What do we see in the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘the most recognized and revered figure in the Unitarian movement’? His 200th birthday makes this a good time to ask.
One of the most famous public speakers of his day, Ralph Waldo Emerson drew all sorts of listeners. A scrubwoman who went to his lyceum lectures is reported to have said that she didn’t really understand him, “but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is.” A version of this story appears in most Emerson biographies. Sometimes it is a workman or farmer who braves a snowstorm to hear Emerson talk and explains his devotion by saying, “We don’t know what he said, but we’re sure he’s giving us the best there is.” As Wesley Mott, the founder and president of the Emerson Society, puts it: “People went away tremendously uplifted—and had no idea what they just heard.”
Two hundred years after his birth on May 25, 1803, Emerson is recognized as the architect of American intellectual culture. School syllabi swell with his works and most Americans assume some familiarity with his thought. Aphorisms such as “hitch your wagon to a star,” “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” or “trust thyself” pervade the American mind, although some people may not know that Emerson coined them.
Emerson is also “the most recognized and revered figure in the Unitarian movement,” proclaims the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. His advice to greenhorn ministers in 1838 still inspires those who climb the pulpit stairs today: “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life—life passed through the fire of thought.”
In other ways, though, things haven’t changed much since Emerson’s day. More people admire Emerson because of his moral character, his reputation for brilliance, or his nobility in the face of loss than understand what he actually believed and wrote. He is sometimes presumed, for example, to have sanctioned unbridled individualism, been an atheist, or preached an easy, feel-good optimism. Emerson felt misunderstood in his time, too. But take heart, ye who would draw nearer the Sage of Concord.
Getting a clearer image of Emerson—and perhaps even a feel for the extraordinary and complex human being he was—will be easier this year. The bicentennial of the birth of this American Plato is being marked with exhibits, conferences, and lectures at universities and public libraries across the country. The Unitarian Universalist Association also plans to celebrate Emerson’s legacy. The Historical Society and the UUA are sponsoring addresses this spring by two leading Unitarian Universalist Emerson scholars, Wesley Mott and David M. Robinson, along with an exhibit and curricula about Emerson’s ministry and influence. New books—including Robinson’s The Spiritual Emerson from the UUA’s Beacon Press and Barry Andrews’s Emerson as Spiritual Guide from the UUA’s Skinner House Books—will mark the occasion. And Emerson will be a palpable presence at the UUA’s General Assembly in June, where an unprecedented number of religious liberals is expected to gather in Boston, cradle of American Unitarianism and birthplace of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But getting in the Emersonian mode doesn’t have to be a studious affair. Visit Emerson’s house in Concord, Massachusetts, a charmingly low-budget historical site operated and maintained by the Emerson family, and see the blackened water buckets that Emerson used to help douse fires in town or the thick blue cotton and linen robe he wore when he rose before dawn to write. Go to the barn beside the house and look for the path he took to his wood lot at Walden Pond, made famous by a certain freeloading squatter. Read “Threnody,” his poem about the death of his five-year-old son and one of the great elegies in English literature. Or read the opening of Robert Richardson’s biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, which tells how an inconsolable young Emerson walked from Boston to Roxbury each day to his first wife’s grave; he eventually opened her coffin to see for himself that she was gone. Now that is first-hand experience.
The bicentennial provides a wider point of access to Emerson. It does not, alas, make evaluating his legacy and relevance easy. “Emerson’s legacy is a mirror in which each generation of scholars finds what it is seeking,” said Ronald Bosco, an English professor at the State University of New York at Albany and past president of the Emerson Society. Emerson left behind such a vast corpus of work—shaping American poetry, nature writing, religion, politics, and philosophy—that one can easily find Emerson the Visionary, the Intellectual, the quintessential American Poet, and the cryptic Mystic among other personae in his writings.
But a mirror can be deceptive, too. At a forum in Concord last year on Emerson’s influence, Mott, who is an English professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said that reading Emerson is too often “an exercise in narcissism instead of the unsettling experience of being provoked, which for Emerson was the aim of preaching, writing, and reading.”
