Emerson, Second Church, and "The Real Priesthood" by Wesley T. Mott
It's a special pleasure to be here—not just for this wonderful celebration of the bicentennial Emerson exhibition—but also in this place. As a senior at Boston University in 1967 with little interest in Emerson (I was into English Victorian literature then) I became a member, with my wife, Sandy, of Second Church in Boston. It was located in those days at the corner of Park Drive and Beacon Street, with John K. Hammon as its minister. Some seven years later—having moved out of the city but with a dissertation on Emerson under way, and with the First and Second churches having merged—we were back in this edifice for the dedication of our son, Nathaniel. So this church and this place are full of professional and personal memories.
On October 28, 1832, the Proprietors of Second Church in Boston assembled to vote on two excruciating issues. Their much-loved twenty-nine-year-old minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had preached a sermon seven weeks earlier, on September 9, explaining that, in good conscience he could no longer administer the sacrament of The Lord's Supper. In a close textual and historical analysis, he had argued (1) that biblical evidence suggests that Jesus never intended that the ordinance be "perpetual"; (2) that, like the doctrine of the Trinity, the ordinance unduly shifted attention from God to his Mediator; and (3) that it was a rite specific to a particular time and place more than 1,800 years ago and a distraction from the life of the soul in Boston in 1832. He interpreted literally his text for the day, Romans 14:17—"The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness and peace and joy in the holy ghost." "This particular ordinance", he insisted, "is not consistent with the spirit of Christianity." Finally, after all this careful analysis, he issued a cavalier dismissal: "Having said this, I have said all. I have no hostility to this institution. I am only stating my want of sympathy with it.... That is the end of my opposition, that I am not interested in it."
The minister had expressed his objections to administering the sacrament as early as June and proposed "disus[ing] the elements" and "relinquish[ing] the claim of authority" for the rite. A seven-man Committee appointed to review his request found it "expedient to maintain the celebration of the Lord's Supper, in the present form" but expressed also its "undiminished regard to the Pastor" and hoped he would continue the practice. Now the minister had publicly explained his objection to the rite and had submitted a formal written request for "dismission from the pastoral charge." The Committee saw no way out of the predicament but declined to take action without the involvement of all the Proprietors.
Now the Proprietors had to act first on the "question of the expediency of dissolving the pastoral connexion." The vote was affirmative, by the tortured vote of 34 Yeas, 25 Nays, 2 Blanks. The second question—on the question of "dismission"—was just as difficult: 30 Yeas, 20 Nays, 4 Blanks. In other words, fewer than 60% of the Proprietors voted to release the minister from his duties, and nearly 40% formally wanted to keep him in spite of his views and in spite of his public request to be relieved. The church simply did not want to lose their beloved young pastor. When they reluctantly accepted the inevitable, they still "Voted unanimously that the Salary of the Rev Mr Emerson be continued for the present." And when Emerson on December 22 wrote a letter of affectionate goodwill to his former parish, they had it printed as a brochure and as a commemorative broadside—on silk. Three days later, on Christmas Day, Emerson sailed for Malta.
In spite of these signs of mutual regard, Emerson's ministry had been all but ignored by biographers and academic critics—with exceptions like Arthur McGiffert's 1938 selection of 25 sermons, called Young Emerson Speaks—until twenty-five years ago, when David Robinson and a handful of scholars started reminding us of the connection between Emerson's preaching, lecturing, and later writing. Three books about Emerson's ministry and several articles have appeared, along with the landmark publication in 4 volumes of all known 170 sermons—in the Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1989-92. The Emerson of choice for generations had been the visionary Romantic who had somehow emerged a full-blown Transcendentalist in 1836 with the publication of Nature. This Romantic Emerson, it followed, had chafed under the constraints of his ministry—and thus the only sermon worth remembering was the seemingly anti-doctrinal, anti-institutional "Lord's Supper"—a kind of declaration of independence of a stifled spirit. According to conventional academic wisdom, nothing in Emerson's career as minister became him like the leaving it.
The ministry, however, had been a natural career choice for young Emerson. Seven generations of his ancestors had been ministers, including Peter Bulkeley, who founded the town of Concord in 1635; his grandfather, who had built the Old Manse, had died of fever contracted at Ticonderoga as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War; and his father had been minister at First Church in Boston until his early death in 1811. Waldo knew he was temperamentally unsuited to the mostly competitive fields open to a college graduate in 1821. He had tried school teaching and hated it. But he had inherited from his grandfather or father, he wrote, "a passionate love for the strains of eloquence," and the pulpit offered the best way to exercise this calling. His reasons for leaving his pulpit after 3 ½ successful years are complex. Yes, doctrinal qualms were important. He had also found that being a minister was more than preaching, and he was bored with pastoral chores. He had a variety of health problems. And some cynics have even claimed that it was a settlement from his wife's estate that enabled him to chuck the job and head for Europe. The more interesting question, I think, is, What did Emerson learn at Second Church? The legacy of that experience was professional, intellectual, and personal.
