distribute copies of Leader Resource 1. Introduce James Luther Adams as a 20th-century Unitarian theologian and social ethicist. Read or convey brief biographical information, using the paragraphs below as a guide.

James Luther Adams was one of the preeminent Christian social ethicists and theologians of the 20th century. In his work, he emphasized personal and institutional behavior as the locus of meaning in religious belief. He was a Unitarian parish minister; labor activist and civil rights advocate; journal editor; distinguished scholar, translator and editor of major German theologians; and a divinity school professor for more than 40 years at Meadville Lombard Theological School, the Federated Theological Faculties at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, and Andover-Newton School of Theology.

In his early life as a member of a fundamentalist community, Adams gained a profound sense of the importance of groups, or "voluntary associations" of people who came together freely to work and worship together. But he quickly shed his religious community's creeds, doctrines, and theological ideas. When he entered the University of Minnesota, he formed a study group with six friends who were also reared in fundamentalism. Their critique was not of religion, he later explained, but of fundamentalism because it "could not properly be taken seriously." Adams, while a student, also worked eight hours a night on the railroad as secretary to the superintendent of the Northern Pacific, which, according to Adams, netted him a reality test to measure what he was learning during his full load of university courses during the day. Throughout his life, Adams insisted that the real meaning of beliefs is determined by human behavior. Meanwhile, at the university, as Adams gradually became more and more theologically liberal, one of his professors, noting Adams inordinate interest in religion, encouraged him to become a Unitarian minister. Off to Harvard Divinity School Adams went, graduating in 1927.

Adams went to Germany in 1927 and again in 1935 and 1936. His experiences there brought about, as he puts it, "a kind of conversion" experience to social justice work.

Distribute Handout 1, which contains more detail about Adams' life, and invite participants to read it at home.

Distribute the story. Invite the volunteer participant to read Adams' account of his conversion.

After the story, explain Adams' notion of "voluntary associations" using these or your own words:

Adams' conviction that the church had a decisive role to play in political, social, and economic affairs was galvanized by the confessions of the members of the anti-Nazi Underground Church in Germany who said that if they had acted together (in a voluntary organization) in the 1920s, they could have prevented Hitler from rising to power. He said he gained the conviction that a decisive institution was needed to ensure a viable democratic society. Adams called this decisive institution the voluntary association. He called it voluntary because members are free to join or to sever their membership. This kind of voluntary association, Adams argued, was designed to "engender or affect public opinion as a social force, and thus to resist or promote social change."

For Adams, the church was a special kind of voluntary association because its own self understanding is that the work it does in the world is from a sense of being oriented to God and called by God to act prophetically in the world. He believed that the church, as a voluntary association, defines and nurtures our inner lives as well as our public lives as an agent for collective action in the world. The role of the church, Adams said, is to deal with the meaning of human existence.

Invite participants to spend a few minutes reflecting on Adams' story and beliefs in their theology journals. Invite them, as they draw or write, to note which of Adams observations and/or statements in this account of his conversion, and his change of behavior as a result, stand out for them, and why.