Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, by Ellen Tucker Emerson. Ellen Tucker Emerson, born in Concord in 1839, was the eldest daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson.

“Mother used to come up to me to hear me say my prayers and my evening hymn, and then pray for me, every night after I had gone to bed, long before Edith [her sister] slept with me. When she [Edith] came she had her prayers and hymn to say, too. When we were very little Mother began to have Sunday readings and I think also daily readings with us. Chiefly hymns and the Old Testament stories, but she used some other books which were not very interesting to us. I believe she avoided the New Testament, for I found it new to me when I began to read it myself…. she seemed to think the Old Testament stories were the children’s part of the Bible. I think so too.

“I was brought up keep Sunday fitly by having tasks to occupy me. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn [that is, the text of a hymn, not the tune]. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six. After I was sure I could say that smoothly I was to review another. As I advanced in years I had two to review, finally three. By the time this grew easy, the task of writing out the idea of the hymn in prose was added, varied sometimes by rendering one of Mrs. Barbauld’s prose hymns into verse. These were my solitary labors…. When Mother was ready for us [after church and dinner] I had to recite my hymns new and reviewed and the other children theirs. Then she read to us, and as we grew older she was apt to read to us one of Jane Taylor’s Contributions of Q.Q. and she read more from the Gospels. She used to say to us poems….” [pp. 101, 103]


The second reading this morning is taken from the essay “Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development” by Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr. If you don’t do philosophy, feel free to let your attention wander now, because I’ll make the same point in the sermon.

“…[L]iberal society requires that citizens with robust visions of the good actively and substantively participate in democratic debates and discussions…. [T]he quest for spiritual perspectives and values is driven by the failure of thin political liberalism … to provide sufficiently substantial conceptions of the good to guide appropriate and significant life choices…. [A]ny sensible approach to spirituality and spiritual education should aim to steer a middle course between extremes of local cultural attachment and complete disengagement from any and all rooted values. Arguably, however, some such moral and spiritual middle way is a desideratum of liberal polity, insofar as such society precisely aims to foster the critical autonomy necessary for the demands of democratic citizenship without undermining the conditions for substantial identity formation that any society requires for the making of meaningful life choices.”

[“Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development,” Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr, The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Pamela Ebstyne King, Linda Wagner, Peter L. Benson, ed., Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2006, pp. 73 ff.]

Sermon: “Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method”

It’s good to be back here, preaching to this historic congregation, in the historic town of Concord, Massachusetts. And with this congregation approaching its 375th anniversary, I thought I’d speak with you this morning about the congregation’s most famous family, the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson. Specifically, I’d like to speak with you about how Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife Lidian Jackson Emerson raised their children, and how that might cause us to reflect on the way we raise our children.


In the first reading this morning, you heard a little about how Lidian Jackson Emerson and Ralph Waldo Emerson raised their children to be moral and religious persons. Lidian and Waldo used what we would consider to be traditional methods of religious education. Each day, Lidian went up to say good night to Ellen, and Ellen said her prayers, then Lidian said her own prayer over Ellen. On Sundays, religious and moral education continued the whole day. Ellen writes: “Mother’s method in the religious education of her children [was] to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories[, t]o accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and to religious study at home.” (1) The family went to church, the children went to Sunday school; the family went home and ate dinner together. The children would then memorize a new hymn each week while their mother went to church again in the afternoon. Afterwards, the children would recite their hymns, and their mother would read aloud to them. And when the children were old enough that they found it easy to memorize hymns, they were sometimes given the additional task of setting a prose hymn into verse.

Over time, the Emerson family changed their Sunday routine somewhat. They still went to church in the morning, and when Lidian went to church again in the afternoon the children still stayed home and memorized their hymns, and recited them to Lidian when she returned home, and listened to their mother read aloud to them. Then at four in the afternoon, the children would walk with their father to Walden Pond, even when it was raining or snowing. When they returned home, they would all have tea with their Mother. Ellen writes: “This was a very easy and happy Sunday to us all, and when we wanted hours of solitude we found space for them.” (2)

Lidian also taught her children the principles of social justice, as it grew out of her Unitarian faith. Lidian was a zealous abolitionist right up until slavery was finally abolished. Ellen writes: “She read the papers faithfully and their pro-slavery tone made her hate her country. She learned all the horrors of slavery and dwelt upon these, so that it was as if she continually witnessed the whippings and the selling away of little children from their mothers.” On the fourth of July in 1853 — that is, a couple of years after the Fugitive Slave Law had been in effect — Lidian was so disgusted by the United States that, rather than decorate their front gate in red-white-and-blue bunting, she hung black fabric instead, as if in mourning. Ellen writes: “I think the children were a little mortified, but Mother said it did her good to express her feelings.” (3)


There you have a brief picture of how the Emerson family taught religion to their children in the middle nineteenth century. Compare this picture to how we teach religion to our children today.

