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Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803-1882)

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Biographical Introduction

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98114)

Born in Boston, Waldo was one of the eight children of William Emerson, the eminent minister of the First Church in Boston. Upon the death of his father when Waldo was eight, his mother fought against poverty by taking in borders.

After Waldo attended Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, he became the minister of the Second Church in Boston (Unitarian). When he could not in good conscience conduct the Lord’s Supper, he resigned in 1832 and moved to Concord to write.

In 1836, his first book, Nature, initiated a new movement, Transcendentalism, which fostered a new renaissance of American literature and life rooted in the affirmation: “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

Emerson’s 1837 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa address on “The American Scholar” Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed America’s Declaration of Intellectual Independence. “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” Emerson said and predicted that America would become the pole star for a thousand years. “A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul.”

At his “Divinity School Address” delivered in 1838, hearers were urged to acquaint themselves at first hand with deity. This radical Christian critic of “corpse cold Unitarianism” also declared that “Miracle is monster.” Andrews Norton, Professor of Biblical Literature, branded Emerson’s work “the latest form of infidelity.” Ralph Waldo Emerson was not invited back to Harvard for thirty years.

The speaker was not exempt from tragedy. Loss of his first wife, aged nineteen, was followed by a son’s death after Emerson remarried. Rheumatism and poor eyesight plagued him, but he persisted in delivering lectures near and far, and writing poems and essays, letters and his diary, all grandly celebrated in 2003, the bicentennial of his birth. The Sage of Concord has been recognized as the most important figure in America’s cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century.

The Ministry of Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the memorial tablet underneath a marble bust of Emerson in the transept of the Second Church of Boston is this inscription:

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Minister of the Second Church
Calm: Fearless: Inspiring

No three words could better characterize the young preacher who in the closing years of the Rev. Henry Ware’s pastorate came to the Second Church in the capacity of colleague. Mr. Ware, who had been settled in 1817, was never a man of strong physique. For more than seven months he had been unable to fill the pulpit, but his people “would not give him up,” but instead elected in January of 1829, as his helper, a young man who had preached for Mr. Ware and “was highly recommended as the son of the former minister of the First Church.” Mr. Emerson had been “approbated to preach” in 1826 by the Middlesex Association of Ministers, after having spent three years in preparation and study. He had graduated at Harvard in 1821, and had been a member, though not in any regular class, of the Divinity School. He had preached in various representative pulpits, such as those in Charleston, S.C., New Bedford, Mass., and Northampton, Mass., and in the years between his graduation at Harvard and his “approbation to preach” he had taught school.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The tall spare young man with the sweet mild face” who now stood in the Second Church pulpit was listened to with interest and curiosity, but scarcely with approval. The Second Church under Mr. Ware had grown to be a strong and somewhat conventionalized church where certain usages and customs counted for much. It might have seemed that no more inappropriate pulpit in all Boston could have been found for the young prophet who came to preach the freedom of the spirit. Yet possibly no more sympathetic church could have been found in which to declare his beliefs. It was not by mere chance that Emerson was called to the pastorate of the Second Church. Like draws like, whether among the atoms, the stars, or among men. What creates a church distinguishes it in after years. “Being called of God to enter into church fellowship together,” these words of the original covenant describe the initial impulse of the Second Church. Michael Powell, Christopher Gibson, and the others who in 1649 formed themselves into a church estate, believed just as much that they were called upon to do as they did as did ever Abraham when he went forth from Chaldea to establish the worship of Jehovah among the Canaanites. “Being called of God,” so John Lathrop would have explained his patriotic act in 1774. That same phrase doubtless Increase Mather would have used if asked what prompted him to speak in defense of the Massachusetts Charter. It is the initial impulse given to the Second Church by its founders which, continuing into the nineteenth century, led Emerson to stand up to plead for freedom of the spirit instead of adhesion to form. “Being called of God to do this thing”—he could give no better reason for his utterances. It must be remembered that in 1830 little was known of all that scientific knowledge which in less than a century has revolutionized modern thinking. When Emerson came to the Second Church, the cuneiform characters were not deciphered and the science of Biblical criticism was in its infancy. The theory of the conservation of energy and all that it implies was unknown. Miracles were still largely believed to have taken place in Biblical times. Few persons thought of doubting the verbal authenticity of the Gospels or the Godship of Jesus. Keeping these facts in mind, how strangely from the young preacher’s lips must have sounded sentences like these:

The World is not the product of manifold power but of one Will, of one Mind, and that one Mind is everywhere, active in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool. Whatever opposes that Will is everywhere balked and baffled…. Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets because he saw with open eye the mystery of soul…. He saw that God incarnates himself in man to take possession of the world. He said in this jubilee of sublime emotion: “I am Divine. Would you see God, see me, or see thee when thou also thinkest as I now think.” The fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man indicated with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. The true Christianity is a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man, therefore, as with Jesus, dare to love God without mediator or veil.

In a sermon (afterwards expanded and published as an essay), Emerson said, “The office of this age is to put the Bible, Upanishads, the maxims of pagan philosophers, on the eternal footing of equality of origin in the instincts of the human mind.”

The avowed cause of Emerson’s leaving the Second Church pulpit was not the real cause. The real cause was the inevitable conflict between formalism and freedom: the avowed cause was a difference of opinion as to how the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated. “Strange,” said Emerson in later years, “that the same people will gladly hear and accept certain truths, when delivered from the lecture platform, which they will not tolerate from the pulpit.” “I thought to carry them [his congregation] with me.” Youth does not and cannot appreciate at its full worth the power of memories, of sentiment, of association, and it was this power, not the radicalism of his views, which defeated him when the vote was taken as to the method of celebrating the communion. Rather than compromise or obscure by phrases his real meaning—or appear to conform—he resigned his pastorate.

After the delivery of the Divinity School Address (July, 1838), Henry Ware wrote to Emerson:

I must confess with regard to some of your views that 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 to the course which your mind has been taking.

To this letter Emerson calmly replied:

These things look thus to me! To you otherwise. Let us say our uttermost word, and let the all-pervading truth, as it surely will, judge between us.”

Mr. Emerson, in another of his letters to Mr. Ware, admits that he does not know what arguments mean in reference to any expression of his thought.

I delight in telling what I think! But if you ask me how I dare say so or why it is so, I am the most helpless of mortal men…. I shall go on just as before, seeing whatever I can and telling what I see.

And so he did go on. His courageous mental independence was the logical outcome of his thought of the indwelling God and the consequent divinity of the human soul.

Emerson is usually classed among the philosophers. Harvard writes his name over the portals of its Philosophy Hall. Others think of him as primarily a man of letters. On the façade of the grand library building in Washington is carved his face as well as his name, and his bust adorns numerous smaller library buildings throughout the United States. He is studied as poet, as essayist, as mystic, as psychologist, as one of the religious reformers of the ages, and yet he can best be understood when looked upon as simply a preacher, for preacher is what he was from first to last, and all his addresses when analyzed resolve themselves into sermons.

Stamped preacher by ancestry, by inheritance, by the inclination of his own mind, by the education he received, his writings can be interpreted from the sermonic point of view. He never wrote a book: he rather published a collection of sermons in book form and called them essays. The very faults or excellences of his lectures are precisely those of the sermon. The sermon or lecture is for the ear, not the eye. Its sentences, therefore, must be short, each in a way complete by and in itself: they must at times be picturesque, stimulating, catching the attention. The whole discourse must have about it a hopeful, optimistic ring. Without these qualities no sermon is fully effective. There is a certain framework about a sermon different from that of a political or social address, and such a framework is noticeable in nearly every one of Emerson’s essays. It is a mistake to suppose that Mr. Emerson never did any preaching after he resigned his Boston pastorate. He always preached and often in precepts. When in Europe, he preached both in England and in Scotland, and on his return now and again filled one of the Unitarian pulpits near Boston. Until the autumn of 1838 he preached regularly twice on Sundays to the Unitarian church at East Lexington. Either his style and manner had changed, or else his congregation was remarkably intelligent, for in speaking of his ministrations one of the members said, “You know we are a plain people and can understand no one but Mr. Emerson.”

Mr. Emerson preached once in the pulpit of the Second Church of Boston after his resignation. It was on his return from Europe. To show the cordial relations existing between him and his former parishioners, I quote the following from one of his letters:

I am no longer your minister, but am not the less engaged, I hope, to the love and service of the same eternal cause—the advancement, namely, of the kingdom of God in the hearts of men…. This separation does not make any real change in our spiritual relation to each other…. If we have conspired from week to week in the sympathy and expression of devout sentiments, if we have received together the unspeakable gift of God’s truth, if we have studied together the sense of any divine word or striven together in any charity or conferred together for the relief or instruction of any brother, … then, indeed, are we united, we are mutually debtors to each other of faith and hope, engaged to confirm each other’s hearts in obedience to the gospel.

In after years Mr. Emerson always retained the most affectionate remembrance of his Boston pastorate. In March of 1845, in response to a request that he furnish an article for a little book entitled “Our Pastor’s Offering,” he wrote:

It would have given me pleasure, had I known earlier, to have recalled for poetry those days—many anxious, many pleasant, all thoughtful days which I spent in the service of the Second Church. I stood a few weeks ago at the foot of the new tower, and gazed up at its stately proportions with great satisfaction. I hope it will confer new benefit every day as long as it shall stand.

Some time before the celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Second Church (1899) a request was made of Miss Emerson that she allow her father’s sermons (those in manuscript in her possession) to be printed. “You have them already,” she answered, “in his essays.” It is true the sermon was transformed into the essay, but the message was the same and the preacher was the same. In those years at the Second Church, Emerson elaborated most completely the gospel which he continued to enunciate in one form or another for forty years afterwards. That gospel is made up of two affirmations: God in the human soul, the inner light; and following from that the absolute uniqueness of every human being, each person to develop from his own centre, from his own soul, which is divine and immortal.

We are to seek our well-being in the formation of soul…. The soul knows no persons…. Trust thyself. It is the office of the true teacher to show us that God is, not was, that He speaketh, not spake.

Just how Emerson, at so early an age and under the intellectual conditions surrounding him between 1825 and 1835, came to have so strong, so abiding a sense of the ever-present, ever-revealing God, we need not here concern ourselves. That he did have such a keen and realizing sense is the main thing to notice, and, further, that in fullest sincerity he was willing to accept all that was implied by such a belief.

The quiet, uneventful years of Emerson’s life from 1835 to 1875 are well known. Forty years of steady influence, forty years employed in expanding, varying, adapting, and stating his two great affirmations.

“Great geniuses,” he once wrote, “have the shortest biographies; their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their home and street life was trivial and commonplace.” These words truly characterize his own history.

Concord Hymn

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raised to them and thee.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson