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Ideas: Religion

"Tempest in a Washbowl": Emerson vs. the Unitarians

Ann Woodlief [talk to First Unitarian Church, Richmond, VA]

Unitarians today like to claim Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of their own, and with good reason. He was approbated to preach as a Unitarian minister in 1826, only a year after the American Unitarian Association was formed. Three years later, after sporadic attendance at the Harvard Divinity School, he was licensed to preach by the Second Church of Boston. Though he eventually stopped preaching, he remained a Unitarian until his death at 79. But he cannot exactly be called one of the Founding Fathers of Unitarianism. His relationship with the Unitarian establishment and theology was never simple or very peaceful, but it makes a fascinating story. Basically, this is the story of a young liberal humanist who challenged the religious assumptions of his teachers and elders, who were themselves liberal for their time but perhaps not as humanist as Emerson was. Emerson was willing to carry their ideas to their logical ends, to say what the Unitarians were not yet ready to admit.

Emerson's ambivalence about Unitarian thought emerged subconsciously at first. He had always thought of himself as headed for the ministry, like his father, both grandfathers, and various uncles. But recurring bouts of illness kept him from his theological studies. Oddly enough, he found his eyes too weak to read theology, though they improved remarkably when he finally turned to other kinds of reading. He managed to spend a total of only a few weeks in Divinity School classes, thanks to these illnesses.

His health did pick up with his marriage shortly after ordination, though when his wife Ellen died 18 months later of tuberculosis, he was again confronted with his unwillingness to accept some Unitarian doctrines. Not that he questioned all the doctrines; he particularly appreciated the sermons of William Ellery Channing, especially when he spoke about the immanence of God in man. Emerson definitely agreed with the Unitarians that man has an almost infinite capacity for good. But he was developing his own religious philosophy. Finally, in 1832 he resigned from the Second Church because he could no longer administer in good conscience what was to him the empty Communion ritual. Then he took the money that had been willed to him by Ellen and he ran--to Europe for a year of travel, study, and thought, and to escape the expectations of well-intentioned friends and family. When he returned, he supplemented his income by regular supply preaching, a ministry that ended shortly after he delivered his famous Divinity School Address.

To understand Emerson's ambivalence about Unitarian doctrine, it is necessary to know what that doctrine was. Basically, Unitarianism developed in the congregational churches of New England as a protest against Calvinist theology. Although theoretically the dispute centered on whether God was to be considered as three persons--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--or one God, it really originated as a reaction to the Calvinist beliefs in evil, predestination, and original sin. All of these were beliefs that focused on man as a sinner going either to heaven or hell. The thrust of the Unitarian church reformers was a belief in the power of man's reason and his innate capacity for good.

However, in the 1830s these Unitarians were terrified that their belief in man's potential good and in a unified God would result in their not being considered as true Christians. In order to elevate man as good and God as one, it had been necessary to de-emphasize the divine nature of Jesus. "Was Jesus divine or human?" became a crucial question. Unitarians were quite unwilling to cross the line that would deny Jesus divinity. Their reason told them they had to question the miracles and even the divine nature of Jesus in order to exalt man and his own capacity for divinity and to respect the laws of nature. But they resisted strongly, for fear that they would no longer be called Christians. Deep down they were probably convinced that they would be damned eternally if they denied the divinity of Jesus, even if to do so might increase the potential of human beings.

Also, remember that the Unitarians had had control of many congregational churches for  very short time. If their doctrine appeared to be unChristian, then they feared that they would lose this precarious control, and they were probably right. So they became highly conservative, fighting hard to insist that Jesus did indeed break natural laws by performing miracles and anyone who did not agree was just not a real Christian.

The younger Unitarians--those who had not been part of the fight to gain control of the congregational churches--were willing to cross this line. They had read Emerson's book Nature and were attracted to these exciting ideas, ideas that said "Man is a god in ruins," man should be self-reliant and follow his intuition and feelings as well as his reason to reach full self-development. Like Emerson, they thought that dried-up doctrines of an earlier time should not get in the way of original insights.

