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The self-reliant and the social reformers

Transcendentalists were divided into several camps, just like their Unitarian Universalist heirs.
By Jeff Wilson
Summer 2008 5.15.08

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Alcott intorduces Emerson

Bronson Alcott (standing) introduces Ralph Waldo Emerson during a meeting of the Summer School of Philosophy in Concord, Massachusetts. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

New England seemed to have gone crazy. The Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, at the head of a mob, broke down the federal courthouse door to rescue a fugitive slave. Nearby, George Ripley’s utopian community at Brook Farm was based on the teachings of a Frenchman who believed that by harmonizing society the oceans would turn to lemonade and humans would grow prehensile monkey tails. The Rev. Theodore Parker was funneling cash to terrorists who hoped to capture American military weapons and establish a state for freed slaves on American soil. Meanwhile Ralph Waldo Emerson had declared himself to be a “transparent eyeball,” Margaret Fuller was landing the first major blows for women’s rights in America, and Amos Bronson Alcott had set up a school where misbehaving students were punished by having to strike him. Boston had once been the citadel of sedate Puritan theocracy. What in the world had the nineteenth century brought? Confused observers might well have wondered if there was something funky in the water supply.

In fact, these prominent intellectuals and ministers—Unitarians all—had been drinking deeply at the well of new currents in European theology and literature. The result was a flourishing, and at times bewildering, American religious movement known as Transcendentalism. Philip Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (himself a Unitarian Universalist), has produced an excellent new history of this major movement. In American Transcendentalism: A History he not only adroitly explains how such disparate radical behaviors all tie together, but also presents a story with important implications for Unitarian Universalism today.

As Gura explains, Transcendentalism was at its heart a fundamentally theological project, one that amounted to a sort of Unitarian reform movement. This is an important framing approach, as Transcen­dentalism is often depicted in American schools merely as a literary movement. Battling conservative Calvinist orthodoxy, Unitarians had staked out a place for liberal religion in the new American republic, including a belief that the individual conscience in religious matters was paramount. But while revolutionary in theory, in practice Uni­tarianism often relied on dry dissection of the Bible for its arguments and tended at times to degenerate into formalism, lacking a sense of spiritual wonder. Emerson most famously described his fellow Unitarians as “corpse-cold” and wondered if they had ever lived a genuine day in their lives.

Beginning in the 1830s a younger generation of Unitarians sought fresh inspiration in strange, exciting ideas from German, French, and British scholarship on the Bible and language. European scholars were developing new methods of looking at religion, from Schleiermacher’s belief that religion was an inner feeling of complete dependence on God to Coleridge’s differentiation of insightful “Reason” from discursive “Understanding.” The most important of these ideas, which became the central tenet of the rising Transcendentalist cadre, was that human beings contained within themselves a mysterious internal principle that guided them toward religious truth—an intuitive capacity more profound and reliable than scriptures, ecclesiastical institutions, or tradition. This spiritual sixth sense pointed toward “transcendental” truths such as the universal brotherhood of all people, the ability of the human individual to commune directly with the divine, and the presence of the sacred in the manifestations of the natural world.

The implications of this new viewpoint in religion were wide-ranging. Many young Unitarians—especially ministers and seminarians—began to push in increasingly radical directions, denying Jesus’s miracles or even abandoning the Bible entirely. For some, God became ever more pantheistic, simultaneously retreating into a sort of generalized spiritual field and yet indwelling in the human soul. For many female Transcendentalists, such as Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, these new ideas were liberating because they implied the equal capacities of women and men. In clubs, study groups, and specialist magazines the Trans­cendentalists debated the new ideas throughout the 1830s and ’40s, creating an alternative religious subculture that operated partly outside the normal church environment. Some withdrew even further from the mainstream of Boston life, either individually, as in Thoreau’s famous experiment at Walden Pond, or as groups, like Ripley’s Brook Farm, a commune based initially on Transcendentalist ideals. Some, who maintained their careers as ministers, felt that even the designation of “Unitarian” was too constricting and became pastors of independent congregations instead. With all this challenging, counter-cultural activity—including discussions of free love and mind-expanding spiritual practices—one might almost call the Transcendentalists the hippies of their day.

Predictably, conflict with the Unitarian old guard became intense. As Gura demonstrates, Unitarian stalwarts such as Andrews Norton, who had fought to make liberal views of the Bible and Christianity respectable, were shocked to see their protégées move toward ideas that seemed to fall outside of Christianity altogether. A sort of Unitarian civil war was brewing, and rhetorical skirmishes were fought in Boston-area pulpits, newspapers, and Harvard Divinity School as charges of heresy and authoritarianism flew back and forth. For the conservatives, Transcen­dentalism seemed to be the last stop before total anarchy and irreligion. The Transcendentalists countered that the universality of the religious impulse they had identified would keep people on the correct path; for them it was a tenet of faith that the intuitive principle always steered one rightly, toward good and away from evil. Despite these battles, Unitar­ianism remained committed to its Christian base in the nineteenth century, but the Transcendentalists significantly opened up the range of acceptable viewpoints within Unitarianism. Ultimately, and somewhat beyond the era of Gura’s book, the Transcendentalist viewpoint triumphed, and religious intuition and post-Christian spiritual seeking were folded back into Unitarianism as a respectable mainstream position.


