America's Founding Spiritual Seeker

Ralph Waldo Emerson's journey From Christianity to Transcendentalism

BY: David M. Robinson

 

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He was an influential example to such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman. It was on Emerson's property by Walden Pond that Thoreau built his famous cabin and began his experiment in living a purified life in nature. Fuller, the most important early feminist thinker in America, explained that it was from Emerson that she "first learned what is meant by an inward life."

Emerson and Fuller worked closely together to publish translations of Asian religious texts, one of the earliest appearances of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures in America. Emerson and Thoreau shared this interest in Asian religious thought, which provided them with important confirmation of their deeply held beliefs about the unity of the cosmos.

In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson and settled in Concord, establishing himself permanently in a town with deep ancestral connections and an appealing surrounding countryside. Emerson's devotion to Concord was deep, and he found there a stimulating and supportive community of friends and family who were essential to his remarkably steady productivity as a writer and lecturer.

The publication of "Nature" and his annual lecture series led to two important speaking invitations at Harvard: the annual address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society on August 31, 1837, and a graduation address at the Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838.

Both addresses had an immediate impact. In the first, Emerson stressed the importance of an openness to new thought, and a constant process of beginning anew. His was not a philosophy for the settled or for those who lacked curiosity. "The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul."

The next year, in the Divinity School Address, he put forward his ideas as a new religious doctrine, or more accurately, as the recovery of the ancient foundation of all religious sentiment. The address unleashed a furious controversy. "In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man," he commented. "This the people accept readily enough, & even with loud commendation, as long as I call the lecture, Art; or Politics; or Literature; or the Household; but the moment I call it Religion, they are shocked, though it be only the application of the same truth which they receive everywhere else, to a new class of facts."

It may be difficult for modern readers to discern what was shocking about Emerson's appealing hymn to a sentiment of religion alive in every man and woman. But decades of theological controversy had produced raw nerve endings in New England. The Divinity School Address marked a break in the course of religious thinking in America, pointing to a universal, anti-supernatural, and largely secular religion.

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