America's Founding Spiritual Seeker

Ralph Waldo Emerson's journey From Christianity to Transcendentalism

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He returned in the fall of 1833 to begin the most intellectually productive period of his life, establishing himself within a decade as one of America's most innovative and influential thinkers.

Although it is tempting to see his resignation from the ministry and sojourn in Europe as a break in his career, it is more instructive to recognize the continuities that bound his earlier ministry with his new pursuits as an independent lecturer and author. Emerson continued to preach and maintain his clerical identity for several years as he developed a following for his lectures.

More important, he began to develop the philosophical vision that had informed his preaching. His message was to cultivate an inwardness that would keep his listeners in touch with their inherent divinity. He linked this inwardness with faith. By experiencing and reflecting on the natural world, they could discover a unified and constantly developing cosmos that shared a common origin with the human soul.

Emerson used the new form of the public lecture to work out his system in detail, beginning with lectures on natural history in 1834 and then developing an interconnected series of lectures on such topics as "Philosophy of History" and "Human Culture." His new interest in science contributed to his first book, "Nature," now regarded as the initiating text of the Transcendentalist movement.


In the book, Emerson proposed an idealistic conception of the universe in which all its interrelated parts, including the natural world and the human mind, mirrored and signified each other. "A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world."

The mind's apprehension of this cosmic unity was an exacting intellectual discipline. But in rare moments of highly charged perception, we might undergo an experience that bounded on the mystical:

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 eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

Emerson found a receptive hearing among young, spiritually oriented men and women who were intellectually restless. Not satisfied with the standard answers of their churches, or with the moral tone of their culture, they were seeking an alternative to an increasingly conformist and materialistic society. Emerson's message appealed to the hunger for fulfillment that was not available in most walks of life.

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