The Transcendentalists practiced the art of forming and maintaining spiritual friendships transcending differences of gender, social location, theology, politics, and race.
Frederick Douglass (1818–1895, top center) revered his friend Theodore Parker (1810–1860, top left), the Transcendentalist and radical Unitarian minister. James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888, bottom left), Unitarian minister, epitomized spiritual friendship among the Transcendentalists: He and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850, top right) maintained a friendship from young adulthood until Fuller’s tragic death. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894, bottom center) ran a bookstore that was a hub of Transcendentalist friendships. Abolitionist Lewis Hayden (1811–1889, bottom right) aided fugitives from slavery. (Photo illustration © 2019 Sarah Hickok/UUA; images: public domain, Alamy Stock Photo, Bettmann, Alamy Stock Photos, Corbis Historical, public domain)
Frederick Douglass was the most famous African American of his time. Touring Europe in 1887, he took an overnight train from Rome to Florence, arriving early on May 10. “Our first move outward after coffee was to visit the grave of Theodore Parker,” he wrote later that day. He had arranged to arrive on the anniversary of his friend’s death in Florence, twenty-seven years before. Douglass had found in Parker an ally and spiritual friend a decade before that, when they had worked together to protect fugitives and to end slavery.
Douglass was writing to another friend, Theodore Stanton, the son of women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had warned him that the dingy, plain marker on Parker’s grave was not worthy of the heroic, eloquent man buried beneath it. Douglass had to agree. “I am not an advocate of costly monuments over the decaying bodies of the dead,” he wrote “but . . . the stone at such a man’s grave should be a sermon.”
Douglass and Stanton arranged for noted sculptor William Wetmore Story to create a new monument. It calls Parker “the great american preacher,” and adds, “his name is engraved in marble / his virtues in the hearts of those he / helped to free from slavery / and superstition.” That inscription was composed by Moncure Daniel Conway, a Unitarian Transcendentalist minister born in Virginia who had freed people his father had enslaved and then gone on to compose one of the earliest anthologies of spiritual-ethical teachings from a multiplicity of the world’s religions. Pluralism of insight, now often taken for granted, is our enduring gift from the Transcendentalists.
Parker was indeed a great American preacher. Two famous phrases stem from his eloquence. Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The source is an address by Parker that Lincoln’s Unitarian law partner William Herndon shared with him. Likewise, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was citing a paraphrase of Parker by John Haynes Holmes, one of the white co-founders of the NAACP.
Many of us first meet the Transcendentalists in literature classes. We think of them as writers. We read Thoreau’s Walden (now the most read American book from before the Civil War), perhaps a bit of Emerson. We think of them as nature-loving individualists, centered in rural Concord.
History, however, tells another story. Most Transcendentalists were city-dwellers and church-based social activists. Their center, if anywhere, was at 13 West Street, Boston, just a block off the Common. There Elizabeth Palmer Peabody ran a bookstore specializing in the newest literature from Europe. There Margaret Fuller held most of her pioneering “Conversations for Women.” There Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia, troubled by increasing economic inequality, poverty, and homelessness, began planning their Transcendentalist experiment in egalitarian living known as Brook Farm.
Transcendentalism began as a movement largely among younger Unitarian ministers and lay leaders determined to bring about a moral and spiritual renewal within the churches, which they felt had become complacent after deciding to set aside the doctrine of the Trinity as irrational or unnecessary.
The Transcendentalists rejected the materialistic philosophy that they had learned at Harvard, grounded in the idea that all we know comes through the five senses. They welcomed the critique by Immanuel Kant that there are transcendent ideas that shape our sense perceptions, and eagerly studied the German idealists. In ethics, Kant’s “categorical imperative” forbade forming a moral norm for others that one would not want imposed on oneself. This had implications for racial, gender, and social justice—not to mention personal spiritual practice.
Nearly all our Transcendentalist forebears kept personal journals. Often they shared their inmost thoughts with one another. They willingly heard critiques from their friends in the interest of moving toward a shared ideal: a world in which all souls, from the most privileged to the most oppressed, might befriend one another for the sake of what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God,” and which Dr. King later called “Beloved Community.” This ideal transcending the present made the group ever expansive, practicing the art of forming and maintaining spiritual friendships across differences of gender, social location, theology, politics, and race—imperfectly, nearly always, but persistently.
The epitome of the Transcendentalist effort to maintain spiritual friendship despite deep differences of opinion was Parker’s ministerial colleague and age-mate, James Freeman Clarke. When other Unitarian ministers shunned Parker as too radical, too much what we would call today a humanist, Clarke stood by him even though he led Boston’s Church of the Disciples (devoted to following the religion of Jesus, if not all the beliefs about him). Clarke suffered division in his own congregation for exchanging pulpits with Parker when few others would.
