Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 3: Transcendentalism

In the climate of 19th-century Romanticism, a philosophy of religion arose that incorporated the new ideal of personal emotional experience. Transcendentalism was never an organized religion in its own right; many who espoused a Transcendentalist philosophy remained part of the Unitarian church. The Transcendental movement centered itself in the vicinity of Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, with figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller its leading lights.

Where the liberal Christianity of the time took reason, tradition, and biblical scholarship as its foundations, Transcendentalism made personal spiritual experience and individual conscience its guides. Viewing the Unitarianism of the day as cold and dry, the Transcendentalists wanted a religion unmediated by priest or church, one that allowed for a personal connection to the Divine.

As a movement, Transcendentalism originated with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1832 Emerson resigned his position as a Unitarian minister at Second Church of Boston because he declined to serve communion, a ritual he saw as empty of meaning. In 1836, his essay Nature introduced principles that would become recognized as Transcendental philosophy. In that same year, the Transcendental Club was organized. Sometimes called the Aesthetic Club or Hedge's Club (after member Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister), the symposium provided a forum for discussion and generated the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial.

The followers of Transcendentalism felt a deep calling to live lives of personal integrity and to bring about social change. Henry David Thoreau both practiced and wrote about social responsibility. Theodore Parker was well known for his anti-slavery stance while Margaret Fuller championed the rights of women and Bronson Alcott worked for the reform of education. Two utopian communities, Brook Farm and Fruitlands, were founded by Transcendentalists as models for all society.

The Transcendentalist Club met for the last time in 1840, the same year The Dial began publication. Although Transcendentalism never became a lasting institution or a codified body of thought, adherents promulgated their views for several more decades, and, as Mark Harris writes in The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism, "their vision for the world remained ever hopeful."