The American writer Hannah Adams (1755–1831) wrote an encyclopedic and balanced treatment of world religions at a time when such a thing did not exist in the fledgling United States, and she also authored other widely read volumes on religion and history. Perhaps the first American woman to make her living from her writing, she also campaigned for the first copyright law passed in the nation.
Adistant cousin of U.S. President John Adams, Hannah Adams was born in Medford, in what was then the British Province of Massachusetts Bay, on October 2, 1755. She was in poor health during childhood and suffered from a variety of ailments throughout her life. Although illness kept her out of school, she had both a passion for reading and the means to satisfy it: her father was a book enthusiast who maintained a considerable library. Adams read widely in fiction as well as poetry, history, biography, and more, acquiring an education that may have been superior to that of her peers attending nearby country schools. Being an autodidact—a person who educated herself—left marks on her character and manner, however: Adams remained painfully shy, and even as an adult she pronounced certain words in idiosyncratic ways. As she would later recall in her Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams, this pattern of speech was “a habit contracted so early, that I cannot wholly rectify it in later years.”
Adams's father had inherited farmland, and this allowed her to spend the first part of her childhood in relative comfort. As she approached puberty, however, her family circumstances steadily declined. At age ten, she was badly affected by the death of her mother, and her father proved untalented both as a farmer and, later, as a bookstore owner, although the locals would dub him “Book” Adams. As the family finances declined, the elder Adams took in students from nearby Harvard University who had trouble academically and were sent to country tutors for remedial work.
Not for the last time, Adams turned necessity into opportunity. The bookish teenager became a student and eventually a teacher herself, picking up instruction in ancient Greek and Latin from the family's exclusively male Harvard charges. As her knowledge deepened, she began taking over teaching duties from her father. While Adams's reading preferences had tended toward fiction and the realm of imagination, a gift from one of the family's student boarders now redirected her interests.
This gift, titled An Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the World to This Present Time, was published by the English scholar and minister Thomas Broughton in 1742. Few works of Adams's day dealt with the subject of comparative religion at all, and Broughton's book took the accepted view, dismissing faiths other than Christianity and even criticizing varieties of Christianity at odds with his own. Inspired by Broughton's book, Adams became fascinated by the different ways religions approached the basic questions of life.
In 1784 Adams published her first book, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day. As the title suggests, the work was a kind of dictionary of world religions. Adams studiously avoided the proselytizing tone of Broughton and her other predecessors, striving as far as possible to present the beliefs of religious adherents around the world on their own terms.
Adams wrote her book less with the abstract goal of contributing to human knowledge than as a way to earn money to support her struggling family. The book was a commercial success and sold out in its first edition. Unfortunately, Adams saw none of the profits; the U.S. publishing industry was young and left first-time authors—especially women—vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous agents such as the one who profited from the sales of Adams's book. Adams did gain recognition for her work, and Boston minister James Freeman helped her gather advance subscribers—the Kickstarter of Adams's day—to fund a second printing. Retitled A View of Religions, this new version appeared in 1791.
When A View of Religions was published in England, Adams gained a measure of international renown, and she corresponded with leading religious figures of her day, not only in her native New England but around the world. These included the progressive French Catholic priest and writer Henri Grégoire, known as AbbéGrégoire. By exchanging letters with learned contemporaries, Adams honed her talent for engaging in religious and philosophical argument. Further revisions of A View of Religions would appear during Adams's life, each one incorporating the insights she gained through her exposure to the work of other theologians and authors.
By the late 1780s, Adams had become aware of how few rights authors had. For a prosperous planter or a wellestablished clergyman, making a profit on one's writing might be secondary, but such was not the case for a single woman of precarious finances. She copyrighted the second edition of her dictionary of religions under a new Massachusetts law, and she joined with Massachusetts's U.S. Representative Fisher Ames to support passage of the nation's first copyright law. Congress approved this legislation in 1790, and henceforth, all of Adams's books bore copyright notices.
Continuing to keep an eye on making her work profitable, Adams published A Summary History of New England in 1799. She judged her market well: existing histories of the region were few and dated from before the Revolutionary War. Covering the war leading to the nation's founding as well as the legal and philosophical underpinnings of the United States in detail, A Summary History of New England sold well because it aligned with the views of Americans who embraced the Enlightenment ideals of Europe and accepted the gender equality Adams so obviously embodied. As a result, she published this work in an abridged version that was suitable for use as a school textbook: An Abridgement of the History of New England appeared in 1805.
While Adams worked on An Abridgement of the History of New England, she became embroiled in a new copyright dispute, this time with Congregationalist pastor-authors Jedidiah Morse and Elijah Parish. Adams believed that their 1804 work, A Compendious History of New England, Designed for Schools and Private Families, was based on her history. A sympathetic bookstore owner alerted her that Morse and Parish intended to publish their book ahead of hers and thereby depress sales of her own abridgment. Adams's lawsuit against the authors was eventually decided in her favor, although Morse and Parrish resisted paying court-awarded damages for many years. The stresses of this legal battle further eroded Adams's already-fragile health and led to an episode of temporary blindness. As she complained in a letter quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the problems associated with being a writer “fall upon women with a double weight.”
Although Adams's financial state remained precarious throughout most of her life, she was able to make her living as a writer and explore the intellectual subjects that interested her. She published a History of the Jews in 1812, emphasizing the persecution faced by adherents of that religion throughout the ages and becoming the first U.S. writer to explore this topic. That book was translated into German and published in Leipzig. The year 1817 marked the publication of the final edition of her encyclopedia, released under the title A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations. In 1824 Adams issued Letters on the Gospels, a set of Christian commentaries aimed at young women: it was the kind of work she wished she could have read early in life.
During the last part of her life, Adams gained respect within New England's top social and intellectual circles. The lengthy and financially draining dispute with Morse and Parrish had inspired several of her admirers—at first female—to start a collection for her support, and an annuity—an interest-bearing allowance—was established that funded her household until her death. Although Adams's home was often little more than a room in a boarding house, she hobnobbed with influential New England families and sometimes stayed in others’ homes for extended periods. Among those who hosted the author was ex-president John Adams.
Falling seriously ill in 1831, Adams was encouraged by several friends to write her memoir. Although short, the work included a lengthy appendix titled “Additional Notices (or Notes of Continuation) by a Friend,” and its anonymous author has since been identified by historian Gary D. Schmidt as Hannah F. Lee, one of the several young women inspired by Adams to pursue a writing career. Adams died in the Boston suburb of Brookline on December 15, 1831, months before A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams was published. Most of her books continued to circulate widely until the mid-19th century, when the flowering of American scholarship displaced them. Feminist historians of the late 20th century and writers interested in early American religious and intellectual traditions rediscovered her work, and scholars are now able to explore it anew.
Adams, Hannah, A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams, Gray & Bowen, 1832.
Schmidt, Gary D., A Passionate Usefulness: The Life and Literary Labors of Hannah Adams, University of Virginia, 2004.
Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography online, http://uudb.org/articles/ (July 10, 2016), “Hannah Adams.”
Library Company of Philadelphia website, http://www.librarycompany.org/ (July 10, 2016), “Portraits of American Women Writers That Appeared in Print before 1861: Hannah Adams.”❑