An Address by John Haynes Holmes, D.D. Minister of the Community Church, New York, N. Y.
Delivered as the Ware Lecture on may 25, 1938, in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of this memorable address. The Ware Lectures were established in honor of the distinguished services of three generations of the Ware family to the cause of pure Christianity.
No. 349 Published for Free Distribution, Publications Department, American Unitarian Association, 25 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts
It had been a beautiful summer that year of 1838. The spring had come early, and given a strong start to all the verdure of New England, so rich when the sun is warm and the rains are plentiful. The sun this season had been warm, even on occasion to torrid heat; but the blazing days had been interspersed with rains which had kept the fields fresh and verdant. The wide meadowlands up beyond Cambridge and into Lexington and Concord had never seemed so green, nor so “spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.” The air had been full of birds since April, and now was sweet with the breath of the new hay, mingled with the balm of the ancient pines. The nights were cool, like a bath in the river after the heat of the day, and the stars were preparing their full glory for the skies of August. This was July, the very heart of the waxing summer, and “the mystery of nature was never displayed more happily.”
At the Divinity School in Cambridge the prospect was lovely beyond compare. The Hall, where the students lived, was in the open fields, some distance from the college, which was hidden away behind the great elms which lined the streets and crowded the yard. On the knoll beyond, lost in a clump of trees, was the dignified home of Professor Andrews Norton, now retired. It was as quiet here as in the farming districts out in the country, and students, like Theodore Parker a few years before, who had come from the farms, must have felt at home. Some of them, not yet taught to find God in nature as well as in the parchment scriptures of an ancient time, were probably oblivious of the beauties of the outer scene, even in midsummer—like St. Bernard who had traveled all day along the shores of Geneva, and when asked about the lake, looked up and inquired, “What lake?” But in this month of July, 1838, it is a fair guess that all the students were oblivious, at least indifferent, for they were thinking of other things. On the 15th the seniors were to graduate, and they had asked Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Concord, to give the address of the occasion. This promised excitement. Emerson, young as he was, had a reputation, and his utterance might be as notable, and upsetting, as his Phi Beta Kappa oration at the college the year before. What wonder that the students, especially the graduates, did not ponder much upon the sky outside Divinity Hall, but rather upon the chapel inside where Emerson was to speak!
It was interesting that Emerson should have been asked by the members of the senior class to come back to the school, from which he had graduated nine years before, to give them instruction and inspiration as they prepared to enter the service of the Church. This was not the first time that he had returned, for at least on one occasion he had come at the boys’ suggestion to talk with them informally about their problems. But this was an official invitation, and Emerson was no longer in official life. For he had resigned his pulpit in the Second Church in Boston in 1832, and in due course had left the ministry. The circumstances of his action were amazing, and forecast, as was later discovered, the whole Transcendental controversy in which Emerson was so prominent. They centered, as it happened, on the problem of the communion service, though they might as well have centered, as James Elliot Cabot points out in his biography of Emerson, on the matter of “voluntary prayer as a regular part of congregational worship.” The young preacher had difficulty in conforming to the usages of public prayer. “The truth is,” he wrote in his Journal, while still at the Divinity School, “public prayer is rather the offspring of our notions of what ought to be than of what is.” He thought that he should not offer prayer unless he felt like it—i.e., was moved by genuine inspiration on behalf of the needs of himself and of his people. He conformed to the practice as best he could, though he states that “he sometimes found himself led to say what he did not mean,” and on occasion, to the surprise of the congregation, dropped the prayer from the service altogether. But there was “less of rigid form” in the Unitarian attitude toward prayer, as Mr. Cabot makes clear, and the vagaries of the minister in this matter caused no trouble. It was different, however, with the communion service. This Emerson found himself unable to regard as a sacrament established by Christ, and in his name by the Church. He was ready to conduct the service, provided the use of the elements was dropped, and the rite made one merely of commemoration. But this adjustment was unsatisfactory to the people, who felt that they had no right to tinker with the solemn ceremonial of the ages. So, with perfect good temper and deep regret on both sides, Emerson preached his famous sermon on the communion and resigned his charge. “The difference of views,” writes Cabot in his biography, “was only the symptom of a deeper difference, which would in any case sooner or later have made it impossible for him to retain his office; a disagreement not so much about particular doctrines or observances as about their sanction, the authority on which all doctrines and observances rest.”
