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.
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.