The first Adamites (or Adamians or Adamiani) are known to have existed in North Africa in the second and third century. They appear to have developed out of the diffuse Gnostic tradition which rivalled Christianity in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Carpocratians in particular are cited as one Gnostic sect which may have spawned the first Adamites, largely because of the similarities in the theology of the two groups.
Simply put, Gnostics make a sharp distinction between matter and spirit. In this division, or dualism, matter is evil and spirit is good. As God is good he is incapable of producing evil matter, so the universe and our Earth were made, not by God but by the Demiurge (a satan like figure). This deftly explains why there is evil in the world, a problem Christians are forever having to explain given their belief in an all powerful God. Similarly being pure spirit God is incapable incarnating as a physical being. According to Gnostics then, Jesus was therefore a purely spiritual entity.
Most, but not all, Gnostics hold to a variation of this basic cosmological notion. From this point however two broad perspectives have developed. One holds that if matter is evil then a believer should seek to renounce anything that relates to the material world. A severe Puritanism prevails which at times has even included mass suicide by Gnostics of this kind. Some Gnostics of this persuasion believe that as a form of matter, human bodies are also evil, all the more so because they entrap good spirits. Sex is just rejected because of the danger of reproduction and the creation of yet another human body which will mean incarceration for yet another spirit.
Somehow another group of Gnostics managed to turn everything around arguing that if the material world is evil then it doesn’t really matter what we do with it. This antinomian approach has produced a number of sects through the ages which have adopted an extremely libertarian world view in which indulgence is celebrated.
The Adamites fall into this latter category claiming that by adopting the life-style as practised in the Garden of Eden they have returned to a stage of purity where sin is impossible. Institutions for regulating human activity are regarded as unnecessary as such institutions did not exist in Adam’s Paradise. Marriage was thus a particular target of the Adamites who rejected it and are believed to have practised free love instead. To push the point home, the early Adamites called their church ‘Paradise’. Worship was practised in the nude, another influence drawn from the Biblical account of Eden. Just as relationships were devoid of the possessiveness that comes with monogamy and marriage so the private ownership of material possessions was also frowned upon. The Adamites appear to have lived communistically sharing al their goods in common. The state (a relatively new institutional phenomenon in the second century) was also rejected as that too had not existed in Adamic times. Consequently the Adamites refused to comply by any laws.
By the fourth century Adamites were settled in Roman occupied Spain where they remained until the fifth century. Early church fathers like St. Augustine and St. Epiphanius comment on what they obviously perceived as the heresies of the Adamites. Despite the attention and the attractions of their philosophy, the Adamites are not thought to have had a large following.
The original Adamite sect (or sects) soon withered but their teachings were revived in the period known as the pre-Reformation when a number of, typically short-lived, religious movements were formed on the basis of rejecting elements of Catholic teaching prior to Martin Luther taking his stand against the Pope.
Bohemia (then part of the Holy Roman Empire, now part of the Czech Republic) was one stronghold of religious dissent. There Jon Hus wrote and spoke out against Catholic teachings including the selling of indulgences. In July 1415 Hus was burnt at the stake for his efforts but his ideas outlived him to influence a generation and more of Bohemians. The Hussites (as Hus’s followers were known) soon divided into different camps each reflecting a different emphasis of their mentor’s ideas.
First there were the Utraquists, a name derived from the Latin word for ‘both’, signifying the use of both the bread and the wine at communion. The Utraquists, who were also known as the Calixtines (Calix in Latin means chalice), were moderate Hussites drawn from the upper classes and based primarily around Prague.
Attempts at suppressing the Utraquist Hussites provoked the rise of the more radical Taborites who founded a community called Tabor (which may still be found on maps today) named after a place in the Bible. Like later Protestants, the Taborites rejected anything, such as icons, not sanctioned by the Bible.
The radicalism of the Taborites and determination of the authorities to suppress heresy led to a series of Hussite Wars in which Church-backed secular rulers attempted to destroy the Hussites. The situation became more complicated however as the radical Taborites found themselves fighting fellow Hussites of the moderate Utraquist faction. The Utraquists won out in this conflict and as moderates, were soon accommodated by the authorities, merging with other pre-Protestant groups to form Unitus Fratrum, a predecessor of the still extanct Moravian Bretheren.
Bible-based fundamentalism was one thing but differences in interpretation led the Taborites to fracture into a number of rival sects including Nicolites, Horebites and Adamites.
According to Norman Cohn ( The Pursuit of the Millennium) the Bohemian Adamites (also known as the Pikarti) numbered around 200 and were led by a priest called Peter Kanis. Kanis was captured and burnt along with seventy or so followers soon after their departure from Tabor in 1421. The sect however lived on
Like the original Adamites, the Bohemian variety believed themselves to have been beyond sin and advocated free love whilst declaring marriage to be sinful. Rituals were celebrated in the nude and nakedness in everyday life was preferred. Private property was outlawed and community of goods was practised.
Under the leadership of a man known as Adam-Moses the Adamites made an island in the river Nezarka their home. They lived, not so much by their own industry than by pillaging neighbouring communities with much loss of life. The Adamites’ island was eventually stormed (in October 1421) and the entire sect killed in the ensuing battle or executed later.
Despite this apparent elimination of the Adamites some appear to have survived and continued their practises underground. For, as late as the 1780’s, following a brief liberalisation of the law regarding religious movements, the Adamites, still practising their communistic life-style once more came into view.
Another Adamite sect appeared in England during the political and social tumult that was associated with the English Civil Wars of the 1640’s.
The English Adamites first came to attention in 1641 and seem to have existed up until the 1650’s. Like their counterparts elsewhere the English Adamites adopted a distinctly antinomian perspective refusing to abide by any conventions and laws, moral, or judicial and rejecting all authority. They too, were sexual libertines. Nudity was seen as proof of having attained a state of grace and perfection akin to that enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Nudity was thus a proof innocence and therefore a passport to a life of indulgence, unencumbered by moral sanction as salvation had already been assured. Consequently, although rituals were held in private, the participants are believed to have been naked or near naked.
The fragments of contemporary material on the English Adamites is exclusively the work of the sect’s critics. Amongst the possible but un-substantiated observations of the latter is the notion that the sect in England was dominated by women.
The various and unconnected manifestations of the Adamite tradition are not purely an historical quirk, they have for example recently come under the close attention of anarcho-primitivists who, whilst generally rejecting the Bible-based notions of the Adamites, find themselves looking to the same distant past (real or imagined) of the Palaeolithic era for a utopian alternative to industrial society and its concomitant evils; pollution, urban sprawl, destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, deforestation and so on.