Three books on Transcendentalism

Three recent books provide new insights into the nineteenth century Transcendentalist movement.

The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021).

Robert Gross is perhaps best known for his brilliant use of social history techniques in his 1976 book, The Minutemen and Their World. Social history was a mid-twentieth century intellectual movement that, rather than focusing on elite powerful figures, focused on the mass of people in a given historical era. In The Minutemen and Their World Gross and his research assistants pored through historical documents like voting records, deeds, tax rolls, and the like. Using both quantitative techniques, like statistical analysis, and qualitative techniques, he was able to tell a much richer story about the Minutemen of Concord, Massachusetts, and why they decided to take up arms against His Majesty’s troops.

After completing that book, Gross extended his research into nineteenth century Concord. He wanted to figure out why such a small town became the home of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two major Transcendentalist figures. He also wanted to find out more about the social and cultural milieu of Emerson and Thoreau, as a way to better understand their intellectual accomplishments.

Continue reading “Three books on Transcendentalism”

Emerson on reparations

On January 1, 1863, in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Ralph Waldo Emerson read a poem to a Boston audience. In that poem, Emerson considered the then-current idea that slave-owners should be compensated for having their slaves taken away from them. To this ethically bankrupt notion, he replied:

Pay ransom to the owner,
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

This seems to me to be a good concise summary of the case for reparations.

And no wonder many present-day political leaders reject the notion of reparations to the descendants of slavery. If we compensate the descendants of slaves for their stolen labor, by a logical progression we might then have to compensate the offshore workers for the full value of their labor. Or compensate the underpaid warehouse workers and retail employees in this country for the full value of their labor. There’s even an implication that today’s billionaires did not in fact earn their fabulous wealth through their own efforts. In other words, the assummptions underlying reparations contradict the assumptions of economic libertarianism.

Another not-Emerson hymn?

Where do the words for the hymn “We Sing of Golden Mornings” come from? This hymn appears in the 1955 American Ethical Union hymnal We Sing of Life, and in the 1993 Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition. In the latter hymanl, the words are attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “recast 1925, 1950, 1990.”

But a quick web search shows that the phrase “golden mornings” does not appear anywhere in Emerson’s poetry. The same is true of several other distinctive phrases in the hymn: “flashing sunshine,” “heart courageous,” “earth’s great splendor,” etc. I can’t even figure out from which of Emerson’s poems this hymn might have been derived.

Eunice Boardman (Exploring Music, vol. 4, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1971, p. 26) attributes this as “words by Vincent Silliman from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Well, maybe. But I can’t find any Emerson poem that even vaguely resembles this. Clarence Burley, in an essay “Emerson the Lyricist” (Emerson Society Papers, vol. 8, no. 1, spring, 1997, p. 5), says that as this poem “does not appear in the Library of America edition [of Emerson’s complete poems], I don’t know the extent of recasting and revising.” That’s a nice, polite way of stating my conclusion — that this hymn is Not Emerson.

(Oh, and to complicate matters more, the music attribution is also wrong. The tune is in fact from William Walker’s Southern Harmony, only slightly modified. But the harmonization in Singing the Living Tradition is most definitely not by William Walker, which raises the question: Who wrote the harmonization?)

(Click here for more Not Emerson.)

Concord Hymn

Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, April 19, 1836

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
   We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
   To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the better poems Emerson wrote: simple and direct, and more complex than it seems at first; not unlike the five-minute battle which both the poem and the Battle Monument commemorate. The “votive stone” still stands in the same place that it stood when Emerson’s poem was sung to it back in 1836, 182 years ago today.

Above: The monument as it appeared at the 2009 re-enactment of the Battle of the North Bridge

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:


It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

The radiant life

Last week, Dad spent quite a bit of time talking with my sisters and me about World War II. I think it is very difficult for us now to understand how traumatic those war years were, and to understand how the war and trauma affected those who lived through it; they were dark years indeed.