First, consider how many hymns the Emerson children had to memorize. If they memorized one hymn a week, even assuming they forgot a good many over time, by the time they were in high school they would know perhaps two hundred hymns. We rarely memorize verse today, but in the nineteenth century, most educated people had large quantities of poetry and verse that they had memorized. Thus while it seems odd to us, memorizing hymns fit into a larger cultural pattern.

While we might vaguely understand the idea of memorizing hymns, the idea of Lidian setting her daughter the task of rendering prose hymns into verse is completely alien to us. I don’t know of any liberal religious parents who would ask their children to write anything on a religious or moral topic. We expect the schools to teach children how to write, but it is a rare family that asks children to write verse or prose compositions on moral and religious topics.

Keeping Sunday as a Sabbath day, a day of rest focused on moral and religious thoughts, is also foreign to us today. For today’s families, Sundays are as active as any other day of the week: in the morning, there are sports practices and games, and for a few families there might be regular or irregular attendance at Sunday school; the afternoons may be taken up with errands and household chores, and the evenings are most likely devoted to homework in preparation for school on Monday. If there are any spare hours on Sunday, they are filled with social media and video games and similar pursuits. Not many families find space in their lives for “hours of solitude,” even if they should want solitude.

We do share some things in common with the Emerson family. Liberal religious families are still devoted to social justice. We may not hang back fabric on our front gates on the fourth of July, but parents might wear t-shirts that express a desire for justice in the world, and mortify their children in the process. We still teach our children about humanitarian causes, and explain to them the moral reasoning underlying those causes. Beyond teaching our children about social justice, I know of some families today who still take walks together on Sunday afternoons, just as the Emerson family did in their time.

But in general, we devote far less time and energy to intentional religious and moral education of our children than did the Emersons. We fit in religious and moral education when we can, but it is quite impossible to fit in as much religious and moral education as did the Emersons.


Not that I believe we should go back to the ways of the Emerson family. Our society today is not the same as society in the middle of the nineteenth century. We do not live in a society where the home, the schools, the church, and the town government are all founded on liberal Protestant ideals. First Parish of Concord stopped receiving direct financial support from the town government a mere six years before Ellen Tucker Emerson was born, and in her day the church was supported by income from pew rentals, where the wealthiest families paid the most and got to sit in the best pews. There was not yet a Roman Catholic church in town, there certainly weren’t any Jews, and the schools openly taught Protestant Christian values and religious concepts. A few free African Americans lived in town, and more than a few escaping slaves passed through this town on the Underground Railroad, helped on their way by families close to the Emersons; but blacks had no political or social influence, and this was a white town. That is not a society to which I would like to return.

Nevertheless, we lost something when we progressed beyond that old society. Religious education scholar John Westerhoff says that mid-nineteenth century small town America had a “robust ecosystem” of religious education, where the home, the church, the schools, and the community all taught similar religious values. (4) Ellen Tucker Emerson received substantial religious and moral education at home, and that education was supported by the church, the schools, and the whole community. That old educational ecosystem is now broken, and the average child today gets very little time spent in religious and moral education; a child might attend Sunday school perhaps twenty-five hours a year, with perhaps some additional moral instruction at home.

A democratic society needs citizens who have thought deeply about what it means to live a good life. A great part of the success of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was due to its roots in the highest moral and religious ideals of the black church. Democracy does not work well when people vote selfishly on the basis of what they think will benefit them; democracy needs people to have a larger vision of a good society.