By the end of his own life, which came just a year after Douglass visited Florence, Clarke was the most influential Unitarian minister in America. He had taught the first academic courses on comparative religion, first at Meadville Theological School, later at Harvard Divinity School. His Ten Great Religions went through twenty-two editions and stayed in print for over fifty years. It may have been the first scholarly effort to apply evolutionary thinking to the study of religion.
Clarke had learned the art of spiritual friendship from and with another Transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller. Raised by her Congressman father to have an early education equal to that of any Harvard boy, Fuller knew Latin, Greek, French, and, at age 20, was studying German and reading Goethe with Clarke. Back in his dorm room, Clarke kept a “Journal of Understanding” that recorded his interactions with her almost verbatim. It begins:
J. I do not wish to come here when I have no ideas to tell you when my mind is vacant.
M. But do you feel it necessary to tell me ideas; why not be as you feel?
If this seems slightly seductive, it was. Yet they supported one another. She came to hear him preach his trial sermon. It was on Goethe’s favorite biblical text, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might!”
When Fuller’s father moved the family to rural Groton, Massachusetts, Clarke came to say goodbye. He was taking the liberal gospel to what was then “the West”—Louisville, Kentucky. He wrote her confessing that people had walked out when he tried to preach without a full manuscript and felt tongue-tied. She sent him sermon drafts. He in turn published her first essays, in The Western Messenger, a Unitarian Transcendentalist journal that preceded The Dial. They wrote one another constantly. When he became engaged to someone else and did not have the courage to tell her directly, leaving that to his sister, they remained spiritual friends and correspondents.
Fuller became a journalist. She edited The Dial and turned a trip to Illinois with Clarke into a book, A Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. She reported on cultural and social justice issues for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Encouraged by him, she expanded an essay she had written for The Dial into another book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Greeley sent her to Europe to cover the revolutions of 1848. She was in Rome when the people rose against Pope Pius IX. She ran a hospital and had a child by a young soldier, Giovanni Ossoli. She, her infant son, and his father all perished in July 1850 in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York, as they were returning to an uncertain reception in America. Her male Transcendentalist friends—Emerson, Clarke, and William Henry Channing—stepped in to salvage her enduring legacy by publishing Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli.
Forming and maintaining spiritual friendships across lines of difference takes spiritual discipline. Douglass, at age 20, had earned his first wages as a free fugitive from the Unitarian minister in New Bedford, Ephraim Peabody (no relation to Elizabeth), who had been Clarke’s partner in The Western Messenger when he ministered in Cincinnati. One of Clarke’s parishioners, the white abolitionist lawyer Ellis Gray Loring, heard Douglass tell his tale of escaping from slavery, and then helped him become an abolitionist orator, an autobiographer, and a public figure.
Not every fugitive was as articulate as Douglass, however. Lewis Hayden had fled Kentucky, where he was enslaved. Befriended by another abolitionist attorney in Clarke’s congregation, John Albion Andrew, Hayden became a speaker for the abolitionists. On August 1, 1846, he tried to move a white audience assembled near Walden Pond by the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. He stood on the steps of a cabin built by Henry David Thoreau. He was sincere but tongue-tied. Wendell Phillips, the wealthy orator in charge of speakers for the Anti-Slavery Society, had to fire him as a speaker, but his other friends did not abandon him.
They set Hayden up with a used clothing store in Boston. This was a signal: The first radical black abolitionist in Boston, David Walker, had run a similar store. Clothing ads in The Liberator implied, “Fleeing from the South? Get your warm clothes for the New England winter, or Canada, here.” Hayden’s wife Harriet ran their boarding house nearby, at 66 Southac (later Phillips) Street, where fugitives could get food and shelter. When Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, came to visit, she found thirteen fugitives from slavery boarded by the Haydens, on their way to freedom.
In 1854, Boston authorities jailed Anthony Burns, identified by paid “slave catchers” as having fled his “owner” in Virginia. Hayden was by then Boston’s leading black abolitionist. At a mass rally in Faneuil Hall, Theodore Parker addressed the crowd as “Citizens of Virginia!” They booed. He meant, of course, that Virginia was asking Massachusetts to enforce its Slave Codes. Transcendentalist minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson joined Hayden in beating down the jailhouse door where Burns was held. A crowd poured from Faneuil Hall without leadership. Someone killed a federal marshal. The crowd drew back.
The next day, federal troops escorted Burns to a ship that returned him to Virginia. Clarke watched from the windows of the law offices of his friend John Andrew, and then preached on “The Rendition of Anthony Burns.” He blamed Boston conservatives, especially in the churches. The daughter of a conservative Unitarian minister asked him what he would do if a fugitive from slavery came to the door seeking sanctuary. He replied, “I would take him in”—and go to jail, if necessary, for breaking the law. Parker had sometimes written sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk because he had fugitives in his own home to protect. The leading industrialist in Boston, Amos Adams Lawrence, wrote in his journal, “We went to bed as conservative Cotton Whigs, and then woke up as stark raving abolitionists!”
