Historical re-enactment

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister before he became famous for his writing and lecturing. When he was a minister, he preached for some months to the Unitarian congregation in New Bedford. So this morning, as a kind of historical re-enactment, I delivered one of the sermons he preached while he was here.

It turned out to be quite a bit of fun. The sermon still sounded fresh and powerful (although I admit I choked a little on the gender-specific pronouns), and it was moving to read it aloud. For the most part, I think the congregation enjoyed it, too.

If this is the kind of thing that interests you, and you want to know more, I’ve included some historical notes about the sermon below….

These are the notes which were in today’s order of service:


Today’s sermon was originally preached by Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Unitarian congregation in New Bedford on September 7, 1834, in the old wood-frame Unitarian church that once stood on the corner of William and Purchase Streets.

Why Emerson was in New Bedford

From 1823 through 1834, Orville Dewey was the minister of the Unitarian church in New Bedford, then known as the First Congregational Society of New Bedford. Dewey was prone to overwork, and by 1833 had so worn himself down that he felt he needed to take several months away from his parish duties. He asked a number of other Unitarian ministers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, to fill the pulpit while he was away.

In 1833, Emerson was at a crossroads in his life. His first wife was dead after they had been married only three years; then he had resigned as minister of Second Church in Boston, saying that he could no longer in good conscience preside at communion services (at that time a part of the liturgical life of all Unitarian churches); and then he had gone to Europe, where he had met Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, and other intellectuals, and had imbibed the heady atmosphere of Romanticism. When he returned to the United States in the fall of 1833, he needed money and so was pleased to be able to preach for an extended period in New Bedford.

Emerson was no stranger to New Bedford, having preached here for three Sundays in November, 1827. During the 1833-1834 season, Emerson preached more than a dozen Sundays to the Unitarian congregation in New Bedford: November 10 through December 8, 1833; January 26 through March 30, 1834 (though not on February 23 or March 2 when he was preaching to the Unitarian congregation in Plymouth, at which time he met Lydia Jackson Emerson, the woman who was to become his second wife); and finally on September 7, 1834. In those days, there were services on Sunday morning and evening, so Emerson preached approximately 30 sermons in New Bedford in 1833-1834. Of the sermons Emerson preached here for which we have texts, only one was delivered first in New Bedford; all the others were sermons he had previously preached to other Unitarian churches. But the sermon you will hear this morning is one that Emerson apparently wrote specifically for the New Bedford congregation.

The scholar Robert D. Richardson, Jr., tells us that in 1834 Emerson had at last reached his full maturity as a writer. Thus the Emerson who preached in New Bedford in 1834 had already arrived at his mature prose style, “an appropriate language for the direct statement of personal intuition” (Richardson, pp. 179-180). You will hear Emerson’s mature writing in this morning’s sermon.

Emerson after New Bedford

New Bedford wound up having a permanent effect on Emerson. While staying here in 1833-1834, he got to know Mary Rotch, a remarkable religious thinker in her own right. By 1833, Rotch, a Quaker by birth, had become a member of the Unitarian church after having been ejected from the city’s Quaker meeting for her too-liberal theology. Emerson met this profound and liberal thinker at a key moment in his intellectual life, and many scholars have pointed out his indebtedness to Rotch’s theology.

Emerson could have remained in the city, had he wished. Orville Dewey’s health had been so broken down that in 1834 he resigned as minister of the New Bedford congregation. The congregation asked Emerson to replace Dewey, but Emerson said that he could not in good conscience preside at the communion table, and that he could only offer a prayer if he happened to be moved to do so. Surely he knew this would be unacceptable, and of course the church balked at his terms. Instead of serving the Unitarian church in New Bedford, Emerson made the choice to devote himself to writing and lecturing. By October, 1834, Emerson was living in his grandfather’s house in Concord, Massachusetts, and writing the essays and poems that would first make him famous.

About the text of the sermon

The text of the sermon today is taken from The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 4. Emerson rarely provided titles for his sermons, so this is known as sermon no. 169.