So, in 1838 the seven graduating seniors of the Harvard Divinity School selected Emerson as a speaker at the graduation, passing over the older and conservative Unitarians. Certainly this invitation was an act of defiance against their elders and teachers, and Emerson knew it was. The little divinity School chapel was filled with the graduates and their families and all the most noted Unitarians that beautiful July day when Emerson took the pulpit and calmly and confidently lay siege to some of the Unitarians' most cherished ideas.

The Divinity School Address sound innocuous enough to our ears today. It called for religious self-reliance, telling us not to depend on the worn-out doctrines passed down but to seek out our own convictions. But to many of those who heard it in 1838 or read it when it was later printed, the address was pure Transcendental heresy.

A furor erupted in newspapers, pulpits, and pamphlets against the Address and Emerson. But Emerson retreated to his study, apparently quite calm and above the storm, and refused to respond publicly. He called the fuss "a tempest in a washbowl," but his journal shows us today that he was upset by the vehemence of the attacks against him. Repeatedly he wrote in his journal, "Steady, steady!"

Emerson's former Divinity School professor, Andrews Norton, who was usually a cautious and sober man, wasted no time blasting the address in the Boston Daily Advertiser. He called the graduates accessories to a crime for inviting a "man who attacks Christian as a revelation and the Clergy" to "deliver an incoherent rhapsody." He assured his readers that "We know what the words God, Religion, Christianity, mean." He was especially concerned that "such false preachers could have a disastrous effect upon the religion and moral state of the community, that general evil-doing might break out in the community because of this speech. Emerson's response--in his journal only--was "It is plain from all the noise that there is atheism somewhere; the only question is now, Which is the atheist?" Norton became known soon as the "hard-headed Unitarian Pope." But he had many clergy and conservatives on his side who thought Emerson was a dangerous atheist and even taught their children that he was "a sort of a mad dog."

Meanwhile some Unitarian ministers did come to Emerson's support. Henry Ware thought he could undo the damage by preaching another sermon in the "Divinity School on the "Personality of the Deity." The Christian Examiner, the leading religious periodical, was not fooled; they used Ware's sermon as an example of good writing, contrasting it with the fallacies, "wordiness and mysticism" of Emerson's speech.

Those who most openly supported Emerson were the younger Transcendentalists who shared his views. Orestes Brownson insisted that Emerson was "the last man in the world we should suspect of conscious hostility to religion and morality." Instead, he said, Emerson's object was to "call forth the free spirit" and "to induce men to think for themselves on all subjects, and speak from their own full hearts, and earnest convictions," not "to be slaves to routine, to custom, to established creeds, to public opinion, to the great names of this age or of any other."

Norton could not let this defense pass unnoticed. In a sermon he delivered at the Divinity School in 1839 called "A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity," he let his audience know that such self-reliant religious thinking was disastrous. He insisted that Christianity must rely for its existence on the reason and the testimony of others through history, and one man is too imperfect to grasp religious ideas intuitively and by himself. Again, Emerson responded privately and irreverently in his journal: "My life is a May game, I will live as I like. I defy your strait-laced, weary, social ways, and modes."

All told, it took two years for the tempest to die down. Emerson stopped preaching, though the concept of religious self-reliance was the base of all his later essays and lectures. But never again did he talk publicly about Unitarian doctrines. He did write a poem about the disputed, "Uriel," in which he pictures himself as a rebellious cherub in heaven.

Did the Unitarian Church fall apart because some of its members did not believe in the divinity of Jesus or in his miracles? Obviously not. Ironically, those seven graduates did not stay in the ministry long. Perhaps they could not live up to Emerson's standards. In a sense, Norton and Emerson were acting out the age-old conflict between generations, between tradition and the ideas that emerge from that tradition. The upshot of the controversy was a renewed examination of religious ideas on the part of many people who were drawn into the dispute. That made the whole "tempest" worthwhile. As Emerson said, truth can often evolve from the repeated confrontation and reconciliation of opposed ideas, and the Unitarians weathered this storm to celebrate him as one of its great thinkers.

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