It is the 15th of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm your guest host, Sam Leanza Ortiz.
On today's show, we get a little self-referential as we remember a fellow historian and scholar of comparative religion, Hannah Adams, who died on this day in 1831.
Adams was born in 1755 in a small town outside of Boston. In her memoirs published the year after her death, Adams recalled that she was rather shy and sickly in her early years, such that she was unable to attend the local country school.
Fortunately for her, her father was a bookish man with an impressive library, and he was willing to board divinity students who would tutor young Hannah.
Unfortunately for Hannah, her father lacked the business savvy to keep the family out of financial distress, and Hannah began to write to support her family.
One book that stuck with her in her unconventional schooling was Thomas Broughton's An Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the World to the Present.
Broughton’s work stuck with Hannah, but less so out of her admiration for him and more out of her frustration with his treatment of world religions as starkly true or false rather than letting representatives of those religions speak for themselves.
She desired a more impartial approach and created a set of rules for how she would treat her subjects, avoiding derogatory labels and descriptions.
She started by compiling sources on religion, impressive for her time in terms of variety and amount. From the burgeoning genre of missionary reports to treatises on religion from years past, Adams completed her significant work of comparative religions in 1784.
It was initially released as An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day. Later editions appeared under the much more memorable title, A View of Religions, dedicated to her distant cousin, Vice President John Adams.
The content of A View of Religions, though claiming to be impartial, skewed heavily on the Christian side, with about 85% of groups represented among Christian denominations and sects.
Some of this can be attributed to the sheer lack of sources to which Hannah had access. However, one of the first women with access to the revered Boston Athenaeum, the amount of literature on religions based in faraway places was scarce and often poorly written.
Her congregationalist upbringing did not let her shy away from advocating for the conversion of the groups about whom she wrote, particularly the Jewish people. She helped establish the Female Society of Boston and the Vicinity for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.
Later in life, she joined many fellow Bostonians to move toward a Unitarian Christianity, which can be seen in her later works, especially her Letters on the Gospels.
In the years approaching her death, Hannah reflected on how her circumstances had shaped her life, “It was poverty, not ambition, or vanity, that first induced me to become an author… but now I formed the flattering idea that I might not only help myself but benefit the public.”
Within her own time, Adams did enjoy a significant amount of public acclaim, particularly among academics on both sides of the Atlantic. Reverend Samuel Willard, a prominent Boston preacher, considered her in “full possession of public regard, from the benefit conferred by her writings, and the merits of her several productions are so generally known.”
Furthermore, her book sales did accomplish her initial goal of supporting herself, such that she was the first American woman to support herself through profits from her writing.
Students of religion following in her footsteps often failed to give Miss Adams credit for her pioneering work in the American study of religion, perhaps agreeing with her critical view of herself that permeates the memoirs in which the "retrospect of past errors, faults, and misfortunes [would] be exceedingly painful."
Her works would soon become discredited as the steady stream of new information flooded the intellectual markets. Nevertheless, that she compiled these works is quite a feat in her time, providing a model for later works of comparative religion.
And so today, we remember the contributions of Hannah Adams to the study of religion on the anniversary of her death in 1831.
The last word for today comes from the seventy-seventh Psalm:
6 I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
7 “Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
This show was produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This show was written and read by Sam Leanza Ortiz, filling in for a man whose next book will be entitled “An Alphabetic Compendium of the various versions of Christmas songs which have appeared from the beginning of the Christian Era to the present day” that’s Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.