Emerson and the Transcendentalists
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 4, 2003
Most people have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many may actually have read something by him. His sayings have become truisms in the popular American mind: “Know thyself.” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” “Hitch your wagon to a star.”—all are sayings from Emerson. So, too, is the phrase “the shot heard round the world”—used, in Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” to describe the opening battle of the American Revolution. It was Emerson who coined (or at least popularized) the phrases “rugged individualism”, “self-reliance”, and even “self-help”.
Many people know Emerson as a giant of American philosophy, literature, and history. Far fewer know that he began his career as a minister, and a Unitarian minister, to boot. But Emerson lasted only a few short years in the parish ministry, and left it as still a young man, with no small measure of dejection and disappointment.
Yet, Emerson’s name still is open at the top of all those lists of “Famous Unitarian Universalists” that some people in our religious movement are so fond of assembling. At least a handful of our churches have been named after him; his portrait graces the walls of scores of others; those who make the biggest contributions to the “Friends of the UUA” campaign are classified as part of the “Emerson Circle”. Emerson is constantly raised up in our sites as the exemplar of the greatness to which our religious faith can aspire.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson, as some of you may know. So a grand birthday celebration is being planned to honor such a “saint”. There will be special events at General Assembly in Boston this June. An adult education curriculum exploring Emerson’s thought and influence has just been published (it looks very interesting, too). Beacon Press plans publication of two new books on Emerson this spring: The Spiritual Emerson by David M. Robinson, and Emerson as Spiritual Guide by Barry Andrews.
“All this for a man who failed in our ministry?” we might well ask.
But, of course, the question is (as always) a little more involved than that…
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, the third of six children. His father, William Emerson, was minister of First Church in Boston, and a leader of the more liberal, rational wing of Congregational ministers (“the Unitarians”, as they were disparagingly called by their more sternly orthodox and Calvinist colleagues). Indeed, within a dozen years or so, the split within New England Congregationalism would be out in the open, and a new movement, the American Unitarian Association, would eventually emerge.
Young Ralph—or Waldo, as his family and friends called him—he had six cousins named “Ralph”, so decided at an early age that being called “Waldo” would make it easier for him to stick out—didn’t have it easy as a child. He was considered perhaps not the brightest of the Emerson children—he was too silly and unfocused, in his parents’ eyes—so not too much was expected of him. His father died in 1811, when Emerson was only seven, and the family (never wealthy on a minister’s salary) found itself thrown into poverty. But Mrs. Emerson took in borders, and there was a modest stipend from the church which Rev. Emerson had served, and one brother would always take a turn working while the others were in school, so they got by, and in spite of economic privation, Waldo received as good an education as the times offered. He was educated at home from the earliest age (though he did take until the age of three to learn to read, much to his family’s chagrin). He was tutored by father and mother and older brothers in the study of the Bible and the ancient Latin and Greek classics. At nine, he enrolled at Boston Latin School, and at fourteen (the average age for college back then) he did what was expected of him and went to Harvard. There, his grades were unremarkable, and he completed his studies four years later, finishing somewhere near the middle of his class. He was also, interestingly, voted class poet by his classmates.
It was then his turn to go to work to help support the family. His grades at Harvard weren’t high enough for him to gain the appointment to the faculty at Boston Latin for which he had hoped, so he took a job teaching at a school for girls in Boston.
It was also at this time that Emerson came heavily under the influence of his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, his late father’s sister. Mary Emerson was the free spirit in the family, and one of the most interesting women in Boston. She was an original religious thinker, something of a prophet. She rejected the doctrines of Calvinism; believed that Jesus was a great teacher, but in no way unique; she counseled her nephew to listen to the voice within, and to experience God directly through the natural world—all radical notions to the religious establishment of her day—and all ideas that would later become cornerstones of Emerson’s own philosophy. (Indeed, she was such a prickle in the skin of the Boston establishment that one conservative Boston newspaper commented of her when she died: “she was though to have the power of saying more disagreeable things in half an hour than any person living.” This in her obituary!)
But Waldo was enthralled by her. Over the years, he carefully copied her correspondence, conversations, and comments into four large notebooks—almost a thousand pages in all—all carefully annexed and annotated. Throughout his life, her work would be one of his chief literary sources.