Sermon 169 exists in two variants, 169A and 169B. The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson offers both variants, but considers 169B to be the definitive version. Since 169A was the earlier version, the version he preached in New Bedford, I have chosen to preach the earlier, non-definitive, text.

In The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 169A appears as an exact transcription from the manuscript, including deleted phrases, insertions, incomplete sentences, etc. No doubt Emerson could preach from such a text, since he knew what he wanted to say; however, I had to make many decisions between alternate words and phrases, and I have had omitted what seemed to me to be extraneous material. Thus, while I have done my best to stay true to Emerson’s original intent, the sermon you are hearing today is in some respects my editorial creation.

Finally, it should be said that Emerson was a gifted preacher, a genius as a public speaker. My own ability as a speaker does not come close to his level. Yet sermons are meant to be spoken, not read; so while I cannot match his delivery it is always better to hear Emerson’s sermons read aloud than to merely read them in a book.

⎯ Dan Harper


Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A biography. Viking Press, 1991.
Emerson, Ellen Tucker. The life of Lydian Jackson Emerson. Ed. Delores Bird Carpenter. Michigan State University Press, 1992.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 4. Ed. Wesley T. Mott; series editor, Albert J. Frank. University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson: The mind on fire. University of California Press, 1995.


For the convenience of those who do not have easy access to a library with Emerson’s complete sermons, I have included a reading text of the sermon below. I added punctuation, and modernized spelling, in order to make it easier for me to read from this text.

Readings — The first reading is from Ellen Tucker Emerson’s biography of her mother, Lidian Jackson Emerson. In this passage, Ellen describes the first time her mother saw Ellen’s father, in 1829:

“On one Sunday when Mother was in Boston she went to Dr. Barrett’s church at Chambers St. and had a seat at the side of the pulpit. When she looked at the minister she was struck by his long neck, she didn’t know a human being could have a neck so long. He began the service. When church was over she found herself leaning eagerly forward, and as she looked back on the whole dear and beautiful service, and noticed that she now felt tired of her position, she made up her mind that she must have taken that position when the minister said his first words and had been too much absorbed to move from beginning to end. She inquired who the preacher was and was told it was Ralph Waldo Emerson….”

The second reading is the text upon which Emerson based his sermon:

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” [Psalms 139.14]

Sermon CLXIX by Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson, delivered at First Congregational Society of New Bedford, September 7, 1834; as delivered again on December 30, 2007, by Rev. Dan Harper to the same congregation.

Everybody knows that he is wonderfully made. And yet it will occur sometimes to a thoughtful mind as strange, that we do not continually break out into expressions of astonishment at ourselves. When an Asiatic prince came to Paris and was asked what seemed to him most surprising in that capital, he replied “to find himself there.” With better reason, a man might say that, to himself, his own existence in the world was more amazing than any other fact. I believe almost no few person does perceive the exceeding strangeness of their own constitution, and yet it is more wondrous than any fiction that was ever conceived. “Truth is strange — stranger than fiction.”

The proposition that “we are wonderfully made,” is applied by people generally to the external condition of men and admitted without debate and without afterthought. And surely our external constitution is ingenious enough to justify the expression.

The fine contrivance in every part of our frame, the perfect fitting of the members, the admirable working of the whole machine transcend all praise: Then, the fitness of man to the earth; and his peaceful dwelling among the cattle, the birds, and the fish, turning the earth into his garden and pleasure ground, the round of the seasons, and the universal order of the plants, is all set down in the books. The external fitness is wonderful indeed;– but I doubt if to those who saw this only it would have ever occurred (in the first instance) to remark upon the marvel. It has been said with some ingenuity of conjecture that “without the phenomenon of sleep, we should be atheists;” because, if we had no experience of the interruption of the activity of the Will, “we would never be brought to a sense and acknowledgment of its dependence on the Divine Will.” With more assurance it may be said of the things apprehended by the senses, that they are so nicely grooved into one another that the sight of one suggests the next preceding and this the next before, that the understanding would run forever in the round of second causes, so that we see men go through life and die without surprise, but that the Reason sometimes grows impatient of the narrow circlet, and demands tidings of the First Cause. Were there not graver considerations to be remembered, there is something almost comic in seeing such a creature as is a man growing up with perfect senses and faculties, and going in and out for seventy years amid the shows of nature and of humanity making up his mouth every day to express all degrees of surprise at every impertinent trifle, and never suspecting all the time that it is even remarkable he should exist.

But superficial views will not always satisfy us. It will not always suffice us to ask why this bone is thus terminated and be answered that it may fit that socket, or why is this animal thus configured, and be answered that the residence and the food of the animal requires such frame but the question starts up and almost with terror within us, why the animal or any animal exists? to what farther end its being has regard beyond this nice tissue of neighboring facts? Why organization, why order exist? Nay, why this interrogator exists, and what he is?

Indeed if you will steadily contemplate the bare fact of your existence as a man, it is one of such bewildering, astonishment that it seems it were the part of reason to spend one’s lifetime in a trance of wonder — altogether more rational to lift one’s hands in blank amaze — than to assume the least shadow of dogmatism or pride.

I say these things because I think that man has not yet arrived at a just perception of his own position and duties in the Creation, who is not yet alive to the miracle that surrounds him. “Let others wrangle,” said the pious Augustine, “I will wonder.” It is related of the wisest man in the ancient world, the Athenian Socrates, that on one occasion he stopped short in his walk and stood stock still in a fast contemplation from sunset to sunrise in a rapture of amazement.

But we may be conscious of the mystery without always saying so. Certainly; and a man might be well forgiven his omission to express his admiration of that which is, if his employments indicated any sense of his powers and relations.

But see the oddity of his demeanor. This little creature set down, he knows not how, amid all the sublimities of the moving universe, sharp-sighted enough to find out the movement not only of the sphere he inhabits but of all the spheres in the depths around him; and not only so, but capable by the subtle powers of intellect and affection of acting upon remote men as upon himself: Yes, and from his little hour extending the arms of his influence through thousands of years, and to millions of millions of rational men: Nay, by means of virtue of entering instantly upon a life that seems to make the whole grandeur of the Creation pale and visionary:– Yet this little creature, quite unmindful of these vast prerogatives, struts about with immense activity to procure various meats to eat, and stuffs to wear, and most of all salutations and marks of respect from his fellows. He seems to think it quite natural he should be here, and things should be as they are,– so natural, as not to deserve a second thought: And the moment he has got a neat house to sit down and to eat and to sleep in, he is so possessed with a sense of his importance, that he not only thinks he deserves much more attention than if he knew the whole order of the creation, but he expects confidently great deference from his fellow men.

We go so gravely about our ordinary trifling employments that we are apt to lose the sense of the absurdity of much that we do. We allow by acquiescence a man that has more houses and ships and farms than his neighbors, to assume consequence in his manners on that ground. Although we know very well, when we ponder the matter, that if instead of a few thousand acres of land, or a score of ships or houses, he owned the entire property of the civilized world, he would be as much in the dark, as mortal, and as insufficient to himself as he is now. He could not then solve not so much as one word of the vast mystery that envelopes us; he would not have a particle more of real power. In the great All, he would be the very insect he is now.

Yet the extent and consistency of the world’s farce keeps each particular puppet in countenance, and we go on in the universal hunt for station and real estate and horses and coaches and ships and stocks and attentions and compliments, hiding the vanity of the whole thing in the confusion of the particulars. Is it not as if one should have a nest of a hundred boxes, and nothing in the last box?

And hence the wise laughter of the ancient philosopher Democritus who made a jest of all human society and pursuits. No wise man he said could keep his countenance in view of such utter folly.

There is much that is ludicrous in the solemnity with which we labor year after year until we fall sick and die in the work of taking a little from that heap and adding it to this other which we are pleased to call mine. We have no leisure to laugh, we are so intent upon the work. We keep each other in countenance and as all are agreed to consider it in the ludicrous language of the world “the main chance,” the nonsense of the whole thing is carefully kept out of sight.

