He wanted nothing to do with the Unitarian church that baptized him, but today’s Unitarian Universalism has embraced his revolutionary ecological, conscientious, and spiritually open approach.
“Henry David Thoreau” (detail), © 1938 D.C. Sturges (The Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, & Photographs, New York Public Library; Astor, Lenox, & Tilden Foundations)
On January 6, 1841, an independent-minded 23-year-old man in Concord, Massachusetts, submitted a short note full of attitude quitting the local Unitarian church. Its cursive letters are firm and sweeping, especially the first. “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town,” he wrote the town clerk, signing “Henry D. Thoreau.”
Thoreau, who was baptized and raised a Unitarian, was, to put it mildly, one of our wayward youth. He never returned to the meetinghouse, but now, improbably, 200 years after his birth, the meetinghouse has come to embrace him. Unitarian Universalists today teach and celebrate the liberal religion he championed more vibrantly than ever.
The current minister of the Concord church said Thoreau is more than an influence on our faith tradition. “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson as a branch of the tree of historic Christianity that we are now at the end of,” said the Rev. Howard Dana.
“Both are alive and well in UU theology and practice today,” he said. “Emerson points us toward a unifying force greater than ourselves, and Thoreau shows us that we must practice our theology in the here and now.” The result of Thoreau’s influence, Dana said, is “UU activism grounded in self-reflection.”
Just as improbably, this dead, white, male fixture in the American literary canon is also more alive in our society at large than when he was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery 155 years ago. His calls from the barnyard roof to live more simply, use nature’s resources more wisely, and preserve wildness are today carried on by the flourishing and ever more mainstream simplicity, sustainability, and environmental movements. His influence is also palpable in the post-Trump surge in political activism in America, which is indebted to his eloquent defense of the individual’s right to resist immoral laws. And his call, in Walden, to be fully awake is echoed by a million mindfulness apps across the land. “He is blessed,” Thoreau wrote in “Walking,” “who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.”
Were Thoreau to visit First Parish in Concord today, the white-columned church might at first look like the one in which he waited impatiently as a boy to be liberated from Sunday school. But the large Black Lives Matter banner out front would surely disrupt that image and make him question if it could possibly be the same church he criticized for timidity on social issues. If he stepped inside and slipped into a pew, he might be further confounded to hear a sermon focused on experiencing the holy rather than defining it, or to learn that the Sunday school sent the children outdoors to learn from nature.
He has become an icon of integrity. (Illustration © Mike May)
Were he to return on subsequent Sundays or visit other Unitarian Universalist congregations, Thoreau could be hardly less surprised to discover full-throated affirmations of other things he wrote and thought: elevating the life of the spirit over the material; an ethos of simplicity; reverence for the divine in nature; justice and inclusivity in matters of race; and the search for wisdom in Eastern, earth-centered, and other world religious traditions.
Philip Gura, the author of American Transcendentalism: A History, wonders why Unitarian Universalism has not stressed Thoreau as a core source in the way it has Ralph Waldo Emerson. “One of the main tasks of ministry is to introduce people to earlier thinkers,” said Gura, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Unitarian Universalists need to read Thoreau to understand how UUism came to embody certain truths that he saw earlier than most.” The interdependent web of being that Thoreau described in all but name in Walden “is just one of the connections he made that we now take for granted.”
Gura noted that the Transcendentalists split into two factions, one favoring Emersonian individualism, the other the social activism of Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, Theodore Parker, and others. Thoreau managed to bridge that gap, he said, by “integrating practical ethics into self-reliance.” That practicality is one reason his students connect with Thoreau, he said. “He doesn’t just tell you what’s wrong, he shows you how to live a life of integrity in response.”
The links to Thoreau’s thought are also contemporary, Gura said, citing Thoreau’s “concern for the environment, his critique of an economy that he saw as having gone off the rails with consumerism, and his turn to world religions.”
Thoreau’s view of the moral underpinnings of political activism is another example.
Earlier this year, the Unitarian Universalist Association asked people to sign a “Declaration of Conscience” committing them to oppose Trump administration policies that defy UU values, especially its crackdown on undocumented immigrants. “We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil,” it proclaims. “As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action” on behalf of “the most vulnerable among us.”
The UUA statement addressed a question posed in “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau’s defense of the inviolability of the human conscience (published in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government”). “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?” Thoreau asked as the United States warred with Mexico in 1848. “I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
“Civil Disobedience” is the most influential political essay written by an American. In it, Thoreau, with typical boldness, blows past the usual objections to a standing army to question if we really need a “standing government.”
Writing part of it in jail in 1846 after refusing to support slavery by paying his poll tax, Thoreau cast his refusal not as an effort to reform others but as a necessary act of conscience. When we fail to distinguish right from wrong, he wrote, we dull our capacity to make that distinction.
