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.