This was the man, an ex-pastor after only three years, who was invited on this July day of 1838 to bid Godspeed to the graduates of the Divinity School on their entrance into the profession. There had been loud whispers, when Emerson left the Second Church and went to Europe, and then retired to Concord, that he was mentally deranged. A milder judgment was that of certain of his brother ministers that he had gone “Quakerish.” Emerson had not helped matters any by publishing in 1836 his little book on “Nature,” of which but five hundred copies were sold in twelve years, and few people, even trained critics and philosophers, could make any sense. In the next year his Phi Beta Kappa oration in August and his lectures on “Human Culture” in December had stirred enthusiastic approval in literary and social circles, but profound dissent in the religious world. It is at this time that Emerson, now fully aware of his heresies, seems to have reconciled himself definitely and finally to the abandonment of whatever expectation he may have had of continued contact with the Church. Yet here he was, only a year later, summoned to the seat of the oracle in the Delphic temple of Unitarian orthodoxy! What wonder that eager minds, like Theodore Parker, who trudged the country roads from West Roxbury on that July afternoon, to sit at the feet of the Concord prophet, were certain that it was to be a day of earthquake, wind, and fire, and that God would be in them all!
The audience that gathered on the evening of the 15th crowded the little chapel of the Divinity School to the doors. In the front rows were the seniors, and other members of the student body. The faculty were present, some professors from the college, and many graduates of the school and other ministers. Theodore Parker was not the only one to travel a considerable distance to be on hand. Excitement was in the air—some sprung from dark foreboding and alarm, much from confident anticipation of prophetic utterance. Lowell’s description of the Phi Beta Kappa oration the year before—”an event without any former parallel in our literary annals, a scene always to be treasured in the memory for its picturesqueness and its inspiration. What crowded and breathless aisles, what windows clustering with eager heads, what enthusiasm of approval, what grim silence of foregone dissent”—all this could be applied to this event as well, with the single substitution of the word “religious” for “literary.” Yet if anything could have allayed the excitement in the beginning, and thus stilled the waves of controversy, it was that serene countenance in the pulpit speaking, in that deep and resonant baritone voice, destined to become so familiar on the American platform, those opening sentences about this “refulgent summer” when it “has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” which constitute today, a hundred years later, one of the classic pages of our American literature. There can be no doubt of the effect of this passage as it drifted, like quiet yet happy organ-tones, through the little room to eagerly expectant ears. It did just what Emerson intended it should do—unite the audience in a common sentiment and outlook. This effect was continued when the speaker turned from the outward to the inward world, and called attention to the “mind” which “reveals the laws which traverse the universe and make things what they are,” and therewith “shrinks the great world at once to a mere illustration and fable” of itself. This was an affirmation of “the greatness of the soul, its divinity, its union with God,” and thus quite in the Channing tradition. But then came the unforgettable sentences about “the sentiment of virtue,” and the “intuition” of this sentiment as “an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul.” That word “intuition” was dangerous, as it suggested contrast, or even conflict, with the traditional doctrine of revelation. The idea of “laws of the soul” was also dangerous, at least as Emerson used it, for he declared that they “execute themselves,” and thus are “out of time, out of space,” and in the heart of man, so that “if a man is at heart just, then in so far he is God.” This seemed to banish the transcendent deity, and make way for immanence, which the true leaders of the faith had come long since to fear as pantheism. Indeed, what was it but pantheism, this statement now being spoken from the Divinity School pulpit, that “the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind, and that one mind everywhere active”? This seemed to deny the whole concept of God as creator, and the world as “the product of his creation,” just as this pernicious idea of “intuition,” to which the speaker now returned, discredited the Bible as the word of God. Truth, Emerson was saying, “cannot be received at second hand.” I must find truth within myself, not from any external sources, however august and sacred, else is it of no avail.
By now the meeting was disturbed, the early unity of the audience broken. The older men were beginning to fear the worst, as the younger men to anticipate the best. What was thus far, however, only a rift, became suddenly a yawning chasm. “Jesus Christ,” said the speaker, “belonged to the true race of the prophets. . . . Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. . . . But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer. . . . Christianity became a mythus. . . . He spoke of miracles.” But man’s life is the miracle, and “all that man doth.” We mistake this word, Miracle. “As pronounced by Christian churches, (it) gives a false impression, it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” Emerson was here touching a sensitive point. The question of miracles was in controversy. Channing believed in miracles—they were still in the tradition of a liberalism which had broken away twenty years before on the issue of the Trinity, the fall of man, and the atonement. But the younger generation were raising doubts—heresy was in the air. If the miracles were not miracles, not supernatural achievements but natural phenomena, what became of the person of Jesus and its divinity?
Emerson left his audience in the chapel in no doubt. In the full tide, now, of his prophetic utterance, he swept on to his sensational proclamation of the two defects of historical Christianity—to the one body of which, let it be remembered, the Unitarianism of that day, as of a later day also, insisted that it belonged. The first defect was its “exaggeration of the personal. . . . It has dwelt with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” But “the soul knows no persons.” Every man may “expand to the full circle of the universe,” and, like Jesus, become one with God. The Nazarene was not unique. There is no reason why we should subordinate our natures to his. Jesus may provoke us, stir us, inspire us, but only to the realization within ourselves of his spirit. Then Emerson named the miracles again, and now made a direct assault by saying that “to aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul.” So the miracles were not only unnecessary—they were in the way. They interfered with the fulfillment of true religion, which is not a “sanctity” wrought by some divine Savior, but “a sweet, natural goodness, a goodness like thine and mine, and that so invites thine and mine to be and to grow.”