Whether we look to Emerson for reassurance or provocation, his legacy—as a religious seeker, as a Unitarian heretic-turned-saint, as a person seeking his true calling, as an archetypal individual, as a lover of nature, and as a visionary optimist—promises inspiration and reward.
“Emerson and the Transcendentalists are probably more relevant now than they were in their time,” said the Rev. Suzanne Meyer, associate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. “They speak out of our UU tradition to a postmodern mindset that is tired of scientism and reductionism, just as they were reacting against the Enlightenment rationalism of their day. They offer us a naturalist spirituality, a naturalist mysticism, without metaphysics and supernaturalism.”
She has found, for example, that Emerson speaks to young adults who want to awaken a reverence for nature. (Another young man, Henry Thoreau, once said that Emerson’s “influence upon young persons is greater than any man’s.”)
“I think Emerson is appealing today because UUs want an authentic Unitarianism,” said Meyer, who teaches adult religious education courses on his work. “We’re tired of borrowing from other traditions. We’ve tried everything else. Now we want an authentic Unitarian Universalist spirituality, one embedded in our own history as a movement.”
Emerson was born into a line of Puritan and Congregationalist ministers, but his father, the Rev. William Emerson, who died in 1811, was regarded as a liberal. Emerson moved in that direction, too, favoring a nonliteral reading of the Bible and a nondogmatic Christianity that emphasized the moral law and ongoing revelation. After some hesitation, Emerson was ordained to the Unitarian ministry and became pastor of Boston’s Second Church in 1829. He resigned after just three years, ostensibly over his opposition to the communion ritual, but more likely because he questioned his vocation. By the late 1830s, finding the institutional church in New England more dead than alive, he went beyond even the liberals of his day, calling into question the foundation of historical Christianity.
Recent scholarship has shown his views to be more complex, and perhaps less radical, than has generally been thought. It is true that Emerson condemned religious “formalism,” that he characterized the miracles of the New Testament as “Monster,” and that he told the ministers graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1838 that Christianity “dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” But Emerson remained throughout his life a religious as well as spiritual person. His goal, many scholars say, was to vivify religion, not destroy it, to free it from the oppressive conventions of the day.
He wasn’t quite the enemy of the church that he is sometimes portrayed to have been. After resigning the pulpit of the Second Church, Emerson wrote a hymn for the ordination of his successor. It was, “We Love the Venerable House Our Fathers Built to God.” He continued preaching in East Lexington and other Boston-area churches through 1836. In his 1836 manifesto, Nature, Emerson wrote, “The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God.” In his journal, he wrote, “I count it the great object of my life to explore the nature of God”—although by God Emerson meant not the static focus of conventional piety but a continually creating, form-shifting God available anew to each generation. In the final quarter of his life, Emerson sometimes attended Unitarian services at the First Parish church, up the road from his house in Concord.
Emerson had “a raw undeniable will to believe,” Mott wrote in The Strains of Eloquence, a book on Emerson’s sermons. Undoubtedly, Emerson’s will to believe was reinforced by his beloved and brilliant aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, a religious woman and voracious reader who blended the self-scrutiny of Calvinism with a skeptical and inquiring mind. As the author Phyllis Cole has pointed out, it was Mary Moody Emerson who urged “Waldo” to pursue solitude in nature and inward communion with God.
David Robinson, an English professor at Oregon State University and author of two books on Emerson’s religious development, is the editor of a new Beacon Press book, The Spiritual Emerson. In an interview, Robinson, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, Oregon, said that Emerson opposed the notion of a personal, historical God. Instead, he saw the “Over-Soul,” a term he sometimes substituted for God, as a “unifying force or energy, a structure in all things.”