But why call it ludicrous? Is it not necessary that we acquire property? –Assuredly it is. Let us carefully distinguish between wisdom and folly. We are of an animal constitution and have animal wants, which must be supplied and indispensably demand continual exertion. This whole matter of commerce,– a net woven round every man — grows out of it and it is good that every man should do his part; and one sow the field, and one weave the cloth, and one draw the contracts, and one plough the sea, and one build the ship, one throw the harpoon. There’s much that is wonderful but nothing that is ludicrous in this simply considered.

The ludicrous part of it is in the acting as if it were the ultimate end; just that for which we lived; and the entire oversight of the end for which this is only means. The proud man, the sensualist, the denier of divine power, the avaricious, the selfish:– By such earthworms the wonder of our being is not perceived, they are merely the highest class of animals, and like ants and horses and elephants, they do not perceive anything extraordinary in their life.

And what remedy? What can save us from this capital error, or repair it? The exercise of Reason, the act of reflection redeems a man at once out of this brutishness; the man who reflects is a man, and not an animal. I take it to be a main object of that education which this world administers to each soul, to touch the springs of wonder in us, and make us alive to the marvel of our condition. That done, all is done. Before, he was so wrongheaded, so at discord with things around him, that he was ridiculous: now, he is at one with all. He accepts his lot: he perceives the great astonishment. He adores. Awaked to truth and virtue, he perceives the wonder he did not perceive before. The chief wonders of the human condition begin with the act of reason.

Let me, for more accurate consideration, separate a few of the particulars that amaze the contemplative spirit.


See how cunningly constructed are all things in such a manner as to make each being the centre of the Creation. You seem to be a point or focus upon which all objects, all ages, concentrate their influence: nothing past but affects you; nothing remote but through some means reaches you. Every superficial grain of sand may be considered as the fixed point round which all things revolve, so intimately is it allied to all, and so truly do all turn as if for it alone. This is true to the least leaf or moss.

Who has ever selected one individual from the annual reproduction of nature without profoundest astonishment?– Who has not seen the summer blackberry lifting his polished surface a few inches from the ground without wondering: How did that little chemist extract from the sandy soil the spices and sweetness it has concocted in its cells? The whole creation has been at the cost of its nurture. A globe of fire near a hundred millions of miles distant in the great space has been flooding it with light and heat as if he shone for no other. It is six or seven months that the sun has made the tour of the heavens every day over this little sprout before it could bear its fruit. The sea has evaporated its countless tuns of water into the atmosphere that the rain of heaven might wet the roots of this little vine. The elastic air exhaled from all creatures and all minerals and yielded the small pensioner the gaseous aliment it required. The earth by the attraction of its mass determined its form and size; and when we consider how the earth’s attraction is fixed this moment in equilibrium by the innumerable attractions, on every side, of distant bodies, we shall see that the summer blackberry’s form and history is determined by causes and agents the most prodigious and remote.

What then shall we say of the manner in which one man is made the center round which all things revolve and upon which all things scatter gifts? Let us take one from the crowd — not one of the sons of prosperity but a poor solitary virtuous man who is capable of reflection.

He stands on the top of the world: he is the centre of the horizon. Morning and Evening lavish their sweetness and their solemnity upon his senses; summer and winter bring to him the instruction of their harvests and their storms. All that he sees and hears, gives him a lesson. Do not the ages that are past record their experience for his tuition, and millions and millions of rational spirits epitomize their fate for his behoof? Is he not continually moved to joy or grief by things said a thousand years ago? He understands them. His soul embraces the act or the sentiment, as if it were done or said for him only. Is not his condition different for every one of the men that has acted upon the world? See how much Luther;– see how much Calvin, Newton, Columbus, have affected his condition;– and all the inventors of arts. Do they not give him the unshared total benefit of their wisdom? Does not Socrates, Solomon, Bacon, and Shakespeare counsel him alone? Does not Jesus live for him only? Does not God exist for him only?– and Right, and Wrong, and Wisdom, and Folly? –and the whole of Pleasure; and of Pain; and all the Heaven of thought;– Are they not all poured into his bosom as if the world had no other child?

