A Brief History
On July 15, 1838, while delivering a speech at Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson described Jesus as a “great man,” but not “God.” He further caused a furor by discounting the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible as not true.
One of the guiding lights of the 19th Century philosophical Transcendentalist Movement, Emerson was a prolific writer of essays and a speech maker, and was a friend and mentor to Henry David Thoreau.
In 1836, his essay, Nature, became the foundation of Transcendentalism, and his 1837 speech he called The American Scholar was called by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
Emerson was raised and educated (including at Harvard Divinity School) in Massachusetts, but moved to Florida to escape the cold. In Florida he saw slavery close up, and befriended Prince Achille Murat, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom he had many intellectual discussions about politics and philosophy.
Waldo (he went by that name) moved back to Boston and became a junior pastor at the Second Church. He was even chaplain to the state legislature. After the death of his first wife (at age 20 after only 2 years of marriage), Emerson questioned his faith and the teachings of his church, and decided to leave the ministry. These events started Emerson on his career as an essayist and speaker, becoming one of the foremost philosophers of his time.
With the publication of Nature and the delivery of The American Scholar, Emerson became famous, and the decade of 1830 to 1840 was his finest hours. Emerson encouraged Americans to think and write in their own style, and forget about trying to copy European techniques. He encouraged Thoreau to keep his famous journal, and Emerson kept one himself.
In the flush of fame, he delivered his speech to the Harvard Divinity School where he said that Jesus had been glorified in a manner such as Orientals do with demigods and Greeks did with their mythical heroes, often turning the legends into the hero being a demigod. Biblical miracles were scoffed at, and Jesus not divine? Critics at the school and elsewhere as the word passed went ballistic! Emerson was denounced as an atheist and was condemned for his words by the Protestant community. Waldo took this criticism in stride and left his defense up to his supporters, offering no rebuttal. Not surprisingly, Emerson was not invited back to the Harvard Divinity School for another 30 years.
Emerson became an abolitionist, and even befriended John Brown before his famous raid.
Emerson delivered the eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral in 1862 (Thoreau died at age 44, Waldo was 59), and met with President Lincoln in the same year. He served as a pall bearer for Nathaniel Hawthorne (famous author of the day), and his approval of Walt Whitman’s work gave Whitman’s career the boost it needed.
Emerson started having memory problems in the early 1870’s, and is usually the case, the problems got worse with time. By 1879 he had totally stopped lecturing and died in 1882. Despite the furor over his Jesus and miracle comments, Emerson was not an atheist, but he believed in a God that did not do all the theatrical things found in holy books. Like Lincoln, “now he belongs to the ages.”
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever read any of Emerson’s writings? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more of Emerson’s writings, please read…
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson: Essays and Lectures: Nature: Addresses and Lectures / Essays: First and Second Series / Representative Men / English Traits / The Conduct of Life (Library of America). Library of America, 1983.