James Luther Adams

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James Luther Adams
Photographic portait of Adams, wearing a black suit and spectacles
James Luther Adams at Harvard, age 54
Born (1901-11-12)November 12, 1901
Ritzville, Washington
Died July 26, 1994(1994-07-26) (aged 92)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Education University of Minnesota
Harvard Divinity School
Occupation Theologian, minister
Employer Meadville Theological School
Harvard Divinity School
Andover Newton Theological School

James Luther Adams (November 12, 1901 – July 26, 1994),[1] an American professor at Harvard Divinity School, Andover Newton Theological School, and Meadville Lombard Theological School, and a Unitarian parish minister, was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists in the 20th century.[1]


Adams was born in Ritzville, Washington, the son of James Carey Adams,[1] a farmer and itinerant Plymouth Brethren preacher. In his family and in church, the Day of Judgment was constantly considered a very real possibility. When Adams was 16, his father became extremely ill, and Adams left school to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad to help support the family. He did well there and rose in management but dropped from this job to attend the University of Minnesota. After he graduated in 1924, he went on to the Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister. In his education, he moved from "premillenarian fundamentalism" to "scientific humanism" and then to liberal Christianity.[2]

After graduation from Harvard, Adams served as minister of the Second Church, Unitarian in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1927 to 1934, and the First Unitarian Society in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, from 1934 to 1935. In the mid-1930s, Adams spent considerable time in Germany, where he befriended several notable religious figures (including Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer) who were active in clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism.

In 1937, Adams began a long career in academia by joining the faculty of Meadville Theological School (now Meadville Lombard Theological School) in Chicago. While there, he became a member of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago and served on its board of trustees. In 1956, he became Professor of Christian Ethics at Harvard Divinity School, where he stayed until he retired in 1968. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.[2] In 1962 he became part of the first board of directors for the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture. A number of his students later became influential figures in Christian Ethics across the theological spectrum. Among them was Stephen Charles Mott, a pioneer in Evangelical Social Ethics in the USA who taught at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for a quarter of a decade and currently President of the James Luther Adams Foundation. Another one of Adams' students was Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). After his retirement from Harvard, Adams taught at Andover Newton Theological School and Meadville Lombard Theological School. In his later years, he lived in Harvard Square, Cambridge adjacent to the Harvard Divinity School near the Harvard University campus and was an active member of Arlington Street Church (UU) in Boston until his death in 1994. He is buried at Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.[1]


  1. ^ a b c "Adams, James Luther". Who Was Who in America, 1993-1996, vol. 11. New Providence, N.J.: Marquis Who's Who. 1996. pp. 1–2. ISBN 0837902258. 
  2. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 

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