The second defect of historic Christianity, according to Emerson, as he now stated it, is that it fails to use the present reality of God as “the fountain of the established teaching in society.” Men speak of “revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.” This “throttles the preacher,” who tells an old story, instead of revealing a fresh witness to himself. “The soul is not preached,” cried Emerson. Only the dull, dead routine of an ancient time and a forgotten ritual! But religion should be as fresh today as it was in Palestine, and should be proclaimed as a first-hand experience, not a second-hand report. But how many ministers today remember that they are infinite souls, and that it is their business to make men sensible that they also are infinite souls? It was at this point that Emerson offered his famous definition of preaching—”Preaching is the expression of the moral sentiment in application to the duties of life”—and, in illustration of his definition, gave the immortal picture of the preacher whom he had once heard, who had sorely tempted him to go to church no more. “A snowstorm was falling around us,” said Emerson, in this famous passage. “The snowstorm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.” This man had lived in vain. He had not a word that was real. As Emerson described this episode, more than one of his hearers must have speculated as to who this preacher was. Where had Emerson gone to church the previous winter? But the preacher was typical rather than unique. The performances of the Church “are like the zodiac of Denderah, . . . . . wholly insulated from anything now extant in the life and business of the people. They mark the height to which the waters once rose.”
It is these two defects, said Emerson, coming now to his climax and conclusion, which explain “a decaying Church and a wasting unbelief.” What can be done in the face of such calamity? “The remedy,” replied Emerson, “is already declared in the ground of our complaint. We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought.” In the sounding of this music, what a trumpet Emerson now put to his lips! What coals of living fire he lifted from the altars of his spirit, and laid upon the lips of the young men before him! “Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution,” “Yourself a new-born bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity,” “Live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind,” “O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn,” “I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those Eastern men . . . . and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. . . . I look for the new Teacher that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul.”
There must have been a catching of the breath at the close of “Emerson’s exquisite chant” (to quote O. B. Frothingham’s phrase). Perhaps there was a long silence. We do not know. But we do know that when the audience dispersed, it was to divide into two groups which perhaps in the after-hour of that very evening began the controversy which raged for years. One group was composed predominantly of the older alumni of the school who within the next year formed an association to combat the heresies of the time, and more especially, says Chadwick, “to furnish counterblasts to such utterances as the graduating classes might invite.” The older professors, of the college as well as of the school, sympathized with this group, more particularly the redoubtable Andrews Norton, who retired that night to his library to grumble over what he had heard, and to brood through the succeeding winter in darker gloom and outrage, until at last, on the invitation of the alumni organization, he delivered his famous lecture on “The Latest Form of Infidelity,” which was his way of characterizing Emerson’s address. “The latest form of infidelity,” he said, “is distinguished by assuming the Christian name, while it strikes directly at the root of faith in Christianity, and indirectly of all religion, by denying the miracles attesting the divine mission of Christ. . . .” “Nothing is left,” he continued, “that can be called Christianity if its miraculous character be denied. Its essence is gone; its evidence is annihilated. . . . There can be no intuition, no direct perception of the truth of Christianity, no metaphysical certainty. . . . No proof of Christ’s divine commission could be afforded but through miraculous displays of God’s power.”
The second group which left the chapel was composed of younger men—the students of the school and recent graduates. Among these was Joseph H. Allen, nephew of Henry Ware, Jr., later distinguished as a church historian, who recorded that he “had listened with a vague but exhilarating delight” to Emerson’s words. Theodore Parker’s soul was mightily stirred within him, nor was there any vagueness in his delight over what he had heard. He walked back to Roxbury that night. It must have been late when he reached home, but he was too excited to go at once to bed. He had to turn to his Journal and pour out the thoughts which surged and beat upon his brain like waves upon the shore. “He surpassed himself,” wrote the ardent young minister, himself only two years out of the Divinity School. “He surpassed himself as much as he surpasses others in the general way. . . . So beautiful, so just, so true, and terribly sublime was his picture of the faults of the Church in its present position. My soul is roused, and this week I shall write the long-meditated sermons on the state of the Church and the duties of these times.” Thus, under the influence of the seer of Transcendentalism, did the soldier of the new faith gird up his loins for the battle of the spirit.
