"The Best Known Sermon Ever Preached in America"

by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church
September 28, 2003

Here at Paint Branch, the age of this congregation approaches the nice round number of 50, to be officially celebrated next Fall. But this year happens to be an even larger round number also worth honoring: it’s the 200th anniversary of the birth of the very influential American literary genius and Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, born on May 25, 1803.

He was known to all—even his friends—as Mr. Emerson, and his significant contributions to the budding American culture if the mid-19th century pivot on a talk he gave at Harvard in 1838: the "Divinity School Address," which has been called "the best known sermon ever preached in America." It both changed the course of religion in this country and announced the distinctly original character of the American people and culture.

On what he called a "refulgent summer" day in mid-July, 1838, Mr. Emerson preached with typically contained but fierce passion to a fresh crop of eight Harvard Divinity School graduates. (Maybe they knew what "refulgent" means, but I had to look it up. Emerson’s encyclopedic use of the English language is at once exhilarating and intimidating. "Refulgent" means shining, radiant.)

At that event in the Harvard Chapel on that refulgent day, over a hundred others were in attendance as well, for it was an annually notable occasion. This particular address retains its exhilarating and intimidating vigor as one of the most successful motivational speeches given in the 19th century. Today I shall try to tell you why this is so and portray some flavor of both that era and that sermon.

Students of American literature often examine the mid-19th century Transcendentalist authors—Emerson, certainly, but also George Ripley, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, plus the better known Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau, among others. Many of us have read these seminal writers perhaps without realizing their deep Unitarian roots.

The Transcendentalist movement was a literary and a religious phenomenon, led largely by a circle of Boston-area Unitarian ministers. Its religious aspects are frequently and sadly overlooked (and not to be confused with the imported discipline of Transcendental Meditation, which is another creature altogether).

For Mr. Emerson and his compatriots, a direct personal intuition of the divine was available to all people, meaning that anyone could "transcend" structures (and authorities) that claimed to mediate between the individual and the holy. This might seem obvious to us today, but at that point in the evolution of religious thought, such individual empowerment was scandalous and threatening, even as it announced a classically American approach. That some of us feel as religiously empowered as we do today can be traced right back to Emerson’s bold advance.

When I first went to college, fresh out of high school, I took a required class on Early American Literature twice a week—at 8 am, no less. Now, Transcendentalism is pretty heady stuff even at 10:30 am, as you may soon find out, but at the decidedly ungodly hour of 8 am I could no more keep my dizzy 18 year old eyes open and my rambunctious mind alert to Emerson and Thoreau's noble language than I could keep the school drunkards from littering the campus lakeshore with beer cans. (I tried, in both cases, and failed.) I also remember struggling valiantly to read all those esoteric pages in the evenings while serving as my dorm’s paid monitor for the logbook during girls' visiting hours. Early American Lit—yeah, right.

I was, at the time, something of a rebellious Unitarian youth who might have taken better to the complex prose of these authors if I had been more aware of their connection to my own religious heritage. But I had no memory of any of this material from my Sunday School upbringing, and the college lectures droned on with nary a mention of Unitarianism, and I drifted away.

So if you should find yourselves fuzzing out on, say, the Transcendentalists' preference for intangibles, don't fret. I empathize. (However, I might just pop a quiz…with essay questions, of course.)

The Harvard Divinity School graduates of 1838 were all Unitarians, on their way into the ministry of that nascent American denomination. Emerson himself had finished at Harvard a dozen years earlier and, after ordination, began preaching—the part he liked best about parish ministry.

However, the other parish duties did not suit him at all, so that after a few years in his only settlement—at Second Church, Boston—he resigned, even though the church was thriving and loved the Rev. Mr. Emerson. His family line included multiple generations of ministers—including his father who died when he was young—and Emerson had been propelled by this momentum. But it became clear to him that being a parish minister was not what he was cut out to do.

He resigned in 1832, although he still offered pulpit supply at nearby churches for umpteen more years [especially at Follen Church in Lexington] and attended Unitarian services regularly throughout his long life. But in 1833 he began a new career as a lecturer and, as we know, went on to solidify his position as perhaps the first truly original American literary voice. (I will be conducting a six-session study group looking at this formative American Unitarian and his influence beginning in mid-October. Call the church for more information and to sign-up.)

