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

Leader Resource 1: About Emerson

Part of What We Choose

Ralph Waldo Emerson advocated direct experience of religious sentiment, unmediated by clergy, or by tradition or ritual. In describing himself as a "Transcendentalist," Emerson lifted up his belief that it was possible for people to have a direct, transcendent experience of reality, a personal experience of God (what he called the Over Soul), by turning inward. He believed that the sacred which exists without and all around us also exists within, and that by turning inward and getting in deeper touch with our truest nature, we can experience and be informed by that light inside us.

Emerson had some disdain for the preaching style of his time. His view was that ministers should share from the pulpit an authentic and personal reflection of themselves and their lives, rather than preach from a detached, intellectual perspective. He urged ministers to share their experience "passed through the fire of thought" and deep reflection.

Emerson's decisions and statements help us to understand his locus of moral authority. For example, he relied on personal experience as the source of moral authority when he went against his parishioners' wishes in refusing to offer communion. In advocating for an unmediated, personal experience of religion and writing that the essential nature of the human experience is the cultivation of character, Emerson affirmed that moral authority is located within the self. Emerson's ideas still resonate with many Unitarian Universalists today.