Of one episode of that memorable 15th of July in the Divinity Chapel we have a detailed account. After the address, probably in the chapel while the audience was dispersing, Dr. Henry Ware, Jr., had a little talk with Emerson, in which he said that he would probably assent to his unqualified statements, if he could take his own qualifications with them. The next day, troubled lest he be misunderstood, Dr. Ware wrote a letter to in which he explained that his endorsement, even in its qualified form, applied “only to a portion and not to all” the address. With regard to some of the statements, he said, “they appear to me more than doubtful, their prevalence would tend to overthrow the authority and influence of Christianity. On this account, I look with anxiety and no little sorrow to the course which your mind has been taking.” To this letter Emerson replied under date of July 28, thanking Dr. Ware for his “truth and charity,” but reiterating his opinions. “As my conviction is perfect, in the substantial truth of the doctrine of this discourse,” he wrote, “you will see . . . . that it must appear to me very important that it be spoken; and I thought I would not pay the nobleness of my friends so mean a compliment as to suppress my opposition to their supposed views out of fear of offense.” What troubled Dr. Ware was Emerson’s attack on the supernatural elements of Christianity, more particularly what he regarded as his depersonalizaton of God. In a sermon preached in the Divinity Chapel in the early part of the term following the delivery of Emerson’s discourse, Dr. Ware spoke on “The Personality of the Deity,” and joined sharp issue with his younger colleague. He was convinced that men were “suffering from want of sufficiently realizing the fact of the Divine Person,” and it was this very fact which Emerson had either ignored or denied.
This comment brought interesting rejoinder from William Ellery Channing. The great man did not take part in the public controversy which raged between the old and the new Unitarianism. He did not even record in any private letters or papers his reaction upon the Divinity School address. In all probability we would not know what he was thinking, had it not been for the merciless Miss Elizabeth Peabody who, in these last years of Channing’s life, plied him so assiduously with questions, and preserved so carefully his slightest statement. Thus we find in Miss Peabody’s memoranda the report that she had asked him about Emerson’s utterance, and that Channing had replied that he “found himself in essential agreement with the address, but deprecated its indifference to miracles and other facts of the New Testament narration.” He went on to say that he thought Henry Ware was fighting a shadow when contending against Emerson’s denial of the personality of God. He found personality in the address! Then came a statement characteristic of Channing, who cherished a certain sense of propriety and caution along with his superb courage—who was alienated all his life from the Abolitionists because their fierce and inconsiderate utterances, in all times and places, offended even his forthright antislavery sentiments. He thought, wrote Miss Peabody in her notes, that, considering on what basis the Divinity School was founded, Mr. Emerson would have been more courteous if he had given the address elsewhere!
Whether courteous or not, the Divinity School Address became the sensation of the hour, and remains to this day the most important religious utterance in the history of the American people. Designed as a study of preaching for preachers, it was too profound in spiritual insight, too vast in ways of thought and vision, to be held within the confines of homiletics, and thus now ranks with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, Webster’s Reply to Hayne, Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses, Woodrow Wilson’s “Peace Without Victory” Speech, as among the great documents of our nation’s life—an important chapter of the literature which this country has contributed to mankind. Its beauty alone would guarantee its immortality. There are sentences, indeed whole passages, as noble as Plato, as familiar as Shakespeare, which have long since become a permanent part of the language of our race. But more important than the style is the content. The Divinity School Address completed spiritually and intellectually what the Declaration of Independence had begun politically. It liberated a people inwardly as they had already been liberated outwardly. For Unitarians in particular, for Christians in general, for Americans as a whole, it marked the end of a period of gestation, and thus the birth of a new consciousness of thought and life.
The contention immediately precipitated in the Unitarian world is all the proof we need of the momentous significance for Unitarians of what Emerson had said. It must be remembered that the Unitarians of a hundred years ago had never really extricated themselves from the trammels of New England orthodoxy. The authority of the reason, which they had learned to trust as an “ultimate reliance” beyond that of the Bible or the creeds, had dictated a rejection of the doctrine of the trinity on grounds of irrationality. An ethical sensibility more potent than theological dogma had led to the repudiation of such fundamentally immoral ideas as the fall of man, the sinfulness of human nature, and eternal punishment in hell. The sensuous philosophy of John Locke, which discarded the doctrine of innate ideas and its kindred beliefs, had laid the foundation of a new interpretation of man in terms of his original innocence instead of his original sin. Unitarians as a group belonged to the school of Locke, and out of his teachings, as touched by their own spiritual sentiments, wrought their great ideas of the dignity of human nature and the divinity of the soul. But this was a process of rationalization rather than of insight, least of all of inspiration. Jonathan Edwards in his mystical writings was nearer the heart of spiritual reality, in spite of his bad theology, than the freest of the later Unitarian leaders whose knowledge and cool reason tempered but did not break with the essentials of the Christian argument. The idea of revelation, in other words, however much corrected and moralized by reason, still remained for Unitarians the basis of faith.
Channing is, of course, the supreme illustration of what I mean. His was a free mind—no doubt about that! His powerful intellect and exalted sensibility forced a break with an orthodoxy which had no place for such profound ideas as the divinity of man, the goodness of God, man’s kinship with Christ, the inspiration of the moral ideal. Again and again Channing apprehended and gave expression to intuitions of the reason which carried him far beyond the bounds of his theology. It is this fact which explains his agreement in essence with the Divinity School Address. But Channing never thought his way out of the philosophy in which he was reared. Christianity still remained to him a matter of evidence rather than of direct inner discovery. Thus, to the end he believed if not in the infallibility yet in the unique inspiration of the Bible, at least of the New Testament, in the record of the miracles as attesting the authority of Christ, and in the elevation of Christ above humanity as a being uniquely related to the one God. Already, before his death, there was forming, right in the body of Unitarianism, a new orthodoxy which his free spirit abhorred, but which was none the less implicit in a theological point of view, which, whatever its particular heresies, was yet, in its idea of basic revelation, a part of the substance of established Christian thought.
It was into the very heart of this Unitarian orthodoxy, the Divinity School at Cambridge, that Emerson threw his bomb on that fateful July night. This bomb was fabricated—if I may use such a word in connection with Emerson!—out of different material and by a different formula from any known to, or at least used by, the Unitarian divines. These gentlemen, says 0. B. Frothingham, in his “Transcendentalism in New England,” were “good scholars, careful reasoners, clear and exact thinkers, accomplished men of letters, humane in sentiment, sincere in moral intention,” but (with certain individual exceptions) they “belonged to the class which looked without for knowledge rather than within for inspiration.” Emerson had little commerce with these men. He broke absolutely with the tradition, so typical of the Anglo-Saxon mind, which ignored the existence of spiritual intuitions in the nature of man in favor of ideas sprung from information imparted by the senses, and fashioned by reason into thought. He had been tethered in this rationalistic pasture, but had early broken loose and wandered afield. What he sought, and found, were those high tablelands of the spirit, where the air is thin, and the sunshine of eternal being as caught by the white snows of inner sensibility often too dazzling for the sight, but whence the eye may again and again catch visions of far horizons and over-arching firmaments. Emerson moved naturally, in other words, in the realm not of the rationalistic but of the mystical experience of the race. He turned within rather than without for evidence, and counted the soul the witness of reality.
Emerson’s reading shows the native instinct of his spirit—the lore of the Hindus, the poetry of the Persians, the so-called sacred books of oriental religions, the mythologies of Greece and Rome, the curious geographical and astronomical works of the ancients, the philosophies of Plato and the neo-Platonists, the speculations of Plotinus and the Christian mystics, the writings of Kant and Schelling, the new idealistic literature of Germany glorified by such names as Herder, Richter, Schleiermacher, Schiller, Goethe, and the derivative literature of the English school as represented by Coleridge and Carlyle. Emerson was disturbed by no irrationality. The testimony of the inner spirit, though it be as remote as Meister Eckhart or as unstable as Swedenborg, stirred his sympathy and captured his imagination. He wanted “the deep books,” as he called them, and sought primarily for sincerity.
For Emerson believed in the soul as the fount of all knowledge and the source of all wisdom. There was no inspiration apart from the soul, no revelation not read upon its living pages. And by the soul Emerson meant not merely the saints and seers embalmed in tradition and sanctified by faith. He meant the new-born soul, alive today upon this earth, instinct with the divine mystery of the Whole. This soul is as near to God, Emerson contended, as any savior of an ancient day. It may find God and reveal God as truly as Jesus found and revealed him in his time, and for our time more immediately and truly. The soul must ever begin over again the work of religion. It must write its own Bible, conceive its own Savior, build its own Church, and enact its own laws. For the soul is God, or at least is in God as a part of his divine reality. Emerson was never very clear, perhaps, as to where God ended and the soul began. There was reason for the dreadful charge—if it was so dreadful!—that Emerson was a pantheist He was no theologian of the Aquinas, or even the Pauline, type. He simply saw in man the divinest thing in the world. God was undoubtedly more than man—the oversoul that brooded upon the race as the firmament of heaven upon the sea! But it is in man, as in nature also, that we find God, and can commune with God. Religion therefore is no ancient thing of mysterious origin and miraculous validity. It is nothing old, or traditional, or handed down—a relic to be attested by musty documents and questionable records. Like each new summer in the earth, religion is born anew in each new soul, as fresh as the morning, as lovely as the rose, as authoritative as a sunset or a mountain. Why look elsewhere for what is in ourselves? Bibles, saviors, holy lands and sacred altars, these are all superstitions and myths, the impedimenta of decaying Churches and dying faiths. If religion is to survive, it must be born again today, within ourselves. For we are the custodians of the spirit, and all the witnesses God has.