It was Mary Emerson. it seems, who insisted that Ralph Waldo should enter the Unitarian ministry. The Emersons had always been ministers, she said—six of them in all, down through the generations. His generation, too, must have a man in the pulpit, she urged—and who but Waldo would be best to carry on the family tradition?
So it was that in 1824, at the age of 23, Ralph Waldo Emerson entered the Harvard Divinity School, prepared to follow his father’s footsteps into the ministry. He preached his first sermon “Pray Without Ceasing” (from which this morning’s mediation was drawn) at his father’s former church, First Church, in 1826. He was quite well received, and soon became a popular supply preacher in the Boston area. (Indeed, he preached one sermon, on the subject of “piety at home” an amazing 27 times at various churches around Boston! Now, that’s recycling!)
In 1828, Boston’s Second Church began the process of looking for a new minister to replace the renowned Henry Ware, whose health was failing. Emerson applied for the position, and was quickly selected by the enthusiastic search committee. When Ware, in spite of his poor health, was named a professor at Harvard in 1829, Emerson stepped up to become the senior pastor at Second Church—in spite of the fact that he had never officially graduated from the Divinity School.
Life in the ministry started off pretty well for Emerson. His sermons were received enthusiastically by most as a breath of fresh air (though some more conservative members groused that he didn’t make enough use of the Bible in his preaching). In 1827, he had become engaged to Ellen Tucker, the daughter of a wealthy Boston family, and the pair was married in the fall of 1829. But then, the next year, Ellen became seriously ill with tuberculosis, and gradually weakened and died, in February of 1831.
Emerson’s ministry, too, was becoming more of a struggle for him. His preaching was admired, but other ministerial skills seemed lacking. He had no great interest in the day to day work of ministry, and little knack for pastoral care. Once, he went to visit a retired Revolutionary soldier, who was a member of his congregation, and very ill. When he sat there for the longest time, looking uncomfortable, not knowing what to say, the bedridden parishioner finally sat up and said, “Young man, if you don’t know what to do here, perhaps you should just go home.”
Finally, Emerson resigned from the ministry of Second Church in September of 1832. Ostensibly, the reason was his unwillingness to serve communion to his parishoners, but this may have simply been an excuse. As one biographer has written: “In 1832, Emerson [seemed to be] standing amidst the ruins of his own life. More than ten years had passed since he had left college. Love had died and his career was falling apart. He was not sure what he really believed, who he really was, or what he should be doing.”
He left Second Church and sailed for Europe. For nine months, he journeyed through Italy, France, and the British Isles. He visited Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. Then, he returned to America with a much clearer sense of who he was and what he was called to do.
It would not be as a minister that he would influence the ideas of men and women, Emerson now knew. It would be as a writer—a lecturer—and a poet—that his ideas would be shared.
Ironically, it was these ideas of this failed minister would become such an important influence on the development of who we are, today, as a religious movement.
While Emerson had resigned from Second Church, he had not turned his back completely on American Unitarianism. Indeed, he continued to speak with some frequency at various churches in the area, including Plymouth, where he met the woman who would become his second wife. When a new Unitarian church was founded in East Lexington, Emerson was employed as the “permanent supply minister” for nearly three years. (He also was not above recycling old sermons on occasion, and it’s said that one Sunday in East Lexington, he looked up from his manuscript during a sermon to inform the congregation that he no longer believed what he had just read!) One woman in that church is quoted to have said, when asked why the church never hired a permanent minister: “We are a very simple people, and we understand only Mr. Emerson.”
While he was preaching at East Lexington and elsewhere, Emerson was also still attending his home church, the First Parish in Concord, as well. There, he was not impressed by what he heard on Sunday mornings. The minister of the church at the time, Rev. Barzillai Frost, was a stalwart, hard-working minister, and a well-respected member of the community. He was on friendly terms with Emerson, as well. But apparently, he was not an ideal preacher. Barzillai Frost was, in a word, boring.
Emerson saw in Frost all the limitations of the organized church: its lethargy; its lack of spark; its being tied too closely to “the way we’ve always done things”; its reliance on old authorities and dead rituals. Emerson despaired of the ability of any institution, including the church, to foster the innate spirituality of human beings. He was prepared to leave the ministry and the church once and for all, and in March 1838, he decided to resign as supply preacher at East Lexington.
It was at almost this exact same time—indeed, in the very same week-- that Emerson received an invitation from the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School to speak at their graduation exercises in June, 1838—an invitation he eagerly accepted.
Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” challenged the very foundations of the church in general, and Unitarianism in particular. It was (to use an anachronistic analogy) an atomic bomb which would utterly change the face of liberal religion in America.
Emerson began his address by praising the beauty of nature—an easy enough thing to do on a lovely early summer day in New England. “In this refulgent summer,” he wrote, “it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold…” In all of this natural beauty, Emerson said—the music of the birds, the pine-sweetened air, the fragrance of the newly-mown hay, and so on—one comes face to face with the perfection of creation.
Then, Emerson, goes within, and calls attention to something even more sublime and mysterious: “A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue.” This virtue is known, Emerson says, not just through our senses, but through our deeper intuition. Our deepest calling, then, as human beings, is to trust one’s intuition—to trust one’s inner voice—to trust one’s direct experience of the divine—to trust the truth in one’s own soul.
Of Jesus, Emerson said, he “saw with an open eye the mystery of the soul.” But he was not unique. Rather, he invited all people to see as his eyes had seen and hear as his ears had heard—to see and hear God directly—to see the miracle of all life.
Moreover, according to Emerson traditional Christianity’s teachings about Jesus, were a “Monster”—because by dwelling upon the once-and-for-all, never-to-be-repeated uniqueness of the person of Jesus, they sought to cut men and women off from the individual truth that dwelt within each.
Then, Emerson aimed full barrel at “the sins of the church that now is”, with his poor local minister, Barzillai Frost, directly in the crosshairs:
“I once heard a preacher,” Emerson wrote, “who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more…” Frost was a good and genuine man, Emerson conceded—“he had ploughed and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers”—he had led a genuine, valid life. Yet you wouldn’t know any of this from hearing him preach, Emerson scolded—and that was the Church’s great tragedy: It was cut off and isolated from life, rather than being immersed in it. It substituted dull repetition and ritual for real life and the living soul. And what was the solution?
“We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought…It is the office of the true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake…”
And then—and remember, these words are addressed to brand new ministers from someone who had just quit the ministry:
“Go alone… [R]efuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination… and dare to love God without mediator or veil… Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost—cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint man firsthand with [God].”
The reaction to the Divinity School Address was mixed. The older Unitarians of his own day found Emerson’s words obnoxious and vile. Andrews Norton published a pamphlet in response to Emerson titled “Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity”.
(But we Unitarian Universalists, didn’t celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Andrews Norton a few years back, did we?)
Younger Unitarians like Theodore Parker were enthralled, and within a generation their philosophy of transcendentalism—direct experience of the divine as the center and basis of religious experience—would become the dominant strain of thought in American Unitarianism and Universalism.
Paradoxically, it was in leaving the Unitarian ministry, that Emerson had opened wide the faith he professed, as well as the institution he had spurned. In the words of the great Unitarian church historian, Conrad Wright: “Emerson cut deeply at the traditional philosophical presuppositions of the Unitarianism of his day, so that it was never possible for Unitarians thereafter to return to the position that Christianity is based on the authority of Christ as the unique channel of God’s revelation to [humankind]… Since that time, there has always been a universalistic as well as a Christian component in American Unitarian thought; and much of the … history of the denomination has involved the interplay between these two strands.”
In time, of course, Emerson, great paradox that he was, developed into the UU saint par excellence. That tells us so much about the challenge and promise of our liberal religious faith:
The words of our denominations purposes and principles could have been written by Emerson himself. They clearly reflect an Emersonian worldview:
But these words weren’t written by Emerson, of course. They were written by later, and no doubt lesser, hands. After Emerson left Unitarianism, it remained, to those less ethereal folk like Barzillai Frost (like the rest of us) to keep the institutional wheels of faith turning. So it remains still in our own day. So much of Emerson’s vision still breathes in our faith today. But building religious community requires more than ideas—more than essays and poetry. It takes hard work, and patience, and the give and take of compromise to be part of an institution that will survive and abide down through the generations.
Those were not necessarily gifts which Emerson had in abundance, as great as he was. “We love the venerable house our fathers built to God,” Emerson wrote in a hymn for the installation of his successor at Second Church. But he didn’t remain around that church long enough to do very much building.
In this anniversary year, may we celebrate Emerson’s greatness, and bask in the glow of his wide and untrammeled vision. And may we also see in his limitations and in his failings a clear reflection of the work that is still ours to do.