William Adam was born in 1796 in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, and began his ministry as a Baptist missionary in India. Whilst in India, he met Rammohun Roy, who converted him to Unitarianism.
The story of William Adam represents in microcosm the conflict between the universalising view of religion and the particular and cultural view of religion.
The view that there are universal and perennial themes in religion is usually viewed as a good and liberal view – it can allow for interfaith dialogue, and promote tolerance.
However, there is a darker side to this universalising tendency – the idea that one faith is universally the right faith for everyone. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have all claimed that they are religions for the whole of humanity.
Particularism is often derided as a narrow and sectarian view that one’s own tradition is the one true way; but in fact, particularism at its best can involve engaging deeply and faithfully with one’s own tradition, whilst recognizing that others’ particular traditions are right for them. Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Paganism (as well as many liberal Christians) all recognize that they are embedded in a particular culture and mythology, and derive meaning and depth from their particularity.
William Adam sincerely believed that Christianity was the one true faith, and that the lives of the people of India would be improved if they adopted it. Rammohun Roy succeeded in converting him to the doctrine of the Unity of God, rather than the Trinity, and thereafter, Adam was an enthusiastic advocate of the Unitarian Christianity of his day.
Rammohun Roy, on the other hand, never relinquished his Hindu faith, despite being a Hindu Unitarian. When he came to England, he brought his Brahmin cook, and continued to wear the red cord of his Brahmin status, and was eventually buried in a Vedic tomb constructed by Hindu stonemasons. Roy wished to reform Hinduism by purging it of superstitious practices – especially widow-burning.
Both Adam and Roy wrote to American Unitarians to enlist support for missionary efforts in Bengal; however, Roy never expressed support for conversion of the people to Christianity; he emphasized the importance of education. Adam, on the other hand, wanted to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity, and thought that Unitarian doctrines were more rational than Trinitarian ones, and therefore had more chance of succeeding.
So Roy, in continuing to be a Hindu, effectively supported the particular tradition of Hinduism, which was embedded in Indian culture and philosophy. In a letter to Henry Ware, an American Unitarian, Roy wrote:
Adam, on the other hand, wanted to convert people of other religions to Christianity, taking the view that it was universally true for everyone, regardless of their cultural context.
He did not get much support for his efforts at evangelism from Unitarians in Britain and America, however, either because they were disorganized and preoccupied with their own affairs, or perhaps because they shared Rammohun Roy’s view that every nation had its own form of worship, and all those forms were acceptable to God.
Eventually Adam gave up trying to spread Christianity in India, and turned his efforts to the abolition of slavery instead. Here I find myself much more in sympathy with his efforts, especially as he insisted that women should be allowed to fully participate in the meetings of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in June,1840, in London. He had first got involved in the anti-slavery cause in 1838, and subsequently joined the abolitionist cause in America, too.
He became a Unitarian minister in America and then Canada, where he was Toronto’s first Unitarian minister, but financial difficulties made his position there untenable as he fell out with the congregation. He then moved to Chicago and became a minister there.
He returned to England without his family around 1855, and by 1861, had renounced Unitarianism and ceased his involvement with it. Instead he was writing a book criticizing Auguste Comte, who had attempted to create his own universal religion, a sort of precursor of Alain de Botton’s religion for atheists.
William Adam died in 1881, and left his money to Dumfermline Grammar School for University scholarships, stipulating that the funds should be distributed "irrespective of sex or creed or no creed, parentage, colour or caste, nationality or political allegiance".
He was clearly a complex man, fairly typical of the Victorian period, believing in the superiority of Christianity, but also embracing equality for women, the abolition of slavery, and the importance of education. He is also noteworthy for having been converted to Unitarianism by Rammohun Roy, a Hindu, who persuaded him that the Unitarian interpretation of the gospels was the correct one.
Andrew Hill writes:
Roy convinced Adam that the meaning of the Greek preposition dia required that John 1:3, a verse of the prologue to John's Gospel, be translated as the Bengali equivalent of the English words, 'All things were made through the Word. . .' not 'by the Word'. Translators of New Testament Greek in later generations would come to agree, but in 1821 the view of nature of Christ, supported by this translation and espoused by Adam and Rammohun, was rejected by orthodox Christians as the Arian heresy (named for the 4th century CE dissident, Arius). For this reason colleagues nicknamed him 'the second fallen Adam'.Unitarians have been chortling at this joke ever since; but poor William Adam brought his evangelical zeal across intact from his Baptist faith, and was met with lukewarm enthusiasm by his new Unitarian colleagues.
Ultimately he was disappointed in Unitarianism and turned his considerable energies towards other causes, mainly education and the abolition of slavery. By all accounts he was a bit of a difficult man to get along with; but he was clearly intelligent and enthusiastic, having learnt Sanskrit and Bengali in preparation for his time in India, and having committed himself to his chosen causes with dedication and zeal; even being prepared to stick his neck out on behalf of the women excluded from the anti-slavery convention of 1840.
It is also likely that without his efforts, the fledgling Brahmo Samaj would not have gained such widespread support as it did.
William Adam was an interesting character and an illustration of the many conflicting currents of Victorian activism, moving as he did from evangelical circles to abolitionism; a minor character in the drama of Rammohun Roy, but worthy of study nevertheless.
Abidullah Al-Ansari Ghazi (2010), Raja Rammohun Roy: Encounter with Islam and Christianity and the Articulation of Hindu Self-Consciousness. Google eBook.
Andrew M Hill, William Adam. (in Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography) http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/williamadam.html