Hannah Adams

American Historian and Writer

Hannah Adams, from an engraving based on her Boston Athenaeum portrait
Hannah Adams, from an engraving based on her Boston Athenaeum portrait. © Clipart.com, used with permission. Modifications © Jone Johnson Lewis 2013.

Hannah Adams Facts

Known for: first American author to make a living from writing; pioneer historian of religion who presented faiths on their own terms
Occupation: writer, tutor
Dates: October 2, 1755 – December 15, 1831
Also known as: Miss Adams

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Elizabeth Clark Adams (died when Hannah was 11)
  • Father: Thomas Adams (merchant, farmer)
  • Siblings: Hannah was born second of five siblings

Education:

  • Educated at home and self-educated

Marriage, Children:

  • Never married

Hannah Adams Biography:

Hannah Adams was born in Medfield, Massachusetts. Hannah’s mother died when Hannah was about 11 and her father remarried, adding four more children to the family.  Her father had inherited wealth when he inherited his father’s farm, and he invested it in selling “English goods” and books.  Hannah read extensively in her father’s library, her poor health preventing her from attending school.

When Hannah was 17, a few years before the American Revolution, her father’s business failed, and his fortune was lost.  The family took in divinity students as boarders; from some, Hannah learned some logic, Latin and Greek.  Hannah and her siblings had to make their own livings.  Hannah sold bobbin lace she had made and taught school, and also began to write.  She kept up her reading, even while contributing to the support of her siblings and her father.

History of Religions

A student gave her a copy of a 1742 historical dictionary of religions by Thomas Broughton, and Hannah Adams read it with great interest, following up on many topics in other books.  She reacted with “disgust” to the way in which most authors treated the study of the denominations and their differences: with considerable hostility and what she called a “want of candor.”  And so she compiled and wrote her own collection of descriptions, trying to depict each as its own proponents might do, using the sect’s own arguments.

She published her resulting book as An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day in 1784. The agent who represented her took all the profits, leaving Adams with nothing.  While teaching school for income, she continued to write, publishing a pamphlet about women’s role in wartime in 1787, arguing that women’s role was different from men’s.  She also worked to get a United States copyright law passed – and was successful in 1790.

In 1791, the year after the copyright law passed, the minister of King’s Chapel in Boston, James Freeman, helped her develop a list of subscribers so she could publish an extended second edition of her book, this time called A View of Religion and adding two parts to cover religions other than the Christian denominations.

She continued to update the book and issue new editions. Her research included a wide correspondence.  Among those she consulted were Joseph Priestley, a scientist and Unitarian minister, and Henri Grégoire, a French priest and part of the French Revolution, who helped her with her subsequent book on Jewish history.

New England History – and a Controversy

With her success in the history of religions, she took on the history of New England.

She issued her first edition in 1799.  By that time, her eyesight had largely failed, and it was very difficult for her to read.

She adapted her history of New England by creating a shorter edition, for schoolchildren, in 1801. In the course of that work, she found that the Rev. Jedidiah Morse and the Rev. Elijah Parish published similar books, copying parts of Adams’ New England history.  She tried to contact Morse, but that resolved nothing.  Hannah hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit with the help of friends Josiah Quincy, Stephen Higgenson and William S. Shaw.  One of the ministers defended his copying, on the grounds that women should not be writers. The Rev. Morse was a leader of the more orthodox wing of Massachusetts Congregationalism, and those who supported a more liberal Congregationalism supported Hannah Adams in the ensuing dispute.

  The result was that Morse was to pay damages to Adams, but he did not pay anything.  In 1814, both he and Adams published their versions of the dispute, believing the publication of their stories and the related documents would clear each of their names.

Religion and Travels

In the meantime, Hannah Adams had become closer to the liberal religious party, and had begun to describe herself as a Unitarian Christian.  Her 1804 book on Christianity reflects her orientation.  In 1812, she published a more in-depth Jewish history.  In 1817, a considerably edited version of her first religious dictionary was published as A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations.

While she never married and did not travel very far – Providence the limit – Hannah Adams spent a good deal of her adult life visiting acquaintances and friends as a house guest for extended visits.  This permitted her to make connections which were begun and extended in correspondence through letters.  Her letters show extensive correspondence with other educated women of New England, including Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren.  Hannah Adams’ distant cousin, John Adams, another Unitarian and a U.S. President, invited her to a two-week stay at his Massachusetts home.

Respected for her writing by others in New England literary circles, Adams was admitted to the Boston Athenaeum, an organization for writers.

Death

Hannah died in Brookline, Massachusetts, on December 15, 1831, shortly after finishing writing her memoirs.

Her interment was at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery in November of the following year.

Legacy

Hannah Adams’ memoirs were published in 1832, the year after she died, with some additions and editing by her friend, Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee.  It is a source for insight into the daily culture of the educated class of New England, in which Hannah Adams moved.

Charles Harding painted a portrait of Hannah Adams for display in the Boston Athenaeum.

Hannah Adams’ contribution to the field of comparative religion was virtually forgotten, and her Dictionary was long out of print.  In the 20th century, scholars began to attend to her work, seeing her unique and pioneering view of religions at a time when the prevailing view was mostly defenses of a scholar’s own religion over others.

Adams’ papers and those of her family can be found at the Massachusetts Historical Society, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College, Yale University and New York Public Library.

Religion: Unitarian Christian

Writings by Hannah Adams:

  • 1784: An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day
  • 1787: Women Invited to War (pamphlet)
  • 1791: View of Religious Opinions.  The three parts were:
  1. An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day
  2. A Brief Account of Paganism, Mohammedanism, Judaism, and Deism
  3. An Account of the Different Religions of the World
    • 1799: A Summary History of New England
    • 1801:  An Abridgment of the History of New England
    • 1804:  The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion Exhibited
    • 1812: History of the Jews
    • 1814: A Narrative of the Controversy between the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, D. D., and the Author
    • 1817: Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations (a fourth edition of her View of Religious Opinions)
    • 1824: Letters on the Gospels
    • 1831/2: A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams, Written by Herself. With Additional Notices by a Friend

    Books and Other Resources About Hannah Adams:

    There is no historical biography of Hannah Adams at this writing.  Her contributions to literature and to the study of comparative religion have been analyzed in several journals, and contemporary journals mention the publication of her books and sometimes include reviews.

    Two other documents on the controversy over copying Adams’ New England history are:

    • Jedidiah Morse. An Appeal to the Public. 1814
    • Sidney E. Morse. Remarks on the Controversy between Doctor Morse and Miss Adams. 1814