Six years after resigning from Second Church, he was beginning to garner the reputation of a considerable man of letters, when the senior class at Harvard asked him to speak at the annual Address there. Little did they know what they were in for, although it was their teachers who protested most loudly. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Mr. Emerson’s own inventiveness, mingled with a thorough study of the new European Idealism, had helped him grow even further away from the standard Unitarianism of his father's generation, which was epitomized by the luminary Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing.

The beloved Channing had earlier led an important and formative revolt of his own against the dominant Calvinist notions of original sin and predestination. But the proof of Christianity for Channing's crowd still rested squarely on the miracles performed by Jesus, and this issue became the next bone of contention for a younger generation of Unitarian leaders, such as Emerson.

Ah, the miracles. There would be more direct blows at this particular theological edifice in the near future, but Emerson's Divinity School Address was the trumpet call that signaled an assault. His blast at the establishment—from within the walls of Harvard, even—was not just an attack, however. It also proposed a blueprint for an exciting new construction. It established a foundation for Transcendentalism, which was the philosophical tool Emerson's generation used to scale the now-unsatisfying walls built by their now-orthodox Unitarian elders.

Together with his first published work, two years earlier, simply entitled, "Nature," Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838 now opened up for exploration, in prototypically American fashion, the realm of religious intuition, encouraging each person to intuit their own divine connection. Before this, according to Emerson, the liberal realm of religion had been characterized by dull formality and dominant structures from above, beyond and outside the individual. Mr. Emerson dismissed this style of spirituality as "corpse-cold Unitarianism."

For the graduates of 1838, he aimed his judgment at the manifestation of contemporary religion—preaching—and condemned his establishment colleagues for lacking the luster that comes with a deeper intuition of what the human religious impulse can mean. Here, then, is a sample of his thrust:

Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us…

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more… A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had not one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.

The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet there was not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history.

The true preacher can be known by this, that [such a one] deals out to the people… life, — life passed through the fire of thought.

I doubt Mr. Emerson was out to win any popularity contests. But this portrait of a dull, one-dimensional preacher was only an illustration of his greater purpose. He lit a fire under preachers so that they might be more inclined to explore the wider scope of religious authority, opened by the power of one’s own intuition.

His nervous elders in the Unitarian establishment knew that the upstart Emerson’s ideas on intuition touched a nerve and leaned heavily against a weak structure that was indeed tottering. As most any status quo is wont to do, they scrambled to sustain it by fighting back and denouncing this new perspective. But again I'm ahead of myself. (I guess I just get excited when establishments get nervous.)

Emerson's genius was not so much in knocking down, but in carefully envisioning a positive foundation of what was to replace the old order. The archaic structures would fall by their own lack of inertia, he believed. Emerson was directing the reconstruction before the residents even recognized the erosion around them. He was already showcasing new architectural designs.

By the third and fourth paragraphs he had built up steam. After an opening that illuminated some of the beautiful aspects of the "refulgent summer" upon them, he upped the religious ante:

A more secret, sweet and overpowering beauty appears… when [one's] heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue… [which] is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws.
It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish. The child…is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and in the game of human life, love, fear, justice, appetite, [hu]man and God, interact.
These laws refuse to be adequately stated. They will not be written out on paper, or spoken by the tongue. They elude our persevering thought; yet we read them hourly in each other's faces, in each other's actions, in our own remorse.

With that deceptively simple statement—"these laws refuse to be adequately stated"—he accomplished the deconstruction. Suddenly, all previous attempts at divine presentation of these laws, in whatever form, are questionable. Emerson was calling out traditional, institutional, dogmatic Christianity. But he continued by elucidating just how we are able to approach these universal and astonishing principles. "We read them hourly in each other's faces."

We get closer to the laws of the soul, he suggested, by use of our own intuition, which invariably leads us into morality. The laws of the soul execute themselves in that dimension quite well, he declared, ennobling those who do good deeds and minimizing those who do evil. Bad or false intentions will bring their own undoing.

"But speak the truth," said the idealist Emerson, "and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness."

