Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, October 2, 2015

Hannah Adams and the Study of Religion

Hannah Adams (born 2 October 1755)

The daughter of Thomas Adams, a Virginian, and Elizabeth Clark Adams, Hannah Adams received no formal education. Her father loved books but failed as a businessman, and after the death of her mother, when Hannah was eleven, the impoverished Thomas hosted Harvard divinity students "on rustification"--that is, spending time on leave for study and tutoring.

Hannah Adams,
from the cover of her memor
Hannah's own study was enhanced by the presence of these students, and she was able to learn Greek and Latin from them.

By the time that she was seventeen, her father was bankrupt, and Hannah (as well as her four siblings) needed to contribute to the family's support. Hannah took up lacemaking, a task that would damage her eyesight.

She also turned her attention to writing. From one of her father's boarding students she had a copy of Thomas Broughton's An Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the World to This Perfect Time, which awakened her interest in what would become the field of comparative religion. 

She read widely and then, avoiding what she perceived as the prejudice with which "men of piety and learning" attempted to defend their own faiths, decided to produce her own reference work, one in which she was determined "to avoid giving the least preference of one denomination above another." 

The result was An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day, published in 1784. When she discovered that the profits from the sold-out first edition went to her publisher, she lobbied for the passage of the first copyright law in the United States, passed in 1790.

With the help of the minister James Freeman, a second edition of her book, retitled A View of Religions, was published in 1791. The fourth edition was published under the title Dictionary of Religions.

Among her other works, Adams also produced A Summary History of New England (1799), History of the Jews (1812), and Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams (published posthumously in 1832).

Hannah Adams died on 15 December 1831. 

For Elizabeth Curtiss's excellent biographical essay on Adams, click here. For a longer assessment of her life, try Gary D. Schmidt's A Passionate Usefulness: The Life and Literary Labors of Hannah Adams

Adams's own books, including her View of Religions, her Summary History of New England, and her memoir, are available through Google Books and the Internet Archive.

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