And this perfect world exists thus entire to every man, to the poorest drover in the mountains, the poorest laborer in his ditch. Quite independent of his work, are his wonderful endowments. There is enough in him, (granting that he is capable of thought and virtue) to puzzle and outwit all our philosophy. The history of one man, inasmuch as it is searching and profound, is as valuable as the history of a nation. Thoroughly acquaint me with the heart of one living man, though the humblest — and what can Italy or England teach me more, with all their wars and all their laws? Sharpen the insight of these obtuse perceptions of ours and show us the motives, the fancy, the affection, the distorting and coloring lenses that pauper makes use of, and the redeeming power that still sets him right after countless errors, and that promises him a kingdom of heaven whilst he shuffles about in his field; and we shall be able to do without Tacitus, Hume, and Clarendon.


Thus, in the first place, is each man placed in the focus, at the heart of the world. But that is only half of his power. That is merely to receive influence. He receives only to impart. He is appointed to action. He is an active being and is not designed to be an idle eye before which Nature passes in panorama but is by his action enabled to learn the irresistible properties of moral nature perceived only by the mind as laws difficult to be grasped or defined yet everywhere working out their inevitable results to the last jot and tittle in human affairs, whereupon if a man fall it will grind him to powder. There is nothing in material nature, certainly nothing in fiction, so splendid and perfect as the law of compensations,–the law according to which not an act is done by any moral being draws after it its inevitable fruit which no chance and no art can elude.

The Creation is so majestically woven that nothing can do him any mischief but himself; an invisible immortal fence surrounds his whole being, which forever defends him from all harm he wills to resist; that the whole Creation cannot bend him whilst he stands upright; but on the other hand that every act of his, is judged not hereafter; but instantaneously judged and rewarded: that the lightning loiters by the speed of Retribution; that every generous effort impulse of his is to its full amount compensated by the instant enlargement and ennobling of his soul; that his patience disarms calamity; his love brightens the sun; his purity destroys temptation;– Whilst falsehood is a foolish suicide and is never believed; selfishness separates itself from the happy human family idleness whips itself with discontent; malice multiplies foes. So that ever it seems, as some have maintained, that he is solicited by good and by evil spirits and that he gives himself up to them whose bidding he does and they labor continually to make him more entirely their own, and induce him and confirm his last action by repetition and by fresh energy of the same kind.

To open to ourselves, to open to others these laws — is it not worth living for, to make the slavish soul acquainted with the mighty secrets of its own power?– that by self-renouncement a kingdom of heaven of which indeed he had no conception begins at once in his heart;– by the high act of yielding his will, a total sacrifice,– that little individual heart becomes dilated as with the presence and inhabitation of the Spirit of God.


Shall I select a third trait of our human condition so wonderful, which only begins with reflection, that it turns all our evil to good?– Thus the moment Reason assumes its empire over a man, he finds that he has nothing low and injurious in him but it is, under this dominion, the root of power and beauty; that which was debasing him, will now prove the very sinew of his character; his petulance, is the love of order; and out of his natural necessities grew this complex structure of civilization.

Nay what he blushes for, and reckons his weakness, because it is different from other men whom he admires,– the odds are, it is what he should throw himself on his knees and thank God for, as his crowning gift. For there is somewhat peculiar in every man, which is, on that account, apt to be neglected, but which must be let grow, and suffered to give direction to the other faculties, if he would attain his acme and be dear and honorable to his brethren. –He finds that whatever disadvantages he has labored under; whatever uncommon exertions he has been called to make; whatever poverty; what sickness; what unpopularity; what mistake; yes, even what deep sin he has been given up to commit; when once his soul is awaked to truth and virtue, touched with the veneration of God, and stung with the insatiable desire of making every day his soul more perfect — then all these, the darkest worst calamities, the sorest sorrows, are changed, are glorified;– he owns his deep debt to them and sees (with even rapture) the omnipresent energy of the God who transforms all things into the divine.

And what is this Admiration? What is it but a perception of his true position in the Universe and his consequent obligation. This is the whole moral and end of such views as I present. I desire a man to consider faithfully in solitude and silence the unknown nature within him, that he may not sink into his own contempt, and be a spectacle of folly to the Universe. I would have him open his eyes to true wonder, that he may never more be agitated by trifles. I would have him convinced that by the act of his own will alone can that which is most worth his study be disclosed to him. I would have him open his eyes to see that the unreflecting laborer is a brute; that the reflecting laborer only is a man. Let him consider that all riches though convenient to the senses cannot profit himself; but that a true thought, a worthy deed, puts him at once into harmony with the real and eternal. Let him consider that if he loves respect, he must seek it in what really belongs to a man and not in anything accidental such as fortune or appearance. Instead of making it his pride to be announced as a person of consideration in the state or in his profession, or in the fashionable world, or as a rich or a traveled or a powerful man, let him delight rather to make himself known in all companies by his action and by his discourse as one who has attained unto self-command; one who has thought in earnest upon the questions of human duty; one who carries with his presence the terrors and the beauty of justice; and who, even in the moment when his friends ignorantly censure him, is privy to the virtuous action he has performed, and those he has in hand.

(It is a maxim of state that that an ambassador carries his country with him, so that he and they who belong to him, are not amenable to the laws of the country where they reside, but to their own. The good man always carries his country with him. The miracle which his soul contemplates is so much more to him than all outward objects and events that wherever God is, there is he at home.)

What is in this Admiration of which I speak? Is it not the fountain of religion in his soul? What is it but an acknowledgment of the incomprehensible? –not a sight only but a love and adoration of the Wisdom and Love which breathes through the Creation into the heart. What does the world inspire but a lofty Faith that all will be, that all is well, that the God who thus vouchsafes to reveal himself in all that is great and all that is lovely, will not forsake the child whom every hour and every event and memory and hope educate. What does it intimate but presages of an infinite and a perfect life? What but an assured Trust through all evil and danger and Death.

Why should we fear Disease, let it come in what unwanted forms it will? –when the soul has once awakened to duty and love no change that merely touches the body can affect its everlasting peace. It is defended and embosomed in the love of God.

Brethren, I aim in presenting these truths to awaken the divine spirit in us, not to specify single duties. If a man will admit these thoughts, will listen to the pleadings of God through the voice of Nature and the wonders of human life, he will then be not less but more disposed to a faithful performance of his specific duties. He will feel that though all else is visionary and may come to nothing, the love of God remains forever, that Duty which is God’s law is never one moment relaxed, and only in a sacred obedience to it in every moment in every alternative do we bring ourselves into unity and accord with good spirits and with God.

4 thoughts on “Historical re-enactment

  1. Dan

    Parslife — Yes, the sermons are online, but those texts are exact transcriptions of Emerson’s manuscripts, including deletions, marginalia, etc. — they do not make for particularly easy reading. As one who has tried reading both, I promise that you’ll find it much easier to read the sermons if you can find a library that has the four-volume Complete Sermons books.

  2. Bill Baar

    This really needs to be done with sermons from the 50s and 60s.

    Those were the critical decades for Liberalism and I think we need to hear those words again to understand what’s endured, what hasn’t, and what should be reclaimed.

  3. Dan

    Bill — I’ve been looking back at the sermons preached here in New Bedford, and the sermons from the 30’s and 40’s are still very compelling — whereas sermons from the 50’s are somewhat complacent, and sermons from the 60’s and 70’s tended to degenerate into third-rate political polemics. Some of the sermons from the 40’s seem to be direct responses to the challenges of the neo-orthodox theologians, and I’ve been thinking seriously about re-preaching some of them (e.g., a sermon titled “Jesus the Man” preached here by Duncan Howlett).

    Then, too, part of it depends on who was the preacher in a given congregation in a given decade. Your congregation had Charles Lyttle through the 50’s up to 1964. I’d love to hear any one of his sermons preached again.

    Did you have any specific ideas about which 50’s and 60’s sermons (or which preacher’s sermons) should be preached?

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