Drawn from Adams' essays and his autobiography, Not Without Dust and Heat.
By the time of his death in 1994 at age 92, James Luther Adams was recognized as 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 including Paul Tillich and Ernst Troeltsch; 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. He also was a founding member of three major Unitarian Universalists study groups—the Greenfield Group, Brothers of the Way, and the Prairie Group, which were designed to help our clergy and scholars gain theological clarity, devotional strength, and spiritual solidarity and stamina for personal and institutional ethical action in the world.
Born in 1901, James Luther Adams was the first of three children in a fundamentalist family headed by a severely authoritarian Christian minister who believed the Second Coming of Christ was immanent and the rising up to heaven of the elect was soon expected, and, thus, all talk about worldly affairs was useless. Theological talk in this household in Washington State meant talk about the nature of Christ.
Adams gained a profound sense of the importance of social solidarity based, as he put it, on the importance of a shared participation in religious community's life. The importance of groups, or "voluntary associations" of people who came together freely to work and worship together, took hold in him in his early life as a member of a fundamentalist community. 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 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.
For Adams, a religious belief was not simply a private, personal attitude, idea or a personal guide for behavior. A religious belief, according to Adams, was also a guide for the behavior of institutions. He called the different kinds of social programs created by institutions their "institutional behavior." And this behavior, he insisted, revealed the real content of a belief. This is why religious beliefs like those of Lutherans, Quakers, and Unitarian Universalists, Adams insisted, create different types of social institutions. The real meaning of their beliefs shows up as institutional behavior: the way people's lives get organized and governed by their various social institutions.