Now, the Unitarians had never seen this. Or, if they had seen it, had never followed the gleam. With superb resoluteness and courage they had trod the firm highroad of reason, along which moved the ponderous procession of philosophical and theological progress, but they had never escaped to the mountain peaks. Thus had they not seen the panorama of the Whole—least of all felt the ecstasy of transcendental vision. For all their moral principle and sound idealism, the Unitarians were still bound to doctrine, while Emerson was already free in spirit. It was in this sense that the man who wrote and spoke the Divinity School Address pointed the path to liberation, which many a young and ardent soul was panting to follow. Of course, Emerson did not all at once, nor singlehanded, bring freedom to these Unitarians who had valiantly sought but never really found it. Parker and many another must strike their blows upon the chains which still bound this New England group of pioneers. But Emerson’s was the divine touch. His utterance at the Harvard Divinity School was the magic password. In an instant, dogmas dropped away, miracles vanished into the realm of myth and legend, Jesus was dethroned from his place as the Divine Savior, to take his greater place as the supreme master of the human spirit. Controversy stayed the work of liberation. Its very fury, as conducted by men like Andrews Norton, showed how complete and instant was the recognition of the sweeping character of Emerson’s thought. In due course the thunders and lightnings of the storm shifted from Concord and even Cambridge to Boston. Jovian shafts were now aimed at the devoted head of Theodore Parker, who stood for years at the very center of the blast. Emerson tended more and more, as time passed, to become not a focal point of attack, but rather an atmosphere of light which men could not dissipate and therefore had to abide. What he had said that night at the Divinity School he took out on to public lecture platforms in Massachusetts, New England, New York, and the Middle West. Discourses first spoken, then written and published as essays, were absorbed by all the best minds of the time, and transformed the thinking of a generation. Long before Emerson was done, or the young oracle had been changed into the aged seer, the Unitarians had become transcendentalized—if I may invent a word!—and thereupon the leaders of the free spirit in America. Francis G. Peabody—of blessed memory!—used to insist, in a day when rationalism was finding its way back into Unitarianism as a predominating characteristic of new scientific and philosophical interest, that Unitarians were properly not rationalists at all but mystics. He cited as his evidence the founts of poetry that welled up from the New England school of authors which was predominantly Unitarian, the prayers that poured from the hearts of Parker and Martineau, the hymns of Samuel Longfellow and Samuel Johnson, of Hosmer, and Gannett, and Chadwick, which represent the supreme contribution of America to the hymnology of the Christian world. Here were the marks of a mysticism as genuine as anything that Christianity has known since the Quakers of George Fox, and its fountainhead was Emerson. From the Divinity School Address, as from a mountain spring, flowed the living water that quickened mere thought into “eternal life.”
But there was no confining this stream to Unitarianism. It could not, and indeed should not, be captured in any well in any man’s backyard, nor yet in a cistern for the storage of waters for the use of any single community. It must flow freely, like a coursing river that bathes a landscape and gives multitudes to drink. The influence of Emerson, in other words, spread far beyond the bounds of the sect in which he had been born and reared. It entered the whole body of Protestantism in America—first in New England, then in the Middle States and the Middle West, where Emerson lectured, more slowly in portions of the country where the prophet was not seen. “It is attested,” writes Edwin D. Mead, in his “The Influence of Emerson,” “by the greater liberality in every church in the land that stands on the line of railroad.”
I have been trying to find out, with some precision and on the basis of an authority which I can not claim, the nature of this wider Emersonian influence, and how it proceeded. I have in recent weeks been consulting book after book on religion in this country, history after history of American Christianity, but with no satisfactory results. Emerson is, of course, always mentioned in these works, but is invariably pocketed with the Unitarian group of preachers on the one hand and the Transcendental group of philosophers on the other, as though there were no contact between these groups and the larger Protestant world. It is never suggested that in the Divinity School Address was born a spirit of life destined to quicken and transform the whole character of religious thought upon this continent. Yet it is impossible to explain this thought, as it developed through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, without seeing Emerson at its heart. Horace Bushnell was technically no Transcendentalist but as the leaves of a budding tree feed on the atmosphere of a fresh spring morning, so Bushnell’s doctrines drank in their substance from the Emersonian teachings. Henry Ward Beecher was separated in thought and spirit from his father, Lyman, by the span of what seems to be not a generation but an eon, and nothing leaps that span but the rainbow bridge of Emerson’s celestial spirit. Phillips Brooks, brought up in a Boston seething with the Emerson and Parker ferment, “never showed signs that he was led their way,” says Bishop Lawrence in his biography of his great predecessor. But the spirit of Brooks, the immediacy of his experience of God, and his exaltation of the life of man as even now divine, were unconsciously, if not consciously, the fruit sprung from seed scattered on every wind by Emerson. I find it significant that, in the one college which was their Alma Mater, of which they were for years twin luminaries, there should stand on one side of the yard Brooks House, and on the other side Emerson Hall, as abiding symbols of the kinship of these two radiant souls.
The far-flung influence of Emerson through the whole body of American religious thought is greater far than any historian has shown. Here is a thesis subject for some ambitious and not unimaginative candidate for the Ph. D. degree! It is best indicated, perhaps, by the overflow of this influence into certain cults and creeds, apart from the main line of the traditional Christian movement, which constitute perhaps the characteristic contribution of America to the modern religious world. It is as though the established Churches, like parched and long-dried soil, had been unable to absorb quickly enough the spreading tides of the Emersonian spirit, and thus had allowed these precious waters to escape into untrodden areas of life. These cults, of which I speak, are frequently superficial, even illiterate, and invariably sentimental. They represent a dilution of the Transcendental ideal which would shock the profound Bronson Alcott if not the more placid Emerson himself. But the pure essence of Emerson, however much diluted, even tainted, is in these movements, and, in an age when so many of our churches, both liberal and orthodox, are empty, it is something to think about to see multitudes of men and women sweeping into Christian Science, New Thought, Unity, and other crowded shrines, and there finding what is to them the water of life. I cannot believe that these cults would ever have appeared, had the Protestant Churches transmitted adequately in light and power the enormous spiritual energy generated by Emerson in the Concord study and the Divinity School Chapel.
But Emerson was not merely a religious influence either in Unitarianism or in the wider ranges of Christianity. He was an American influence in the secular as well as in the sacred sense of that word. By this I mean that Emerson was the first teacher to reveal America to herself by disclosing the soul of that democracy which is her life.
It is not often remembered how purely political, even legal, was the thought which led to the rise of American civilization. Not only the controversies but the ideals which precipitated the outbreak of the Revolutionary War were concerned with questions of taxation, representation, local governmental autonomy, relations between king and subjects and between subjects and parliament. The immortal Declaration of Independence was a recitation of political disabilities and oppressions, and the righteousness of public revolt against them. The central principle of our new democracy, the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” was in origin and character a concept of legal relationship. Equality meant equality before the law—an identity of interest in that social contract which was regarded as the basis of free society. There was no spiritual philosophy behind this idea of democracy, not a trace of mystical idealism, nothing that moved in the inner as contrasted with the outer lives of men. The characteristic figures in this period of early Americanism were the demagogic Sam Adams, who stirred up the mob against its rulers, the aristocratic George Washington, whose forte was action and not thought, the shrewd Benjamin Franklin, with his worldly wisdom and pragmatic lore, the statesmanlike Thomas Jefferson, who sought the emancipation of men from the tyranny of government, and the legalistically-minded James Madison, who wrote a document of government under which free men could live and a free nation grow.
What was lacking in all this was a soul, and a teacher of the soul. What did democracy mean in the inner content of its life? What was the spiritual vindication of its social principle? Why were men equal? From what source did rights proceed? These were questions which demanded an answer, in terms of philosophy and religion, if democracy was to survive. And the answer came only with Emerson, who, like the oracle at ancient Delphi, spoke of the gods and their destinies for men. What Emerson did was to penetrate these outward phenomena of laws and constitutions, social contracts and free governments, and reach to the inner core of reality. He saw in the citizen the man, and in the man the soul which linked him with the divine. This soul, like the oversoul from which it sprang, and of which it was a part, was a universal and not a special possession. It was an endowment of human nature itself, and therefore a quality of men—men of every race and nationality, of every class and clan. Each individual had within him the spirit of the Whole, and thus, apart from his inevitable limitations, was the Whole. It was this which gave to the single person rights, crowned this person with liberty, conferred upon him authority to control his own life and, in consultation and co-operation with other men, the life of society. It was this also which set each man apart as himself the source of truth, a “new-born bard of the Holy Ghost.” What this meant to the individual was shown by Emerson in many an early essay, of which “Self-Reliance” is the most famous; what it meant to the world of scholarship and learning was disclosed in the Phi Beta Kappa oration of 1837; what it meant to religion was revealed in the Divinity School Address of 1838. What it meant to democracy, to America, to the history of society and the destiny of man, became the burden of utterances and writings through the years which now, as the collected works of Emerson, constitute a Bible of this new republic.
It would be interesting to trace the course of Emerson’s thought as it penetrated and interpenetrated the life of America. But one can no more do this than one can follow the reverberations of a voice as it speaks into the air. We know that this thought became a living influence in the career of Lincoln. There is documentary evidence that the Transcendental idea reached the mind of the Illinois lawyer through the sermons and speeches of Theodore Parker. But was there not a more direct contact? What lies behind the statement of William E. Barton, in his biography of Lincoln, that “Springfield (Illinois) was not without intellectual stimulus . . . . It was the period of the Lyceum lecture . . . . Ralph Waldo Emerson used to lecture in Springfield on his western trips”? Is it not certain that Lincoln heard Emerson, and drank in the flow of his spirit? More direct and evident is the influence of Emerson on Walt Whitman, the poet laureate of our democracy. It was no accident that Emerson hailed the first edition of the “Leaves of Grass,” wherein he saw the lineaments of his own inner countenance. How could one miss the Emersonian undertones and overtones in the raptures of this rude but inspired bard?
