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Many of the principles Americans take for granted can be traced to the “Transcendentalism” of Emerson and his circle, whether realized or not. Over the next few episodes we will take a look at some of these principles and the people who helped to embed them into the modern American consciousness. The first, and perhaps most fundamental, is their insistence on the divine nature of each person, and its consequent effect on the expression of religion and spirituality.

In reading Emerson’s ecstatic  and blissful descriptions of the One, it’s easy to forget that they were written against a backdrop of strong religious disagreements.  The fracturing of the monolithic Christian church that had begun with Luther and led to the Pilgrims continued in the New World.  In many ways, Boston, and Harvard in particular, were ground zero for much of this controversy.  As Philip F. Gura makes clear in his book American Transcendentalism: A History, Harvard was in the thrall of German theology at this time: “…with the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the reopening of safe travel to Europe.

Americans began to visit the Continent and to study at German universities.  Among the most prominent of these pioneers were George Ticknor, Edward Everett, George Bancroft, and Frederic Henry Hedge, all of whom eventually carved out positions of intellectual leadership in New England and led efforts to disseminate German language and thought.¹”  Although these men laid the groundwork from which New England Idealism would flower, eventually the turf wars being waged in German

Emerson, a Unitarian by training and by nature, was only too aware of the negative effects of this sectarianism, and it formed part of his decision to leave the ministry in 1831.  In his journal on June 20 of that year he wrote, “Religion is the relation of the Soul to God, & therefore the progress of Sectarianism marks the decline of religion. For, looking at God instantly reduces our disposition to dissent from our brother. A man may die by fever as well as by consumption & religion is as effectually destroyed by bigotry as by indifference.”

Especially after returning from Europe, Emerson had become a Protestant’s protestant.  His direct experiences of the Good, and his growing familiarity with the works of Plato and other non-Christian traditions, strengthened his belief in “the infinitude of the private man,” but it also got him into hot water with the religious establishment of his day.  What Kathleen Raine says of England–“It must also be remembered that the academic world at that time consisted of Protestant clergymen, to whom the Platonic theology must have been extremely distasteful²”–was also true of America.  When Emerson made his points, during the Divinity School Address, about two defects of “historical Christianity,” and urged his listeners to “love God without mediator or veil,” he was banned from speaking at Harvard for twenty years.

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The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - RWE.org