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

Alternate Activity 1: Ralph Waldo Emerson - The Divinity School Address

Activity time: 30 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Copy Handout 1, Divinity School Address for all participants.
  • Print out Leader Resource 5 to show the group.
  • Read the Description of Activity and reflect on the questions you will pose for the group, so you will be ready to help participants understand the passages.
  • Arrange for volunteers to read parts of the Divinity School Address aloud. If possible, give them the handout in advance.
  • Optional: Download the portrait of Emerson (Leader Resource 5). Prepare the portrait as a digital slide. Test the computer and projector.
  • Optional: Read the full text of the Divinity School Address online.

Description of Activity

Project or pass around the portrait of Emerson. Introduce Emerson's sermon using these or similar words:

The Transcendentalist era is well represented by two of the most important Unitarian sermons ever preached: "The Divinity School Address," delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson to the senior class at the Harvard Divinity School in July, 1838, and "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity," preached by Theodore Parker at the ordination of the Rev. Charles C. Shackford at the Howes Place Church in Boston in May, 1841.

These two sermons, separated by a slim three years, succinctly state the case for a new way of thinking about theology, church, religious life, and Unitarianism. The sermons were to have a direct and lasting effect on the Unitarian faith, far beyond the immediate circumstances, and perhaps exceeding the imaginations of their writers.

Emerson's Address was given to a graduating class of Harvard Divinity School. Approximately 100 people gathered to hear Emerson, who had recently resigned his own ministry, and was known to be bullish on reform. In the words of Conrad Wright, "the burden of the address ... was simple. It was a reminder that the life of religion must be recreated anew in the souls of each successive generation, and a declaration that it is the responsibility of the minister to 'acquaint men at first hand with the Deity.'"

Emerson's Address raised both passionate acclaim from fellow Transcendentalists, and harsh criticism from friends and peers alike. For those who agreed with Emerson, nothing could have been finer than to hear his words delivered from the very heart of the Unitarian world-Harvard's Divinity Hall. But the choice of location drew the ire of many, who felt Emerson had used the invitation to challenge ministers, the church, and the accepted Unitarian theology. The controversy rippled out in a continuing series of sermons and publications, and would ultimately affect Unitarianism both doctrinally and institutionally.

Distribute Handout 1, Divinity School Address. Invite volunteers to read the text, pausing after each section, and allowing for discussion and clarification. If the discussion seems to stall, pose open-ended questions such as "What is Emerson saying here? What thoughts arise for you? What questions?"

Notes on Using Primary Source Documents

For modern readers, the radical content of Emerson's writing may not be obvious. The Unitarianism against which Emerson was reacting with such vehemence is unlikely to resemble our own, so we may not understand the depth of his critique. And, in the times in which we live, there is a much broader acceptance of a wide range of thought and belief. In these post-modern times, it is hard to label what is normative and what is radical. Further, the language of the 19th century is not our own, and can present hard going for those unaccustomed to its vocabulary and style. To assist participants, read the original text slowly and pause often to unpack its meaning.

When using primary source material, call participants' attention to a document's original context. Use questions such as:

  • What kind of a document is this taken from? (in this case, a sermon)
  • For whom is it intended? (again, in this case, a mixed audience, but primarily new graduates of Harvard Divinity School)
  • What arguments or points does the author try to make in this particular excerpt?
  • What is the underlying issue, or issues, that motivated the author?
  • What's at stake?
  • What can we tell about the writer from the document?
  • What is the author's source of authority?