Ellen Sturgis Hooper

Last night, our congregation hosted an online class by John Buehrens on the women of Transcendentalism. John’s stimulating talk prompted me to go read some poetry by Transcendentalist women. I remembered some of the Transcendentalists I knew in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1990s talked in glowing terms of the Sturgis sisters — Ellen Sturgis Hooper and Caroline Sturgis Dall — so I started with Ellen Sturgis’ poetry. And came across this:

Beauty may be the path to highest good,
And some successfully have it pursued.
Thou, who wouldst follow, be well warned to see
That way prove not a curvèd road to thee.
The straightest path perhaps which may be sought,
Lies through the great highway men [sic] call “I ought.”

This short Transcendentalist poem directly contradicts today’s typical notion that the Transcendentalists were a bunch of wild-eyed hyper-individualistic proto-hippies, bent on “doing their own thing.” Actually, none of them was; a few of them, like Emerson himself, pursued beauty as “the path to the highest good,” but that is quite different than being a hyper-individualist. From what I can tell, most of the nineteenth century Transcendentalists followed the path of duty, rather than beauty; these are the Transcendentalists who fought for abolition of slavery and women’s rights, and fought against poverty; they are better described as disciples of Immanuel Kant and his moral imperatives. I’d prefer to group myself with the Transcendentalists who follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Another of Ellen Sturgis Hooper’s poem struck me:

Hymn of a Spirit Shrouded

O God, who, in thy dear still heaven,
Dost sit, and wait to see
The errors, sufferings, and crimes
Of our humanity,
How deep must be thy causal love!
How whole thy final care!
Since Thou, who rulest over all,
Canst see, and yet canst bear.

Though Ellen was a Unitarian, this strikes me as a Universalist poem, because the phrase “thy final care” implies to me that Ellen Sturgis’s God plans to bring all souls into God’s embrace. Yet Sturgis also confronts head on the hardest thing to understand about universal salvation: there are certain people whom I would not want to extend ultimate salvation — such as the police officer who killed George Floyd, thus betraying both his public trust as a police officer, and his humanity — or the people who commit domestic violence — or the plutocrats who, to defend their ill-gotten wealth, fund and stir up Christian nationalists and white supremacists to destabilize U.S. democracy. Yet Ellen Sturgis’s God has a love for humanity that is so deep, that God can see humanity’s “errors, sufferings, and crimes,” and bear them, and still love. That’s well beyond my limited power, and I suppose that’s why people like me need to follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Ellen Sturgis Hooper died of tuberculosis in 1848, at the age of 36. Her poems were published in Transcendentalist periodicals during her lifetime. After her death, her son Ned printed her poems for private distribution, in an edition of just 8 copies. Several of her poems were also included in hymnals and anthologies.

I found little biographical information about her, aside from mentions of her marriage to physician Robert William Hooper, and her friendship with Margaret Fuller, and her relationship to famous men like William Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr. However, there is a book-length biography of her daughter, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, Natalie Dykstra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) which offers a brief but insightful biography of Ellen (see pp. 3-15).

Ellen’s father was a sea captain and co-owner of a large merchant trading firm; her mother was the daughter of a judge. At age fourteen, Ellen’s beloved older brother died in a tragic accident, an event that completely unhinged her mother, who in her grief was no longer care for Ellen and her other children. Ellen, as the second oldest child, wound up being mother to her younger siblings. At age 25, she was married to Robert Hooper in King’s Chapel, Boston, by Rev. Ephraim Peabody. Peabody said it was “one of the happy marriages,” and Dykstra writes, “Robert’s caution and his more retiring nature might have seemed dull to Caroline Sturgis [Ellen’s sister] and Margaret Fuller but appealing to Ellen, promising ballast after a tumultuous childhood.” She and Robert settled in Boston, living close to her father’s mansion, and close to her sister Anne who had married Robert’s brother, Sam. In 1839, Ellen and her sisters Caroline and Anne were part of the first of Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations.” Ellen lived close to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Transcendentalist bookstore where the “Conversations” were held. Further connections to Transcendentalism came after both of the Hooper families joined James Freeman Clarke’s Church of the Disciples, when it was founded in 1841.

Although many other Transcendentalists became active in various social justice causes, such as abolition, Ellen followed her duty in another direction; according to Dykstra, “Ellen’s husband and three children were the heart of her life.” This makes sense, given Ellen’s experience of her own mother, who had in grief over the death of one child abandoned all her other children. After her third child and favorite child, Clover, was born in 1843, Ellen’s tuberculosis again grew worse. Ellen died in 1848, when Clover was only five years old, and before her death Ellen must have wondered and worried about what would happen to her children after she died. Who would be a mother to them, once she was dead? She found no easy religious or spiritual answer to such a difficult question. Ephraim Peabody, minister of King’s Chapel, who officiated at her funeral, wrote that in her last year of life she had become “almost a mystic.”

I’ll close with one final poem, which is undated, but perhaps came from the end of Ellen’s life:

One about To Die

Oh, melancholy liberty
Of one about to die —
When friends, with a sad smile,
And aching heart the while,
Every caprice allow,
Nor deem it worth while now
To check the restless will
Which death so soon shall still.

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”

One Transcendentalist’s religious naturalism

The following is the text of a talk I gave at a meeting of Humanist Roots Group of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on Saturday 2 February 2013.

Religious naturalism defined

Let me begin with a capsule definition of religious naturalism. This comes from Jerome Stone’s book Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. The very first paragraph reads:

“Religious naturalism, a once-forgotten option in religious thinking, is making a revival. It seeks to explore and encourage religious ways of responding to the world on a completely naturalistic basis without a supreme being or ground of being.”

Jerome Stone then goes on to list some thinkers who might be considered religious naturalists. If you’re a philosophy or theology geek, some of these names will be of interest to you: George Santayana, John Dewey, Henry Nelson Weiman, Bernard Loomer, Randolph Crump Miller (someone who influenced me through his work in religious education theory), perhaps Gordon Kaufman, and biologist Ursula Goodenough.

Historically, Jerome Stone says the roots of religious naturalism go back to Spinoza, and he also includes Henry David Thoreau as a religious naturalist. He also points out that some (not all) religious naturalists may be willing to use the term “God,” suitably defined. He writes:

“On the topic of God, I find that religious naturalists tend to fall into three groups: (1) those who conceive God as the creative process in the universe; (2) those who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously; and (3) those who do not speak of God yet still can be called religious.”

The first group, which includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, would say that while the creative process (whatever that is, in terms of their definitions) is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe, they still think it is useful to name that creative process “God.” I am not particularly interested in this group of religious naturalists, and cannot speak intelligently about them; if this is a topic that interests you, Jerome Stone’s book would be a good place to start to learn more.

The second group, the people who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously, I find far more interesting. If you have some familiarity in Western philosophy, you will want to know that Stone places Spinoza in this group. And this group intersects with those pantheists who understand God as being the totality of the universe, where the universe is understood in completely naturalistic terms. Those who are advocates of the “Gaia hypothesis” — that’s the hypothesis that the entire biosphere of the planet Earth can be understood as one vast, perhaps sentient, organism — might be close to religious naturalism, although true pantheists who include the rest of the universe beyond the Earth, too. Continue reading “One Transcendentalist’s religious naturalism”

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”