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

Leader Resource 4: The Transcendentalists

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also.

These are the opening words of Nature written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836, words that encapsulated and defined the American Transcendental movement. Transcendentalism was born of many influences. It was born in an age of Romanticism in the arts and philosophy, in reaction against a dry and rational Age of Reason. It was born of new methods of biblical criticism that called into question earlier assumptions about the literal truth of Christian scripture. It was born of a Kantian philosophy that said that human knowledge derived from more than purely sense-based data. It was born of a social idealism that gave rise to utopian communities and "the progress of Man onward and upward forever."

Because the Transcendentalists were highly individualistic, it can be hard to pin down exactly what Transcendental thought was. It was not a codified set of beliefs so much as a spiritual approach to life. Transcendentalism called for personal, direct experience of the divine, unmediated by church or priest. Its proponents believed that the soul is directed toward personal growth (or self-culture), freedom, and truth.

Although it had its roots in Europe, Transcendentalism was largely an American phenomenon, centered in New England, and, even more specifically, in Concord, Massachusetts. Due to the anti-institutional nature of the philosophy, Transcendentalists never formed a church, though a number of its adherents served as Unitarian ministers. The Transcendental Club (1836-1840), also known as Hedge's Club, was a group that met to engage in philosophical conversation. The Club was the idea of Frederic Henry Hedge, who served the Unitarian church of Bangor, Maine. Members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, and George Ripley and the group remarkably admitted women to the circle, including Margaret Fuller, Sarah Ripley, and Elizabeth Peabody (although Fuller and Peabody also convened conversation circles for women). Among the best known publications of the group were The Dial and The Western Messenger.

While much of the movement's thought has lived on in the works of writers such as Melville, Dickenson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne as well as in the social philosophies of Bronson Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson, the group's impact on the social issues of their own day should not be forgotten. Individually, members of the circle were involved in working for abolition, suffrage, temperance, economic justice, education, and peace.

In the body of work they left behind, it is easy for us to look back and see the accomplishments of this relatively small group (the Transcendental Club never numbered above 30 members), but harder to feel the impact they had on society. Their ideas, though often based in the thought of those who came before them, were seen as entirely radical. Emerson and Parker, both initially ministers in the Unitarian church, created an uproar almost impossible to imagine. Emerson left the church by his own choice, reportedly because he was unable in good conscience to serve the Lord's Supper, which he found meaningless. Parker, however, was all but thrown out.

A charismatic leader, Theodore Parker led the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society, which, with over 7,000 members, was the largest church in Boston. Parker's colleagues, on the other hand, found his theology, his criticism of Unitarian leadership and his social policies to be reprehensible. Almost all ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him, a common practice of the time. When James Freeman Clarke did exchange pulpits with Parker, sixteen families broke off from his church to start a rival congregation. The Thursday Lecture, which had been a feature of the Boston Ministers Association for over two centuries, was discontinued lest Parker get a chance to speak. Finally, Parker was asked to resign from the Association, but declined, citing the foundational values of Unitarianism as the right of conscience and freedom of belief. This move led 20th century historian Conrad Wright to call Parker a "persistent irritant within the Unitarian community."

Today, the theology and philosophy of the Transcendentalists seems quite tame, although in its own era it was highly radical. Transcendental thought has over time had an extraordinary impact on Unitarianism and on society. It gave rise to a uniquely American body of literature and to a reverence for nature as divine creation. It also challenged the very foundations of nineteenth century Unitarianism.

The following two quotes, one from Emerson and one from Thoreau, evoke what we call in contemporary Unitarian Universalism " direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder." Listen for the ways in which each experiences the Divine.

From the Divinity School Address, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1838:

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had not one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine.

From "Walking" by Henry David Thoreau, 1862:

We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold grey day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest brightest morning sun-light fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.