Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: A Place of Wholeness: A Program for Youth Exploring Their Own Unitarian Universalist Faith Journeys

Leader Resource 2: James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism

Leaders should read this resource before leading the Opening.

Who was James Luther Adams?

James Luther Adams was a Unitarian parish minister, social activist, journal editor, distinguished scholar, translator and editor of major German theologians, prolific author, and divinity school professor for more than forty years. Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists of the 20th century.

What are the five smooth stones?

According to Adams, the five smooth stones of religious liberalism are:

  • "Religious liberalism depends on the principle that 'revelation' is continuous." Our religious tradition is a living tradition because we are always learning new truths.
  • "All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion." We freely choose to enter into relationship with one another.
  • "Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism." Justice.
  • "... [W]e deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation." Agency: Good things don't just happen, people make them happen.
  • "[L]iberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism." Hope.

Adams' five smooth stones are explained in the essay "Guiding Principles for a Free Faith" in On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays in Religion and Society, Max Stackhouse, ed. Beacon Press, 1976, pp. 12—20. While this book is out of print, some congregations may own it and there are also copies available from the Internet.

Scriptural origins

The idea of "five smooth stones" originates in the Hebrew Scriptures with the story of David and Goliath, as told in 1 Samuel 17. See the story in this workshop for the full text.