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The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson
An account of the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson must begin five generations before his birth, when Thomas Emerson first settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was the first Emerson to journey to the new world, probably from Durham, in Northeast England, and he was listed in Ipswich, Massachusetts, town records as “Thomas Emerson, Baker.” His son, Joseph, married into the Bulkeley family of Concord, Massachusetts. Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth Bulkeley, was the daughter of the second minister of Concord, and granddaughter of the first. Their son, Edward, became a merchant in Charlestown, but their son, Joseph, was the minister in Malden, Massachusetts. He strengthened the family tradition of religious service by marrying Mary Moody, the daughter of the famous and eccentric Father Moody of York, Maine.
This couple had a large family, including three sons who became ministers. The youngest, William, often rode to Concord to preach for the zealous Reverend Dr. Bliss, and when the old gentleman died Reverend William Emerson was asked to take his place. As Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son Edward wrote in his memoirs, “the young minister, only twenty-two years old, boarded with Madam Bliss, and soon won the affection of her daughter Phebe, bought the fields, pasture and hill at the bend of the Musketaquid, soon to become famous, and built the Manse, where his children were born.” William Emerson served in the patriotic cause in 1775, answering the alarm on the morning of April 19. The resistance at the North Bridge took place in full view of his home. William Emerson served as a chaplain in the Continental Army, and died at Rutland, Vermont of camp-fever.
William Emerson’s son, also named William, was settled as the minister in Harvard, Massachusetts, where he met and married Ruth Haskins. Emerson was soon called to Boston, and the couple moved to the parsonage at Summer and Chauncy Streets while William Emerson served the First (“Old Brick”) Church in Boston. It was here that their son, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born along with five brothers and one sister. Another sister,Phebe, had died in Harvard. One brother, John Clarke, died in childhood, as did the remaining sister, Mary Caroline. William, Ralph Waldo, Edward Bliss, Robert Bulkeley, and Charles Chauncy survived to adulthood. Of his father’s entirely respectable ministry, Ralph Waldo wrote, “I think I observe in his writings…a studied reserve on the subject of the nature and offices of Jesus. They had not made up their minds on it. It was a mystery to them, and they let it remain so.” In his heart, Emerson’s father wished to found his own church without written expression of faith or covenant. He died when young Emerson was eight, but his father’s legacy helped propel Emerson into the ministry years later.
All of these families — Emerson, Bulkeley, Moody, Bliss, Haskins — comprised Emerson’s proud and Puritan heritage. The legacy of seven ancestors who were ministers of New England churches was powerful. From such a stock, Emerson inherited his self-reliance, his love of liberty, strenuous virtue, sincerity, sobriety, and fearless loyalty to ideals.
”What most excites my solicitude is your moral improvement and your progress in virtue….Let your whole life reflect honor on the name you bear.”
—Mary Moody Emerson to her nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson