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Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Emerson’s Heresy

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Divinity Hall in 1904

Harvard Divinity Hall in 1904

III. Emerson’s Heresy

by Conrad Wright

In May, 1819, Ralph Waldo Emerson was still a student at Harvard College. His own minister was Channing, since his mother had taken up going to the Federal Street Church after the death of Emerson’s father in 1811. Presumably he read Channing’s sermon when it was fresh from the press; but we do not know what his reaction was, or the extent to which he shared in the excited discussions of the Baltimore expedition.

There was another occasion, however, when an address by Channing made a very deep impression on him. In March, 1821, Channing was the Dudleian Lecturer at Harvard, taking as his assigned topic “The Evidences of Revealed Religion.” Emerson recalled the address vividly two years afterwards, when Channing dealt with the same subject in a Sunday sermon. “I heard Dr. Channing deliver a discourse upon Revelation as standing in comparison with Nature,” he wrote. “I have heard no sermon approaching in excellence to this, since the Dudleian Lecture. . . . He considered God’s word to be the only expounder of his works, and that Nature had always been found insufficient to teach men the great doctrines which Revelation inculcated.” In April, 1824, when Emerson took account of himself, his talents and his failings, preparatory to beginning the professional study of theology, Channing’s lecture came back to his mind as an example of the sort of reasoning he hoped to pursue. “Dr. Channing’s Dudleian Lecture is the model of what I mean, and the faculty which produced this is akin to the higher flights of the fancy.”[12]

Emerson’s praise of this lecture serves as a reminder that at the beginning of his career he accepted without reservation the system of rational theology that prevailed among the Unitarians of that day. The Divinity School Address, in 1838, revealed the extent to which he had departed from that system; and the vigor of the response on the part of men like Andrews Norton indicated how much seemed to be at stake. Channing’s Dudleian Lecture helps us to measure the distance Emerson moved in a decade Lind a half, as well as to appreciate the growing divergence between the generations for which the two men spoke.

Channing’s concern in the Dudleian Lecture was to vindicate the miracles of Christ as confirmation of the supernatural basis of Christianity. “Christianity is not only confirmed by miracles,” he declared, “but is in itself, in its very essence, a miraculous religion.” He recognized a prevailing tendency, fostered by the discoveries of science, to deny that the uniform order of nature will ever be interrupted by supernatural agency, and he acknowledged that all claims for miracles must be more carefully sifted than would be necessary for reports of common facts. But one who believes in God, the author of the uniformity of nature, must admit that he has the power to suspend the laws he has himself ordained, if the great purposes of the universe are thereby promoted. The great end of God in establishing the order of nature is “to form and advance the mind”; and if that purpose can best be achieved by departing from this order, “then the great purpose of the creation, the great end of its laws and regularity, would demand such departure; and miracles, instead of warring against, would concur with nature.”[13]

Admittedly, God will not suspend the order of nature for trivial ends. But in extraordinary circumstances, for extraordinary purposes, miracles may reasonably be expected. Such was the situation when Jesus Christ came into the world. Pagan superstition had so obscured the doctrine of one God, which is the basis for all piety, and pagan philosophy had so shaken the doctrine of immortality, which is the foundation of morality, that a miraculous manifestation of God’s power was required. Jesus Christ was therefore divinely commissioned to recover humanity from darkness and folly, and to disclose the way to eternal life. The miracles were vivid confirmation of his unique authority.

Channing did not rest the argument for Christianity solely on the historical miracles of Christ. He was familiar with the other evidences commonly adduced by Christian apologists: the fulfillment of prophecy; the fitness of Christian truths to meet the needs of sinful creatures; the marvelous spread of Christianity, despite its appearance among obscure and humble people; the confirmation of the gospel history to be found in pagan writers; and so on. But in his Dudleian Lecture, he devoted more attention to the argument for miracles than to any of the other internal or external evidences; for there was a tendency among the liberal Christians to insist on the historicity of the miracles as the cornerstone of the whole structure of Christian apologetics.

The temper of Emerson’s mind, as he himself realized, was more poetic or imaginative than strictly rational; and so Channing’s lecture appealed to him because he detected in it a certain quality of “moral imagination” which set it apart from routine treatments of the same theme. Locke and Samuel Clarke, by comparison, he regarded as “reasoning machines.” Yet in his early preaching, as minister of the Second Church in Boston, Emerson remained within the rationalistic tradition for which Locke and Clarke spoke. In a sermon preached in 1831, he declared that “a miracle is the only means by which God can make a communication to men, that shall be known to be from God,” and that the New Testament miracles have a “peculiar credibility.” To be sure, he was more inclined to prove the credibility of the miracles from the truth of the doctrines of the gospels than the other way around; and to this extent he wits moving in the direction of the Divinity School Address. But in 1831, he believed that “the truth and the miracles mutually confirm each other,” and he had as yet no other basis for religious truth than rational argument founded on the experience of the senses, together with special revelation attested by miracles.”[14]

By 1834, Emerson had broken away from the old patterns of thought and had moved into a new intellectual climate in which the familiar arguments for miracles could be casually dismissed as irrelevant. In May of that year, in a letter to his brother, he used Coleridge’s distinction between the “Reason” and the “Understanding,” which seemed to him to be “a philosophy itself.” Reason, he said‑using the word in a way peculiar to the Transcendentalists ‑‑ is “the highest faculty of the soul”; it is the power by which we apprehend truth immediately, without calculation or proof. The Understanding, on the other hand, “toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues, near sighted but strong‑sighted, dwelling in the present the expedient the customary.” On the level of the Understanding, we have varying degrees of intellectual capacity; but “Reason is potentially perfect in every man.” Our everyday life may be lived on the level of the Understanding; but our deepest insights into timeless truths are intuitions of the Reason, and religion and poetry belong in its domain.[15]

The emergence of this intuitional philosophy led inevitably to conflict and crisis within the Unitarian community. For more than a century, the accepted philosophy in New England had been based either on the sensational psychology of John Locke or on the modified Lockeanism of the Scotch Realists. True ideas, said Locke, are based on the evidence of the senses, as ordered and organized by the ability of the mind to reflect on the ideas derived from sensations. But now Emerson’s generation was beginning to assert that the truths of religion and morality are not founded on the experience of the senses but are immediate intuitions of the divine. What this meant to Unitarianism was sensed with especial clarity by Convers Francis, minister of the church in Watertown. “I have long seen,” he wrote in 1836, “that the Unitarians must break into two schools, the Old one, or English school, belonging to the sensual and empiric philosophy, and the New one, or the German school (perhaps it may be called), belonging to the spiritual philosophy.”[16] But if the spiritual or “transcendentalist” school should prevail and the truths of Christianity be regarded as valid only so far as they correspond to direct intuitions of absolute truth, Jesus would lose his function as the unique channel of divine revelation, and the miracles wrought in confirmation of his authority would shrink into triviality.

Despite Channing’s impatience with the tendency of Unitarianism to settle down into a new orthodoxy, and his generous tolerance of the views of the younger generation, his theological allegiance remained with the old school. Emerson’s altered attitude toward him is a measure of the growing gulf between the generations. “Once Dr. Channing filled our sky,” he wrote In 1837. “Now we become so conscious of his limits and of the difficulty attending any effort to show him our point of view that we doubt if it be worth while. Best amputate.”[17]

If the Divinity School address was an event in the intellectual life of New England, it was also an event in the spiritual biography of its author. In his discussion of the role of the minister, addressed to young men about to enter the ministry, Emerson was struggling with his own vocational conflicts and doubts; and it may even be argued that he was indirectly justifying his own withdrawal from the calling to which he had been solemnly consecrated.

Emerson had once sought the “prized gown and band” because of his “passionate love for the strains of eloquence.” Public preaching, he had decided, would give him an opportunity for the inspired utterance of which he felt himself capable. But he found much of drudgery in the minister’s tasks, and the routine of parish calling in particular was uncongenial. Even before he resigned as minister of the Second Church, he had become restive, and critical of his own profession: “It is the best part of a man, I sometimes think, that revolts most against his being a minister.” The difficulty was that ministers must accommodate themselves to institutions already formed, and each such accommodation is “a loss of so much integrity and, of course, of so much power.”[18]

Emerson’s resignation was directly occasioned by a disagreement over the administration of the Lord’s Supper, but his growing dissatisfaction with the ministry would doubtless have led to his withdrawal sooner or later. Yet he did not break completely with that profession. Following his return from Europe In 1833, he continued to do occasional preaching, and for about three years he served as “stated supply” at the church in East Lexington. He was gradually finding his way into a new career as lecturer, and it was only when he achieved some degree of public acceptance that he finally gave up the East Lexington pulpit. “But henceforth perhaps I shall live by lecturing which promises to be good bread,” he wrote to his mother in March, 1838. “1 have relinquished my ecclesiastical charge at E Lexington & shall not preach more except from the Lyceum.”[19]

This decision was not an easy one for him to make. It involved the abandonment of the clerical tradition he had inherited; more painful, it amounted to an admission that the profession of the ministry made demands on him that he was unwilling or unable to meet. But he could not handle the situation in such a frank and undisguised form. Instead, he sought to justify himself by arguing that the church was tottering to its fall, almost all life extinct. In short, the blame for his failure as a minister lay not with himself but the institutions of organized religion, which he declared could no longer command respect.

On the Sundays when Emerson was not preaching at East Lexington, or elsewhere on exchange, he ordinarily attended church in Concord. There, in the preaching of the Rev. Barzillai Frost, Emerson found ample confirmation of what, for his own peace of mind, he had to believe. Frost was a graduate of the Divinity School in Cambridge and a firm believer in the historical argument for Christianity, based on the miracles. He was also a faithful parish minister, regularly discharging his pastoral duties and making the rounds of his three hundred families. But he was a mediocre preacher, as even his best friend had to acknowledge. “Doubtless you all early felt,” declared Henry A. Miles in a eulogy following Frost’s death, “that there was neither flexibility of voice, nor play of imagination, nor gush of emotion to give him, as a preacher, that power to which other endowments fairly entitled him.”[20] He wholly lacked the gift of eloquence, the power to change people’s lives in an instant by the spoken word, that Emerson looked for in the true preacher. In short, he was a living example of all that Emerson thought was wrong with the clergy of his day.

Emerson’s reaction to Frost’s preaching, as the Journals reveal, was almost uniformly unfavorable. Time and again, he returned from church on Sunday morning to record his dissatisfaction. It is significant that the intensity of his criticism of Frost seems to have been greatest in March, 1838, just at the time that he was finally arranging to relinquish the East Lexington pulpit. After the decision had been made, and Emerson had solved the problem of his relationship to the profession for which Frost served as the symbol, the intensity of his condemnation perceptibly diminished.

The clustering of events is significant. It was on March 14 that Emerson wrote to his mother of his decision to quit his ecclesiastical charge. Sunday, the eighteenth, in a lengthy entry in the Journal, he condemned Frost as a sincere person based on sham; and he declared: “I ought to sit and think, and then write a discourse to the American Clergy, showing them the ugliness and unprofitableness of theology and churches at this day. . . .”[21] That same week, by a strange coincidence, he received a letter from a committee of the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School. Dated March 21, it invited him “to deliver before them, in the Divinity Chapel, on Sunday evening the 15th of July next, the customary discourse, on occasion of their entering upon the active Christian ministry.”[22] The last Sunday at East Lexington was March 25. The following Tuesday, Emerson wrote to the committee to accept their invitation.

The address he carried with him to Cambridge, four months later, seemed to be an objective and impersonal report of the universal decay of faith, and a protest against the triumph of formalism in the pulpit. The text gave no hint of the fact that crucial passages condemning the clergy of the day had been drawn from Emerson’s Journals, where in their original context they were references to the minister in Concord. Indeed, as the day for the delivery of the address drew near, Emerson was able to persuade himself that he was speaking “simple truth without any bias, any foreign interest in the matter.”[23] But we are now able to discern what the audience of that day could not know, and Emerson himself could not admit: that there is a hidden meaning in the Divinity School Address, the clue to which lies in Emerson’s relationship to his own minister and in the vocational crisis with which he was struggling.

The little chapel in Divinity Hall seats less than one hundred; and on the evening of July 15, all the places were taken. Edward Everett Hale, who arrived late, had to be content with a chair in the entry. We can list the names of perhaps a score of those present. Presumably six of the seven members of the graduating class were there; one of them, we know, was preaching in East Bridgewater. The members of the faculty were on hand, as well as a number of recent graduates of the School, such as Convers Francis, Caleb Stetson, Cyrus Bartol William Henry Channing, John Sullivan Dwight, and Theodore Parker. Finally, there were young men, like Joseph Henry Allen, Rufus Ellis, and James H. Perkins, who were to enter the ministry in due course; and young women, like Elizabeth Peabody and Sarah Hale.

No detailed description of the order of exercises hits come down to us. We do know that Emerson prefaced his remarks with a brief invocation, which Cyrus Bartol long afterwards recalled as follows: “We desire of the Infinite Wisdom and Goodness to be led into the Truth. So may it be by our lowliness and seeking! This we ask of the Infinite Wisdom and Goodness.”[24] The burden of the address that followed was simple. It was a reminder that the life of religion must be recreated anew in the souls of each successive generation, and a declaration that it is the responsibility of the minister to “acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” But Emerson was not content to state his position positively and let the matter rest. The corollary was explicitly stated, that the “great and perpetual office of the preacher” was not being discharged, and that there prevailed generally “a decaying church and a wasting unbelief.”

The young transcendentalists in the audience were delighted by the performance. It is reported that Elizabeth Peabody was “enraptured.” But many of those present were sharply critical, partly because of the ideas expressed, but also because they felt that Emerson had shown exceedingly poor taste In criticizing the clergy on such an occasion. They could hardly have been aware of the inner compulsion that had made him speak as he did. “I did not like it at all,” wrote Edward Everett Hale. “Mr. E. held that the Christianity of the present day is little better than none‑, . . . that churchgoing was less popular than formerly, owing to the bad preaching of the ministers of the day, whom he rated severely as not putting enough of self into their sermons.”[25] Hale’s complaint that Emerson’s strictures on the clergy were an insult to the Divinity School teachers who had trained them was echoed by his brother Nathan. “I didn’t hear Emerson’s lecture,” he wrote, “& was very glad that I didn’t, when I was told what it was…. It seems there were two divisions, the first asserting that no ministers of the present day (he made no exceptions) did their duty or did anything‑, doing away all the good the poor Divinity teachers hoped they had been doing for three years‑the second was an express denial of all the divine claims of our Savior. . . .”[26]

After the exercises were over, the congregation broke up into small groups. Some of them walked over to Dr. Palfrey’s house, where they lingered to talk. Henry Ware, Jr., invited Mr. and Mrs. Emerson to spend the night; but they preferred to drive back to Concord through the soft summer night, illuminated by a brilliant aurora. Before they left, however, Ware expressed to Emerson some of his uneasiness about the doctrines preached that evening; and Emerson seems to have reassured him by qualifying in conversation some of his bolder statements. The next day, however, Ware sought to make his position clear in a friendly letter. “It has occurred to me,” he wrote, “that, since I said to you last night, I should probably assent to your unqualified statements, if I could take your qualifications with them, I am bound in fairness to add, that this applies only to a portion, and not to all. With regard to some, I must confess, that they appear to me more than doubtful, and that 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.”[27]

The storm that blew up over the address seems to have come as a surprise to Emerson. This was no Baltimore Sermon, carefully calculated in advance to arouse controversy and to advance the principles of a party. And so, for a time, Emerson wondered whether the text should be revised before publication‑or, indeed, whether it should be made available for general circulation at all. He finally concluded that he would have to stand or fall by what he had actually said, and so the Address appeared without significant revision late in August.

Inevitably it became a subject for public controversy as well as private conversation. From the point of view of the Divinity School authorities, the immediate problem was to make it plain that Emerson’s views were his own and were not in any sense sanctioned by the School. The faculty felt that Emerson had placed them in a false light in the eyes of the public by choosing that particular platform and occasion for his remarks; and some of them wondered whether, in future years, the students should have complete freedom when it came to extending invitations to speak under the auspices of the School. Andrews Norton could not contain himself; he wrote an intemperate letter to a Boston newspaper to emphasize “the disgust and strong disapprobation” felt by the authorities. The members of the graduating class, he declared, “have become accessories, perhaps innocent accessories, to the commission of a great offence”; and he called upon them for whatever exculpation or excuse they could give.[28]

The more persistent issues, however, were doctrinal. One of them was posed by Henry Ware, Jr., in a sermon entitled “The Personality of the Deity,” preached at the Divinity School on September 23, 1838. Although not a direct attack on Emerson, it was prepared with the Divinity School Address in mind. Ware was troubled by a prevailing tendency, of which Emerson’s Address was but one instance, to think of God in terms of “divine laws” instead of as a Being who is at once Creator, Governor, and sustaining Parent. Emerson’s assertion that “the soul knows no persons” seemed to him to be both theologically unsound and psychologically untrue. It is our concern for human personality that is the mainspring of progress in human affairs; and it is our response to a divine personality that is at the heart of worship. Ware was at least as much concerned as Emerson about the prevalence of moral and religious deadness; but, for him, the surest way to lose the sense of the presence of the Living God is to define religion as “a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws.” A relationship to an inanimate abstraction is not enough to satisfy the religious sentiments. Only as we “come more to realize the presence and the authority of the living Father” is there any grounds to hope for a “wider prevalence of elevated piety or of happy devotion to duty.”[29]

The other doctrinal issue was the familiar one of the miracles. Emerson had long since made up his mind that converts to genuine Christianity are made by “the reception of beautiful sentiments, never by miracle.”[30] And so he casually dismissed a doctrine that was regarded, by both Unitarians and orthodox, as essential to the acceptance of Christianity as it revealed religion. Jesus spoke of miracles, Emerson declared‑playing on the word‑”for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth. . . . But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” Or, more pointedly: “To aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul.”