Fittingly for one who belittled consistency, Emerson was inconsistent in his use of “God” versus “Over-Soul,” Robinson said. “He was often pushing language to get to a closer approximation of what he meant. In some contexts, to emphasize he meant that which is of ultimate concern, he would use ‘God.’”
Emerson did not believe in personal immortality. “The soul does not know persons,” he wrote. The aspiration of men and women for a personal consciousness that goes on forever after death seemed misguided to him, and he disparaged it wittily: “Here are people who cannot dispose of a day; an hour hangs heavy on their hands. Will you offer them rolling ages without end?”
Emerson moved away from his early emphasis on mystical experience, according to Robinson, and “increasingly came to emphasize right action as the fundamental core of religion, the notion that pure religion equals pure morality.” Emerson expressed his belief in religion as action in the world when he wrote in his journal, “I like not the man who is thinking how to be good, but the man thinking how to accomplish his work.”
The “moral sense” that Emerson preached did not refer to ethics alone, but to intuition as well. It was a rejection of the passivity and moral incapacity of Calvinism, Robinson added. Emerson believed, above all, in the moral authority of the individual intellect and conscience. “The real Copernican revolution in New England religion was the Emersonian notion of the human spirit being empowered—that the individual could intuit religious truth,” he said.
Emerson stressed not obedience to codes of behavior but a dynamic response to the soul’s intuition. Indeed, intuition and perception—the ability to see anew—were critical to Emerson’s understanding of morality. For Emerson, Mott said in an interview, “perception was the heart of religion.”
Emerson’s status as a Unitarian saint emerged only slowly and after a very rocky start. Emerson was ordained only ten years after the Rev. William Ellery Channing rallied theological liberals to the “Unitarian” banner. In 1838, the year Emerson delivered his famous Divinity School Address, Unitarian ministers were still defending themselves against charges of heresy from their Congregational colleagues.
Emerson gave his address, which would become one of his best-known major statements, at the invitation of Harvard’s graduating ministers. In it, he rejected the notion of a personal God and lashed the church for suffocating the soul through empty forms and lifeless preaching. His address electrified some of the younger ministers, including Theodore Parker, but horrified the faculty and leading Unitarian clergy. One professor denounced it in a Boston newspaper as “the latest form of infidelity,” and a vigorous war of words ensued—although Emerson himself stayed out of the debate.
Emerson’s charge to the students drew scorn for its rhetorical missiles and theological bromides, but it was ultimately a message of reform, an effort to awaken the church from its “indolent sleep,” Robinson said. “He focused on preaching because he continued to see it as a great tool, and he did not call for people to leave the church.”
At the time, most Unitarians nevertheless saw Emerson as an outcast. The Christian Examiner, the leading Unitarian periodical, praised Henry Ware’s book, The Personality of the Deity, and criticized Emerson’s views, saying, “Defend us from the wordiness and mysticism, which are pretending to be a better literature, a higher theology, and almost a new revelation.” Yet by 1861, the same periodical rejoiced in Emerson’s “prophetic mission” of challenging the church and awakening a new religious sense.
A factor in this shift was the influence of Theodore Parker, who preached Emerson’s ideas and applied his view of religion as morality to the abolitionist movement in the years leading up to the Civil War. By the 1870s and 1880s, Unitarians began to see Transcendentalism as part of their heritage, and by the 1890s, Emerson had been fully reclaimed.
“Emerson’s place as a Unitarian saint is secure,” said Robinson. “But there has also been, and still is today, resistance to him because he is seen, fairly or not, as too individualistic, as someone who’s not a strong supporter of institutions. Conrad Wright [a leading Unitarian historian who taught for decades at Harvard] has said that one difficulty with Emerson is that you can’t build a movement out of individualists.”
If anyone doubts Emerson’s ability to speak to Unitarian Universalists today, the Rev. Victoria Weinstein is happy to set them straight. Weinstein, the minister of the First Parish Church in Norwell, Massachusetts, grew up in a Humanist-oriented Unitarian Universalist congregation. She was a high school English teacher after college and drifted away from Unitarian Universalism. It was an encounter with Emerson, she said, that helped her to develop her faith in God and eventually to decide to go to Harvard Divinity School to become a minister.