While he had been asleep, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had declared that the new (white, male) settlers in those territories could use “popular sovereignty” to determine if a new state would be free or open to slavery. Lawrence then led the New England Emigrant Aid Company in founding Lawrence, Kansas. When pro-slavery “border ruffians” from nearby Missouri burned the new town of free-state settlers, white Transcendentalists rallied around the most radical white abolitionist of the time, “Osawatomie John Brown,” who had reacted with what became “Bleeding Kansas.” Five of the so-called “Secret Six” who supported Brown in his attempt to start an insurrection of enslaved people around Harper’s Ferry were Transcendentalists, including Higginson and Parker, although Parker was dying in Italy by the time Brown tried to capture the federal armory.
When Brown asked Douglass to join in the raid, he wisely declined. He doubted that enslaved black people were likely to follow an effort led by a white abolitionist. Yet it also seems likely that Brown was not so much deranged as determined, if he failed, to be a martyr for anti-slavery. When Brown was hanged for treason, Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, treated him as such.
The raid’s failure did rally people to the abolitionist cause. The attorney for the Secret Six, John Andrew, was overwhelmingly elected governor of Massachusetts. He had helped to nominate Abraham Lincoln for president and tried to persuade him to make emancipation, not just preservation of the union, a war aim.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson became the first colonel of an African American regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteers, raised among the formerly enslaved people of the Carolina Sea Islands. Like Douglass, he wanted the world to see that African Americans were willing to fight for their freedom. He reported on the self-discipline and courage of his men and transcribed the spirituals they sang.
Gov. Andrew then authorized the recruitment of the Civil War’s most famous black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Finding enough men required going beyond the Commonwealth. Another of the Secret Six, the wealthy abolitionist George Luther Stearns, was placed in charge, and asked Douglass to help him. Two of Douglass’s sons enlisted. Denied equal pay, the soldiers protested, with Andrew as their advocate. Placed in the vanguard of an assault on Fort Wagner, a gateway to Charleston, South Carolina, many perished, including their young white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. The victorious Confederates dumped his body in a mass grave with his soldiers, thinking it an insult. When retrieving his remains became possible, his Transcendentalist parents said no, he would want to remain with his comrades.
After the Civil War, regrettably, others divided over race. Much of the women’s rights movement had emerged out of abolitionism. Douglass had been present at the 1848 gathering at Seneca Falls, New York, where he had signed Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, that “all men and women are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Yet when it came to supporting the Fourteenth Amendment, which not only supported “due process” but also introduced the word “male” into the Constitution, some women’s rights leaders balked. Even more over the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, but not regardless of gender. Stanton had attended some of Fuller’s Conversations for Women. She had heard Theodore Parker preach and found it “soul satisfying” to hear a minister address prayers to God as both Father and Mother. Yet both she and her New York friend Susan B. Anthony refused to accept the judgment that “this is the black man’s hour” and to support the two amendments. Stanton even used racist stereotypes. Other advocates for women’s rights, led by New Englanders, broke with them.
The women’s rights movement divided for an entire generation. Stanton and Anthony began their own history of the movement. Historian Lisa Tetrault has called it The Myth of Seneca Falls because it largely denied the movement’s origins among Boston Transcendentalists. It minimized the work of women such as Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Lucy Stone, Caroline Healey Dall, and Julia Ward Howe, and seemed to co-opt Douglass, the one man of color at Seneca Falls. Yet Douglass did not break with the Stanton family. Eventually, the divide healed.
There are a number of lessons in this complex history, which others may read differently. First, as George Santayana once put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet we don’t recognize him as Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, the gay son of a Hispanic intellectual and a Boston mother. The histories of patriarchy, heterosexism, and assumed white supremacy are all too real.
Yet the Transcendentalists tried to point beyond all three. Although idealists, they knew that they were not perfect, and they did not expect perfection in one another. They could be mutually forgiving. As T.S. Eliot put it, the uses of memory are “for liberation—not less of love but expanding / of love beyond desire, and so liberation / from the future as well as the past.” Perfectionism is one of the hallmarks of white supremacy culture.
Forming and maintaining spiritual friendships transcending differences is basic to effective work for social justice. Community organizers know this. Those privileged by education, race, gender, economics, sexual orientation, or temporary abilities often forget it. Our Transcendentalist forebears can challenge us to transcend all three impediments—amnesia, perfectionism, and individualism. These are the real enemies of Beloved Community.
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The Rev. John A. Buehrens, president of the UUA from 1993 to 2001, is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice (Beacon Press, 2020).
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