Ralph Waldo Emerson: Divinity School Address

This is another refreshed (i.e. rewritten and reposted) post from the first version of Transient and Permanent, looking once again at the classical roots of Unitarianism. There probably aren’t many UUs who aren’t aware of Ralph Waldo Emerson; but on the other hand, there also aren’t that many who’ve made it all the way through his Divinity School Address. For all those who haven’t and aren’t likely to try, here’s some thoughts about what’s going on in that historic text:

In the last post, I referred to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Transcendentalist errand into the wilderness.” This occurrence, symbolized most strongly by his address to the 1838 graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, represents the most significant assertion of Unitarian theology following Channing’s Baltimore sermon 19 years earlier. It is particularly significant because it represents a kind of opposition Unitarianism, a second way of being Unitarian that owed its being to Channing’s form yet as often as not coalesced around perceived inadequacies in that system. With Emerson, we can longer talk about Unitarian theology in the singular anymore: we already have multiple, overlapping and competing, Unitarian theologies, with many more to follow in the breach Emerson made.

Perry Miller made famous the Puritan motif of the errand into the wilderness. This trope involves a religious group that partially splits off from its main parent body and intentionally relocates itself to an open, untamed space (either literally geographic or, in the Transcendentalist case, metaphoric). The movement into the wilderness serves several functions: a) it separates the saints (at least temporarily) from those who have begun to lose their way, b) it provides a fresh start with which to build a new, perfected community, and c) most importantly it gives the breakaway group the chance to model their perfected religion back to the old guard, demonstrating the way true religion should look (and can, if the old guard will only heed the lessons of this new dispensation). Thus, the errand into the wilderness is always conducted while looking over one’s shoulder at the abandoned community, moving away to some degree in order to establish the necessary distance to critique and thereby hopefully reform the parent organization. The classic model is the Puritans, who left England for the wilderness of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they set up their ideal community. They didn’t want to separate permanently from the Church of England; rather, they wanted their new group of saints to shine as a city on a hill for their brethren in England to see and emulate. Once the homeland had taken the hint, they could return in glory to a renewed England crowned by their more authentic version of Christianity.

All of this is set-up to explain what is going on in the Divinity School Address. The point here is that Emerson’s Transcendentalism was a Unitarian heresy, an alternative Unitarianism that carved out a separate space for itself while continuing to operate in a n overt relationship with mainstream Unitarianism. Religious Transcendentalism in the United States always operated in close relationship to church Unitarianism, a fact often obscured by romantic latter-day accounts.

And now a breakdown of the sermon itself, which begins inauspiciously with perhaps the most purple prose Emerson ever produced: “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” But overblown as this opening line it, it accurately reveals the direction of Emerson’s thought. For Emerson nature and the soul are the sources of true inspiration–there are no direct quotes from the Bible at all in the address. This is a shocking fact which nearly 170 years of further developments shouldn’t obscure for us. For a Protestant minister of this time not to make even a brief gesture toward the Bible was highly unusual. This includes Unitarians: recall that Channing’s 1819 sermon was largely centered on the issue of how the Bible is to be interpreted, on the way in which it is authoritative, and it led, not with reflections on the season, but with a quote from Scripture. For Emerson, that pressing issue of how to interpret the Bible is already passé: the Bible has disappeared from view, replaced by 19th century understandings of nature and the soul as the true source of revelation. It should be pointed out that these two are not on equal footing: nature is subordinate to the soul in the economy of revelation.

Emerson tells us that virtue is its own reward; vice is its own punishment. “Virtue” here did not yet have the Victorian connotation of sexual purity that we ascribe to it today. Emerson understands virtue to be the perception of and joy in the divine laws that undergird reality. This leads to his next point: he advocates a pantheistic view of God as an infinite mind that penetrates and ensouls all things in the universe. This universal nature of God has practical effects, including the fact that people and the world are primarily good–evil is secondary, partial, and temporary, marked by the absence of the good rather than by its own internal force.

There are points where Emerson’s use of language can confuse modern readers. Like Channing and other Unitarians, Emerson asserts that reason is the core of religion. However, this reason is not the post-Humanist faculty of rational analysis that we are familiar with. Rather, the closest corresponding concept we have today is that of intuition. Religion for Emerson in the Divinity School Address is an intuition, universal and inherent, and perceived by the individual. It cannot be monopolized by any church institution; indeed, such institutions more often than not kill the spirit by adherence to formalism of dogma and rite.

In 1819, Channing proclaimed the goodness of Unitarian Christianity. Now Emerson, an ordained Unitarian minister delivering a sermon to graduating Unitarian seminarians and a former member of Channing’s own church, declared the evils of Christianity. These he saw as comprising two main points. The primary evil of Christianity is that by deifying Christ it eclipses all other individuals–this is wrong because it is to your own self that you must look for inspiration. It is not surprising therefore that Emerson proclaims that Jesus was a man, superior in perception but not in nature. The second evil of Christianity is its putting of revelation in the past–this is wrong because revelation is not contained in a book but in every human heart.

The errand into the wilderness is not the only Puritan motif that must be unpacked if we are to understand this diatribe properly. The Unitarians were the direct (though not sole) descendants of the Puritans, and Channing, Emerson, and Parker can easily be located in the stream of Jonathan Edwards and his forbearers, much as that might have horrified those early church fathers. Over time, and despite their original intentions, the errand into the wilderness (a term that implies temporariness) began to look like a permanent resettlement in America, and England proved unwilling or uninterested in duplicating their great experiment. Naturally enough the Puritans began to experience considerable anxiety over their reason for being. This was expressed in a genre of sermon called the jeremiad. A jeremiad is a sermon that excoriates the modern day by comparing it to an imagined earlier golden age. Those who deliver jeremiads see sin advancing all around and warn their listeners that great peril looms unless they repent and return to the right way of things. For the Puritans, the jeremiad served to chasten second and third generations that seemed to be moving away from the noble errand of their ancestors.

As an inheritor of the Puritan tradition, Emerson was well able to employ the jeremiad against his own Unitarian compatriots. The Divinity School Address is basically a lament that Unitarianism has become formalized and lost its power, both its eloquence of speech and the fire of the soul. As with the Transcendentalist errand into the wilderness, this Unitarian jeremiad is meant to wake up the upcoming generation to problems in their midst and steer them back toward an imagined purer time when people lived in harmony with the universe. This address is not a parting shot from a disgusted ex-Unitarian, it is a declension narrative that seeks to re-mold Unitarianism along lines seen as both both authentic and more relevant.

These Puritan-derived declension narratives and jeremiads persist among us today. Much of the Unitarian-Universalist fretting over our small numbers, lack of influence, incoherent theology, and watered-down ritualism smacks of classic Puritan approaches to religion. This isn’t meant to suggest that there aren’t real problems within contemporary UUism. It just seems worthwhile to keep an eye on the historical context of our hand-wringing. Worrying about the state of the denomination and expressing angst over our waywardness is a venerable Unitarian tradition, an inheritance we’ve retained from our Puritan ancestors even as we’ve thrown out the Calvinism that drove such a worldview in the first place.


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Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarianism

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