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James Luther Adams Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: -
Date: 1996-02-07

Biographical History

James Luther Adams (1901-1994) was a Unitarian parish minister, social activist, journal editor, distinguished scholar, translator and editor of major German theologians, prolific author, and highly respected divinity school professor for more than forty years.

Born to fundamentalist Christian parents in eastern Washington state, during his college years he turned to Unitarianism; after graduation from the University of Minnesota he went to Harvard Divinity School and began his search for "a faith which could be held intellectually accountable." He served as pastor for two Massachusetts Unitarian churches while earning a Master's degree in comparative literature from Harvard and teaching English at Boston University. A strike at the Pequot Mills in Salem during his pastorate led him to address local labor issues from the pulpit, demonstrating his growing belief that "a liberal church can and should make itself a faithful voice for the voiceless oppressed."

In 1935 Adams joined the faculty of Unitarian and Universalist Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, where he was to remain until 1943. Before beginning his work there he requested and received a one-year leave to study in Europe, where he became involved with the underground church movement opposing the Nazi regime. His experience there confirmed his feeling that the church could and should be directly outspoken against evil rather than relying on vague sermons about love and tolerance.

Adams' teaching was not limited to Meadville/Lombard, nor did he cease his own learning. He was on the faculty of the Federated Theological Faculties of the University of Chicago from 1943 to 1956 and in 1945 earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He became involved with local politics, an advocate of open and honest government, and a friend of liberal politicians Paul Douglas and Adlai Stevenson. In 1957 Adams returned to Harvard Divinity School as a professor, where he stayed until 1968; he continued to teach at Andover Newton Theological Seminary and Meadville/Lombard.

Adams' writings focused largely on the theology of social ethics and addressed a comprehensive range of topics, from politics to the arts and from angels to AIDS. He also wrote extensively on the history and theory of voluntary associations in a democratic culture. Adams was also interested in liberal German theologians, and among his other writings he found time to translate, edit and interpret the works of Paul Tillich, Ernst Troeltsch, and Karl Holl.

Adams' fascination with the history and origin of ideas led Edwin Wilson, leader of the Unitarian humanists, to remark, "James Luther Adams believes in salvation by bibliography." Adams's reply was, "There is no such thing as the immaculate conception of an idea." Although his impatience with abstraction and his criticism of liberal religion rankled some of his more established colleagues, he was deeply respected by a great many Unitarians as a constructive reformer, worth listening to for the depth and breadth of his concerns.

[Adapted from the article "James Luther Adams," in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.]

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The James Luther Adams Papers consist of the initial large collection and three later accessions which have not been integrated.

Original accession

The original collection is predominantly incoming Correspondence. This has been arranged alphabetically by correspondent, institution, organization, or, in rare instances, subject. The latter folders will often contain correspondence and notes from several individuals, as well as Adams' own outgoing carbons. Dates of the correspondence span much of Adams' career and the Twentieth Century, covering professional topics as well as speaking engagements, writings, student recommendations, activities, and comments from the public sector on his speeches and writings. Following the alphabetical sequence are single folders containing the following: unidentified correspondence and fragments, and family correspondence.

The collection also includes a small amount of Financial material and Miscellany, the latter including photographs and printed material. Writings contains samples of examinations, notes, and the xeroxed typescript of a translation of Ernst Troeltsh's Historism and its problems, First book: The logical problem of the philosophy of history. Drs. Adams and D.B.Robertson (donor of the typescript) were members of the translation committee.

1992 accession

The 1992 accession consists entirely of Correspondence-subject files, arranged alphabetically.

1993 accession

The 1993 accession consists of Correspondence-subject files and Writings, the latter including articles, essays, interviews, lectures, and other types.

1995 accession

The 1995 accession consists of Correspondence-subject files and Writings, the latter including autobiographical writings, articles, lectures, and sermons. This accession also contains a small amount of Memorabilia, including 26 audiocassettes, many labeled "Autobiography."

Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence and correspondence-subject files are arranged alphabetically. Writings for the original and 1995 accessions are arranged alphabetically by type and then by title; writings for the 1993 accession are not subdivided by type but are arranged alphabetically by title.

Note that each accession begins again with Box 1. When requesting boxes, be sure to indicate which accession is desired.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Access to recordings requires advance notice to produce a use copy.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Adams, James Luther, 1901-1994
Troeltsch, Ernst, 1865-1923 -- Historismus und seine Probleme. Band 1. English.


Educators -- United States.
Religion and ethics.
Religion and state -- United States.
Theologians -- United States.
Theology -- Study and teaching.
Unitarian Universalists -- United States.

Genres and Forms

Financial records.
Manuscripts for publication.



Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

James Luther Adams Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of James Luther Adams.

Table of Contents





Correspondence-subject files (1992 accession)

Correspondence-subject files (1993 accession)

Writings (1993 accession)

Correspondence-subject files (1995 accession)

Writings (1995 accession)

Memorabilia (1995 accession)