UU Historical Highlights, Part 2:

Transcendentalism is Still Controversial

A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– February 17, 2002 –

Responsive Reading #531: The Oversoul, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In this passage, Emerson summarizes his awareness of a different kind of divinity from the mainstream Christianity of his day. It is a posture at once humble and empowering, accepting of the magnitude embodied by all creation, yet fiercely proud of any individual’s rich interior. His lyrical phrases describe an intimate connection with what he calls…


Let us learn the revelation of all nature and thought; that the Highest dwells within us, that the sources of nature are in our own minds.

As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins.

I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.

There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us.

Every moment when the individual feels invaded by it is memorable.

It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity and grandeur.

The soul's health consists in the fullness of its reception.

For ever and ever the influx of this better and more universal self is new and unsearchable.

Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.

When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.


SERMON: Transcendentalism is Still Controversial –JB ten Hove, 2-17-02

"Within us is the soul of the whole…the eternal One."

"…(T)he sources of nature are in our own minds." ???[from hymnal reading above]

These are pretty reasonable statements to make among modern Unitarian Universalists. But in the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was stretching mightily the bounds of his era’s religion with sentiments like these, and many more. In fact, his original thinking is still controversial in some quarters of our world today, especially traditional religion.

Emerson was the leading light of a small band of other free-thinkers who were inclined to ride their authentic insights into new and disputed theological territory, known generally as Transcendentalism. They were all Unitarians, and their impact reached way beyond religious circles, as any student of early American literature might testify.

So this illustrious chapter of our UU heritage is worth some contemplation, and today I will try to portray, ever so briefly, the Transcendentalist challenge to an emerging Unitarian establishment in New England of the 1830s and 40s. Their challenge consisted of both theological and institutional issues. And yes, there are still strands of it alive and sparking anew more than a century and a half later.

To complete this three-part sermon series of "UU Historical Highlights," my next effort will take a look at the forces at work in more recent eras, showing, among other things, how and why we are now saddled with such a mouthful for a name. My working title for that sermon is "The Arc of the UU Universe Bends Toward Merger," and it will examine the dynamic confluence of our two heritages. But first, back to what spawned the Transcendentalists.

 I’ll set the stage with the first of another three-part series of sermons, delivered years apart, by three of the most prominent Unitarians of this era–the early-mid 1800s. These three addresses were not about history, like mine, they were making history and are fundamental reference points for understanding the emergence of Unitarianism in America. Emerson’s "Divinity School Address" at Harvard in 1838 is in the middle of this trio, and I’ll get to that shortly, because it really launches the Transcendentalist movement.

But the first of this trio of monumental Unitarian sermons came two decades earlier. By the year 1819, there was enough growing interest in the unitarian idea, encouraged in part by the founding of actual Unitarian churches in the Philadelphia area, that one of the foremost ministers of Boston, William Ellery Channing, brought with him to an ordination in Baltimore a sermon that would change the religious landscape around him. It was titled, "Unitarian Christianity" and it subsequently became the most widely circulated written tract since Tom Paine’s "Common Sense."

As a manifesto of liberal religious principles, Channing’s Baltimore sermon in 1819 charted the new waters that rational religion would sail and it signaled the start of the first "Unitarian Controversy" on these shores. He gave a uniquely American voice to the new Biblical criticism that was fomenting in Europe. Channing did reaffirm the authority of Jesus, but only through the use of reason. Thus, he reasoned for a unity of God, separate from the unity of Jesus, who was the human evidence that we can all be good. He even used reason to justify the miracles performed by Jesus, but his principle innovative thrust was to promote a positive vision of human value.

The controversy here–again, 20 years before Transcendentalism–was less about unitarian versus trinitarian doctrines, which really became general headings for much more complex belief stances. The heretical innovation of the unitarian idea was more about this positive view of human nature, which flew in the face of a strong Puritan heritage, carried forth by Congregational Churches. The prevailing neo-Puritan theology enforced a trinitarian Calvinism that, in distinct contrast, preached about our fundamental depravity, original sin, and the need for salvation by atonement–or else! There had been precious little alternative to this harsh religion in New England–until now!

Despite much pulpit-pounding against it, Channing’s rational and more optimistic view caught on. His statement of a positive and progressive "Unitarian Christianity" became so popular that more and more New Englanders were converting to this still heretical but nonetheless enticing idea. In the 1820s, many Congregational churches officially converted to Unitarianism, which meant that the remaining trinitarians had to leave and start new Congregational churches across town. This was quite a tumultuous process.