This heresy was not peculiar to Emerson. In 1836, George Ripley had bluntly declared in the Christian Examiner that “the design of the miracles, in the Old and New Testament, was not to confirm a revelation of spiritual truth, but to accomplish quite a different purpose.”[31] Andrews Norton had reacted promptly by withdrawing as a sponsor of the magazine That same year, William Henry Furness had argued that the so‑called miracles of Jesus “were not departures from the laws of nature, but new facts in nature”, they were not permitted “merely for the sake of the influence they might have on the understandings of others,” but were “the simple, natural, irrepressible manifestations of that mighty spiritual force which was the inmost God‑inspired life of Jesus.”[32]

But Emerson’s fault was that he had spoken on a public occasion under the auspices of the Divinity School. To Norton it seemed that a correspondingly important occasion was required for reply. The opportunity came a year later, at a meeting of the alumni of the School. Norton made no mention of Emerson in his “Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity” but attacked rather the tendency of certain German theologians to discount the evidential value of miracles. “The latest form of infidelity,” he declared, “strikes directly at the root of faith in Christianity, and indirectly of all religion, by denying the miracles attesting the divine mission of Christ.” No one had any doubt that Norton regarded Emerson as the leading local exponent of this position, or that he was addressing himself to Emerson when he insisted that “for any one to pretend to be a Christian teacher, who disbelieves the divine origin and authority of Christianity, and would undermine the belief of others, is treachery towards God and man.”[33]

Emerson made public reply neither to Henry Ware, Jr., whom he held in the most affectionate regard, nor to Andrews Norton, whose dogmatic pronouncements he found thoroughly distasteful. The defense of the transcendentalist point of view was left to others, George Ripley and Theodore Parker in particular. But despite his aloofness from the controversy, Emerson was emotionally much more deeply involved in the whole episode than he was perhaps willing to admit. The Address, according to a recent scholar, “came as close to the irresistible truth he felt called upon to announce to his generation as any of his utterances…. He was correspondingly affected by its hostile reception.” He was reminded that eloquence and poetic insight do not necessarily carry all before them. It was “an angular intrusion of fact into the smooth world of his thoughts” which permanently affected his philosophical outlook, at least to the extent that it forced him thereafter to be more cautious in his proclamation of the identity of the ideal and the real.[34]

In time, the Unitarians abandoned the traditional theory of miracles, as well as much of the theological structure built upon it. Emerson and Ripley doubtless contributed to this outcome. But even more important was the spread of a scientific and critical attitude which was, in a somewhat different way, as destructive of the older theology as was Transcendentalism. The Divinity School Address remains, therefore, a perennially fresh solvent of dogmatic orthodoxies, especially Unitarian orthodoxies, rather than an indication of the permanent philosophic bent of Unitarianism in this country.


[12] The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, 1909-14), I, 290, 361.

[13] Channing, Works, III, 106, 112-13.

[14] A. C. McGiffert, Jr. (ed.), Young Emerson Speaks (Boston, 1938), pp. 120, 123.

[15] Ralph L. Rusk (ed.), The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1939), I, 412-13.

[16] John Weiss, Discourse Occasioned by the Death of Convers Francis, D.D. (Cambridge, 1836), pp. 28-29.

[17] Emerson, Journals, IV, 239.

[18] Ibid., I, 363; II, 448-49.

[19] Letters II, 120.

[20] Henry A. Miles, A Sermon Preached. . . at the Burial of Rev. Barzillai Frost (Cambridge, 1859), p. 9.

[21] Journals, IV, 413.

[22] Letters, II, 147 n.

[23] Journals, V, 7.

[24] Cyrus A. Bartol, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, 1882), p. 9.

[25] Jean Holloway, Edward Everett Hale (Austin, Texas, 1956), p. 40.

[26] Nathan Hale, Jr., to James Russell Lowell, July 24, 1838. MS., Harvard College Library.

[27] John Ware, Memoir of the Life of Henry Ware, Jr. (Boston, 1846), p. 395.

[28] Perry Miller, The Transcendentalists (Cambridge, 1950), p. 195.

[29] The Works of Henry Ware, Jr. (Boston, 1847), III, 39.

[30] Emerson, Journals, IV, 429.

[31] George Ripley, “Martineau’s Rationale of Religious Enquiry,” Christian Examiner, XXI (1836), 251.

[32] William Henry Furness, Remarks on the Four Gospels (Philadelphia, 1836), pp. 187, 199.

[33] Andrews Norton, A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity (Camberidge, 1839), pp. 11, 37.

[34] Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate (Philadelphia, 1953), p. 73.