We need a middle way between two cultural extremes. On the one hand, Ellen Tucker Emerson’s family and community lived lives and taught values that were too narrow, and did not include racial and religious diversity: African Americans, Catholics, Jews, all were left out of the Emerson family’s narrow cultural ideals. On the other hand, today’s society goes too far to the other extreme: we offer so little religious and moral education to our children that our democracy has devolved to the point where many people only vote to protect their own selfish interests. (5)

We cannot change the way families live their lives in this complicated world we inhabit — we cannot tell people that they must devote an entire day each week to focus on moral and religious thoughts — no one is going to do that. Indeed, we want people to be immersed in the wider democratic society, engaged with citizens with different values, engaged with all the problems and challenges of the broader world.

We cannot change the way families live their lives, so we must figure out the best ways to help people grow and learn, religiously and morally. We’ll still have our Sunday morning services, and we’ll keep Sunday school, too — both continue to serve us well. But we will add to them, and I would suggest that we should add intensive short-term retreats and camps and conferences.

Last week, I was at just such a camp, Ferry Beach Religious Education Week. Over the past couple of decades, this annual conference has become a sort of laboratory for religious education professionals and ministers to experiment with creating a week-long intentional community that welcomes children and teenagers with their parents, and other adults with no children including both young adults, empty nesters, and people like me who have never had children.

In this week-long intentional community, people of all ages live for a week in a community governed by the liberal religious ideals of Unitarian Universalism. In addition to explicit moral and religious education — classes, chapel services, and so on — this week-long camp provides a great deal of implicit religious and moral education. The conference center provides vegetarian and vegan food, and more than one teenager has made the moral decision to commit to a vegetarian or vegan diet while at this camp. The inevitable conflicts that arise are managed by referring to shared religious and moral values — and if you really want to put your values to the test, try resolving a conflict based on your values. The camp has a culture that allows any responsible adult to guide or correct a child when needed. Teenagers play games with children; young adults reach out to and mentor teenagers; all adults mentor each other, and all the other age groups as well. (6) This year, I had a long conversation with a young man whom I have watched grow up over the years, whose marriage had just ended;– and for my part, other adults listened to me talk about my own personal and career struggles.

Consider a child who attends this Unitarian Universalist camp. In one short week, this child gets more than a hundred hours of explicit and implicit religious and moral education. Compare this to the child who attends Sunday school for one hour a week on twenty-five Sundays a year. The child who attends this week-long summer camp gets the equivalent of four years of Sunday school in one intensive dose. Some years ago, a teenager of my acquaintance described her experience this way: all year long she would be on a sort of plateau, and then she felt as if she made a quantum leap upwards in her personal development in a week-long Unitarian Universalist camp; then she would proceed on pretty much of a plateau until the next summer camp. This teenager is now thirty years old, and after working in the public sector, moved to a job in the non-profit sector where she does conflict resolution. This is exactly the kind of spiritually developed and religiously grounded individual who can participate in democracy with a robust understanding of the good.


As you listen to me describing this camp, you’ve probably become aware that there are problems to be solved. Week-long camps of the kind I have just described are expensive, and not everyone can afford them. And many week-long camps are not intentional communities that provide solid religious and moral education of the type that serves democracy. And many week-long camps are not good at including the older generations, the grandparents and great-grandparents, people who can provide so much rich religious and moral insight and instruction.

Well, we will have to solve these problems: we’ll have to have scholarships, and better intentions, and we’ll have to include grandparents and great-grandparents. And we’ll have to try other formats:— weekend retreats in addition to week-long camps; extended families and other multigenerational groups; evening events and small groups; and more. We are in the beta testing phase; we will need to keep refining these ideas until we get it right. And you are already doing many of these things here at First Parish of Concord;— you will keep refining them, keep on working to make small groups and extended families and weekend retreats into intentional communities that help us to grow religiously and morally.

And when you come right down to it, we have the same goals that the Emerson family had. We want our children to grow up into adults with high moral values. We want our adults to keep on growing and refining our religious and moral understandings, so that we can better work with others to infuse the highest values into our democratic society. We want to support each other as we grow, and we want to hold the wider society accountable to the highest moral values.

This is what the Emersons wanted to do. This is what this congregation has been doing for the past 375 years — guiding people towards the highest moral standards, nurturing people who will go out and create an earth made fair and all her people free.

Notes and additional information

You can find a photograph of Ellen Tucker Emerson here.

