America's Founding Spiritual Seeker

Ralph Waldo Emerson's journey From Christianity to Transcendentalism

BY: David M. Robinson

 
Adapted from 'The Spiritual Emerson' by David M. Robinson, Beacon Press.

Emerson's path to his philosophy of creativity and spiritual development was not a straight one, but the outcome of a series of difficult struggles with severe illness and grief and with a philosophical skepticism he could never entirely dismiss.



As the son of a prominent Boston minister, Emerson was destined for the ministry, but approached his future with hesitation. He was dogged by feelings of inadequacy of the profession, and he had an aversion to the pastoral duties associated with it.

There was, however, a more serious obstacle: tuberculosis, a pervasive and misunderstood disease that had an epidemic impact on early 19th century New England. It began to manifest itself in Emerson, just as he began his ministerial studies at Harvard, in a period of severely impaired vision. By the time he began writing and delivering his first sermons in 1826, his condition was worsening so much that he traveled south to Florida.

While the sea air and warmer climate no doubt contributed to Emerson's gradual recovery, it seems probable that the release from the immediate stress of studying for the ministry was also therapeutic. Emerson returned in the early summer of 1827 a stronger and more confident man. Within a year and a half he had become engaged to Ellen Tucker, and had begun to preach at Boston's Second Church, which would ordain him on March 11, 1829.

Emerson's moment of settled happiness would be short. Ellen, also a victim of tuberculosis, died in February 1831. Her death seems to have weakened the foundations of the life he had constructed for himself, contributing to his resignation from the ministry in 1832. Emerson had already entertained serious questions about the claims of Christianity during his ministry, and about whether he could fulfill his intellectual ambitions there. But Ellen's death seems to have forced Emerson "to live his own life and think his own thoughts." He embarked for Europe on Christmas Day, 1832, full of curiosity, nurturing the beginnings of a new spiritual philosophy, and hatching plans for new forms of intellectual expression.

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