So these liberal religionists–led by William Ellery Channing, a generation before the Transcendentalists–had their own controversial thrust, and forged what they declared was a rational Christianity. This was quite a healthy departure, and quite representative of the Enlightenment spirit that was helping to shape much of this new country.

And despite widespread reluctance to organize beyond each parish, they even managed to form the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in 1825. William Ellery Channing embodied some of that reluctance and refused the first presidency of this institutional ancestor of ours, but he is still rightly called "the Father of American Unitarianism."

But the new AUA would only go so far as to enlist individuals for membership and it regularly deferred to almost any church’s individual whims. This effectively prevented the new Association from gaining much momentum, a task complicated as well by the general attitude of most Unitarians, who were, remember, the Boston aristocracy and quite enmeshed with the status quo. They were mostly very comfortable with their intellectual rationalism, thank you.

 So into this liberal religious milieu–with its fragile structure and smugly rational theology–emerged the Transcendentalist generation, most of them Harvard-educated like their fathers, but with an expanding courage of their expanding convictions about what an expanding religion can be. And when they were not long out of Harvard they started biting the theological hands that fed them (although they all thought highly of Channing and grieved mightily at his death early on in the Transcendentalist era).

Among the 26 Unitarian figures who comprised what was loosely called the Transcendentalist Club, 17 were ministers and 5 were women. Their early standard-bearer was Emerson, often known in his time as Waldo. Emerson’s father had also been a Unitarian minister, but he died in Waldo’s youth, before Channing’s revolution broke forth. Nevertheless, I suspect something must have been brewing at the dinner table in that household.

One historian speaks of Emerson and a sibling this way: "Like his brother, William, who had doubted himself out of the ministerial profession, Waldo was accustomed to harboring unorthodox ideas; and his preoccupation with the art of eloquent self-expression made him especially impatient with theological systems and parish details" [Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers, pg. 35].

So Emerson only lasted a few years in the ministry business, per se, resigning his post at Boston’s Second Church in 1832 ostensibly because he was unwilling to continue conducting the rite of communion, which was heavily tainted with miraculous overtones. After a nine-month tour of Europe during the next year, he returned and did continue with a lot of supply preaching, but only until his writing career took off.

That began to happen with the publication, in 1836, of a small but powerful book called Nature, in which we find a memorable and provocative little line, perhaps destined to irritate his conservative elders: "I am part or particle of God." (In the Oversoul reading we began with today, this radical sentiment appears less personally as "the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.") Throughout the simply titled Nature, Emerson announces the exploration of this new theological turf, ground that is exciting to his peers but distressingly incomprehensible to his elders.

It may be hard for us today, resting as we do in an avowed principle of interdependence, to realize how radical Emerson’s vision was. Years before Darwin, even, he was proposing a connection with nature that was entirely original–and outrageous to most of his now very rational Unitarian kin.

The elders at Harvard might not have approved, but the senior class invited Emerson back to give the annual Divinity School Address a couple years later, in the summer of 1838. It became the second of the three great sermons recognized as the most prophetic statements of this so-called Golden Era of Unitarianism. But at the time, it was heresy and drew instant and vituperative fire from many of those elders.

If Channing’s Baltimore sermon two decades earlier was a liberating manifesto declaring for a rational "Unitarian Christianity," Emerson’s "Divinity School Address" was a broadside on what that rationalism had become. (Although, again, Channing himself was never a target. He was universally revered for his open-minded spirit, but was more of an exception in the liberal leadership of this time.)

One of the most chilling images from this creative diatribe of Emerson’s was his condemnation of what he saw as "corpse-cold" Unitarianism that had become overly reliant upon an irrational intellectualism. Channing had indeed affirmed Reason, but used it to hold onto the miracles of Jesus. Emerson went the next step and denied the miracles. His was suddenly the loudest of voices raised against using the miracles as a basis for Jesus’ credibility, and he didn’t mince words about his poor opinion of the general state of church life, either.

Emerson also had positive things to say in this landmark sermon, especially about the value of the natural world, and about how the life of religion must be recreated anew in the soul of each new person, not just absorbed from previous authorities, like a hand-me-down.

The "Oversoul," as he would call it, shines like an eternally new dawn in succeeding generations. (This idea was relatively consistent with mainstream Unitarian thought of the time.) But then he said that the individual’s intuitive awareness does not require mediation by various forms of the church. (This notion was very new.)

It was a very radical suggestion, that every person could develop a personal intuition of the divine without considering church authority. It promoted new faith in the individual’s ability to Reason–a Reason not in contrast to feelings of the heart, but in contrast to external authority that was often unreasonable. And this is the essence of Transcendentalism, really: that pure religion transcends any particular church doctrine, and individuals can intuitively seek their own original and direct connection with the divine.

Well, perhaps you can imagine how some of those "previous authorities"–"corpse-cold" but nonetheless powerful Unitarian elders–received this good news from the upstart Emerson, all of 35 years old at the time. The new round of controversy that this address ignited was primarily within Unitarian circles, and it got fierce fast.

But as the fur began to fly, Emerson quickly checked out of the debate–he wasn’t equipped with the right temperament for it–and went off into his own realm of deeper reflection and writing, which frustrated his pursuers no end. Soon, however, they had a whole band of budding Transcendentalists to engage with, as Emerson’s clarion call had inspired other radicals who were more eager for the fray, people like Theodore Parker, who authored the third in the series of significant sermons, which will get our attention shortly.

After Emerson’s Address, which one Harvard professor [Andrews Norton] called "the latest form of infidelity," the pulpits and periodicals that carried much of the mainstream comment of the day were suddenly closed to the Transcendentalist crowd. So they had to be even more creative and original by, for instance, starting their own publications. Most notable was the Dial, a quarterly magazine that printed their explorations for four fertile years in the early 1840s.

Emerson launched the Dial with his friend and co-editor, Margaret Fuller, an immense intellect who also organized a concurrent series of "Conversations" for women. Those sessions laid formative groundwork for the earliest American feminism, as you might imagine from her quote on the top of your order of Service panel.

Another Transcendentalist not inclined to debate was Henry David Thoreau, 14 years younger than Emerson. He graduated from Harvard College the year after Emerson’s Nature was published, but instead of going on to the Divinity School, Thoreau went back to his native Concord and the woods on Emerson’s property. There and in subsequent years, he became the most prolific of Transcendentalists. In fact, another historian declared that "The greatest of all Transcendentalist experiments in perfecting the individual…was the one-man utopia of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond" [D.W. Howe, A Steam of Light, pg. 56].

Meanwhile, on the education scene, an idealistic and rather quirky Transcendentalist named Bronson Alcott was pioneering very innovative teaching methods that nurtured the divine spark in each child. His Temple School sought to draw out of children their natural, uninhibited wisdom and knowledge. But after three years of this project, when he had to admit that his conversations with children covered any subject they wanted to raise, including procreation and birth, Alcott’s school rapidly came undone due to pressure from the less enlightened culture around him. He went on to form a short-lived utopian community, called Fruitlands, but struggled financially until a certain daughter of his put forth a novel of some repute: Little Women, by Louisa May.

Meanwhile, in attendance at Emerson’s Divinity School Address was his colleague and a recent graduate, Theodore Parker, who, three years later, in 1841, presented an even more controversial thrust into heresy. His sermon called "A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity" is the final note to be sounded in this trinity of historical statements.

In his sermon, delivered at an ordination, Parker carried the Transcendentalist position one giant step farther than Emerson, who was content to elaborate mostly in abstractions. Parker got specific, using logic encouraged by the free-thinking Transcendentalist Club. What was permanent, he declared, was the pure religion taught by Jesus: the values, the morality, the love.

And what were clearly transient were the varying forms and doctrines that Christianity had taken on over the centuries. Well, this much was okay, so far. But then he came right out and declared that because interpretations of the Bible have changed, it is not to be trusted. In fact, worship of it is idolatry. Further, since understandings of Jesus’ authority have also changed, he, too, is not essential to one’s "instinctive intuition of the divine," proposed by Transcendentalism.

The pre-eminent UU historian Conrad Wright describes Parker’s heretical inquiry this way: "Why should moral and religious truths depend on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than scientific truths depend on the personal authority of the investigator who discovers them?" [Three Prophets, pg. 37]. Parker declared that Jesus was, well, maybe not irrelevant, but certainly a transient and not permanent feature in the understanding of pure religion. Jesus, not essential?!

Well, for his innovative proposals, Theodore Parker was reviled by the religious authorities and even asked, by a nest of his disapproving Unitarian colleagues, to resign his ministry. But he declined, surprised and hurt that they wouldn’t affirm his line of Reasoning. Nonetheless, with a voracious reading appetite and an intriguing presence, he had critical insight to offer on almost any subject, and went on to become a very popular speaker, known–in his time, even–as "the Great American Preacher." His very active support of the abolition movement was also renowned, although that, too, did not endear him to the authorities.