(1) Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores Bird Carpenter (East Lansing: Michigan State Unviersity Press, 1992), p. 104.

(2) Ibid., p. 120.

(3) Ibid., p. 125; p. 83. Additional information about the religious and moral education of the Emerson children may be found on pp. 100-104. Additional insight into Ellen Emerson’s religious and spiritual education may be found in Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Letters of Ellen Tucker Emerson, vol. 1, ed. Edith Emerson Webster Gregg (Kent State University Press, 1982); of direct relevance are the letters of 28 June 1853, and a letter from April, 1851, in which Ellen writes: “Yesterday Edie & I learned & reviewed our hymns and said them to Grandma.”

(4) John Westerhoff talks about the “broken ecology” of religious education in Will our children have faith? (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000, 1976), pp. 10 ff.; he draws on the work of Lawrence Cremin, a distinguished historian of education in the U.S. The following handout from a guest lecture I gave at Starr King School for the Ministry on 9 February 2011 summarizes Westerhoff: “Broken Ecology of Religious Education” handout (PDF).

(5) In the argument of this and the preceding paragraph, I am drawing on the excellent summary by Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr, “Philosophical Issues in Spiritual Education and Development,” The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, ed. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Pamela Ebstyne King, Linda Wagner, and Peter L. Benson (Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2006), pp. 73 ff. Alexander and Carr also summarize two competing philosophical positions, affiliated liberalism and liberal communitarianism; in this sermon, I take the position of liberal communitarianism.

The following passages from Alexander and Carr might help elucidate liberal communitarianism further:

According to this view [liberal communitarianism], liberal society requires that citizens with robust visions of the good actively and substantively participate in democratic debates and discussions (Sandel, 1982). On this account, the quest for spiritual perspectives and values is driven by the failure of thin political liberalism of the sort advocated in the later work of Rawls (1993) to provide sufficiently substantial conceptions of the good to guide appropriate and significant life choices. As we have seen, Taylor (1989, pp. 25-52) observes that answers to Socrates’ famous question about how one should live are to be found in our personal aspirations, in the cultural traditions and ideals into which we have been initiated as members of historical communities, or in terms of “objective” values that may seem to transcend self and society — such as in traditional concepts of divinity. To be sure, exclusive emphasis on any one of these particulate sources of value can lead to the quagmires of subjectivism, relativism, or dogmatism that precisely serve to impede or disable those capacities for human freedom needed for effective liberal democratic association and participation. For this reason, any sensible approach to spirituality and spiritual education should aim to steer a middle course between extremes of local cultural attachment and complete disengagement from any and all rooted values. Arguably, however, some such moral and spiritual middle way is a desideratum of liberal polity, insofar as such society precisely aims to foster the critical autonomy necessary for the demands of democratic citizenship without undermining the conditions for substantial identity formation that any society requires for the making of meaningful life choices. [p. 81]

If democratic association requires citizens of thick spiritual identity to be capable of intelligent moral and political choices, what sorts of educational and other institutions would promote identities of this kind? It takes a village to raise a child, or so goes the adage, but what sort of village? In his now classic essay, “Toward and Ecology of Education,” the historian Lawrence Cremin (1976) described the educational interdependence of school, home, and church in 19th century “small town” America. In addition to these institutions, contemporary neo-Aristotelian and communitarian philosophers might want to emphasize the significance of community. In short, spiritual education might be said to be a function of the complex interplay of school, family, congregation, and community. [p. 82]

In addition to formal schooling, families afford another key context for spiritual education, and the preparation of families to assume (or reassume) a role in spiritual education has become an important topic of spiritual formation. In particular, the education of families to take a more active role in the spiritual formation of their children has become a major preoccupation of North American Jewish education (Wolfson and Bank, 1998). Although much earlier literature focused on successful educational programs in synagogues and schools, Vicky Kelman (1995) has developed an especially interesting theoretical framework for the education of families. Kelman draws on the social psychology of Lev Vygotsky (1980) to argue that the preparation of families to undertake spiritual education requires the creation of cognitive and… [p. 84]

(6) My understanding of the ways learning takes place in social settings is grounded in part in the work of Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1978), and on work of later cognitive scientists. A summary of relevant thinking in cognitive science may be found in Edwin Hutchins, “Distributed Cognition”.