Both Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said they learned about the moral basis of resistance, as well as how to practice it, from Thoreau’s essay. King said that he encountered it for the first time as a graduate student in theology and “was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.”
King’s admiration is not evident today among Thoreau’s core followers, who remain “conspicuously white,” noted Geoff Wisner, the author of Thoreau’s Wildflowers and Thoreau’s Animals, both published in the last year. “I haven’t yet met a black Thoreauvian, and would love to. The only person I can think of who has much to say about Thoreau and black people is Elise Lemire, in Black Walden.”
The Rev. Victoria Safford, minister of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, said her church drew on Thoreau’s legacy when it decided to join the New Sanctuary Movement seeking to protect immigrants from deportation. She said the church “set its intent for sanctuary in the context of the long history of resisting the state,” which, in addition to Thoreau’s essay, includes the Underground Railroad, in which he also participated.
“In one of our early discussions about it,” she said, “one member asked, how can we not become involved?” Safford said it reminded her of the story, thought to be apocryphal, “of Emerson visiting Thoreau in jail and asking what he was doing in there, to which Thoreau is said to have replied, ‘What are you doing out there?’ I think that’s a timely question for us today.”
For Safford, the power of Thoreau’s prose is limited by his faults, from his views of women to his excessive individualism. Nevertheless, she said, on many topics “there is a simple clarity in his words that speaks to us today.”
Thoreau’s durability on his 200th birthday is hard to deny. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and talk radio invoke him daily. Books about Thoreau and new editions and reprints of his works pour from presses in a ceaseless stream. An investment company, an online university, and a video game take their names from Walden. The attraction is also global, notably in Western Europe and Asia. Foreign translations of his works have not stopped since the first one, Walden o la Vida en los Bosques, appeared 110 years ago. Iran now has a Farsi edition of his masterpiece, but it is unlikely to catch up to Japan, where it has been translated in thirteen editions.
In a society increasingly ruled by algorithms and Big Data, Thoreau remains popular in part because he epitomizes the individual’s individual. He has become an icon of integrity. He also provides insights into the moral dilemmas of contemporary life, from the intrusion of screens to global warming to the urge to conform in a culture that rewards those with the most clicks. He blasted consumerism and corporate greed—mills produce clothing, he said, “not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched”—and his criticism has become only more salient. His ridicule of Americans’ zest for trivial gossip sounds so relevant that it’s hard to remember that his only inkling of the Internet and smartphones were the telegraph and transatlantic cable.
Who, rushing to work half-asleep, would disagree that life is moving too fast or that people have become slaves to their jobs? “What an infinite bustle!” Thoreau wrote in “Life Without Principle.” “I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work.” There is nothing, he added, “not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”
Barbara Evans recently took a class on Walden at her church, First Universalist Society in Franklin, Massachusetts. “He’s basically talking about how to enjoy life with less,” she said, “and paying attention to what’s really important in life. To that end he is very modern.” Reading the same copy of Walden she underlined twenty years ago, Evans, who is 67, was struck by the differences in what she noticed this time. “Before I mainly had a literary focus, but now I’m noticing more of what he said about lifestyle and how we spend our time. It challenged me to think about my choices and what matters to me.”
Evans found Thoreau’s message “very much in line” with Unitarian Universalism—with one big exception: “It seems that he kind of stands against community. Most of us belong to the church for the sense of community it gives us, so that part didn’t speak to our class.”
Thoreau’s greatest influence today stems from his writing about nature, both our relationship to it and our care of the earth, and about the right to resist immoral laws.
He died before it emerged as a political force, but Thoreau articulated the American conservation ethic. “Our village life would stagnate,” he wrote in Walden, “if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness.” And in “Huckleberries”—a part of his Wild Fruits project, which was published for the first time in 1999—he writes: “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.”
For more than a century, environmental activists, conservationists, and nature writers have turned to him as a beacon and spokesman. John Muir, who crusaded for the creation of our national park system, claimed him as an inspiration. More recently, the eminent biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson called Thoreau “the founding saint of the conservation movement.”
“Thoreau’s place in the ecological imagination is the most enduring way he is with us in the twenty-first century,” exceeded, possibly, only by his role as the patron saint of spiritual seekers, said Leigh E. Schmidt, a noted authority on American spirituality at Washington University in St. Louis. Schmidt says his students are drawn to Thoreau. His aphorisms, such as “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” are powerful, he said, “and there is something consistently tangible and specific in his writing that pulls people in.”
The Rev. Schuyler Vogel, minister of Manhattan’s Fourth Universalist Society, said Thoreau speaks to a longing he sees in his urban congregation to “connect with the wildness of things.” Central Park, which Fourth Universalist faces, has plenty of trees, but, still, many of his congregants want to be in touch with the “untamed, pure wildness” Thoreau evokes in his writings.
