Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Resistance and Transformation: An Adult Program on Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History

Handout 2: Henry David Thoreau

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. — Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"

In July of 1846, Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusal to pay his taxes. Although he spent only one night in prison, this experience was the motivation for Thoreau to write one of his most influential works, "Civil Disobedience."

I do not hesitate to say that those who call themselves abolitionists should at once effectively withdraw their support, both in person and in property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for the other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood.

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau outlined a rationale for resistance to a corrupt state, a rationale that profoundly influenced figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, as well as many others who sought a non-violent response to governmental oppression.

Sir, I do not wish to be considered a member of First Parish in this town.

Though raised Unitarian, Thoreau renounced formal membership in the institutional church as an adult. Thoreau was perhaps the most individualistic of an iconoclastic group who called themselves Transcendentalists, a group which included Unitarians such as Emerson, Fuller, and the Alcotts. He was unconcerned with the niceties of social existence, choosing instead to focus on discerning the higher moral law that was, in his estimation, often obscured by society's pressures. As Emerson said in his eulogy for Thoreau, "It seemed as if his first instinct on hearing a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he of the limitations of our daily thought." This urge to push beyond the boundaries of conventional thought and habit was what drove Thoreau to his "experiment" chronicled in Walden, a two-year effort to live a closely-examined life in the woods outside of Concord, Massachusetts. His deep ecological sensibility was also unique for his time, and Walden is arguably one of the most influential works for the modern environmental movement. In his own day, Thoreau was not hailed as a revolutionary social prophet. He was often considered simply an eccentric individual who followed his own conscience in all things, religious and otherwise.