Monday, July 27, 2009

Lecture #5: "Transcendentalism, the New Nation, and the Second Great Awakening"

[This lecture is number 5 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

Both of the essays I plan to deliver this morning are deeply flawed. To attempt to relate the history of the Transcendentalists is 25 minutes is utterly foolish. To then follow up this essay with a 25 minute attempt to tell the story of our Universalist heritage is even more foolish.

But before we start, I would love to find out if you have any pre-existing biases as regards the Transcendentalists. For each of the follow statements, I would love for you to shout “yea!” if you agree and then to shout “nay!” if you disagree.

Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists disliked church.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists were individualists.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists were interested in social action.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists continue to have a major influence on Unitarian Universalism as it is practiced today.
Yea or nay? The Transcendentalists are more interesting than the Puritans. (I’m not surprised that the “yeas” were nearly unanimous on this last question.)

You don’t need to do much more say the word Transcendentalism and a hush falls over the room and people lean in. Two things are for sure. The Transcendentalists are fascinating and they are hard to pin down.

Take Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here is a figure who would tell a graduating class of ministers to go it alone and resist the good models. (In telling this to the class he simultaneously told off all of the mentors and ministers who had trained the graduating class.) Despite these instructions to experience God “at firsthand” and not to imitate others, Emerson would regularly spend five hours in the morning in his study reading the Classics in their original languages or reading the works of German philosophers and theologians in German. Emerson might go for an afternoon walk in the woods with his friend Henry David Thoreau or he might write an essay in support of the abolitionist cause.

At times the Transcendentalists appeared to be flaky, almost bumbling. Some attempted forming utopian farming communes at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts and at Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts while at the same time knowing little about farming. In living out this utopian vision, these communities insisted that members should work only as they felt moved. (This strategy is one that college students sharing an apartment have attempted time after time, seldom with better results.) One journal kept by a member of the Brook Farm community records one person feeling moved by the spirit to plow a field the day after another member had felt moved by the spirit to seed the same field.

There are parts of the Transcendentalists’ spiritual openness in which we rejoice. We tend to love Thoreau’s naturalism and Emerson’s idea of the Oversoul and a faith that prizes intuition. That Emerson was among the first to translate Hindu sacred texts is another source of pride. We appreciate that he could appreciate the holy scriptures of Eastern religions. However, other examples of their spiritual openness and curiosity are a source of embarrassment to many of us today. Some Transcendentalists enjoyed paying visits to phrenologists and to other spiritualists. Other Transcendentalists recall in their writings being deeply impressed and moved by a meeting with the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Walt Whitman sent his first collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, to Emerson. When Emerson replied with a favorable letter (or maybe he was just being kind) Whitman had the private letter reprinted as a preface to his book. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Well, so do the Transcendentalists.

So, what was Transcendentalism exactly? It is a word that is often thrown around but seldom defined. (The term likely comes from the writings of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose scholarship was enthusiastically read by many of the Transcendentalists.) One professor of mine from seminary was known to answer that it was simply the American version of Romanticism, an answer that fails to be helpful to many. I think Transcendentalism is best described as an intellectual, spiritual, literary, and social movement that was Unitarianism’s contribution to both a new nation that had freed itself politically, but not yet intellectually or culturally, from Europe. I believe that Transcendentalism can be further defined as Unitarianism’s fascinating response to the Second Great Awakening.

Let me say just a few words to help us contextualize this movement. We all know America declared its independence in 1776. Yet, American culture and scholarship still looked back to Europe. In 1832, following the death of his first wife and his resignation from the Unitarian ministry, Emerson did something that anyone of learning was expected to do: he traveled to Europe. There continues to be scholarly disagreement about whether the major impulse for Emerson to leave the ministry came from his own personal grief or from objections to performing some of the duties of ministry, such as giving communion. Those who insist that he left for personal reasons point out that Emerson seemed to be picking fights over issues and that the congregation he served was quite willing to compromise, but that Emerson resigned anyways. Traveling to England after quitting the ministry, Emerson met with great thinkers like William Wadsworth, Samuel Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. On the ship back from England, Emerson penned Nature. He followed Nature up with a series of other essays. These included a piece called “Self-Reliance,” and another entitled, “The American Scholar.” These pieces, along with Channing’s essay on “Self-Culture,” amounted to an intellectual Declaration of Independence. In “The American Scholar,” Emerson wrote, "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds ... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."

This intellectual and cultural movement took many forms. Paintings by Thomas Cole and other members of the Hudson Valley School depicted a new vision of the American landscape. This new vision did not cast itself backward, to the ruins of Europe’s rich history. This new vision depicted an America that looked westward.

Intellectual freedom from Europe was one of the contexts for understanding the Transcendentalists. A second context is the Second Great Awakening. From the late 1820s (or earlier, according to some scholars) through the 1850s, there was a period of great religious tumult in the United States. The First Great Awakening (see lecture #3) was approximately a century earlier and was marked by the rise of Methodism, revivalism, and a greater emotion in American religiosity. The Second Great Awakening was considerably more diverse. I already mentioned Joseph Smith, but it is important to realize that Joseph Smith was just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of would-be prophets who sprang up around this time. People walked the streets of New York City prophesying and claiming to be a prophet chosen by God, or even the second coming of the Messiah. Many new religious movements began during this period, not only the Mormons, but also the Disciples of Christ and the Seventh Day Adventists. Mainline religions continued to host evangelical camp meetings and revivals. They also joined with great enthusiasm social movements that advocated for temperance, abolition, and prison reform.

An area in upstate New York became known as the “burned over district.” “Burned over” referred, in this case, to the heat that was being generated by revivalists and new religious movements. Joseph Smith emerged from this area in upstate New York on the border between New York and Vermont. One of the interesting things to note is that there was a correlation between some of these new religious movements and towns where Universalism had taken root. Universalism was extremely popular in Vermont some point to Universalism as playing a role in creating a context in which new religious movements could flower.

Utopian communities were another feature of the time. They were not limited to Unitarian attempts such as Brook Farm, Hopedale, and Fruitlands. The most famous Utopian experiment was the Oneida Community led by John Humphrey Noyes. With unconventional teachings on topics from diet to sex, Oneida made Brook Farm and Fruitlands look like a trip to summer camp by comparison.

In this lecture thus far I have tried to capture some of the esoteric nature of the Transcendentalist movement. I’ve tried to capture its breadth, its resistance to being easily pinned down or contained. And, I’ve also tried to situate it in the larger context of American society in the first half of the 19th century.

At the same time, I have to admit that there is something that is a little perverse about lecturing about the Transcendentalists in a room like this. After all, we imagine that if Emerson could stop by this room today, he might say something like, “On a day like this, it is sin to be inside,” and then he would lead us on a walk through the woods. Scholars point out that in Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School address, Emerson delivers a thinly veiled barb at a Unitarian minister in Concord, Rev. Frost. Emerson speaks about attending church in the Winter, gazing out the window at the falling snow outside, and declaring that the storm was real while the preacher was merely “spectral.”

So, even though Emerson leaves the ministry and it is hard to picture Thoreau as much of a regular church attendee, it would be wrong to present the Transcendentalists as forsaking the church for individual communion with nature. Contemporaries of Emerson who were also major players in the Transcendentalist movement would go on to rank among the institution builders of mid-19th century Unitarianism. These builders included James Freeman Clarke and Frederic Henry Hedge. It is a painful irony to note that virtually no church is known for Clarke or Hedge or Henry Whitney Bellows, whereas you can find a congregation named for Emerson in Missouri, churches named for Emerson and Thoreau respectively in the Houston area, and congregations in Minnesota and Washington State named for Michael Servetus. Here in Wisconsin (this lecture was delivered at Beloit College) you at least name your congregations for people like James Reeb and Olympia Brown.

Allow me to conclude with two observations about the legacy of the Transcendentalists in Unitarian Universalism today. The first observation is an irony. One of the roles that the Transcendentalists played was to push for a kind of reform in the spiritual lives of Unitarians at that time. They critiqued ministers who delivered tedious lectures calling for spiritually uplifting orations and a Unitarianism that was far more spiritually vital than the one they had experienced. However, it has been my experience that our members who claim to be allergic to “God talk” and who even have problems with the word spiritual do not rebel against Emerson. Even Emerson’s call for a direct and unmediated experience of the deity does not seem to trouble many UUs today who approach anything even resembling “spiritual” with trepidation.

My second (and even third) observation has to do with tensions between the individual and the group. For some of us, the ideal vision of a Transcendentalist is Thoreau sauntering through the woods. However, history gives us a different image of this movement. The core expression of Transcendentalism is found in their meetings as a club. It was during these meetings that they would discuss spirituality and theology, freely and responsibly. The ideas, perspectives, and epiphanies shared by one member met and mingled with the contributions of the others and deepened the thought and spiritual life of all. Their club was like a modern day UU connection circle, only consisting of the leading figures in the movement. I argue that even for the Transcendentalists the group won the tug of war contest against the individual.

Related to this second observation is one that is slightly different. If there was a tension between the individual and the group, there was also a tension between solitude and collective action. In his amazing 2005 sermon, “Out from Walden,” Rev. Patrick O’Neill calls on us to think of Thoreau’s life in a new way.
When he moved into his rough-hewn cabin on Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord on the Fourth of July, 1845, Thoreau wrote his immortal apologia for retreating into the sanctuary of Natural surroundings far from the madding crowd: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

When Thoreau came out from Walden two years later in 1847, he wrote: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spend any more time for that one.”

It was not until seven years after he left the woods that Thoreau finally published Walden to great acclaim. But in the years in between his leaving the woods and publishing his famous account of why he went there, it was his essay on “Civil Disobedience” which gained his reputation. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1851, it was the work of Abolitionism, and involvement in Underground Railroad activity, and lecturing on “Slavery in Massachusetts” that occupied much of Henry ’s time and thought.
If you came to this lecture today with any preconceived notions about the Transcendentalists, one of those notions might have been that they were a broad group. I hope my brief treatment of them has given you an even broader understanding of this fascinating part of our heritage that is large and contains multitudes.

Reflection Questions:
In your opinion, does Transcendentalism continue to impact UUism today? Where is its influence most deeply felt?
Did anything in this lecture surprise you?
What is your comfort level with “God talk” and spiritual language? Does this comfort level impact how you view Transcendentalism?