A Hypothesis: Hannah Adams and British Sources of Knowledge in America

Pardon me while I think aloud a bit…

I’m working on a section about Hannah Adams and the four editions of her variously titled encyclopedias of religion. I think, this is my hypothesis, that maybe Adams could serve as a representative figure for the knowledge about India and Hinduism Americans had access to. A big question in my dissertation is who knew what, when, and how did they know it? Maybe Adams can stand in as a solid example. Maybe we can even trace out the flow of information about Hinduism by following the information and sources in her four editions from 1784 to 1817.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

In the first edition she relies  on William Guthrie’s A New System of Modern Geography which first published in 1770 and Thomas Broughton’s An Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the World to This Present Time published in 1742. From Guthrie she gets a theological description of Brahma and information on the “sacred books” of the Veda and the shastras. From Broughton she gets a very brief description of different “sects” of fakirs, banians, and brahmans. She leaves out Guthrie’s description of Hindu temples, sati, and caste. She also changes any deriding language in her compilation. So, the result in the first edition, is a very Protestant set of knowledge– beliefs, texts, and sects. It fits right into late eighteenth century New England.

Somewhere between the first edition and the second edition Adams got a hold of the second volume of John Zephaniah Holwell’s three volume Interesting Historical Events, Relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan (1765-1771). She shortens the section from Guthrie and turns to Holwell for her description of Hindu theology and cosmogony.  But she also moves past the Protestant theology-text-sect formula of the first edition and adds in Holwell’s account of sati and a description of fakirs and their “severe acts of mortification” from the 1790 American Museum.  She also adds in an extract from the preface to Nathaniel Halhead’s Code of Gentoo Laws (1776) that emphasizes the tolerance of the Gentoos.

The third edition (1801) changes dramatically. She drops most of the previous material on Hindu theology and draws mostly from Thomas Maurice’s Indian Antiquities, published in 1793, who himself relied upon William Jones. She keeps the extract from Halhead and tacks on a brief account of the Baptist misisonaries at Serampore with no citation–perhaps they were common knowledge at this point.

The fourth edition of the work (1817) changed the organization. While all of the Asian religions had been in one long appendix at the back of the book, in this edition she arranged everything alphabetically, Asian or otherwise. So, rather than one long entry on India there are two entries. The first, under Hindoos, is basically a shorter version the third edition that relies mostly on Maurice. The second entry, under Yogeyes, is actually taken from the British reprinting of her work where the British editor added material to her original third volume. This relies upon the work of William Ward and Claudius Buchanan published in 1809 and 1811 respectively.

So, let’s chart this out:


If I take Adams as representative, then I think I can argue that Maruice’s work had the biggest impact on America among the various British works. Jones’ work never shows up in Adams and the only first generation British Orientalist that really shows up in the brief snippet from Halhead. The gap between the London publication of Maurice’s book and the publication of Adams edition is the shortest gap of any of her sources. I know from other research that Ward and Buchanan would become very popular in the first two decades of the nineteenth century but it seems that briefly, maybe, Maurice carried the day when it came to sources of information that Americans had available. There were copies of Charles Wilkins’ translation of the Bhagavad Gita in the U.S. as early as 1800 but it seems Adams could not find one. It would be more available after 1820–when Emerson and others happened up on it.

So what’s the bottom line of this source analysis of Adams? She was never using the latest British sources in her work but by 1801 it was getting easier to get them. Also, what was popular in Britain was not always what made it to America as Maurice’s work was a minor work in England but became a very important source for Adams.


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