Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What We Choose: An Adult Program on Ethics for Unitarian Universalists

Activity 4: Emerson's Locus of Moral Authority

Part of What We Choose

Activity time: 30 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Familiarize yourself with the story so you will be comfortable presenting it.
  • Print Leader Resource 1 and prepare to present its contents to the group.
  • Invite two participants to prepare to read aloud the two paragraphs in Leader Resource 2. Give them Leader Resource 2 well in advance.
  • Write on newsprint, and post:
    • What are strengths of Emerson's argument that ultimate moral authority rests with each individual's conscience?
    • What are drawbacks or weaknesses in locating moral authority primarily with the individual conscience?
    • Do you agree or disagree with Emerson? Where do you think moral authority lies?

Description of Activity

Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

In the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson radically shaped the American liberal religious landscape. Many were convinced by his writings, which stated that spiritual and moral authority ought to rest not with clergy and scripture but rather in the conscience of the individual.

Share the story, "Emerson's Moral Dilemma." Then, invite participants to pose questions or offer insights about Emerson's dilemma.

Share the material in Leader Resource 1. Say:

Several years after leaving Second Church, Emerson was invited to preach before the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School. He used the occasion to challenge his former ministerial colleagues and to explain his own religious and moral philosophy.

Have pre-assigned readers present the two sections of the Divinity School Address given by Ralph Waldo Emerson on July 15, 1838. Pause after each section and invite questions, comments, and observations.

Note that there are at least three possible sources of moral authority-the individual, the community, and God. Ask: "Where does Emerson place the locus of ethical authority?" Lead a discussion using the posted questions.