By Ruth Nourse
Published June 1, 1989
In this continuing series, we have examined how the Christian influence in American letters was subtly edited from the modern educational curriculum. This month, we will highlight the life and work of Ralph Waldo Emerson – who is celebrated today as a central figure in our literary history.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has emerged in our time as a prominent figure on the 19th century horizon. In high school and college textbooks today he is presented as the virtual patron saint of American literature. It is interesting to note that he has not always been viewed in this favorable light. In fact, Mr. Emerson was treated as an oddity in his day, and his popularity paled in the light of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – the Christian poet who had captured the American audience with his themes of love, family, and moral courage.
Emerson’s fame has waxed in recent years while Longfellow’s has waned. We must ask: Is the path which he marked out for America a more propitious one than Longfellow’s?
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. He was the third son of the pastor of “old brick,” Boston’s First Church. His father, William Emerson was actively involved in the life of the Boston community and later became chaplain of the Massachusetts state senate. Ralph’s father died when he was only eight years old, and his already unhappy home life became more painful. Emerson complained all his life about being unable to feel close to people – and his journals were filled with self-criticism, introspection, and conjecture about the looks and actions of those around him.
At age 14 he entered Harvard College and graduated in 1821 as class poet. In the years that followed, young Emerson began a period of questioning about the established tenets of Christianity. He wrote in his journal: “Who is he that shall control me? Why may not I act and speak and write and think with entire freedom? What am I to the Universe, or, the Universe, what is it to me? Who hath forged the chains of wrong and right, of opinion and custom? And must I wear them?“1
During this questioning period he returned to Harvard to study for the ministry. Through reading Samson Reed’s Growth of the Mind, a new doorway opened to Emerson. He would no longer be shackled to the narrow view of the Church or Scripture: he now believed that one may receive truth directly from Nature through human intuition. He began to consider all the common arguments against Christianity, and with these in hand, the young divinity student began to point out all the “erroneous passages” of Scripture to parishioners.
Unaware of Emerson’s struggle, the pulpit committee asked him to fill the pulpit at the First Church while the pastor was away. At this same time his numerous health problems became worse. His new wife, Ellen, died only months after their marriage. By 1832 he had clearly made a spiritual turning point: he announced to church leaders that he was unwilling to serve the bread and wine of communion because he felt it unreasonable to believe Jesus meant all generations of his followers were to observe the ordinance. This step could be called symbolic of Emerson’s entire rejection of the authority of scripture and the church.
Injecting the Spirit of Anti-Christ into New England
The decision became a watershed in his relationship with Christian truth. Up to this point he seemed to acknowledge the ameliorative influence of the Christian church in the world. As he descended from this point, he testified most often to the emptiness of Christian forms. He began to look to other sources for light and reality.
The leadership at Boston’s First Church was unable to accept a pastor who would not serve communion and regretfully called for his resignation. Emerson made it clear that the resignation applied only to his position with the church, not the Christian ministry. He would continue to be a minister, but would insist upon his own definition of what that entailed. Freedom would be the essence of his faith and “its object simply to make men good and wise.“2
Ill health required Emerson to travel abroad, and while in Europe he consulted with philosophers and writers such as Samuel Coleridge. It was in Europe that Emerson discovered the message that would become his hallmark. Afterwards he wrote: “You can never come to any peace or power until you put your whole reliance in the moral constitution of man and not at all in historical Christianity.“3 The faith he would preach from now on had a simple tenet: “A man who lives in deepest harmony with the impulses of his own moral being is, as a consequence, truly good.“4
This then – in Emerson’s mind – was the gospel destined to set America free from empty traditions and Puritanical chains. He established himself as a lecturer around Concord and Boston and was welcomed to pulpits by minister friends everywhere. He would eventually travel the continent spreading his message of reform.
Emerson had gathered around himself a group of like-minded thinkers who came to be known as the Transcendentalists. He published his first book, Nature, anonymously in 1836, and it came to be called the Transcendentalist New Testament. Christianity was called their Old Testament. From it, they developed the notion that spiritual knowledge could be directly received by reason through human intuition.
On this premise, Emerson – now known as “the Concord philosopher” – proposed to build a superior system of thought. One member of the circle called Transcendentalism “a Pentecost of the new gospel,” described Emerson as “that new-born bard of the Holy Ghost.“5 It was most definitely a strange gospel. Swedenborgianism, socialism, Oriental religions, German idealism, Hindu sacred writings, phrenology, French eclecticism, even Maya, became the grist from which the Transcendentalists could grind their “Newness” in all shades. Although Emerson clung to shreds of Christian teaching that forbade dabbling in the occult, there were seers and seeresses who held seances where moving tables and knockings in the darkness sent shivers down transcendental spines.
A “National Joke” Is Now Considered American’s Greatest Philosopher
Ralph Waldo Emerson was taken seriously by relatively few in his own time. His fame has grown until his enigmatic doctrines are now quoted like scripture in textbooks that make him a dominant historical figure. He was never more famous than today. Van Wyck Brooks, writing in 1936, gave this estimate of the attitudes of Emerson’s contemporaries: “Emerson was travelling, on his lecture-tours, further and further westward. He was still an impossible puzzle in the popular mind, even a national joke, a byword of the country paragraphers.“6
Modern textbooks take pains to define and describe the transcendentalist movement as the movement which emancipated the New England mind “from the shackles of a narrow orthodoxy.” Emerson’s part in the movement, along with lucid exposition of his sometimes obscure doctrines, is presented favorably in contrast to “the otherworldly philosophy of the Puritans.”
