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

The Conversion Experience of James Luther Adams

Part of What Moves Us

James Luther Adams, from "The Evolution of My Social Concern." Used with permission, Herbert F. Vetter, Harvard Square Library. The text is also found in Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation by James Luther Adams

In the summer of 1927, six years after Hitler became head of the movement and six years before the Party came into power, I visited Nuremberg just at the time when thousands of people, young and old, were in the city for the annual Nazi festival. On the day of the great parade in the streets of Nuremberg, history as it was being made at that juncture gave me personally a traumatic jolt. Standing in the jostling crowd and watching the thousands of singing Nazis with their innumerable brass bands as they passed along the street, I inadvertently got into a conversation with some people who turned out to be Nazi sympathizers. Out of curiosity as to what they would say, I asked a bystander the meaning of the swastika that was everywhere evident. Within a few minutes I found myself in a heated conversation with more and more people joining in, particularly when the discussion turned to the Jewish question. As I bore down in the argument against these defenders of Nazism, asking more and more insistent questions, I was suddenly seized by the elbows from behind, and pulled vehemently out of the crowd. No one made an effort to help me. I immediately thought I was being taken into custody. I could not see who it was who, after extricating me from the crowd, marched me vigorously down a side street and then turned up into an alley. On reaching the dead end of the alley, my host, a young German workingman in his thirties, wheeled me around and shouted at me, "Don't you know that when you watch a parade in Germany today you either keep your mouth shut or get your head bashed in?"

My palpitation mounted even higher at this moment, and I was all the more puzzled when my captor smiled and said, "Don't be frightened. I have saved you."

"Saved me from what?"

"From being sandbagged. In about five minutes more of that argument on the curb, they would have knocked you out, flat on the pavement."

This man was an unemployed worker and an anti-Nazi. He immediately invited me to take dinner with him at his home. I accepted gladly... .

The experiences in Germany during that summer became crucial for me, but they did not assume full significance in my consciousness until in the middle Thirties I spent some months in the so-called "underground" movement of the Confessing Church in Germany. Meanwhile, I had resumed graduate studies at Harvard. These were years in which my acquired religious liberalism came under scrutiny that we associate with that period in American Protestantism [i.e., the "thinness of its theology" regarding the major social issues of the day—the Depression, the problems of unemployment, the labor movement, the devastation wrought by World War I].

Some of us Unitarian ministers initiated a study group just before I went to Germany in 1927. The group undertook a vigorous year-round discipline of reading, discussion, and the writing of papers. We collectively studied major literature of the time in the fields of theology, Bible, historical theology, social philosophy, art, liturgy, prayer, ever seeking consensus and seeking common disciplines whereby we could implement consensus in the church and the community... I speak of this group discipline here, because in my conviction the concern for group participation and group responsibility became increasingly crucial in [my] quest for identity.

These multiple concerns were brought together to a convergence by my second, more prolonged visit to Europe, a year of study of theology, of prayer and liturgy, of fascism and its persecution of the churches... I cannot here narrate the melodramatic experiences of the underground [of the Confessing Churches against Nazism]... In view of my connections with leaders in the Confessing Church, [theologian] Rudolf Otto saw to it that I should get acquainted with German Christians, Nazis among the clergy whom he deemed to be insane.

It is extremely difficult to pass over a description of the maelstrom of this whole experience in Germany, an experience that brought fearful encounter with the police and even a frightening encounter two years later with the Gestapo. The ostensible charge made by the Gestapo was that I was violating the law by walking on the street with a deposed Jewish teacher and by visiting a synagogue. The word existential came alive in those hours of bludgeoned questioning and of high palpitation. It is difficult, I say, to suppress giving an account of incidents in connection with the Nazis, the anti-Nazis, and the hidden underlings. It is even more difficult to determine how to compress into brief statement what all this did for the evolution of my "social concern"... .

Let me repeal reticence so far as to say that the experience of Nazism induced a kind of conversion. I recall a conversation with [the German psychiatrist and philosopher] Karl Jaspers at his home one day in Heidelberg in 1936. I asked him what at he deemed to be the contemporary significance of liberal Christianity. He replied with unwonted vehemence, "Religious liberalism has no significance. It has Zwang—no costing commitment"... . I pressed upon myself the question, "If Fascism should arise in the States, what in your past performance would constitute a pattern or framework of resistance?" I could give only a feeble answer to the question. My principal political activities had been the reading of the newspaper and voting. I had preached sermons on the depression or in defense of strikers. Occasionally, I uttered protest against censorship in Boston, but I had no adequate conception of citizenship participation."

... . The persecuted Confessional Seminary I attended in Elberfeld occupied an abandoned Masonic building. The order was forbidden to hold meetings. Repeatedly I heard anti-Nazis say, If only 1,000 of us in the late twenties had combined in heroic resistance, we could have stopped Hitler. I noticed the stubborn resistance of the Jehovah's Witness. I observed also the lack of religious pluralism in a country that had no significant Nonconformist movement in the churches. Gradually I came to the conviction that a decisive institution of the viable democratic society is the voluntary association as a medium for the assumption of civic responsibility [emphasis added].

[The result:] I plunged into voluntary associational activity, concerning myself with race relations, civil liberties, housing problems. I joined with newly formed acquaintances in the founding of the Independent Voters of Illinois, and I began to learn first hand about Moral Man and Immoral Society. I traveled to Washington fairly often to consult with men like Adlai Stevenson, Jonathan Daniels, and Harold Ickes regarding Chicago politics. At the same time I participated in precinct organization, becoming a doorbell ringer and also consulting with party leaders in the back rooms. There is nothing intrinsically unusual about all of this. It was only unusual for the Protestant churchman or clergyman.