After richly detailing the background influences that led to Transcendentalism and its friction with more conservative Unitar­ianism, Gura traces the different impulses and schools of thought within Transcendentalism. This is one of the areas where American Transcendentalism particularly shines, as Gura deftly puts the tremendous variety within the movement on display. He focuses especially on the split between those for whom Transcendentalism was a philosophy of personal introspection and self-reliance, and those for whom it was an ethic of universal brotherhood and active work to improve society. These divergent approaches were fruitful but also produced tensions within the movement itself. The society-oriented Transcendentalists criticized the self-oriented wing, warning that at its extremes such spiritual inwardness threatened to develop into “egotheism.” They sought ways to manifest Transcendentalist values directly by reorganizing society and pushing for change in the structures and policies of the government. Some tried educational experiments, such as Alcott’s Temple School. In time this stream within Transcendentalism manifested in radical abolitionism, as Higginson, Parker, and others pressured America to live up to its founding vision of equality—and raised funds for John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.

For the self-culture Transcendentalists, on the other hand, personal spiritual cultivation was not only the way to true spirituality, but also the only way to establish a genuinely better society. These thinkers, best represented by Emerson, felt that the way to social reform was through individually perfected persons combining to create an improved culture. For Emerson, being a “transparent eyeball” meant that there was no intermediary between himself and God—cultivating his self-reliant intuition allowed him to discern the wondrous nature of life and see the inherent worth and dignity of his fellows, a viewpoint that should naturally move one to act in ways that benefited humanity and decreased suffering. Thus truly effective action was only possible after personal maturity had been achieved and only by working with other enlightened souls.

Both the self-culture and social-reform versions of Transcendentalism have been bequeathed to modern Unitarian Universalism, part of the theo­logical richness of our denominational heritage. But we have also inherited the tension between them. The very freedom and individual affirmation of Uni­tarian Universalism can lead to spiritual navel-gazing, while constantly channeling religious impulses into political activities can leave one spiritually immature. “Egotheism” and activism-as-religion—two risks that Unitarian Universalists are vulnerable to—turn out to have a much older history than we might imagine. And that makes the critiques that each group of Transcendentalists lodged against the others seem relevant to us today. Gura’s book isn’t simply an intellectually interesting history; it can also provide spiritual resources for modern-day UUs faced with the challenges and promises of a free faith.

Gura also pays close attention to the impact of slavery and the American Civil War. As he describes it, Transcendentalism’s greatest accomplishments came in the fight against the barbarism of slavery, when leading thinkers such as Parker helped to propel America directly toward the war that ended legal human bondage in America. Both the ideas and the social networks of the Transcendentalists proved useful for this task. Yet the war also was one of the main factors in the death of Transcendentalism as a movement. As Gura understands it, Transcenden­talism’s vitality was sapped when it turned away from the transatlantic channels of thought and literature that had been its wellspring, focusing ever more of its attention on American political and social reforms, especially abolition. The monumental nature of the bloody struggle required to end slavery also took its toll, as it made the Trans­cendentalist faith in human nature seem naïve.

Yet parts of the Transcendentalist program survived, for better or for worse, and became defining American cultural characteristics. Emerson’s self-reliance was taken up and enshrined as the ethic of the country’s busy new entrepreneurism, giving a spiritual justification for the industrial capitalism that became dominant after the agrarian South had been destroyed. Thoreau’s civil disobedience influenced reformers as variously placed as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and continues to be a cornerstone principle for many progressive activists. Transcendentalist radical individualism became a fundamental part of American self-understanding, a development that Gura hints at but doesn’t fully pursue, as his book ends where the Transcendentalists cease to be a visible movement. For readers interested in tracing the story forward to see where the impulses embodied in Transcen­dentalism ultimately led, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality from Emerson to Oprah (HarperOne 2005) will provide further insight.*


American Transcendentalism is at times repetitive, and the huge cast of characters may prove confusing to some readers. Nonetheless, the relatively de-centered nature of Gura’s narrative is one of its most attractive features. Historical accounts of Transcendentalism have always had a tendency to focus romantically on a few key figures, such as Emerson and Thoreau, who eventually became canonized as the saints of the movement. Given the eloquence of these men, such trends are certainly forgivable. But in their time, Transcendentalism was a movement energized by a large number of personalities, among whom Emerson and Thoreau were neither its originators nor necessarily its most important members. Gura waits a full 100 pages before introducing Emerson’s address to the Harvard Divinity School graduates, often the starting point for other descriptions of the movement. And Thoreau doesn’t even receive a full treatment until two-thirds of the way into the book; even then he remains a minor player in Gura’s story.

The comprehensiveness of Gura’s book, combined with his willingness to place Emerson and Thoreau within a wider constellation of fascinating and important thinkers, will therefore provide a fresh look for readers familiar with Transcenden­talism. For newcomers to the subject, Gura offers as full an overview of the movement as one could hope for. His book will reward readers seeking to understand one of the most important sources for Unitarian Universalist spirituality. American Transcendentalism will likely be the definitive book on Transcendentalism for years to come, and it demonstrates that liberal religious history continues to be an exciting, productive subject of research.


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Due to an editing error, the quarterly edition of UU World reversed the order of author Leigh Eric Schmidt's names. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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