Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lecture 3: A systematic account of humanism

Third lecture in a class on humanism.

I have said that one problem with religious humanism is that there hasn’t been any systematic account of what it means to be a religious humanist. I should state that more precisely: I want to see a systematic account of religious humanism in a style that is popular enough to capture the attention of a wide audience, while scholarly enough to satisfy scholars. 19th century Unitarianism had William Ellery Channing, a good writer who managed to capture a wide audience; Unitarians can also claim Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose prose and poetry continue to shape Unitarian Universalism today. Now maybe it’s a little bit much to ask for another Emerson, but at least humanism could wish for the equivalent of Hosea Ballou, the early 19th century Universalism whose Treatise on Atonement commanded a wide popular audience in its day.

To take a more recent example, the rapid growth of Neopaganism in the last twenty years has been propelled by popular writers like Margot Adler and Starhawk. Now maybe you haven’t heard of Margot Adler and Starhawk, but hundreds of thousands of people have heard of them, and have read their books, and have become Neopagans as a result. Let me put this another way: I see teenagers reading Starhawk, and I see teenagers reading Emerson, but I don’t see teenagers reading anyone who espouses religious humanism.

But it won’t be enough to have a writer who’s popular. Starhawk has convinced a lot of people to become Neopagans because she has offered a comprehensive and systematic account of what it means to be a Neopagan. She has written about how Neopagans can raise their children, how Neopagans can try to make the world a better place, she has outlined a Neopagan ethics, she has shown how Neopagans can create viable and nurturing religious communities. In a sense, Starhawk is even better than Emerson, who may have given us a lot of inspiration for our individual spiritual lives but who didn’t write much about how to create viable and nurturing religious communities. Starhawk is also enough of a thinker that she can be taken seriously by scholars and intellectuals. The general point here is that we need a writer who is popular, and who can be taken seriously intellectually, and who shows people how to live life as a religious humanist. Continue reading

Spirituality development in youth

This morning, I was a guest in an online course on youth ministry, taught by Megan Dowdell and Betty-Jeane Rueters-Ward, and offered through Starr King School for the Ministry. Megan and Betty-Jeane invited Lane Campbell and me to participate in a conference call, and answer a few questions about spiritual development for teenagers. I took notes on what I said, and below you’ll find my re-creation of my answers to Megan’s questions on spiritual development.

Question 1: How is spiritual development for youth different than for adults or children?

My answer: If we’re going to answer this question within the context of a religious community, I want to begin with theology. We have to go back to theological anthropology, and ask ourselves: What is the nature of human beings?

Within my own religious upbringing — my family has been Unitarian for generations, and we’re now Unitarian Universalists — I always heard a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw a divine spark within every human being, no matter what age. If the nature of human beings is that they have have some divine spark within them, then we are probably going to say that this divine spark doesn’t develop at all. I’d pretty much agree with Emerson on this point, although I’d probably argue with him about the nature of the divine spark. So I’m not convinced there’s much spiritual difference across ages; certainly, from the standpoint of theological anthropology, there’s no real difference between teenagers and adults. Continue reading

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

Continue reading

New book: Liberal Pilgrims

What it says on the back cover:

Liberal Pilgrims chronicles the experiences of Unitarians and Universalists from New Bedford, Massachusetts, offering a window on the sometimes unexpected context and development of liberal religion in North America. New Bedford’s religious liberals viewed the world from diverse perspectives, using different symbols, language, and actions to express their religion as they progressed in their pilgrimages — spiritual and religious journeys that that continue to transform the American liberal religious tradition to this day. Their stories remind us of the rich and sometimes disparate origins of liberal religious practice. And their stories challenge today’s liberal pilgrims to continue to seek out new directions for liberal religion, constantly reinventing contemporary liberal religious experience.

“Some stories have never been told in detail before. There’s the story of Reverend William Jackson, the first African-American minister to declare himself a Unitarian when he addressed a meeting of the American Unitarian Association in New Bedford. There are the stories of North Unitarian Church, a church of immigrants, and Centre Church, which changed its affiliation from the Christian Connection to Unitarianism. Other stories include the story of Reverend John Murray Spear, Universalist and abolitionist, minister of an interracial church in the 1830s, who was driven out of New Bedford when he helped free a slave. There’s the story of Mary Rotch, perhaps the most original Unitarian theologian to come out of New Bedford, and a confidante of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

“Each of the 19 chapters tells about a different liberal religious person, community, or art work. By examining how these people and religious communities of the past lived out their religious ideals in their times, we learn more about our own liberal religion in the present day and its potential for the future.”

Yes, it’s now officially published. Yes, it contains the story of the very first African American minister to declare himself a Unitarian. Yes, it contains additional information about Unitarian and Universalist history, much of which has never before published.

And yes, it could use another round of copy editing, but I’m getting ready to move and I just don’t have enough time to go through the book again. But I promise it’s worth reading even with the typographical errors I’m sure are in it.

Go here to buy it. Cheap: $9.46 + shipping (I make no profit on the book). Cheaper still if you buy three or more.

(a) poet, (b) philosopher; pick one

This judgment of Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported by Julia Ward Howe in her Reminiscences: 1819-1899:

“Theodore Parker once said to me, ‘I do not consider Emerson a philosopher, but a poet lacking the accomplishment of rhyme.’ ”

Coming from Parker, who could at least pretend to be a philosopher/theologian, that’s a fairly harsh thing to say. After she reports Parker’s bon mot, Howe, who considered herself a poet, goes on to add her own judgment:

“This may not be altogether true, but it is worth remembering…. The deep intuitions, the original and startling combinations, the sometimes whimsical beauty of his illustrations,– all these belong rather to the domain of poetry than to that of philosophy…. Despite his rather defective sense of rhythm, his poems are divine snatches of melody….”

I think Howe and Parker are right: Emerson is more of a poet than a philosopher. Since Emerson remains the most important philosopher/theologian of North American Unitarianism, that has some interesting implications for who we are today.

Attack ads everywhere

It’s the political season, and attack ads are everywhere. You’ve probably seen the Nietzsche attack ad, the Kant attack ad, and you may even have seen the third-party candidate Kierkegaard attack ad.

No way can I top those. But nonetheless, I couldn’t resist creating a Ralph Waldo Emerson attack ad (0:58)….

Share this video.

Oh, and there is also a Thomas Jefferson attack ad.

Jenkin Lloyd Jones and Emerson meet

Ellen Tucker Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was an engaging writer in her own right. She never bothered to publish anything, writing instead for the enjoyment of her family and friends. Recently, I’ve been dabbling in the two volume set of her letters (Kent State University Press, 1982), and I came across a letter in which she describes going to a Unitarian summer conference with her father in 1879; by which time her father’s memory loss was fairly pronounced. In addition to giving a fascinating glimpse into the very beginnings of the kind of summer religious conferences that still continue today at places like Star Island and Ferry Beach, she also writes about how she happened to meet Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference:

Weir’s N.H. July 22nd 1879

Dear Mother,

We all met at Nashua and came in high spirits to Lake Winnepisagee. We landed on a platform right over its waters, and felt all that sense of coolness & stillness & relief of getting out of the cars into beautiful nature that we have all often enjoyed. A friendly voice cried out “All who wish to go to Concord Building, follow me,” so we all followed, presented our credentials which were received with laughter and pocketed unread, because they said we didn’t need any, and the we were told the evening meeting was just beginning. The Meeting consisted of a welcoming address from Mr Powell of Laconia, who said he was chairman of the Reception Committee appointed by the N.H. Unitarian Assn. as their representative, as such, servants of all who arrived, to take good care of us, and that they would do it to the utmost. Then one Rev. from Mr Beane of Concord N.H. telling us about the lat Grove-Meeting, and that all who attended it learned the lesson that religion was more a social & less a solitary sentiment than they used to think, and that the cumulative effect of making it the business & study of a whole week night and day had been very great so that not only in general the Unitarians of N.H. had been more active, zealous and mutually attached ever since than they had been before, but that individual men had felt through the whole year the lift they got here last July, it was true of him, and he believed almost all who were here would be able to give the same testimony. So he congratulated us that we had come, and said we couldn’t help expecting much from this week. Then some notices, and we were dismissed and brought by Mr Powell to our present abode, Mrs Lovett’s house, quite near the Ground on a hill overlooking the lake and having a fine view of the Gunstock Mountain and the right and Ossippee Mountain on the left. The cooking is admirable, and there is plenty of new milk. Of course the mountain water is excellent. We arrived just a little late at the 8.30 morning prayer-meeting. There was the “Rev. Jenk. Ll. Jones” addressing us, not from the stand but down in the aisle. What he said was good and in a quiet sincere voice. Someone else spoke. Then there was silence, and Mr Powers said “If the Spirit doesn’t move us, we will close the meeting.” Notices were given, a hymn was sung, and Mr Jones gave the blessing. We were told that Mr Tiffany would preach at 10.30…. We were pleased, I of course most of all, that dear Mr Tiffany was here and we enjoyed his sermon. It was “Physician heal thyself”, learn something before you attempt to impart. In the course of it he couldn’t help saying that Mr Emerson was an example of the true way of teaching. Then arose his brother ministers and “hackit him in pieces sma’ ” (not on the point of Papa) except Rev. J. Ll. Jones who had a great deal to say about Father, in much the same strain as Mr Tiffany, and what did the man do, but standing within a rod of me insist on looking me in the eye all the time he wa speaking of Father. I stood it a little, but kept him out of focus a great deal….

I love the way she slides from dead serious to dryly humorous to slyly witty, sometimes in the space of one sentence. And I like the way she threads together small observations and minor incidents, seemingly quite unrelated, to make her narrative. But to conclude her miniature portrait of Jenkin Lloyd Jones….

In a letter to her sister, dated two days later, she wrote, “I have here had a chance to see the Western Unitarian Minister side by side with the Eastern. They are the most different creatures imaginable.” I suppose one difference was that the Eastern Unitarian Minister would preach from behind a pulpit; while Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Western Unitarian Minister, came down from the stand to speak from the aisle. Ellen concludes, “On the whole my hero is the Rev. Jenk. Ll Jones…. Mr Jones spoke on the subject of the afternoon “If Life worth living?” I heard more clearly now than I had before the advantages, the joys, the light of Unitarianism. It was a beautiful, beautiful speech.”

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…. Continue reading

Emerson speaks

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.