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August 12, 2007: “Why We Sainted Emerson, and Why We Shouldn’t Have”

Former president of our denomination, John Buehrens, once gave his own favorite version of the fundamentalists’ favorite Bible verse as “God so loved the world that S/he did not send a committee.” Someone said that John Buehrens commented that he wasn’t surprised, when he became president, to see that we UUs shoot ourselves in the foot. After all, he’d been around this association for some time. What surprised him was how quickly we could reload. Or, I might add, how often we use a circular firing squad and shoot each other!

Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it: Emerson’s good friend and fellow Unitarian, Henry David Thoreau, wrote a book called A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS that didn’t sell well. The publisher printed 1000 copies, but couldn’t unload them, and needed the shelf space for newer books they were publishing. Thoreau bought the unsold copies–706 of them. However, he recorded the transaction in his personal journal as follows: “I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of our most famous Unitarians and we like to trot out his name and fame to bolster our cause; indeed, it could be safely said that he is like one of our saints, even though we really don’t believe in sainthood. Emerson is important to our history because now in the 21st century, many of us would fit the category of being transcendentalists without knowing it, especially when we say that we can find religion in nature. Many think that he personified the blossoming of our , and the birth of world’s new country, got by revolution, and more than 200 years later, look how well we turned out!

Emerson, probably more than Channing or Parker, also might be considered the archetype of the liberal wing of early American Protestantism, indeed out of New England Puritanism, out of the original Pilgrim churches, Unitarianism evolved out of a reaction against the fundamentalism of the 18th century revival movement called the Great Awakening. It might be argued that we are today in the midst of another cycle of the Great Awakening, repeated every 60 or 70 years since the 18th century. One could argue that Emerson made up his own religion as he went along! It was a religion of modernism, ahead of its time. Emerson was America’s premier mystic. He was born in 1803, just decades after the end of the Revolutionary war and lived until almost the end of the century, 1882. It was, as one historian put it, a time of our country’s rebellious adolescence!

While many of the early pilgrim churches of Massachusetts were becoming more liberal and more Unitarian, it was not until 1819 that William Ellery Channing, often called the Father of American Unitarianism, preached the famous “Baltimore Sermon” entitled “Unitarian Christianity,’ which would really define our movement.

Indeed, William Ellery Channing, another candidate for sainthood, was a strong influence on Emerson who often attended Channing’s church, now known as the Arlington Street Church in Boston. Finally in 1825, under the organizing skills of Channing, a new denomination was born, named the American Unitarian Association, which would over a century later in 1961, merge with the Universalist Church of America to form our present denomination called the Unitarian Universalist Association or more commonly called the ‘UUA.” Channing becomes a well known 19th century writer who was famous enough to have a quotation carved in stone over one of the entrances to the old San Antonio Library of all places! He certainly could be eligible for UU sainthood, and is almost always considered as one the greats of our movement.

Richardson, in Emerson The Mind on Fire, pines:’Waldo was becoming more and more interested in the ideas and example of William Ellery Channing. Channing, a Boston minister and the greatest of the founding figures of American Unitarianism, was at the height of his powers. In 1819 he had delivered a sermon in Baltimore called ‘Unitarian Christianity’ which was at once recognized as the defining scripture of the new movement, institutionalized as a separate denomination in 1825. Channing’s Baltimore sermon asserted a belief in one and only one God. He objected to the doctrine of the Trinity as ‘subverting the unity of God’. According to Channing, Unitarians believed in ‘Jesus Christ as a being distinct from and inferior to God.’… . Unitarianism looked on itself as the true reformation come at last. Channing himself possessed both moral force and intellectual energy. He was an accomplished and effective speaker, and he ended ‘Unitarian Christianity’ with a call for revolution: ‘Our earnest prayer to God is, that he will overturn, and overturn, and overturn the strong-holds of spiritual usurpation.’

‘Writer Virginia Woolf said of Emerson that ‘what he did was to assert that he could not be rejected because he held the universe within him. Each man, by finding out what he feels, discovers the laws of the universe.”

Unitarianism, and current UUism, stemmed from one of Christianity’s earliest heresies, the rejection of the Trinity, and eventually seeing Jesus as human, though profoundly inspired, like Buddha or Mohammed. When the floodgates of Reformation were opened in the early 16th century in Germany, one might have rightly predicted Emerson’s theology of self-reliance, of almost Eastern mysticism; indeed he was called the ‘Yankee Hindoo,’ because he was one of the first ministers to be able to read the newly translated into English Hindu and Buddhist texts. That also was one of the reasons we sainted him, an early seeker of world religions.

