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Hannah Adams

(born October 2, 1755)

 

“Hannah!” Silence. “Han-nah?” Still silence. “HAN-NAH A-DAMS!” her father bellowed.

Hannah finally came scurrying into the keeping room, her long skirts swishing. “I’m sorry, Father.   I was reading one of your books out on the porch and didn’t hear you.” The proof was in her hand, her thumb tucked between the pages.

He should have known. Hannah always seemed to have her nose in a book when chores were done, and easily tuned out the world while reading.  He himself was an avid reader with a large personal collection of books. How could he fault her for a strong desire to learn?

“Yes…well…I’ve something…rather disappointing to share with the family,” he faltered, “and there’s no time like the present, as they say.”

With that introduction, Mr. Adams sat his family down to share dismal, embarrassing news: his business of selling books and English goods had failed; his inherited fortune was gone.

Hannah was only seventeen, but willingly did her part to help support the family. She taught school, tutored, as well as crafted and sold bobbin lace. However, what spare moments Hannah found she continued to devour her father’s books. And with her outstanding memory, she retained much of what she read. Hannah also began to write.

Mr. Adams generated income by taking in Harvard divinity students as boarders and tutoring them. One student gave Hannah a book about the world’s religions. As she read about the Christian denominations, Hannah (a Congregationalist) became more and more disturbed.

This author isn’t offering subjective facts; he’s inserting his own negative opinions about each one–except his own denomination, she thought. I could construct a better volume than this—an unbiased one. And the proceeds could further help the family.

Hannah began her new reference work in 1778. Her intent was “to avoid giving the least preference of one denomination above another and to present the arguments and sentiments of each sect in believers’ own words, according to the group’s general collective sense” (1).

The result: The Alphabetical Compend of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day. It was published in 1784 and sold well. But Hannah did not benefit; the agent absconded with most of the proceeds from the first edition.

Six years of diligent, painstaking work appeared wasted.

A Bostonian minister, James Freeman, helped Hannah gather a number of subscribers for the second edition (1791). It was even more profitable than the first, and finally Hannah enjoyed a small income from her efforts. As the years passed, she produced two more editions (1801, 1817). Hannah Adams was now the first woman of America to become a professional writer.

In 1799, her Summary History of New-England was published, followed by The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion Exhibited in 1804.

In between, Hannah lobbied Congress for the first copyright law (as a result of her first publishing experience, perhaps?). She sent a petition dated July 27, 1789. The law went into effect the following spring.

Several prominent intellectuals in Boston greatly respected Hannah’s work, and became her patrons. They even established an annuity for her. In 1810, she left her home in Medfield, Massachusetts and moved to Boston, where she soon joined company with literary friends “in whose conversation I enjoyed the feast of reason and the flow of soul,” she wrote. (A gifted wordsmith, indeed.)

One of those friends, Joseph Buckminster, allowed her access to his private library. There she researched two works: A History of the Jews (1812), and Letters on the Gospels (1824). In all, Hannah wrote nine books, and became one of the most famous women in America at the time.

People remarked that Hannah was a frail, timid, and modest woman. The latter trait was referenced in an article based on her memoirs, published in The Ladies Magazine after her death (1831):

“She must have had much more to tell of the history of her mind, its struggles, and trials, and triumphs, and the effect of all these in forming her character. But her humble opinion of herself induced her to attach less importance to trifling details than her readers would have done” (2).

Hannah also demonstrated:

  • loyalty–especially to her family,
  • inner strength in the time of trial and disappointment,
  • perseverance and patience, as she conducted careful research to produce each volume of history.

You may wonder if Hannah was related to John Adams, our second president, or his son, John Quincy Adams, the fourth president. She was their distant cousin. In fact, Hannah once visited John Adams’ home, staying for two weeks. She spent most of her time–(Care to guess?)– in the library.

It’s no wonder that, in her girlhood dreams of heaven she said, “[My] first idea..was of a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified.”  Indeed, one of the joys of heaven will surely be just that.

Hannah Adams is a woman I look forward to meeting in heaven. And I know just where I’ll find her.*

Notes:

  1.  www.womenhistoryblog.com
  2. http://www.questia.com

Other sources:  www.christianity.com; www.bostonathenaeum.org; www.womenshistory.about.com; www.librarycompeny.org; www.brittanica.com.

Portrait:  www.bostonathenaeum.org

*in the celestial library!

 

 

 

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