A little more than a month ago, a desperate search for something I never found took me into the dusty, glass-protected 19th century books which First UU Society of Burlington retains in a staff office. It was impossible to leave without a few volumes I considered worthy of perusal, causing the astonished current librarian to create lending records for the original parish library. If these books should be discarded, I suspect some would end up with me.
Never mind the unrelated themes: my attention quickly settled on a historical travel volume from 1838, from the pen of Samuel Adams Devens and publishing house of James Monroe, well known for his publication of early Unitarian documents. And this one was a gem.
Never mind, also, that Rev. Devens claimed to be on a travel mission. Like me, he made a beeline in every place he visited for the cultural and religious leadership, overlooking many more visible delights. In less than two hundred pages, he manages to provide portraits of early American slavery, Judaism, Unitarianism, Northern New England, whaling, and travel conditions. But since the purpose of his travel was to provide Unitarian worship where it was not available, or to supplement what was on offer, portraits of this nascent faith form the skeleton of these reminiscences.
At the end, he appended a reverential memoir of a minister previously unknown to me, Rev. Zabdiel Adams. Here — probably in shameless violation of some kind of copyright law — is Rev. Devens’ opening description of Rev. Adams:
“Mr. Adams was born in that part of Braintree, now called Quincy, Nov. 5th, 1939. His father, Capt. Ebenezer Adams, was brother to the father of John Adams, and his mother, whose maiden name was Ann Boylston, was sister tot he mother of the President. Hence John Adams and himself were a sort of double cousins. They were educated in the closest intimacy with each other, and in after life kept up a cordial correspondence. The President was strongly attached to his cousin, as appaears from the following observation which he made after his descease, ‘When I lost him, I lost bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.'”
Rev. Adams and President Adams lived together during their college years, at the home of President Adams’ mother. There, as was the custom of those days, the two males alternated in providing daily prayers. I am no expert in the Adams family’s spirituality, but that it was lively and deep is well shown by this little biography.
But Rev. Adams proved a more liberal congregationalist than was his more famous cousin, and when he settled over the then-united parish of Lunenberg, MA, Rev. Adams formed part of an expanding network of influence which came from a hitherto under-reported part of Unitarianism, the South Shore of Greater Boston. This area (although not its most famous native son) was noted for a liberal interpretation of even liberal religion, firmly rooted by the lengthy ministry of Rev. Ebenezer Gay in Hingham (1717-1787 — your eyes do not deceive you, it’s a record unlikely to fall). According to Rev. Devens:
“Mr. Adams was a man who… thought for himself on religious subjects, and in the expression of what he thought, was not influenced by the fear of others. For the day in which he lived he was remarkably liberal, in his religious sentiments.
“There is an observation which shews the state of his mind on one disputed topic. ‘There are many passages in scripture which seem to imply the final restoration of all mankind, and far be it from me to say that it is not so.'”
Rev. Adams also expressed condemnations about John Calvin’s theology, and “was one of two clergymen in Worcester county who dared to assist at the ordination of Dr. Bancroft” (1785) over the Second Parish, established to provide free thought and liberal religion in a town whose leaders declined to support that perspective as its main covenanted group (First Parish).
What distinguishes Rev. Devens’s account is his recounting of Rev. Adams’s droll sense of wit in presenting his minority perspectives. When confronted with a sheriff who wished to “attach the body” of a parishioner who died in debt, the reverend said he had prayed over a body, he intended to bury one, and if the sheriff wished to trade places with the one already in place, Rev. Adams would not object. The body was duly interred.
Perhaps everybody else already knows about this religious branch of the famous family, but it was interesting to me. As a footnote, the author, Rev. Samuel Adams Devens, does not appear to have been a kinsman, but rather, as the son of a patriotic family in the crucible of the struggle for independence (born in Charlestown, MA, home of Breed’s, or Bunker Hill), one of many named in tribute to a firebrand who galled the British.