Most of 19th century American Literature, especially that school known as Transcendentalism, was written by Unitarians or Universalists like: Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Emerson, the Alcott’s- Louisa May and her dad, Bronson- Margaret Fuller-the early feminist, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horatio Alger, Jr., William Cullins Bryant, James Russell Lowell, Amy Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edwin Markham, Celia Thaxter, and others.

Though he never considered himself much of a poet, his poem, ‘Concord Hymn” was sung at the completion of the battle monument on July 4, 1837, became so famous that its last line of the first stanza entered into the American psyche and often was used to describe the Revolutionary war. That famous first stanza read by how many million children in public school:

By the Rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.”

But religiously he is important for starting the Transcendentalist movement, first in his first book in 1836 called Nature, then in the famous(or infamous depending on which side one is on) 1838 Harvard Divinity School commencement address. Just 13 years after the creation of a new denomination, Emerson would create a furor of protest for his radical departure from already liberal Unitarianism in the commencement speech. It has been said that that talk was the beginning of Transcendentalism and a reaction against what was seen by some as conservatism after the denominational start. It was, at the very least, part of an evolution. It should be noted since I am using the word evolution so much, that it is a Unitarian word, coming from the Unitarian scientist, Charles Darwin, whose theory would be defended at the famous ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ by a Unitarian lawyer named Clarence Darrow! Indeed, the trial seems to continue today with the radical religious right still trying to retry the case and stop teaching evolution in public schools.

The Divinity School Address created what would have been called in the 1960’s, a “generation gap.” The horrified president of Harvard Divinity School said: ‘That part of it which was not folly was downright Atheism!’ And Prof. Andrews Norton wrote a reply called ‘A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity’ (and being called an infidel had a harsh ring to it in those days).

“The latest form of infidelity,” he wrote, “strikes directly at the root of faith in Christianity, and indirectly of all religion, by denying the miracles attesting the divine mission of Christ.”

In the 20th century, UU Historian Conrad E. Wright, formerly Professor of American Church History at Harvard Divinity School, wrote a great book about UU history called Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, and Parker, and said:

“William Ellery Channing and his Baltimore Sermon, ‘Unitarian Christianity’ of 1819, Emerson’s Harvard Divinity School Address of 1838, and Theodore Parker’s sermon ‘The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,’ in 1841 are “the three classic of Unitarian Scripture; they all started a widespread controversy, they represented turning points in American Unitarianism. … Channing took the liberal wing of New England congregationalism, fastened a name to it, and forced it to overcome its reluctance to recognize that it had become, willy nilly, a separate and distinct Christian body. Emerson cut deeply at the traditional philosophical presuppositions of the Unitarianism of his day, and it was never thereafter possible for Unitarians to return to the position that Christianity is based on the authority of Christ as the unique channel of God’s revelation to humanity. Emerson and Parker alike insisted that the religious impulse is primary and universal and that Christianity is but one of many expressions of that primary impulse, deriving authority from its congruity with universal truth. Since that time, there has always been a universalistic as well as a Christian component in American Unitarian thought; and much of the intellectual history of the denomination has involved the interplay between these two strands. …The divinity School Address remains, therefore, a perennial fresh solvent of dogmatic orthodoxies, especially Unitarian orthodoxies, rather than an indication of the permanent philosophical bent of Unitarianism in this country.”

Channing, however, remained, not only in ministry, but also in Christianity. Emerson left both ministry and Christianity ( even Unitarian Christianity) behind. I want to argue that Emerson, more than any other Unitarian figure of the day, even of today, is the archetype of contemporary UUism.

UU minister and social activist John Haynes Holmes, a 20th century iconoclast himself, once said that Emerson ‘was an iconoclast without a hammer who took down our idols from their pedestals so gently that it seemed like an act of worship.’

So Emerson has been sainted for his radical departure from the religious status quo, and certainly those of us who came of age during those tumultuous 60’s and 70’s quoted Emerson often, as in his well known essay “Self Reliance,” where he says to be human we must be nonconformists, and in another well known section:”

We must dare to be misunderstood… A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,… adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. … Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.-‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’- Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.’

Historian David Robinson, in his book, The Unitarians and the Universalists, says about Emerson that he was”…the leader of the Transcendental movement in New England and is arguably the most important American cultural figure of the 19th century…. His first book Nature (1836), propounded an intuitional and idealistic system of religion based upon the monistic unity of God, nature, and the human soul….His thought continues to be influential in the 20th century, and he is generally acknowledged to be one of the two or three most important American authors of the 19th century.”

Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy was considered heretical and dangerous by some, leading those who would follow him into the fires of hell. Edward Taylor, a Methodist clergyman, was nonetheless a sympathetic supporter of Emerson’s endeavors, and saw in him no threat whatsoever to anyone’s salvation. He wrote, “It may be that Emerson is going to hell, but of one thing I am certain; he will change the climate there and emigration will set that way.”