When Dad was at college right after World War II, he took a philosophy course with Rufus Jones, the great Quaker philosopher and theologian. He still has several books by Jone on his bookshelf, and while I was looking for something to read this morning, I pulled out Jones’s The Radiant Life, published in 1944, in the middle of the war. The book represents Jones’s search for “gleams of radiance” which might be found “in spite of the darkness of the time.”

Like his contemporaries, the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom were also profoundly affected by the war and by the evils perpetrated by Nazi Germany, Jones felt he could no longer cling to the sunny optimism of the Progressives, nor to the even sunnier optimism of Emerson. Where, then, should we turn to find gleams of light? James Luther Adams turned towards the social structure of voluntary associations: finding light in building robust communities that could move us towards the good. Reinhold Niebuhr turned towards pragmatism and Christian realism: accepting that in a corrupt world we may not find all the light we need (this, I believe, is the origin of Neibuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer).

Jones, Quaker that he was, found a different answer to the traumas of the mid-twentieth century Western world: he encouraged us to accept the reality around us but also to look for the light that was always there. He wrote:

“The Kennebago Mountains are visible in the far horizon of my home in Maine, but they come into sight only when the wind is north-west and has blown the sky clear of fog and mist and cloud. Then there they are, in all their distant purple glory. But we know that they are there all the time, when the wind is east or south, though we cannot see them, and we say to our visitors, wait until the wind comes round and blows from Saskatchewan, and then you will see our mountains which are over there in our far sky-line! Some persons’ lights up like that only when the wind is in the right quarter. I am pleading for a type of life that is sunlit and radiant, not only in fair weather and when the going is smooth, but from a deep inward principle and discovery which makes it lovely and beautiful in all weathers.”

I think I like Jones’s approach better than either Adams or Neibuhr — not that I think that any one of them has the final and complete truth of the matter, nor the final answer to the traumas of life; no single human being can ever know the complete truth of anything. But to know that the mountains are always there, even when you can’t see them because they are obscured — that is worth remembering. I can see why my father liked Jones so much, and continues to like him. Adams focuses on human relations, which I admire, but I sometimes wish Adams let in a little more of Emerson’s sunshine. However, Emerson is too sunny, except in his poetry, and sometimes I can’t quite believe him. Niebuhr is too dark, and I don’t want to believe him.

How do we get through the traumas of contemporary life? How do we get through the horrors of war and terror? How can we face the damage humans are doing to the rest of creation? How can we make it through the struggles of human life, of grief and death and all the rest? I like Rufus Jones’s answer: remember that the mountains are always there even when you can’t see them. Or, to put it another way, look for the gleams of light which always may be found even in the darkest of times.

How to have transcendental experiences

Someone asked how to have transcendental experiences, so I’ll summarize what I know about the subject from my own personal experience.

Background: Thoreau’s approach
A basic method for having mystical experiences
A few warnings


First, definitions: I would define a transcendental experience as a variety of mystical experience that does not require belief in anything supernatural; the “transcendental” refers back to the Transcendentalists, like Thoreau and Emerson. A transcendental experience is intense and possibly life-changing, and the person having the experience gains a direct knowledge of the ultimate unity of everything and the insignificance of the individual.

Second, a caveat: it seems that only some people can have transcendental experiences — William James estimated that three in four people cannot have them. Perhaps this is because some people simply aren’t able to have such experiences. But I’m inclined to believe that many people either don’t want to go through the trouble of preparing themselves to have transcendental experiences, or if they do have them manage to convince themselves that they didn’t.

Third, mystical experiences seem to have been part of every human culture, and there’s no great secret about how to have one. The classic method to prepare yourself to have mystical experiences is to practice some kind of mental/spiritual discipline. In the Western tradition, this involved some combination of prayer, study of sacred texts and lectio divina (disciplined spiritual reading), and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In the Eastern tradition, this involved some combination of meditation, study of sacred texts, submission to and study under a guru or spiritual master, and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In both the East and the West, the usual interpretation of mystical experiences involved some element of the supernatural: these were experiences of God, or would lead to release from the endless cycle of rebirth, etc.

But I’d like to outline an approach to having mystical experiences that requires no belief in the supernatural (although it can also accommodate a belief in the supernatural quite comfortably). This flexible approach was developed and used by the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians.

Continue reading “How to have transcendental experiences”

Mystics and Transcendentalists

Below is the uncorrected text of the talk with which I began a class on the mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism, focusing (of course) on the Transcendentalists. A fascinating discussion followed, in which participants offered corrections where I was vague or in error, amplified things that needed to be amplified, and added lots of good thinking. So if you read this, remember that you’re missing the most interesting part of the class. Also, I diverged from the text at several places, so the talk you heard may not be the talk you read here.

Yes, liberal religion has a mystical tradition!

It seems odd that I have to assert this so vigorously. But our Unitarian and Universalist traditions, and Unitarian Universalism today, have not been particularly hospitable towards mystics. Throughout our history, and into the present day, the rationalists dominate our theological conversations — and I include both the theistic rationalists and the atheist rationalists. Our faith tradition clings to its belief in a rationalism inherited from the Enlightenment; we believe in carefully reasoned arguments; we have a tendency to focus on the brain and mind and ignore the heart and the rest of the body; we are most likely to use logical thought, and we are inclined to ignore other ways of knowing and interpreting the world.

However, by the same token, the mystics among us been not been kind towards their non-mystical co-religionists.

Emerson against religious formalism

Back in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave what is now known as the Divinity School Address; he spoke to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, supplier of most Unitarian ministers of the day, and told them how to be good ministers. Do not be coldly rational formalists, he warned. And then, speaking of the minister of his Unitarian church in Concord, Massachusetts, a man by the name of Barzillai Frost, Emerson said:

photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.”

Emerson was prone to really bad puns, and here he indulges himself in a hidden pun: It is Barzillai FROST who is speaking in a SNOW STORM; bad as this pun may be, it points up a difference between two kinds of coldness: there is the coldness of the snow, which is real and can be experienced; and there is the coldness of religious formalism. Continue reading “Mystics and Transcendentalists”

More on Thoreau

Lecturette from the second and final session of a adult RE class on Thoreau — typos and all.

At the end of last week’s session, you asked me to address a number of points about Henry David Thoreau. In no particular order, you asked me to talk about the following:

(1) Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience
(2) How Thoreau was affected by Eastern religions
(3) The circle of writers and thinkers who came and went in the town of Concord during Thoreau’s life
(4) Why Thoreau left his Unitarian church, and place his departure in the context of wider trends in Unitarianism
(5) Thoreau’s later influence on Unitarianism, and then on Unitarian Universalism Continue reading “More on Thoreau”

A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1

Opening talk from a class on Henry David Thoreau, given at the UU Church of Palo Alto on 18 April 2012.

Henry Thoreau is one of those literary figures that everyone likes to think they know. But having read him (and even studied him in a desultory way), and having read a good deal about him, and having lived the first forty years of my life in the very landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, in which he lived, and having been licensed as a tour guide in Concord, and having preached about him, and having in short devoted rather too much attention to Thoreau — the more I know about him, the more I feel that we tend to impose our sense of what we want Thoreau to be onto who he actually was.

What I would like us to do is to try to understand Thoreau as he really was, not as we would like him to be. That means that we cannot understand him as an environmentalist, because that is not a term he would have known, nor am I convinced that he would have been comfortable with that term. That means that we cannot claim Thoreau as a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or an atheist or humanist, as various people have done over the years, for as an adult he would not have accepted any of those labels. That means that we should not think of him as one of the key figures in nineteenth century American literature, for in his own lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a writer, especially as compared with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and while Thoreau may today be considered a key figure in American literature, arguably he remains misunderstood primarily because his gifts in broad humor and the telling of tall tales are rarely acknowledged.

So who was Thoreau? Continue reading “A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1”