You shall possess the good of the earth and the sun,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your Self.
The inspiration of such passages is unmistakable. The inspiration of the American idealism which they express is similarly unmistakable. Emerson is the oracle! He taught us of ourselves, explained ourselves—revealed the secret of our life we had not known. When the young man stood that July night in the Divinity School Chapel, he was addressing a small group of theologians, young and old; but his voice reached to multitudes who caught its echoes, and recognized its music as the song of their own hearts.
Thus, for Unitarians, for the wider circle of Christianity, and for our whole American society, was Emerson the philosopher and prophet—the seer who caught for us
. . . . that serene and blessed mood
In which . . . . we see into the life of things.
That Emerson spoke any final word is not to be imagined. He was a man of his time, who would be strangely confused and baffled by our time. Thus, in this later age, we have encountered difficulties in democracy he never saw. We have become entangled in complexities of human nature he never uncovered. We are developing plans of society at the expense of the individual he would not have approved. The events of a century have wrought evils and terrors, and precipitated vast disasters, which shake to its foundations the triumphant optimism which was the essence of his faith. At this moment, as though in defeatist reaction upon all that we have gained in a hundred years, we seem to be swinging back, in frontal retreat, to ground once occupied but we had thought long since abandoned. Thus, in Unitarianism I seem to detect a faltering faith in that mystic vision which Emerson imparted, and a return to that barren rationalism which leads in our time to desert ways as sterile in their radicalism as the old ways were sterile in their orthodoxy. In contemporary Protestantism what do we see so significant as the recrudescence of Calvinism, with its despair of human nature, and its fatalistic dogma that the soul is as incompetent as it is unworthy to achieve its own salvation? As for democracy, this new society of free men which was to subdue the world, is it not everywhere yielding under the impact not so much of attack without as of collapse within? For behind the dictator who usurps the rule of the people, the barbarism which is engulfing civilization there lies that loss of confidence in the single man apart from the mass, or horde, of men which seems now, as in savage days, to be the center of social integration. Spiritually, that is, as well as politically and economically, our world is retreating, which means that there no longer burns upon the altar of life that quickening fire which Emerson saw in his day was “smoldering, nigh-quenched,” and which straightway he fed with the fresh fuel of his spirit!
Today we need Emerson again—a profounder Emerson, a sterner Emerson, but still Emerson! Unitarians need him—to be taught anew that no arid reliance upon man can be fruitful of religion which does not see in man the divine in the human, and thus the sure evidence of God. Christians need him—that they may learn anew that man is not incorrigbly bad but aspiringly good, and that not what man is but what he strives to be is the prophecy of the soul’s victory over time and fate. The world needs him—that in America and Europe, on every continent and island of the sea, it may be known that no rule of one man or many men, in the totalitarian or in the democratic state, can vindicate itself and thus survive, which does not seek, through whatever organization of the social whole, the release and enrichment of personality. What would it not mean to this despairing age if another voice were to speak a second Divinity School Address! Like clear, pure mountain air blowing through the fetid atmosphere of some charnel house, like the light of rosy morning dawning upon the darkness of a night of fear, like the call of silver trumpets in the ears of dying men, would sound again the words: “There are resources in us on which we have not drawn. Faith makes us, and not we it. . . . Let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the (systems of earth). If you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.”
If I were to name the characteristic thinker of our time, it would be Oswald Spengler, author of that stupendous masterpiece, “The Decline of the West.” In this work Spengler presents a fatalistic theory of history. Civilizations rise only to fall. They transcribe predetermined cycles which, like the orbits of the stars, reach from darkness into darkness. Upon our civilization, as upon all others, rests the doom of dissolution. Time does not suffer itself to be halted. The end is once more at hand. As for ourselves, says Spengler, “We have been born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the last position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. . . . The honorable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man.”
In answer to this bleak surrender to destiny, I offer the challenge of Emerson, a prophet of our time as of his own. He also can wait, “can do without what is called success.” But he waits not to succumb to fate, but to seize and master it. For to Emerson, “existence (itself) is victory.” Therefore:
The sun set, but set not his hope:
Stars rose; his faith was earlier up:
Fixed on the enormous galaxy,
Deeper and older seemed his eye;
And matched his sufferance sublime
The taciturnity of time.
He spoke, and words more soft than rain
Brought the Age of Gold again.