First, Emerson—a shy if brilliant young man—was immersed in the details of parish life. The Second Church Records reveal comments on church activities and dutiful lists of new members, marriages, baptisms, and deaths. Two entries stand out: On July 26, 1829, four months after Waldo's ordination, his brother Charles—generally regarded as the most promising Emerson brother—joined the church. Of the 71 deaths recorded in Emerson's hand over 3 ½ years, 18 were from consumption—the scourge of the 19th century. The most poignant of all Emerson's entries in the Second Church Records is that of February 8, 1831—noting the death from consumption of "Mrs. Ellen Tucker Emerson, age 19." Grief and duty collide in the entry itself—and in the matter-of-fact insert above Ellen's name noting another, anonymous death on the same day—that of "a Portugueze Sailor." Emerson suffered what he called "miserable debility" after Ellen's death, and his sermon on grief twelve days later is painful to read even today.
It would be impossible to overstate how much preaching taught Emerson about audience, speaking, and writing. He learned a few tricks of the trade. In Emerson's day, services in both morning and afternoon were common; and ministers often exchanged or supplied vacant pulpits in neighboring parishes. Emerson gave a few of his sermons only once, but most he gave several times—some, with a little tweaking, more than two dozen times over several years and in several pulpits. Those of you who lecture or preach regularly will take heart from an anecdote Emerson quotes favorably on the question of recycling sermon material: "How soon, the clergyman asks, will it do to repeat a sermon? Why, I don't know, but if you put a new beginning and a new ending, it will do the same afternoon!" Emerson's sermons are more logical and discursive than his poetically charged and often deliberately disorienting great essays. But he was reading voraciously and his mind, as Bob Richardson has said, was "on fire." On one occasion he was in the midst of preaching a previously used sermon when, without skipping a beat, he interjected, "I no longer believe this"—and kept on reading.
He was preaching on all manner of topic—the nature of Jesus, astronomy, spiritual discernment, death, conduct, patriotism, self-reliance—topics that in one form or another become recognizable as themes of his Transcendentalist essays. Let me focus briefly on two, those dealing with the life of the soul and with social justice.
Emerson systematically numbered and carefully stitched together his sermons. Number 43 opens with a surprising blast at liberal Christianity. The world of New England Calvinism had become "officially" unmoored in 1805 when liberal Henry Ware was named Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, the bastion of orthodoxy since 1636. While Calvinism retained footholds in rural New England, Unitarianism in Emerson's day had already settled comfortably—some thought smugly—into the mold of polite, cultivated, commercially bustling, urbane Boston. When the American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825, it consisted of 125 churches, 100 of them in Massachusetts—and most of those within a 40-mile radius of Boston—"a fact," notes church historian Winthrop Hudson, "which led the irreverent to quip that the Unitarians believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston."
In rising above doctrines of original sin, Emerson warns in Sermon 43, Unitarians leave themselves open to dangerous moral laxness. Priding themselves on perceiving the Calvinist angry God as a metaphor, liberals trivialize spirituality and drift into secular lethargy. "[T]his laxity," he declared, "does not belong to true Christianity, but to bad men." Emerson seeks a middle way between liberal "licentiousness" and conservative "rigidness" (his terms). Lacking traditional doctrinal constraints, Unitarians must discover afresh the "power" to inspire and guide moral life. The sermon's urgent message is that the genuine religious life is strenuous. God "manifests himself," he said, in the "material Creation" and in "the history of man." Revelation, however, is conferred not by nature, by history, or by "external doctrines" but by direct experience. This is not mere subjectivism but a personal encounter with God—an encounter that levels sectarianism. And it carries a moral imperative. Emerson warns his parishioners not to feel false confidence, for "I do not think the man lives that comes up to this celestial mark," though all have "desires and glimpses of this beatitude." As a check to pride, he declares that the source of revelation "is not man, it is God in the soul." He is at pains to stress that genuine self-reliance is finally God-reliance—cause not for arrogance but for humility. Like all great moralists, he was convinced that we are free, but free only to do right.
Still, the radical nature of this "inward revelation" Emerson celebrates, the seed of his Transcendentalism, is epitomized in a subtle prepositional shift—Emerson's deliberate revision of the Gospel definition of "Emmanuel" ("God with us" in Matthew 1:23) becomes at the end of Sermon 43 "this literal Emmanuel God within us." The bedrock vision of Emerson's sermons is expressed in what was arguably his favorite Scripture verse—Luke 17:21—"The Kingdom of God is within you." It is an understatement to say that Emerson's early concept of the God Within is no source of self-righteousness—it is the moral ballast of his emerging concept of self-reliance.