“I was never excited by the Emerson selections in the standard anthologies,” she said, “but I was drawn to him in a personal way when I began to read the essays. He spoke across the ages, in eternal truths expressed in a very intimate and immediate way. He appealed to me as my friend. I would say I’ve had an intimate relationship with Mr. Emerson ever since.”
While participating in a summer seminar on Emerson—led by Robinson—Weinstein said she acknowledged a call to go divinity school. “I knew I really needed to follow this path.” Weinstein, who has continued to study Emerson, said she is still drawn by his passion for an original relationship to God and the universe. “I can’t read the Divinity School Address without being excited.”
“The Divinity School Address is really a loving charge,” she said. “There is a sense of affection and care throughout all his writing. He is saying, ‘I want you to be everything you can be, to know all the beauty of who you are,’ but he says it in a very loving way. And friendship was one of his central religious values and personal commitments.”
Weinstein’s experience highlights another reason why Unitarian Universalists are drawn to Emerson: He emphasized the importance of discerning who one is called to be in the world.
The young Emerson was rather shockingly unsure of his abilities, his self-doubt compounded by recurrent illnesses. On the question of vocation, he was, until at least age thirty, completely at sea. He was happy neither as teacher nor minister. “I wish I knew where and how I ought to live,” he wrote in 1833 while sailing home to America from Europe, the year after he left the ministry. Yet three months later, growing in resolve to write his own thoughts and give public lectures, he would write: “The call of our calling is the loudest call.”
Emerson described that call in more detail three years later, when he was thirty-three. His first book, Nature, had just appeared. What, he asked rhetorically in his journal, shall be his lot?
“I am to new name all the beasts in the fields and all the gods in the sky,” he wrote. “I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air. I am to fire with what skill I can the artillery of sympathy and emotion. I am to indicate constantly, though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life—the Forgotten Good, the Unknown Cause in which we sprawl and sin.”
Emerson took to his new vocation with enthusiasm and was an enduring success at it. He gave more than 1,500 lectures, in places as far away as California and England. And yet the “new” vocation was not completely new. As author and publisher Elizabeth Palmer Peabody said two years after Emerson’s death in 1882, his new calling did not require a rejection of what he previously was. “Mr. Emerson was always pre-eminently the preacher to his own generation and future ones, but as much—if not more—out of the pulpit as in it; faithful unto the end to his early chosen profession and the vows of his youth.”
Emerson was born into a ministerial legacy; seven of his ancestors served New England churches. As such, he acknowledged feeling some pressure to continue the legacy (from his Aunt Mary, for example), but for Emerson a true call could never come from outside. It required intuition, choice, and action—a self-trusting process that was a radical departure from the prevailing Calvinism.
Indeed, one may say that Emerson’s life project was to discern and unlock not only his own potential—morally, spiritually, creatively—but to help all people do the same. “This is what I find so appealing about Emerson,” said Robert D. Richardson Jr., the author of an award-winning biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire.
“There is this sense—and sometimes I find it very consoling—that we can do it,” Richardson said. “Emerson writes somewhere that we are not just ‘porters’ of the fire, but rather we ourselves are ‘children of the fire.’ Calvinism teaches just the opposite, that we are fundamentally inadequate, that our minds and hearts are darkened by sin. Emerson is saying, No, our minds are a match for things. We have within us the resources we need to understand the world.”
He was not universally admired in his lifetime, of course, and is not now. In his letters, Emerson sarcastically observed that as he walked around town, some Concord ladies out with their children would hurriedly cross the street to avoid contact with “Mad-dog Emerson.” H.L. Mencken dismissed Emerson as a “moon-struck parson.” Emerson, who was accused (falsely) of lacking a sense of evil, did not help his cause when he said that if he were sent to hell, he would “make a heaven there.”
