This Sunday, I’ll be preaching one of the sermons that Ralph Waldo Emerson preached while he was in New Bedford during 1833-34. In those years, Emerson’s cousin Orville Dewey was the minister at the Unitarian church in New Bedford; but Dewey’s health had been damaged by overwork, and Emerson came to preach here while Dewey took a sabbatical to regain his health.
I knew the Concord Free Public Library had the complete four volume set of Emerson’s sermons (ed. Albert J. Frank et al., Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1989), so I drove up there this morning. I went down into the Special Collections rooms in the basement, and Leslie Wilson, the extremely knowledgeable curator and librarian of the Special Collections, got the four volumes for me.
Emerson kept a careful record of which sermons he preached in which church. Many of the sermons he preached in New Bedford appear to be among his favorites, for he preached them over and over again, sometimes as many as fourteen times. Mostly he did not write new sermons while he was here, but merely dug out sermons written originally for his church in Boston, or some other Unitarian church. But it appears that he did write sermon no. 169 (on the text Psalms 139.14) specifically for the New Bedford church; at least, this was the very first place he preached the sermon, on September 7, 1834. I decided this would be the sermon I’ll preach this Sunday.
Leslie Wilson, whom I have known for years and years, was curious what I was working on. I told her how I was going to preach one of Emerson’s sermons.
“You’ll have to cut it down,” she said.
“I know, no one wants to listen to a sermon that long these days,” I replied.
“And let’s face it, you’re not Emerson…,” she said thoughtfully.
“No, I most certainly am not!” I said emphatically.
“He was known for being an absolutely wonderful speaker,” she said. “He could say almost anything, and keep his audiences enthralled.” We both knew the old story of someone’s uneducated maid who went to hear one of Emerson’s lectures on Transcendentalism or some such obscure topic. Her employers were surprised that she would go to hear a lecture on such an esoteric subject. Ah, said the maid, but when Mr. Emerson says it I can understand it.
Emerson’s sermon no. 169 is so well written that it will stand up to even my delivery of it. Right now, I’m going through the two manuscript versions of the sermon — the earlier version which must be the one he delivered at New Bedford, and the later version that he delivered at Unitarian churches in Plymouth, Waltham, Boston, East Lexington, Concord, and at the Harvard College Chapel. It’s fascinating to see how he changed the sermon, mostly for the better, although at times the earlier version is more vigorous. But in both versions, you can sense a great writer coming into his full powers.
What must it have been to sit in the pews of the old wood-frame Unitarian church on the corner of William and Purchase Streets, and listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson preach on September 7, 1834, less than two years before he would publish his book Nature? The New Bedford church had wanted him as their minister — Orville Dewey having announced that his health would not allow his return — but Emerson got out of the offer by saying that he could not in good conscience preside at the communion table, nor offer a prayer unless he was truly moved to do so. Instead, in October, 1834, he moved to Concord and began writing in earnest.