In his great biography, Emerson The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr., writes:

‘Freed of his vast, unfortunate, and self-perpetuating reputation, Emerson steps forth as a complicated, energetic, and emotionally intense man who habitually spoke against the status quo and in favor of whatever was wild and free. The great spokesman for individualism and self-reliance turns out to have been a good neighbor, an activist citizen, a fond father, a loyal brother, and a man whose many friendships framed his life. Emerson’s main project, never realized to his satisfaction, was to write a natural history of intellect.’

So what’s the problem? In 1822, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a friend in which he talked about religion and how reasonable he found Unitarianism: ‘I fully expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.’ Three years later, the same year that the denomination was being organized, he wrote to another friend: ‘The population of my neighborhood is too slender and too divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must, therefore, be content to be a Unitarian by myself.’

In an article on Emerson, Rev. David Robins writes:’ As 1830, began, Emerson was working out a new and strikingly modern theology. He started from the premise that ‘Christianity is validated in each person’s life and experience or not at all. ‘Following Coleridge’s life-giving observation that ‘Christianity is not a theory or a speculation, but a life — not a philosophy of life but life itself, not knowledge but being’. Emerson insists that ‘every man makes his own religion, his own God.’ To the question, ‘What is God?’ he now replies, ‘the most elevated conception of character that can be formed in the mind. It is the individual’s own soul carried out to perfection.’ From this position he began to work out in his January sermons a theology of friendship. The relation of Christ to the soul of a good person is not that of redeemer but of friend. Our feeling for Christ is that of ‘profoundest friendship.’ Emerson’s effort to relocate and reconstitute theology starting with human nature came about partly because Emerson was already sympathetic to the radical new religious thought of the time … and partly because he was rapidly becoming a deeper, warmer, more human person himself as he and (young wife) Ellen struggled to live with her illness.’

The problem is that one cannot be truly self-reliant any more, nor, I believe, can one be a Unitarian by oneself, nor can we build a church unless people are willing to form a beloved religious community, rather than an intellectual debating society or a politically correct social justice protest group.. In order to worship we must be willing to find balance between transcendental individualism and a multi-cultural and theological diverse religious community. We speak, not of self-reliance, but of the interdependence of all life. The problem with sainting Emerson is that we emphasize the individual over the religious institution of church and even of denomination. It is perhaps why we have remained such a small denomination with less than 250,000 members while the Southern Baptists claim 15 million!

The problem with sainting Emerson is that we saint someone who gave up on ministry and the church instead of working within. Emerson performed a great duty; he held up one’s own intuition as the final authority in religion. Individualism was a needed departure from the heavy hand of conformity, both religious and social, in those days and in other times throughout our history. However, we baby boomers seem to have learned that we need to go from the “me decade” of the 70’s, to the “we” decade of the 90’s, when we are coming back to the church in droves as our children now start college and will probably rediscover Emerson all over again. Emerson as saint doesn’t help us to grow or build any churches; instead the temptation is for a kind of self-centered religion. Indeed, the fastest growing religious organization may be the 12 -step recovery movement, and one the steps is to realize that we can’t make it all by ourselves, that we are not God. For recovery, one must let go and trust a higher power, God, or the creative force of the universe, or sometimes just another human being who loves us somehow gives us strength through relationship; one must realize that to overcome an addiction, for instance, one must cease being self-reliant, or perhaps more accurately said, self-centered, and be willing to ask for help for love, fore relationship, for a mirror that reflects our inner strength. We need each other. Emerson needed his family as well as transcendentalism; perhaps he could have been active in cocreating a religious community which might have nurtured him in what he needed.

I believe that at its heart, yes, and its mind, religion must be about relationship-relationships with each other, with the world, with the religious impulse or force which some call God, with our deeper and innermost self. Religion calls forth, not for independence and lonely individualism, but for the urge to be in religious relationship, not dependent but interdependent, in a beloved community, not which tells us to all conform to one set of religious rules or doctrines, but which encourages a liberal religious, responsible, and rational search for truth and meaning in our lives. We must learn to balance the ego, whether it be the intellectual, emotional, or religious ego with being ‘self-reliant.’ Like Emerson says we must use our religious intuition, but we need an organization for the church to live and thrive beyond just us. We believe here in religious freedom and tolerance. We do not claim to have the only way, but say that there are many paths up the holy mountain, and that to be in religious relationship with one another helps us in our spiritual journey. We draw wisdom from all religions, from all the saints, from all traditions including the arts and literature and yea, even science and nature. Let us dare to live and share our belief as well as our doubts, our hopes as well as our fears, but most of all, let share our religious dimension of beloved community, balancing social justice with spiritual, emotional and intellectual exploration.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew),Assalaamu Alaikum. (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ SO I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con SU Dios, ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.