So we are by nature, by the laws of the soul, by truth, urged toward benevolence. This in turn awakens in us the religious sentiment, the very heart of humanity, which, Emerson reasoned, should also be the very heart of Christianity. It is by this religious sentiment that individuals come to realize that truth flows from an inner foundation, and that distraction results from seeking advantages from another, apart from oneself. Such an inwardly centered love allows all forms of worship.

However, even though intuition may be the guardian and expression of the everyone’s religiosity, there is still an adversary. Here is what Emerson was finally getting at, what really ignited the controversy that followed. Yes, the religious sentiment is indeed always an intuition, as he proposed. One must receive firsthand any oracles, or wisdom, or perception. This is the personal connection to divinity that cannot be dealt out by others, nor can it be ever completely swept from a person's heart. (Perhaps you know that to be true in your lives, that the religious sentiment is always an intuition.)

But churches and authorities often behave otherwise. Emerson launched his broadside at a contemporary religious establishment that relied primarily on old, authoritarian understandings (such as the miracles). He made harsh assessments of the status quo and then challenged the leaders of his day to involve the people directly, dynamically in the religious sentiment.

To be so involved is the innate ability and right of every human soul—perhaps atrophied, but certainly renewable, and Emerson was issuing a call for that renewal, a call that severely threatened the religious status quo.

In particular, he offered a "renewed" perspective on the carpenter from Nazareth, with which he sought to strengthen true Christianity. He lifted up the model of Jesus, who, he said,

belonged to the race of true prophets. [Jesus] saw with an open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of [humanity]. One man was true to what is in you and me…

He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, 'I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.'

He spoke of miracles; for he felt that [human] life was a miracle… 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.

And so, with Jesus as his guide, Emerson ushers Intuition-as-personal-authority into the American philosophy. It was not long before others would make the next logical connection, one that keener minds among the orthodoxy already fearfully anticipated: that an individual intuitive authority could relegate the miracles, and then the Bible, even, and, by extension, Jesus himself, surprisingly irrelevant.

If it remained for each person to apprehend their own divinity, one-on-one with Nature, then all the walls of institutionalized religion might come tumbling down. In fact, sprouting later in that 19th century among the open-minded, intuitive Unitarians, was the Free Religious Association, a precursor to humanism. Its lineage can arguably be traced back to that July day in the Harvard Chapel.

But such total rejection was not Mr. Emerson's intention, per se. As with many reformers, he felt he was perfecting Christianity. However, to the faculty of Harvard, it was a disastrous heresy that had to be countermanded, especially since it had been proposed at an institutional ceremony. They knew a slippery slope in their backyard when they saw one. They were rather livid.

Soon Professor Andrews Norton fired back with a very pointed attack aimed at Emerson, entitled "The Latest Form of Infidelity." Many other papers rushed to impugn the upstart philosopher. For his part, much as he had turned from the parish ministry, so Emerson pulled away from the debate he inflamed. He declined to argue, preferring the quiet of his study in Concord. He set about following and developing his own literary passions. He left it to others to defend the new turf he had so dramatically staked out.

But the die was cast, as they say; the seed planted; the vision now out there growing wings. Emerson had passed the religion of his day through the fire of his piercing thought. He had eloquently shifted authority from external powers to a supremely beautiful Nature, which "out of spent and aged things [forever forms] the world anew."

The depth of Emerson's insight, his gorgeous use of the English language (which I can now more fully appreciate), his message of personal religious empowerment, the impact on our movement of such intellectual courage—all make me honor his 200th birthday with vigor and renewed interest. Somehow his dense but creative eloquence is very embraceable, as it was in his day.

A reporter [for the Boston Transcript] once noticed that a washerwoman always went to hear Emerson’s lectures [at Fanueil Hall]. He asked her if she understood Mr. Emerson. "Not a word," she replied, "but I love to see him standing up there thinking everyone else is just as good as he is."
[As told by Elizabeth Peabody, in "Emerson as a Preacher," from The Genius and Character of Emerson, by James R. Osgood, 1884.]

It is indeed encouraging, if challenging, to read Emersonian passages like this one, for me to use as closing:

…Let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become…new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.

It is in every one of us to live a life passed through the fire of thought, and to share "this little light" of ours in the community of nature and soul. So may it be.

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