The "Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism"*–Channing, Emerson and Parker each stepped forth boldly to advance their ideals and ideas. After them, the Unitarian movement lurched into the 20th century, which will be the subject of my next sermon. [*Also the title of a book on the subject by Conrad Wright.]


In conclusion today, let me linger on the proposition that much of this influential early American originality remains with us, and certain strands are still controversial–although sometimes not for the same reasons as they were then.

Recall that in 1825 the American Unitarian Association was founded despite great reluctance to organize more widely, and Transcendentalism only deepened this trend. Some say that Emerson and his ilk paralyzed the growth of Unitarianism for decades by glorifying a rugged inner individualism parallel to the often-noted American frontier energy. A gentle critique would show that many Americans today still operate with a similar reluctance to engage beyond the immediately personal. Many UUs, too, I suppose.

A perhaps dangerously sweeping generalization would say that most Transcendentalists were aimed inward, bent on freeing the individual soul from the bonds of oppressive tradition. And despite a few notable exceptions, this is the Transcendentalist legacy. With eyes on nature and a direct interior connection to the divine, they emphasized and explored the world of personal religion, albeit as pioneers. They often withdrew from the world of messy relationships and wider community, following Emerson’s example, to contemplate the deep individual life attached to an "eternal deep." They endeavored to consider life outside of history.

By and large, it is other 19th century Unitarians who are acknowledged for the disproportionately large number of social reforms that we frequently honor when speaking of this period. The Transcendentalists were busy exploring inner space and articulating it to each other. They did inspire a deep relationship with the natural world, showing a respect that is unfortunately still way in the minority, and still quite controversial in some circles (or maybe just ignored). But some would say the Transcendentalist appreciation of nature was at the expense of greater efforts toward improving human community.

So the Transcendentalist strain endures in America, carrying the seeds of both genius and peril. It offers a magnificent empowerment of the individual to craft a truly authentic religious life, grounded in deep connection to nature, AND it can encourage detachment from community relationships and obligations.

This posture endures, yet today’s context and challenges are so different from those of the mid-1800s. Back then there were indeed such constraints on thought that the job of Enlightenment pioneers was to liberate the soul, to fight for and explore individual freedom of expression. And the Transcendentalist contribution has, in fact, helped transform our culture, so much so that the pendulum has now swung over to the other extreme. We have more freedom of expression than we know what to do with; this is no longer the fight, or the need.

Now, as one of today’s leading UUs, Forrest Church, often explains: our concern is less with the binding effect of religious oppression than with the bondlessness of individual isolation. Freedom is a given for us; we hunger for greater human connection.

I believe that one of our modern tasks is to both expand the Transcendentalist empowerment of the individual and focus that centering energy on building strong foundations of community, from which we can collectively create a path into a fulfilling future. I look to a future that includes commitment to BOTH fan the divine spark in each person of any age AND strengthen institutions that will represent our values now and beyond our lifetimes.

Yes, it’s a BOTH/ANDian scenario, and to polish off this exercise in Transcendentalist abstractions, I’ve got a song for us to sing that is one of the most BOTH/ANDian in our hymnal, #194, Faith is a Forest….


One of the least prolific–but most socially active–of the Transcendentalists was William Henry Channing, nephew of the great Ellery Channing mentioned in my sermon. William Henry did pen a short piece of Transcendentalist empowerment that I shall use for closing words. It’s called:

My Symphony:

To live content with small means;

To seek elegance rather than luxury;

To be worthy not respectable; and wealthy, not rich;

To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly;

To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with an open heart;

To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never…

In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious

grow up through the commonplace.

This is to be my symphony.

–William Henry Channing


Books quoted from above:

• Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. A Facsimile of the First Edition, with an introduction by Jaroslav Pelikan. Beacon Press, 1985

• Hutchison, William R. The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance. Archon Books (Yale Univ. Press), 1972.

• Wright, Conrad, ed. A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism. Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979. Essay quoted: Chapter 2–"At Morning Blest and Golden-Browed" by Daniel Walker Howe, then Associate Professor of History at UCLA, also author of The Unitarian Conscience (1970)

• Wright, Conrad, intro. Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing-Emerson-Parker. Unitarian Universalist Association, 1961. (Contains all of the three historical sermons mentioned above.)

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