Obviously we have here a continuation of the war on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the Christian worldview which he represented. Slowly over time, educators and philosophers have removed Longfellow from his place of prominence in American literature, and replaced him with a man who showed forthright contempt for Christianity and who espoused the “new religion” of humanism which has now become the guiding force behind public education in this country.
Next month we will examine Ralph Waldo Emerson’s greatest triumph – the capitulation of Harvard University to the philosophies of the New Age.
1 Joel Porte, ed., Emerson in His Journals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 38.
2 John McAleer, Days of Encounter (Boston: Litle Brown and Co., 1984), p. 124.
3 Porte, p. 182.
4 McAleer, p. 150.
5 Ibid, pp. 301-302.
6 Van Wyck Brooks, The flowering of New England (New York: Random House, 1936), p. 535.
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“Give me liberty or give me death!”
Patrick Henry’s famous declaration not only helped launch the War for Independence, it also perfectly summarized the mindset that gave birth to, and sustained, the unprecedented experiment in Christian liberty that was America.
The freedom our Founders envisioned was not freedom from suffering, want, or hard work. Nor was it freedom to indulge every appetite or whim without restraint—that would merely be servitude to a different master. No, the Founders’ passion was to live free before God, unfettered by the chains of autocracy, shackles that slowly but inexorably bind men when the governments they fashion fail to recognize and uphold freedom’s singular, foundational truth: that all men are created in the image of God, and are thereby co-equally endowed with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This presentation is a similar call, not to one but many. By reintroducing the principles of freedom that gave birth to America, it is our prayer that Jesus, the true and only ruler over the nations, will once again be our acknowledged Sovereign, that we may again know and exult in the great truth that “where the Spirit of the LORD is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17).
Welcome to the Second American Revolution!
This DVD features “Liberty: The Model of Christian Liberty” along with “Dawn’s Early Light: A Brief History of America’s Christian Foundations.” Bonus features include a humorous but instructive collection of campaign ads and Eric Holmberg’s controversial YouTube challenge concerning Mitt Romney’s campaign for president.
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With “preaching to the lost” being such a basic foundation of Christianity, why do many in the church seem to be apathetic on this issue of preaching in highways and byways of towns and cities?
Is it biblical to stand in the public places of the world and proclaim the gospel, regardless if people want to hear it or not?
Does the Bible really call church pastors, leaders and evangelists to proclaim the gospel in the public square as part of obedience to the Great Commission, or is public preaching something that is outdated and not applicable for our day and age?
These any many other questions are answered in this documentary.
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“When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.” – President Ronald Reagan to National Religious Broadcasters Convention, January 1981
Ronald Reagan became convinced of this as a result of watching The Silent Scream – a movie he considered so powerful and convicting that he screened it at the White House. More recently, it was by catching just a glimpse of what this film reveals that Planned Parenthood director and abortion advocate Abby Johnson turned and became a strong advocate for the pre-born.
The modern technology of real-time ultrasound now reveals the actual responses of a 12-week old fetus to being aborted. As the unborn child attempts to escape the abortionist’s suction curette, her motions can be seen to become desperately agitated and her heart rate doubles. Her mouth opens – as if to scream – but no sound can come out. Her scream doesn’t have to remain silent, however … not if you will become her voice. This newly re-mastered version features eight language tracks and two bonus videos.
“…a high technology “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” arousing public opinion just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel ignited the abolitionist movement.” – Sen. Gordon Humphrey, Time Magazine
Languages: English, Spanish, French, South Korean, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese
Running Time: 28 minutes
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Foundations in Biblical Eschatology
By Jay Rogers, Larry Waugh, Rodney Stortz, Joseph Meiring. High quality paperback, 167 pages.
All Christians believe that their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will one day return. Although we cannot know the exact time of His return, what exactly did Jesus mean when he spoke of the signs of His coming (Mat. 24)? How are we to interpret the prophecies in Isaiah regarding the time when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:19)? Should we expect a time of great tribulation and apostasy or revival and reformation before the Lord returns? Is the devil bound now, and are the saints reigning with Christ? Did you know that there are four hermeneutical approaches to the book of Daniel and Revelation?
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Is there a connection between pagan religion and the abortion industry?
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Conceived as a sequel and update to the 1988 classic, The Massacre of Innocence, the new title, The Abortion Matrix, is entirely fitting. It not only references abortion’s specific target – the sacred matrix where human beings are formed in the womb in the very image of God, but it also implies the existence of a conspiracy, a matrix of seemingly disparate forces that are driving this holocaust.
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As the allusion to the film of over a decade ago suggests, the viewer may learn that things are not always as they appear to be. The Abortion Matrix reveals the reality of child-killing and strikes the proper moral chord to move hearts to fulfill the biblical responsibility to rescue those unjustly sentenced to death and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 24:11,12; 31:8,9).
Speakers include: George Grant, Peter Hammond, RC Sproul Jr., Paul Jehle, Lou Engle, Rusty Thomas, Flip Benham, Janet Porter and many more.
Ten parts, over three hours of instruction!
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