But by far the most serious charge against Emerson was that he somehow promoted a kind of navel-gazing narcissism. This was often the opinion of leftist intellectuals during the 1930s, at the peak of their infatuation with Marxism and Communism. And indeed, certain conservatives had appropriated Emerson. “Self-Reliance,” perhaps his most famous essay, “has been employed as a homegrown rationale for rugged individualism and aggressive foreign policy,” Mott said at the Concord forum on Emerson’s influence, which was part of the Thoreau Society’s annual 2002 gathering. “It was invoked by the robber barons through our country’s Gilded Age as a kind of philosophical justification of unbridled capitalism and predatory business practices.” He added: “Emerson was the favorite author of Henry Ford.”
Nevertheless, Ford and the leftist intellectuals were wrong. In the 1850s, as Emerson overcame his early reluctance and increased his engagement with the social issues of the day—including abolition and women’s rights—he frequently attacked the excesses of capitalism and the consumerist qualities of American culture. “It is the vulgarity of this country—which came to us, with commerce, out of England—to believe that naked wealth, unrelieved by any use or design, is merit,” he said at Williams College in 1854.
Emerson felt misunderstood in his lifetime, too, although he never took a question after his lectures and refused to defend his ideas. After publishing “Self-Reliance” in 1841, he largely stopped using the term because people confused it with insular self-sufficiency. Emerson believed that each person “is an inlet” to the “one mind” of creation. Through authentic self-development, we discover this mind and are united with others in a shared creation guided by common moral laws. True individuality is thus never selfish in Emerson’s view. “Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man,” Emerson wrote in 1854, “is God-reliance.”
While Emerson did indeed distrust institutions, the individualism he advocated was not of the isolationist kind. Self-reliance disclosed the link between the individual soul and the Universal Mind, bringing the individual into relation with all. In practice, despite his Yankee reserve and high expectations of himself and others, Emerson was quite sociable, at times turning his home in Concord into a rooming house for relatives, friends, and intellectual pilgrims.
Mott noted that a famous nineteenth-century caricature of Emerson depicted him as a transparent eyeball out for a walk on a town common. (He brought it on himself in his first book: “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all. . . .”) The caricature suggested that Emerson was a self-involved mystic. “What people often fail to grasp is that the ‘transparent eyeball’ experience is a posture of abandonment of the self, not assertion of the self,” Mott said in an interview. “When it occurs, as Emerson says in that same passage, ‘All mean egoism vanishes.’ In the rapture of that moment, the self temporarily ceases to exist.”
Suzanne Meyer agreed. “We have misinterpreted Emerson’s self-reliance to mean the self is autonomous, that individual will should come ahead of anything else,” she said. “But being a free individual is only the first step and not the end-point. To be self-actualized, as Emerson saw it, was ultimately a communal vision. That’s where Unitarian Universalism has fallen short. It hasn’t always gone the next step.”
Of course, Emerson’s mark extends far beyond religion. Scholars have traditionally seen him as the founding father of American literary culture. Emerson was at the hub of the Transcendentalist circle that created the first enduring body of work in American literature. He is also an important American poet who, following the English Romantics, rejected the poetic formalism of the day and helped to pave the way for poets like Walt Whitman.
In 1903, at the Concord celebration of the centenary of Emerson’s birth, the philosopher William James focused on Emersonian perception. The “cawing of a crow, a weed, a snowflake, or a farmer planting in his field” could become for Emerson “symbols of the intellect of truths equal to those which the most majestic phenomena can open,” James said in his address. He called Emerson a “spiritual seer” yet also a “reporter in worthy form of each perception.” He also noted that for Emerson, true perception is moral because it engages the heart and leads out of mere observation into action.
Lawrence Buell, a Harvard professor and scholar of nineteenth-century American literature, studies what he calls “the environmental imagination.” According to Buell, one of Emerson’s contributions as a writer was his emphasis on the power of perception, recording the flow of external phenomena “in the context of an interactive relation between the observing consciousness and the environment.”
