Adams was president of Illinois Wesleyan from 1875-1888. He attended the preparatory department of Northwestern University and was licensed to preach by the age of 19, serving as a student pastor in Chicago. He enlisted in the Civil War in 1863 and within a year was elected lieutenant. Adams organized the first company of African Americans and was later promoted to captain and then to major. After resigning from the military, he went to study at Garrett Biblical Institute and graduated in 1870.