Thoreau hits us between the eyes not only by what he says but how he says it. He applied wisdom to daily life in short declarative sentences and used practical examples. To be philosophical to him was to love wisdom so much as to live by its dictates. Thus how Plato got his living mattered as much as what the teacher taught. It made a difference, Thoreau wrote, if he followed his own philosophy or found it “easier to live, because his aunt remembered him in her will.”
Thoreau’s portrait does not hang in the headquarters of the UUA in Boston, and his face is not silkscreened on a UUA shirt. He barely makes it, if at all, onto lists of famous UUs in print and online, where you may find such questionable exemplars as P.T. Barnum, President Millard Fillmore, or Republican Senators Bob Packwood and Roman Hruska.
The main reason is that Thoreau, unlike Theodore Parker, Egbert Ethelred Brown, or Mary Safford, never sought to reform Unitarianism. His influence, however indirect, has been no less powerful than theirs. Indeed, Unitarian Universalism’s self-proclaimed Principles and Sources can read like a CliffsNotes version of the Thoreau opus: Respect for the interdependent web of existence; a free, responsible search for truth and meaning; the worth of every person; justice in human relations; the right to conscience as a guide; direct experience of transcending mystery; the wisdom of world faiths; the words of prophets old and new; the guidance of reason and science. Thoreau valued and specifically cited all.
Thoreau’s impact on American liberalism generally, and liberal religion especially, explains the convergence. The non-dogmatic, eclectic spirituality he practiced drew from direct experience of the divine in nature and can be seen as part of the growing interest in spiritual phenomena outside church walls in antebellum America. This strand of religion stood outside institutional Unitarianism for most of the nineteenth century but ultimately reshaped it.
Schmidt said Thoreau “provides an opening for people to apply his ideas” outside the Protestant milieu. He cites Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who in the last century took on Thoreau’s role as America’s most famous spokesperson for silence. Merton knew well the ancient Christian hermits and ascetics. But it was Thoreau’s setting of solitude in a modern American context that Merton cited as an influence in his move, after many years a monk, to a hermitage at his Trappist monastery in Kentucky.
There is a paradox in Thoreau as a progenitor of liberal religion. He was deeply antagonistic to formal religion. He rejected the church, including his own, not because it stood for religion, but because he believed it did not. “We check and repress the divinity that stirs within us to fall down and worship the divinity that is dead without us,” he wrote. Thoreau was, in fact, religious to the bone. As his writing shows, he had a palpable sense of the holy and a deep knowledge of the Bible and Christian poetics. (One list of biblical allusions in Walden alone runs to three single-spaced pages.) An innate religiosity shaped his thought, but he hesitated to write about it except in letters and his journal. Religion, he said, “is that which is never spoken.”
(He did jest about it, however. Thoreau wrote in his journal that a lyceum warned him in advance that it banned the subject of religion. “But how do I know what their religion is,” he asked, “and when I am near to or far from it?” He spoke anyway about “what religion I have experienced,” but the audience, he added, never suspected he had touched on it.)
One tenet of Thoreau’s liberal religion that spread through the culture and then into Unitarian Universalism is the free and independent search for religious truth. It led to the growth of Protestant denominationalism, or voluntary church association, in the nineteenth century and is reflected today in the rise of the so-called “nones,” the one in five Americans who choose no one religion in particular. It is a principle Thoreau asserted, at age 23. His 1841 note to the town, rather than signing off from the church, makes plain that he did not consider himself a member to begin with. He later wrote of his purpose, “I do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.” For that reason, Schmidt, the American religion scholar at Washington University, said Thoreau is a “forebear” of the “spiritual but not religious” cohort.
The poet and critic Lewis Hyde noted that while Thoreau advanced the cause of Protestant denominationalism, “the true denominationalist signs off, then signs on somewhere else, and Thoreau never took the second step.” Thus Thoreau is “the great refuser,” who by his actions reminds the rest of us “that we are choosing to do what we do.” Thoreau also keeps the spirit behind voluntary association alive, Hyde adds, “by keeping himself ready for a church that does not yet exist.”
Does a church now exist for Thoreau, in the form of modern Unitarian Universalism?
Don’t bet on it, cautions Dana. While Unitarian Universalists have embraced many of Thoreau’s concerns, Dana said that Thoreau might have no more ease with First Parish in Concord as a formal institution in 2017 than he did in his lifetime. However much contemporary ideas might appeal to him, Dana said, he would be unlikely to officially join. “We make a saint of him at times, but he would have none of that.” Probably just about the time we thought we had a firm grip on him, he would write us another clarifying note.
Please note: newsletter on hiatus
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.
Spiritual friendship and social justice
The Transcendentalists practiced the art of forming and maintaining spiritual friendships transcending differences of gender, social location, theology, politics, and race.
The wellspring of American nature writing
Walden remains uncannily ‘addressed to our condition exactly,’ 150 years after its publication.