The importance Emerson placed on “the act of beholding” led to two important and distinctively American literary developments, Buell writes. The first was a move “toward autobiographical discourse or protagonist-centered narrative,” and the second was a move toward “a descriptive or ethnographic engagement with the physical environment.” The memoir and the nature essay are both heirs to Emerson’s influence.
One of the extraordinary things about Emerson is the amount of personal grief he bore. He buried not only his nineteen-year-old first wife, Ellen Tucker, and his first son, Waldo, but three brothers as well. When his brother Edward died of tuberculosis at age twenty-nine, Emerson expressed his dejection, if not despair. “So falls one pile more of hope for this world,” he wrote in his journal. Given his Puritan family culture, which prized stoicism, it is striking that Emerson did not abandon his fundamental optimism, that he was able, somehow, to grieve and heal.
But he did. Richardson believes it was Emerson’s habit of expressing himself in his journal, letters, and poetry that saved him; he mourned in a torrent of words. Waldo was five when he came down with scarlet fever. He suffered scorching fevers for days; doctors could do nothing; the family hovered and watched. The boy died in the early evening. Although Emerson must have been exhausted, he wrote four letters to relatives that night, expressing his grief and describing Waldo’s life in each. He began to compose “Threnody.”
“I think Emerson faced his grief, both over Ellen and over Waldo, by expressing it,” Richardson said. “He does not roll over in bed and face the wall and just die inside.” Emerson’s behavior stands in contrast to that of Thoreau, he added. “When Henry’s brother, John, died from lockjaw, he was unable to say anything for a long time.”
“Anybody who says that Emerson didn’t suffer, that he didn’t have an adequate sense of the awful things that happen in life, that he was just a feel-good optimist, simply doesn’t know the man,” Richardson said. “Emerson’s optimism is so strong because it was fired in his grief.”
Emerson’s age is not our age, so why does he retain such a hold on us? Robinson said that Emerson’s views have a dynamic quality, taking on new meanings in new historical contexts. An example, he said, is self-reliance.
“In Emerson’s day,” he said, “people did not have enough freedom. They had too many things controlling them. Emerson wanted to give them a fresh and wider perspective on what was possible.” He added “today, things would seem very different, with the personal freedom we have. But if you scratch below the surface, you see that the forces of constraint and conformity in our media-driven, materialistic society are just as great if perhaps not greater. We are challenged to be faithful to who we are, so, yes, I do think his message is as relevant as ever.”
For at least one Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Gary Smith of the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, Emerson’s presence is palpable. “It’s haunting to imagine him sitting up there in the balcony,” he said, recalling that it was the sermon style of his predecessor in Concord, the Rev. Barzillai Frost, that burst the dam holding back Emerson’s wrath at lifeless, soulless preaching, “a decaying church and a wasting unbelief.”
But Smith, who said he turns more often to Emerson’s poetry than to his prose, said he also finds Emerson’s presence comforting.
“I often feel, what a blessing to be a minister in these precincts. I feel Emerson and the other Transcendentalists walking with me. Because of them, we are so aware in this congregation of the notion that the holy is found in common places.” On a personal level, he added, “It feels good to have a sense of convergence between my theology and the place in which I serve.’’
With the approach of Emerson’s bicentennial, there is a sense of convergence too among scholars. Mott, the president of the Emerson Society, says that a burst of new research makes it a grand time to celebrate. “We’ve always had Emerson the idealist and Emerson the poet,” he said. “But now we have new Emersons to appreciate: the abolitionist and social activist, the natural scientist, the minister, the philosopher anticipating modernism. In my view, these new ways of seeing Emerson are complementary, not contradictory. They help to fill out our understanding of him—and make reading Emerson the challenge that it ought to be.”
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Richard Higgins is the author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees (Univ. of California Press, 2017). He has written for the Boston Globe, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Century, and Smithsonian, among other publications.
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