Emerson was always deeply moved by the example of the Quakers. But his sense of the public implications of insight and revelation was no more quietist than that of brave Quakers who for two hundred years had stood witness to the truth. Sermon 150, a Fast Day sermon of April 1832, powerfully translates personal vision to the sphere of public affairs and justice. I know few passages in all of Emerson's works that match this for rhetorical power. In a democracy, Emerson declares, the burden is on the individual to maintain righteous government:
And since this is so, if a great outrage is done to equity; if in the administration of the government, the strong oppress the weak; if a sanction is given in high places to licentious manners; and we hold our peace or approve such government by our vote, we have our part in that wrong as truly as if our tongues gave the counsel, our hands signed the instrument, or our feet ran to execute it. Let every man say then to himself—the cause of the Indian, it is mine; the cause of the slave, it is mine; the cause of the union, it is mine; the cause of public honesty, of education, of religion, they are mine; and speak and act thereupon as a freeman and a Christian.
Emerson cautions his audience toward the end that we should not put our faith in direct group action—a forecast of the Transcendentalist distrust of reform movements. "[L]et [us] be also careful, step by step with [our] censure of the public vices," he insists, "to censure and reform [our] own, in the conviction ...that the public wrongs are only private wrongs magnified. This will temper [our] condemnation of the public evils, and at the same time prove their most effectual remedy." This was no genteel fear of change but a reminder of personal moral accountability. This sermon was heady stuff in Boston in 1832. Emerson had allowed the outspoken abolitionist minister Samuel Joseph May (brother of Abigail Alcott) to speak from the Second Church pulpit. The Liberator had been started in Boston only on January 1, 1831, and its publisher, William Lloyd Garrison was a marked man, the target of mob action even in this progressive city. But Emerson was speaking out. We have only recently rediscovered that Emerson was no plaster sage. His Second Church ministry nourished the seeds of his lifelong and intensifying abolitionism—a stance that would lead him to respond to the Compromise of 1850 in terms we associate more with his ardent young friend Henry Thoreau—"And this filthy enactment was made in the 19th century, by people who could read & write. I will not obey it, by God."
One final lesson from Emerson's Second Church years. A lingering image of Emerson persists—even among his admirers—that he was socially cold and aloof in his idealism. Recent biographies should have put this image to rest. Emerson's closest friend during his ministry was George Adams Sampson, a businessman who had sat on that seven-man committee to review Emerson's letter of resignation. Their friendship survived the pastoral rift. In fact, almost two years later, Sampson was on his way to join Emerson on vacation in Bangor, Maine, when on July 23 he suddenly collapsed and died. Emerson would later assist Sampson's widow and children; after he moved to Concord that fall, young Hillman Sampson boarded with him, and Emerson paid his tuition at Bronson Alcott's Temple School. But now, in the summer of 1834, Emerson was numb with grief as he preached a memorial sermon for his friend on August 3, back in Second Church. We never fully appreciate a friend until the friend is lost, he mourned, and he held up his friend as the model churchman and citizen, proof that virtue and the marketplace were not incompatible. The living, he went on, "go back to weary days and nights, to sorrows, defeats and worldliness." George Sampson's "monument," he concluded, "is in good thoughts and kind deeds that are excited in those who love him, and God will not have sent our brother amongst us wholly in vain, if the fragrance of his virtues, shall have persuaded us of the eternal beauty of truth and goodness."
In the audience for the eulogy were Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Peabody was deeply moved. "[W]ords would vainly essay to do justice," she wrote, "to his apotheosis of Sampson. His expression—his tones—his prayers—his readings of Scripture—his sermon which was an elaborate exposition of the character—in a subdued & chastened manner of setting it forth—which cannot be described—will live in my soul forever & ever—And I know that man as well as I could have known him had I been his acquaintance on earth." Looking back on Emerson's life a half century later, in 1884, Peabody told the Concord School of Philosophy that Emerson "was always pre-eminently the preacher to his own generation, and future ones, but as much—if not more—out of the pulpit as in it." Emerson had foreshadowed this development when he wrote in his journal three weeks before he preached his "Lord's Supper" sermon: "I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry." Yes, he resigned his pulpit at Second Church in 1832. And both Peabody's and Emerson's comments are compelling reminders of the ongoing mission of provoking and uplifting that would mark Emerson's entire career. But it is worth remembering also that Emerson never resigned from the ministry. In fact, he continued to serve as a supply preacher as late as 1839—well into his most radically Transcendentalist period. The figures of the Christian and the Minister were transformed in his writings into the Scholar and the Poet. But anyone seeking to know the power of Emerson as a thinker, a writer, or a man can no longer ignore those 3½ years at Second Church in Boston.
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Last updated on Tuesday, April 10, 2012.
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