American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. The son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson was himself ordained as a minister of Boston’s (Unitarian) Old Second Church on January 11, 1829. Following a number of heartbreaking illnesses within his family, however, Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing his new philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature”.
Emerson’s journey from traditional religious beliefs to a more pantheistic view was heavily influenced by the ill health that surrounded him throughout his younger years. His father died of stomach cancer in 1811, when Ralph was just 8. Waldo (as he preferred to be called in his late teens), suffered ill health as well, eventually moving to St. Augustine, Florida in 1826 to avoid the brutal Boston winters. His newlywed teenage wife, whom Waldo met in New Hampshire and married on Christmas Day of 1827, fell ill with tuberculosis and died in 1831. His 23-year-old younger brother died of tuberculosis in 1834; and his youngest brother also died of tuberculosis in 1836. These deaths played a significant role in Emerson’s formal religious apostasy. Although he had studied at the Harvard Divinity School and taught there for a brief time, he eventually found himself unable to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in good conscience and resigned his pastorate in 1832.
The following year, he sailed for Europe, visiting the famous Romantic writers Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carlyle was famous for his explosive attacks on hypocrisy and materialism, his distrust of democracy, and his highly romantic belief in the power of the individual. Emerson’s friendship with Carlyle impacted his own fledgling philosophy, Transcendentalism.
As both a political and philosophical movement, Transcendentalism rejects the mechanistic world view in which man serves as a necessary cog within a universal clock. Considered a response to the sobriety, mildness, and calm rationalism of Unitarianism, Transcendentalism focused more on the intense spiritual experience and individuality of a person. It states that the universe functions on its own and each aspect of the universe has a mind of its own, which it uses in order for continued existence. Transcendentalism contradicts the belief that God is the designer behind the intelligent design of the universe. Rather it asserts the pantheistic belief that God is one with the universe: As nature continue to evolve, so does God. To be clear, Emerson saw the universe as having a grand design, but he argued that God is not just a designer who fixes people in a certain position. Rather, God is present in all that exists:
“A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world… . So intimate is this Unity, that, it is easily seen, it lies under the undermost garment of nature, and betrays its source in the Universal Spirit… It is like a great circle on a sphere, comprising all possible circles; which, however, may be drawn, and comprise it, in like manner.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”, 1836.
Transcendentalism emerged as a specific philosophy when four former and current Unitarians, including Emerson, founded the Transcendental Club in 1836. Emerson’s protégé, Henry David Thoreau, was one of the first members, along with the utopian Bronson Alcott, feminist Margaret Fuller and education pioneer Elizabeth Peabody. The Club viewed society — especially organized religion and political parties — as corrupting, and upheld nature, free will, self-reliance and reason as enlightening. They looked to connect to an “Over-Soul,” a sort of universal force of goodness that both resides in all people and “transcends” them.
“A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Although the Transcendental movement faded with the American Civil War (1861-1865), Emerson’s focus on an individual’s experience of God lives on in Unitarian Universalist, New Thought and Pantheistic philosophies. After his passing (April 27, 1882), his beliefs and idealism were felt in the works of Henry David Thoreau and his contemporary Walt Whitman, as well as numerous others. To this day, his prolific writings are considered major documents of 19th-century American literature, religion and thought. But it is perhaps the simplicity of his wisdom that is his most powerful legacy:
“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson