2012-02-22

Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams


The Protestant Reformation: Priesthood of All Believers

Our Unitarian Universalist story is the tale of our emergence from within Protestant Christianity. Protestant Christianity got started about 500 years ago when the German, Martin Luther, sought a remedy for the abuses he saw occurring in the church of his time. “The Priesthood of all believers,” proclaimed Luther.

The church of 500 years ago had become corrupt, with priests claiming special access to God, and therefore enjoying special privileges. The priests lived in relative luxury and believed they were entitled to. They were out of touch with suffering, concerned only to preserve their positions of privilege, which they justified in their own minds by their position as the mediators between heaven and earth. Luther countered with this doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We all have the same access to God, and confront the same ineffable mystery.

It was a great step toward equality. We’re all priests – the one standing in the pulpit no more so than the ones in the pews. The new word for the guy in the pulpit became “minister” – meaning servant.

The Unitarian Reformation: Prophethood of All Believers

James Luther Adams
1901 - 1994
The Protestant Reformation of Christianity was taken another step by the Unitarian Reformation of Protestantism. Our Luther – that is, James Luther Adams – the great 20th-century Unitarian theologian -- expanded on “The priesthood of all believers.” Adams declared the Prophethood of all believers.

The prophets of old – Hebrew Scripture figures such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos -- traditionally, had been those possessed by God – maybe against their will – and compelled to speak a message from God calling for justice, repentance from wrongdoing, a more fair and equitable social order. James Luther Adams told us that, just as we are all priests and all have access to the divine mystery, we are all prophets, and all of us have the ability to see and engage injustice, and all of us bear the burden of the responsibility to do so.

Chris Walton, UUWorld, 2005:
When James Luther Adams, a young Unitarian minister and newly appointed professor of theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School, went to Germany in 1935 to study with some of the greatest theologians of the time, he confronted a deeply unsettling fact: Germany's churches were not effectively resisting the rise of Nazism.  A convert to Unitarianism from Baptist fundamentalism, Adams had high expectations for Germany's long tradition of liberal theology. But German liberalism hadn't foreseen the Nazi threat--nor did it seem to offer adequate resources for resistance. Adams came to admire the German "confessing church" movement, whose members did actively oppose Hitler at great personal risk. 
He later described the impact of his experience:
In Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, "What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?" It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then.  But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society...requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense that there's something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.
Transforming Power, Transforming Liberalism

Adams's experience in Europe left a lasting mark on his thinking.  At Meadville Lombard, the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Andover Newton, Adams became famous as a teacher and mentor to a generation of scholars and ministers.

Adams was concerned that liberal religion could become complacent – that our broad acceptance too easily slides into being accommodating to certain cultural trends when resistance is what is called for. Transformation was Adams's great theme – the transformation of ourselves and of our world. His direct experience of Nazism taught him to be less optimistic about human progress – yet through the more-than-90 years of his life, much of it as a leader and hugely influential teacher in our movement, his faith in the transforming power of love grew steadily deeper.

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Part 1 of "Transforming Power."
Next: Part 2: "Buddhism, The New Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalism"