American Transcendentalism and Its Liberation from Traditional Christianity

Transcendentalism was never an atheistic movement in America, but it may be seen as one precursor among many to the present secular resurgence in this country.  There is a large difference between 19th Century Transcendentalism and the deism that was embraced by many Americans in the 18th Century.  Deism is the basic belief that god set the universe in motion but no longer interferes in human affairs or this world.  The concept corresponds to a material viewpoint, or what has been called the idea of the “clockwork universe” of Isaac Newton, the scientist, and John Locke, the philosopher, both of them 17th Century thinkers.  Several of our Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, embraced deism, and it was an important factor in much of their thinking about religion, the state and the new Constitution.   We shall be returning to deism in a future lecture about the American Enlightenment.

But Transcendentalism, while indebted to many European thinkers, was a uniquely American synthesis, encompassing philosophical, spiritual and literary aspects.  It flourished from about the 1820’s and 1830’s, especially in the East, and was arguably on the wane from about the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, and the death of Henry David Thoreau, in 1862.  Transcendentalism was a rejection of both Puritan Calvinism and more importantly, of the liberal Unitarian religion of the time. 

The beginning of Transcendentalism came out of the belief system of liberal New England Congregationalists who rejected orthodox Calvinism’s concept of complete human depravity and the pre-ordained salvation or damnation of people after death. Good works, traditional Puritans thought, were of no use in being saved.  Calvinists were unwilling to remove any vestige of power from the god they believed in- human salvation must depend on god or it would minimize his omnipotence.

The liberal New England Congregationalists embraced the importance of human striving, and the unity of God, rather than the more conservative concept of the Trinity.  The American Unitarian Church came out of the liberal departure from Puritan rigidity, both religious and cultural.  There was no complete consensus of doctrine among the Congregationalists, nor among their offshoot, the Unitarians.  But many Unitarians of the early 19th Century were moving away from the notion of Jesus’ divinity.  Most of the Unitarians, at first, held to the idea that Jesus was lesser than god, but still greater than humans.  But a few of them were more comfortable with the English Joseph Priestley’s (1733-1804) view that Jesus was human.  Many did believe in Jesus’ special authority, but for them, the divinity of Jesus was a mistaken concept.

The foremost Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing (1780- 1842), was a very important influence in laying the groundwork for Unitarian tenets.  He characterized traditional Congregationalism as a religion of fear and argued that Jesus had saved humans not merely from punishment, but from sin as well.  He accused more conservative Christians of conspiracy to limit the liberty of Christians through the ages.

Channing was an advocate of the concept of revelation through reason, and not scripture. In 1828, he gave an important sermon called “Likeness to God,” in which he proposed that human beings partook of divinity within themselves.  He maintained that humans might achieve a “growing likeness to the Supreme Being.”

Let us keep in mind that the quarrels between conservative and liberal Congregationalists and the beginnings of American Unitarianism were fraught with philosophical but also economic consequences.  Interestingly, many wealthy and socially connected Congregationalists were leaving their traditional churches during this time and joining more liberal ones.  Their departure meant a loss of income for many congregations.

The Unitarian movement took the emerging liberalism to a greater extent.  The Unitarians were quite modern, reducing deity to an inner principle in each person, and maintaining the individual was the true force of moral light.  Oddly enough, while many were advocates of John Locke’s empiricism, they did not advance their belief system beyond miracles.  Unitarians tried to reconcile empiricism with Christianity and those who did tended to rely on Biblical miracles as proof of religious truth.

Unitarians were much taken with Channing’s idea that humans could become like god. But it was on the belief in miracles, and issues such as Jesus’ divinity, that the transcendentalists parted company with Unitarianism.  They were troubled by the supernaturalism of such notions.  At the same time, they were also struggling against the skepticism of the 18th Century British philosopher, David Hume. (1711-1776). We have discussed Hume in previous lectures. (Please see Atheist Philosophy- Skepticism, at  

Hume’s skepticism was troubling for many transcendentalists, particularly Emerson, who resisted Hume’s belief that there was no empirical proof for religion.  Hume lambasted the concept of miracles as well, and presented a thorough case that they did not exist.  His Dialogues on Natural Religion, published in 1779 after his death, was damaging to religious faith.  Even though Hume’s skepticism was ultimately rejected by the transcendentalists, their confrontation with his philosophy was very important to the development of their own unique ideas.

The European influences on the emerging Transcendentalist movement are far too numerous to cover in this lecture.  I shall mention a few of the most important.  Transcendentalism embraced some of the ideas of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1774-1804), particularly the concept of a priori knowledge.  Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890), an influential Unitarian minister, introduced Emerson and other disaffected Unitarian clergy to Kantian idealism, with its concept of intuitive trust in the inner self’s knowledge.  These young intellectuals began to embrace the assertion that man’s knowledge of the world without, or external world, depended on the nature of human intuitions.

Thomas Carlyle was an important influence on the young Emerson and Thoreau.  His Sartor Resartus of 1833-1834 was a spur to Emerson.  Action, Carlyle asserted, was essential to human education, along with nature and the mind of the past.  He maintained that it was not god, but the absolute freedom of the human will that caused the individual to reject evil. 

Along with the English Romantic poets and rebels, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Carlyle advocated what was called “a natural supernaturalism,” the view that nature and humans had both the power and authority that before was believed to belong to a singular deity.

If you recall, in earlier lectures, I have mentioned the influential German theologian, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, and his thinking that religion was an inner, subjective experience.  His 1825 Critical Essay upon the Gospel of Saint Luke was an additional influence on the emerging transcendentalists.  His book’s theme was that the Bible was a product of human history and culture.  German critical work on the Christian Bible was beginning to cast doubt that it was the inerrant word of god.

The German poet, Herder’s, Spirit of Hebrew Poetry in 1782, was a great aid in helping define Emerson’s aspirations.  Herder demonstrated, by blurring the lines between religious texts and poetry written by humans, how little authority the Bible had.  But he also introduced the positive idea that humans could produce written texts with the same authority as Scriptures.  Emerson resonated to the concept of the individual’s revelation, or intuition. This idea contained a resolution and motivation for the young transcendentalist’s struggle to find another path beyond empiricism and Hume’s skepticism.

Transcendentalism was not a religion as we understand the conventional sense of the word.  The three basic concepts of most Western religions are: a belief in god; a belief in an afterlife, which is dualism (man possesses a body and a soul); and often a belief in justice in the afterlife- the bad are punished and the good are rewarded. 

Transcendentalism was emphatically monist, with its emphasis on this life. While it did not reject the concept of an afterlife, life after death was viewed as a merging of the individual soul with the Universal Soul of the world, or cosmos. This view was particularly embraced by Emerson and Thoreau. Influenced by Eastern religions, a basic assumption of many transcendentalists was that the intuitive faculty of man could achieve a conscious union with the world psyche, even prior to death.  The world psyche was frequently referred to as the Over-soul, life force, prime mover, and god, or Brahma.  Thoreau, in particular, was highly influenced by his reading of Eastern texts, such as the Bhagavad-Gita.

I would like my listeners to picture the heady days of the 1960’s in America, which if you are close to my age, you either witnessed or took part in.  If you are younger, you will have seen documentaries and read books about that era.  It was a time of anti-war fervor, experiments in communal living, disgust with traditional religion and politics, a surge of support for civil rights, along with antipathy for competition, capitalism and the growing conformism of society.  Try to keep this picture in mind as my talk progresses.  It was an intensely fluid era, similar to the times of the transcendentalists.  In fact, transcendentalist works were very influential in the sixties, particularly the work of Thoreau. It was de rigueur to be familiar with his essay on civil disobedience.  There are many comparisons to be made between the two eras.

Before I discuss the basic premises of the Transcendentalist movement, I would like to list some of the reasons for the rise of American Transcendentalism.  Paul Boller believes that several independent occurrences, thoughts and tendencies converged in the New England of the 1830’s. 

We have already mentioned the steady decline of Calvinism.  There was also a steady rise in secularism due to the impact of science and technology.  A Unitarian intelligentsia emerged, with the means, leisure and training to pursue literature, philosophy and scholarship.  We have already mentioned how the young intellectuals of the era found Christianity irrelevant. Burgeoning industrialization and the intrusion of the machine into the New England “garden” had become disturbing to the new generation of thinkers.  Another factor that came into play was the greater frequency of Americans travelling abroad.  Some American intellectuals were very influenced by the new European ideas.

Several important thinkers converged on the New England scene- Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.  These three had the energy, intelligence and the will to try to alter the problems in American culture.  Finally, Boller maintains, people like the transcendentalists were taken over by the simple demands of logic.  How could intellectuals who took ideas seriously accept modern science and retain outmoded religious views?

I am gratefully indebted to Paul Reuben’s delineation of four points of general agreement among most of the transcendentalists.  We should remember, that in keeping with their extreme individualism, most transcendentalists did not readily agree with each other concerning most issues.  I have previously mentioned the Transcendentalist belief in using the intuitive sense, rather than the rational or intellectual senses, in order to achieve a conscious union of the individual psyche with the world soul.

But here are four more basic assumptions shared by many of them.  (1) An individual is the center of the universe and in the individual may be found the clue to nature, history and finally, the cosmos.  This idea was less a rejection of god rather than a privileging of the individual.  (2) Since the structure of the individual self is replicated by the structure of the universe and vice versa, understanding and knowledge should first come from self-knowledge. (3) Most transcendentalists believed nature was symbolic, replete with signs, a living mystery.  If you remember my earlier lectures, this concept was very neo-Platonic.  (4) An important idea of the transcendentalists was that virtue and happiness in life were dependent on self realization. An individual in search of fulfillment had to learn to balance two tendencies:  a desire to expand, to embrace the entire world, to become one with that world and an opposite desire to contract, to assert one’s individuality, to withdraw, to be unique and special.

Many of the transcendentalists believed in the principle of Correspondence, the concept that the external is united with the internal.  Correspondence was part of the system of beliefs of the Swedish visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772.)  Transcendentalists did not think nature was anything but neutral.  They were aware that we humans project our mood or psyche on an indifferent and objective natural world.  That is why the transcendentalists believed so strongly that studying nature was the same as studying one’s self.  Walden, Thoreau’s important 1854 volume, is filled with correspondences. Readers gradually begin to realize that in many passages, Thoreau is not just speaking about nature but also of the human condition. 

Emerson was also attracted to the doctrine of Correspondence.  In his lectures to adult education groups in the winter of 1833-1834, Emerson expounded on the idea that nature was the sacred text that should be studied, rather than the Bible.

I am dependent on Paul P. Reuben’s “American Transcendentalism” for the following list of the basic tenets of Transcendentalism.  Once again, let us keep in mind that these listings are of a general nature.  The transcendentalists were far too individualistic for all of them to have agreed on nineteen principles, as listed by scholars.

1. Transcendentalism, essentially, is a form of idealism.
2. The transcendentalist “transcends” or rises above the lower animalistic impulses of life (animal drives) and moves from the rational to a spiritual realm.
3. The human soul is part of the Over-soul or universal spirit (or “float” for Whitman) to which it and other souls return at death.
4. Therefore, every individual is to be respected because everyone has a portion of that Over-soul (God).
5. This Over-soul or Life Force or God can be found everywhere – travel to holy places is, therefore, not necessary.
6. God can be found in both nature and human nature (Nature, Emerson stated, has spiritual manifestations).
7. Jesus also had part of God in himself – he was divine as everyone is divine – except in that he lived an exemplary and transcendental life and made the best use of that Power which is within each one.
8. “Miracle is monster.” The miracles of the Bible are not to be regarded as important as they were to the people of the past. Miracles are all about us – the whole world is a miracle and the smallest creature is one.”A mouse is a miracle enough to stagger quintillions of infidels.” – Whitman             9. More important than a concern about the afterlife, should be a concern for this life – “the one thing in the world of value is the active soul.” – Emerson                                                       10. Death is never to be feared, for at death the soul merely passes to the Over-soul.

11. Emphasis should be placed on the here and now. “Give me one world at a time.” – Thoreau
12. Evil is a negative – merely an absence of good. Light is more powerful than darkness because one ray of light penetrates the dark. In other words, there was no belief in the existence of Satan as an active entity forcing humans to commit immorality. Humans are good and if they do immoral acts they do so out of ignorance and by not thinking.
13. Power is to be obtained by defying fate or predestination, which seem to work against humans, by exercising one’s own spiritual and moral strength.  There was great emphasis on self-reliance.
14. Therefore the emphasis was placed on human thinking.
15. The transcendentalists saw the necessity of examples of great leaders, writers, philosophers, and others, to show what an individual can become through thinking and action.
16. It is foolish to worry about consistency, because what an intelligent person believes tomorrow, if he/she trusts oneself, may be completely different from what that person thinks and believes today. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” – Emerson
17. The unity of life and universe must be realized. There is a relationship between all things.      18. One must have faith in intuition, for no church or creed can communicate truth.                  19. Reform must not be emphasized – true reform comes from within.

The big three of Transcendentalism this lecture will discuss are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.  We shall also glance at Theodore Parker and George Ripley, and then turn to Bronson Alcott, who despite his faults and imprecise thinking, was an important influence on the movement. 

I would now like to focus on the most important member of the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whose impact on the new philosophy was profound.  Emerson’s public addresses, his complete Essays, First Series- 1841 and Second Series- 1844, and many other works, were masterly in their call for an awakening in America, for a new way of thinking, for an idealism that was grounded in the practical.

William Emerson, the writer’s father, was a liberal minister who had died very young.  Emerson’s family was left quite poor, but the intellectual world beckoned to him from his early years.  His father’s sister, Mary Moody Emerson, was a formative influence on him and they kept up a vigorous correspondence until the end of her life.  The family came from a long line of ministers who embraced the fundamentalist ideas of Jonathan Edwards, the author of the fiery sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in 1741.  It is still studied by scholars for insight into the Great Awakening of 1730-1750 in the United States.

At Harvard, when Emerson encountered Hume, he barraged his aunt with a series of letters, hoping that she could somehow counter the great Skeptic.

 Interestingly enough, Mary Moody Emerson ridiculed the humanistic, liberal ministries springing up in New England during that era; she found them weak and insipid.

Emerson became a Unitarian minister, but was increasingly assaulted with doubts.  He believed in the basic core of Christianity at that time, but he had become doubtful concerning the practice of celebrating The Lord’s Supper.  By the time Emerson became chief pastor of Boston’s Second Church in 1830, the practice of the Lord’s Supper began to dismay him.  Many parishioners who were members of the various Unitarian Churches in the area felt the same way; communion seemed to be a barbarous rite. Emerson commenced trying to explain to the Church’s governing board that he thought Jesus had never intended the Supper to become a ritual. 

But Emerson’s final conclusion about Communion was most interesting, in that it revealed the character of the man and the kind of self reliance common to the American transcendentalists. Emerson decided that even if Jesus had intended his Last Supper to be permanently celebrated by Christians it did not matter.  If Emerson felt that the rite was disagreeable to his feelings, then he was obliged not to adopt it.  Although he was popular with his congregation, the Church’s pew proprietors accepted his resignation in 1832. 

This early struggle over Christian doctrines reveals the emergence of two important themes as Emerson’s work and thinking matured.

He believed in the primacy of individual beliefs and the superiority of creativity over the forms it has generated.  The forms, he argued, become fixed and meaningless. 

They are outstripped by the creativity that produced them, and its spirit creates ever emerging and ever renewing forms.  In time, Emerson earned much of his income from the lecture circuit, where his ideas and his expression of them became very popular. 

In August of 1837, Emerson gave a ground breaking talk to the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  With this speech, he opened the flood gates of an attempt at a new American literature, rooted in earlier literary traditions, but not hampered by a sense of inferiority to the European past. The speech contained a resounding prophetic note- that nature and tradition can be made transparent and understandable by the enlightened mind.  The exultation of his words can be felt when one reads the speech; imagine the effect on those who heard them.  The scholar, he insisted, must use the past works of great writers to unlock the creativity within him.  Creative reading would lead to creative writing and self trust.  Had we Americans only had an institution to support Emerson’s advice, we might have attained a particularly excellent new tradition. As it was, Emerson’s speech helped mark the beginning of a modern phase of American literary tradition.

On July 15, 1838, Emerson delivered a seminal speech to the senior graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School, of which he was a graduate.  In that speech, he expressed adoration for the “beauty of nature” and the more beautiful state of man when “his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue.” He argued that the person who was just at heart was god. 

He criticized the Christian Church for deifying the person of Jesus and reducing itself to an ancient mystery religion, with Jesus as a demigod, like Osiris or Apollo.  Jesus’ exhortation was to try to achieve spiritual perfection, Emerson maintained. 

He went on to disparage belief in miracles, an important belief for many Unitarians during that era.  He said: “To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul.”

For many Unitarians, miracles were empirical proof of Christianity and Emerson was exulting that he no longer needed them.  He was proclaiming the exciting message that god was to be found within each individual self, here and now.  Andrews Norton (1786-1833) often called the Unitarian “Pope,” and other conservative divines pilloried Emerson’s speech.  But the spark had been lit. These two speeches, “The American Scholar” and the “Divinity School Address,” were watershed moments in both American literature and religion.

Around the same time, 1836, Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890) began to organize what eventually came to be called the Transcendental Club.  He suggested to Emerson that disaffected young Unitarian clergy needed a place to discuss their ideas.  It had become almost impossible to do so in the overheated atmosphere of the religious controversies being generated.  George Ripley and Bronson Alcott were also included, and the group met for about four years, sponsoring The Dial, the most important Transcendental journal, and Brook Farm, Ripley’s experiment in communal living, both of which we shall be glancing at in a little while.

Time does not allow the discussion of all of Emerson’s achievements.  He was a key figure in the American culture of the time.  His volumes of Essays contain some of the finest prose in American literature.  They are most stirring in their call to slough off past certainties and bravely look to the future. 

He was a large influence on and publication help for the young Thoreau, a friend and a financial aid to Bronson Alcott, and an inspiration to an entire young generation of scholars.  Emerson wrote against the ill treatment of American Indians, particularly the relocation of the Cherokees in 1838, and attacked the institution of slavery.

This lecture does not have time to do justice to Emerson’s Essays. I shall mention the titles of a few from the first volume, published in 1841, a compilation of twelve essays.  They were titled “History,,” “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws,” “Love,” “Friendship,” “Prudence,” “Heroism,” “The Oversoul,” “Circles,” “Intellect,” and “Art.”  Here is what Orestes Brownson, who had attacked Emerson for years for his writings and ideas, said in his review of the Essays in the Boston Quarterly Review. “He who reads it will find, that he is no longer what he was.  A new and higher life has quickened in him, and he can never again feel that he is merely a child of time and space, but that he is transcendent and immortal.” (Brownson meant not Christian immortality, but that of the here and now.) I would like to quote a few sentences from the essay, “Self Reliance”: “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.” “Insist on yourself: never imitate.” “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

We non believers may regret Emerson’s failure to leave deity behind altogether when he embraced the vague and fuzzy concept of the Over-soul, but his belief that divinity lies in each individual was yet another step along the road to secularism.  The self reliance he extolled was in keeping with the best of American tradition, as was his individualism and his belief in human improvement.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau (1817- 1862) moved to Walden Pond and built a cabin there.  He was trying an experiment in living that would ultimately be more successful than Fruitlands or Brook Farm.  As Barbara Parker states, “It was a phalanx of one.”  Here is what he said at the beginning of his book about the experiment, Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (Walden, 90).” 

Thoreau’s worked at his father’s small pencil factory at times and also earned his living as a land surveyor. He had attended Harvard, as did many of the transcendentalists, where he studied Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French and Spanish.  In 1837, he was among the graduating class that heard Emerson’s Divinity School Address. He taught in the public schools of Concord when very young, but, like Bronson Alcott, resigned because he refused to administer corporal punishment to his pupils.  He and his brother, John, started a private school, the Concord Academy, in 1838, but it was not successful; and John died of tetanus in 1842.  John’s loss was a crushing trauma for Thoreau, because the two brothers had been very close, sharing trips and experiences. 

When Emerson met Thoreau, he urged the young writer to keep a journal.  Thoreau did, all his life, and it extended to twenty volumes.  They have all been published.   Barbara Packer says that “Emerson valued Thoreau’s simplicity and directness, his union of intellectual brilliance with physical grace and strength, and his natural and instinctive non-conformity.”  Thoreau lived with the Emerson family twice, helping out Lydian Emerson and the children when Emerson was away on literary trips. 

Despite Thoreau and Emerson’s drift apart as their beliefs and ideas evolved in somewhat different directions, they maintained their respect for one another and remained friends throughout their lives.

When Thoreau returned from Harvard to Concord, almost his first act was to sign off from the local parish.  Later, when dying, he was asked if he had made his peace with god, and he wittily replied that he had never had any quarrel with him.  He is often described as a post-Christian.  He was an avid reader of philosophy and many Eastern works, particularly the Indian ones, such as the Bhagavad-Gita, were an inspiration to his thinking.

Thoreau was influential in the formation of modern day environmentalism. He was also a confirmed vegetarian.  We shall see his influence on other social movements in America and elsewhere in a few minutes.  Walden, published in 1854, is a seminal volume in American literary history.  The most significant Transcendental literary magazine, The Dial, first edited by Margaret Fuller, published Thoreau’s early work at the urging of Emerson.  Later, when Emerson became its publisher, many essays and pieces by Thoreau were highlighted in The Dial.

 The Dial was having financial and intellectual difficulties and Thoreau’s work helped give it some consequence.  Bronson Alcott’s “Aphorisms”, published in the journal, were rather vague and fuzzy and a perfect target for other authors to lampoon. The magazine was getting a reputation for silliness that did not need to be taken seriously.  Barbara Parker states that Thoreau’s work in The Dial is a perfect demonstration of what many small regional magazines try to do and usually do not succeed.

The young writer, trying to find his voice and style in the early issues finally emerged as a strong, powerful, and confident writer as the work progressed. One may trace Thoreau’s literary development through The Dial issues.

After The Dial ceased publication in 1844, Thoreau tried to find another outlet for his essays.  He was working as a land surveyor and his writing was not progressing well.  He was not popular for the most part on the lecture circuit and his written submissions were being regularly rejected.  So, symbolically, on July 4, 1854, he moved to Walden Pond, Massachusetts, where he remained for two years, two months and two days. It was there that he completed the volume “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, a tribute to his brother, John. He also finished the first draft of Walden.

In Walden, Thoreau shows himself as the seeking transcendentalist, but also as the shrewd, humorous, down to earth and hard headed Yankee that he was.  He was brilliant, contrarian, impatient, idealistic and sometimes intolerant.  He was also one of the transcendentalists who clung most tightly to his ideals and ethics.  It is difficult to convey, in this short lecture, the beauty, idealism, style, practicality and humor of Walden.

The reader is slowly drawn into the book and begins to participate in the delight of Thoreau, at last alone, working creatively and allowed to carry out his experiment of living boldly.  He stated that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  He informs readers that he wished to lead a life of simplicity and independence. 

We read of how he lived according to his principles- he did not eat meat or hunt it any longer.  He had dirt floors to save money and cleaning, but he only economized on material items.  He spent his life at Walden, all its hours, extravagantly, with avidity and purpose.  He was not impractical- he was shrewd in his economies and purchases.  He did not idealize nature, as much as he loved it, studied it and was comfortable in it all his life.  He talked of the desperate city, but also of the desperate country. He described the darkness of nature concretely and poetically. I urge everyone to read Walden at least once, because the style, simplicity and grandeur of the book is hard to convey and the experience of encountering it oneself is unforgettable for many readers.

Walden is not only about nature, however.  It is about reading and writing as well.  In Walden, Thoreau maintains that “writing is the work of art closest to life itself.” He recommends and calls for books that demand reading in a high sense, not merely intellectual but inspirational.  He calls such volumes heroic and lists them for his readers: The Vedas and the Bible, along with Homer and Dante and Shakespeare.  Please do not, as secular thinkers, misunderstand Thoreau’s recommendations when he mentions religious works.  Many writers from the past were influenced in style and language from the best portions of those works. 

Thoreau was not a religious man in the conventional sense, but one who wanted to live life seriously and on a high level.

While at Walden, Thoreau occasionally visited friends and did business in town.  On one such occasion, in July 1846, he was arrested for tax evasion.  The authorities were used to ignoring non-payment of the unpopular poll tax, which was $1.50 a year for male inhabitants over the age of 20. 

However, the Concord sheriff, or constable, Sam Staples, had begun to be exacting about collecting the tax.  Thoreau believed the money helped support the Mexican American War and the expansion of slavery in the Southwest; he had been eager for some time to replace thought with action, and now he had been given the chance. 

Staples had already arrested Bronson Alcott in 1843 for refusing to pay the tax.  Alcott demurred because he declined taking part in supporting the machinery of the state.  While Staples looked for the absent jailer, Judge Hoar, a friend of Alcott’s, paid the tax and his fine.  Alcott was released, but he had astonished Staples because of his willingness to go to jail, Staples said, “for nothing but principal.” 

Thoreau had already been locked up for the night when a lady wearing many dark veils appeared and paid his tax.  It was likely his aunt, but she never spoke about the incident.  Staples did not trouble to set Thoreau free that night.  When he let Thoreau out the next morning, Staples reported that “Thoreau was mad as the devil.”  Having a female relative pay one’s tax was not the kind of heroic action Thoreau had contemplated.

But the incident gave rise to Thoreau’s stirring essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” published in 1849, which was so important to Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian Revolution of 1915-1947.  It was also very influential on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights movement in 1950’s America and to Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid fight in South Africa. In addition, the essay, often known as “Civil Disobedience,” was a large influence on the resistance movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s in America and elsewhere. 

When they encountered Thoreau, young people found resonance in his work with their own opposition to the Vietnam War and society’s encroaching commercialization.

As I have said, Thoreau was opposed to the Mexican War of 1846- 1848, and the institution of slavery.  He said: “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”  In 1851, an escaped slave, Thomas Sims, was arrested in Boston and held at the Federal Court House.  The judge refused to release him and he was escorted to a warship to be transferred back to Georgia by three hundred soldiers amid a large crowd shouting” Shame!”  His owner had him publicly whipped when he was returned. There were other inhumane and egregious cases of returned slaves as well. Sims’ story had a happy ending, however.  The indomitable slave was later sold to a new owner in Mississippi, escaped, and returned to Boston to live as a free man.

The draconian practice of recapturing escaped slaves was due to the new Fugitive Slave Act that was passed, after much controversy, in 1850.  There had been an older slave law which had often been ignored. 

But this new law had teeth.  It provided, says Packer, “for federal rather than state administration of the procedures taken to recapture escaped slaves and return them to their owners.” Slavery was not only continuing in the United States but expanding.

 Earlier, in 1838, 16,000 Cherokees in what is now Kentucky and Tennessee and other states were shamefully relocated. These Cherokees were assimilated people, owning property, carriages, plows and spinning wheels. 

A few, a very small minority, accepted the United States government’s decision to relocate them to so-called “Indian Country” in what is now Oklahoma. The government used that as an excuse to force the large majority who resisted to move as well.  Thousands of Cherokees died on the forced march to west of the Mississippi. Emerson sent a despairing protest to the government, but it was ignored.

In “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau had advocated non-violent action to protest government wrongs.  But later, he regrettably supported John Brown, who, along with his sons, killed unarmed pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in 1856.  In 1859, Brown conducted a very ill-planned and irrational attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  Brown was sincere but he was a religious fanatic and his actions were egregious and reprehensible.

Brown and some of his followers were executed by the United States government in 1859.  In a plea for him, Thoreau portrayed the religious fanatic, Brown, as an “Angel of Light,” and “a Transcendentalist above all.” 

From historical accounts of Brown, he would have been enraged to be described as a transcendentalist.  Thoreau praised Brown for believing “a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slave holder, in order to rescue the slave.”  There were public commemoratives for Brown and his actions just a few months before the Civil War began in 1861 and Thoreau and Emerson both took part in them.

I prefer to remember Thoreau as a giant of American literature and a man of sincerity and principles.  I highly recommend his works to the secular reader even though he was not an atheist. 

He prepared the way for a laudable indifference to religion and by demonstrating that such indifference did not lead to immoral or irresponsible behavior.  Even his support of Brown can be understood in terms of the enormous injustice caused by the heinous institution of slavery.

The important American poet of the 20th Century, Robert Frost, said of Thoreau’s Walden, “In one book, he surpassed everything we have had in America.”  Thoreau, at the conclusion of Walden, provided inspiration to his readers with these words: “…In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.  If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundation under them.”

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was the most important female member and author of the Transcendentalist movement.  Her father, a Massachusetts congressman, provided her with tutors and a formidable classical education.  She learned Latin, Greek, philosophy, chemistry and German, among other subjects.

 In the earliest phase of her career, she served as an assistant at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School, which we shall be discussing in this lecture.  Fuller had, what Barbara Packer calls “…powers of intrusion and caress,” which enabled her to become a valuable member of the transcendentalists.  She wrote letters to and received them from the group and contributed essays and pieces to their various publications.

 From about the mid 1830’s, the transcendentalists had planned to have a journal of their own. 

They revived these plans after Emerson’s Divinity School Address and the controversy surrounding it.  Established journals, such as The Christian Examiner, were closed to them.  At an 1839 meeting of the Transcendental Club, members discussed starting a journal that would be “…the organ of views more in accordance with the soul.” Alcott thought the title, The Dial, was a sign that the journal was able to mark the passage of current events and also suggested that it was open to the light.

Emerson, immersed in revisions and editing for his forthcoming volume of essays, refused the editorship.  George Ripley was nearly named the editor, but he was engaged in a pamphlet war with Andrews Norton, the conservative Unitarian, concerning miracles.  On October 16, 1839, Emerson wrote Fuller a letter, suggesting that either she or Ripley take over the editorship.  Fuller agreed to become the new editor.  She had impressed Emerson with her 1839 translation of Eckermann’s “Conversations with Goethe.” Her preface to the translation had been exceptional and Emerson decided that Fuller had become a mature writer.

Margaret Fuller must have felt the respect and honor that was being extended to her with the editorial appointment.  From being a guest at occasional meetings of the Transcendental Club, she had been elevated to a position of authority.  She could publish herself and her friends and could write about her views on aesthetic theory and other matters and publish them to the world.

Her closest transcendental friends, however, were dismayed by her ponderous style, so unlike her lively and brilliant letters.  Many of the transcendentalists had difficulty with expressing themselves in a plain, natural style.

 But the men had livings to earn and needed to learn to how to deliver their ideas to live audiences. Many of them had become interesting and convincing writers and speakers.  Fuller’s case was fairly typical of the difficulty women had expressing themselves in print and in speeches. Deprived of employment and professions, women had no experience of the give-and-take of debate that helped make many of the literary men of the day so eloquent.  But Fuller was to become an accessible and lively writer in the future.

After two years, in 1842, Fuller stepped down from The Dial, and Emerson took over the editorship.  Her health had never been good and it had suffered from the rigors of the job.  She had her fatherless family to support and the $200.00 a year she had been promised from The Dial had never been paid.   For the July issue of the 1843 Dial, Fuller sent Emerson a piece titled “The Great Lawsuit,” which was the core of her best work, Woman in the 19th Century (1845.)  Both works displayed her passion and anger concerning the rights and treatment of women.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Fuller was her very modern view of the dual nature of gender.  She said: “Man partakes of the Feminine in Apollo, woman of the masculine in Minerva.”  (Apollo and Minerva were Greek and Roman gods.) She wrote concerning the love people might experience for those of the same gender.  Just as the transcendentalists could not quite rid their vocabulary of god, Fuller could only conceive of such love as spiritual and not sexual.  She was not able to think all the way through to conceiving of same-sex people engaging in physical love.  But she did write very movingly of her “platonic” love and friendship with a beautiful young married woman.

Fuller and some of her female friends were ahead of their time in questioning the notion of chastity and the so-called devastating experience of its loss for women.   In 1844, she had been reading letters from a friend about the female prisoners at Sing Sing. Fuller’s friend, Georgiana Bruce, was an assistant matron there and Fuller wrote that she had a question for Bruce to ask the women about chastity. She wondered: “Did they see any reality in it {chastity} or look on it merely as a circumstance of condition, like the possession of fine clothes?”  The women prisoners were questioned by Bruce.  They told her that they did not feel “ruined” when they lost their chastity, whether their sexual experience had been voluntary or brutally imposed.  Fuller and her friend helped to expose the myth of the ruined woman who had lost her chastity, which had probably been conjured up to keep the sexuality of women in check.

Fuller was invited by Andrew Greeley and his wife to live with them in New York and become a writer for the New York Tribune.  She wrote about 250 articles for the Tribune, where she was finally able to abandon her ornate and ponderous style. 

She very quickly began to pen sharp, penetrating and pithy reviews of such authors as Longfellow and Carlyle.  She went to Italy for the Tribune from 1846-1849, sending the paper hundreds of pages of writing.  While there, Fuller became involved in Giuseppe Mazzini’s fight for Italian liberty.  She and a young Italian aristocrat, who was a Mazzini supporter, were secretly married in Italy and Fuller gave birth to a baby girl.  They were returning to New York when their ship was wrecked by a hurricane off the coast of Fire Island, New York in 1850.  Fuller, her husband, and their child were tragically drowned.

I have only glanced at Fuller’s achievements, but one of the most important was instituting “Conversations” for women, which were held in Boston from 1839-1844. They were two hour sessions, costing $10.00 for thirteen weeks.  About twenty-five to thirty women attended.  They were an income for Margaret Fuller, but more importantly, they helped her fulfill her desire to help women overcome their reticence.  The discussions were about different topics and after an opening monologue, Fuller would insist that the women offer their own opinions for a general discussion.  The sense of liberation and confidence the women experienced was very significant.  A young woman who attended said of the “Conversations”: “I found myself in a new world of thought; …perhaps I could best express it by saying I was no longer the limitation of myself, but I felt that the whole wealth of the universe was open to me.”

The motivation and exultation felt by those people who came into contact with, studied with, or worked with, the transcendentalists, is not mentioned often enough in histories of the movement. 

Sometimes the transcendentalists erred and sometimes their plans failed, but they were a vital inspiration to individuals, to groups and to our country to strive to pursue worthy goals.  The transcendentalists were not content with material gain and cheap amusements.  They were an invigorating and elevating force for many people.

Before we turn to the controversial Bronson Alcott, I would like to glance at Theodore Parker and George Ripley, both of them vital to the Transcendentalist movement.  Theodore Parker (1810- 1860) was the 11th child of the colonel who commanded the minutemen at the Battle of Lexington in 1775.

Unable to afford tuition, he sat in on classes at Harvard and then at the Harvard Divinity School in 1834. About that time, an old teacher of Parker’s, George Noyes, published an article in a Christian periodical questioning whether it was possible to point out any predictions in the Old Testament that were later fulfilled by Jesus.  He was almost prosecuted for blasphemy but the charges were dropped.

Parker was inclined to agree with his teacher.  He began to immerse himself in German theological criticism, which as we have learned in previous lectures, was very critical and skeptical of Biblical scripture and of many Christian doctrines.  The Germans approached scripture as a purported historical document that needed to be studied impartially.  Parker translated a German work of DeWette, (1780- 1849,) who was convinced that “the Bible is not a historical document at all, but rather a poetic or mythological expression of the hopes and beliefs of the Jewish people at the time when various fragments of the text were written.”

Parker attacked the concept of miracles, said all religions were the same, and finally questioned the belief system of the Unitarian Church. He denied its modest sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the notion that Jesus was divinely commissioned, as his miracles were said to prove.  Parker also questioned the story that Jesus rose again and ascended into heaven after his death. 

Parker never denied admiration for Jesus, but by the time he had finished his translation of DeWette’s “Introduction to the Old Testament” in 1843, he had pretty thoroughly rejected Christian beliefs, including the simple doctrines of the Unitarian church. 

He remained in the Church even though the Association of Ministers attempted to pressure him into resigning in 1843. He had been accused of deism.  His criticism of Andrews Norton, the Unitarian “Pope,” had not helped him. But the brave young man stood up to his seniors, and finally his best friends rallied to his side.  Parker refused to be silenced or forced to resign.  He was yet another transcendentalist who refused to support supernatural thinking and who helped pave the way for secularism.

George Ripley was Unitarian minister who came from the Harvard Divinity School, which was getting an increasing reputation for liberal theology.  Ripley was ordained after graduation as a minister of the Purchase Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts.  For a while, all went well.  However, Ripley began to question many traditional Unitarian beliefs.  About 1836, he began to engage in a pamphlet war with the aforementioned Andrews Norton, concerning the question of miracles.  Ripley was less concerned about the question of their reality, than of the emphasis the church placed on the external so-called occurrences rather than on people’s inner faith. 

Earlier I mentioned the exemplary German theologian and philosopher, F.D.E. Schleiermacher (1768- 1834).  He was an important influence on many transcendentalists such as Ripley.  Schleiermacher was convinced that religion should be an experience of the heart, a subjective experience, rather than one of external beliefs and doctrines. Some conservative theologians believe to this day that Schleiermacher paved the way for the development of atheism.  Convinced his position concerning the necessity of inner truth in religion, rather than external manifestations such as miracles, was correct, Ripley resigned his ministry.  He was a founding member of the Transcendental Club.  Its first meeting was at his home. 

It is important to keep in mind that around 1837 to 1842, the United States had been plunged into one of its financial panics, this one due to the failure of the wheat crop, collapse of cotton prices, land speculation, currency difficulties and other factors. Many people were devastated by the financial failure and dissatisfied with the existing social institutions.  After George Ripley left the Unitarian Church, he and other investors began Brook Farm in 1841.  It was an experiment in communal living. 

Barbara Packer states that, ironically, “Emerson was making familiar pleas for the centrality of the individual at the time when his old friend, George Ripley, was attempting to lead his community in precisely the opposite direction.” The Brook Farm enthusiasts desired more civilization and cooperation; Emerson wanted more individuality and Thoreau wanted both less civilization and more individuality. 

Brook Farm’s associates agreed to pay $500.00 for at least one share in the company, and the Brook Farm Association promised to pay a 5% dividend.  Its school was popular, with about thirty students attending.  But by 1843, the community was already around $1000.00 in deficit.  Farming the land proved much more difficult than Ripley had anticipated.  The members worked diligently, but could not produce many marketable goods beyond milk and hay.  They did without many small luxuries, but that did not offset the fact that the group could not raise sufficient produce from the garden.  Only the school was profitable, but its profits were not enough to keep the association afloat.

There were rumors from outsiders that Brook Farm members engaged in immoral behavior.  These stories were not true. The people who resided at Brook Farm were very chaste and sober.  They danced, sang and celebrated the joy they experienced participating in their community, which likely gave rise to the rumors. There was no casting aside of the Puritan morals they had been imbued with.

Then Albert Brisbane, a wealthy New Yorker, brought the ideas of the French visionary, Charles Fourier (1772-1837) to Brook Farm. The theories are sometimes labeled “Associationism.” Fourier believed that the economic miseries of society could be alleviated by abandoning cut throat business practices and individual housing, among other theories.  He suggested that instead, people should be organized into individual “phalanxes” of 1620 members.  Each phalanx would live in a large building which he claimed would contain all the necessities for human life.  Groups of workers would raise food, manufacture objects, educate children and create art and entertainment.

Fourier believed that tedium made labor hateful, so the work of the association would be broken into shifts of two to three hours.  Some people, particularly those most disaffected during this time of economic stress and dislocation, believed that Fourier’s ideas would bring heaven down to earth, that he was the second, secular coming of Christ.

Brook Farm began to build the new structure, which they called the Phalanstery, and a wave of optimism came over the failing community.  On March, 1846, the members decided to celebrate the progress of the building with a dance.  Suddenly a cry went up- the new building was burning.  They tried to put out the enormous fire with buckets of water but it was completely destroyed.  It had not been insured.  That catastrophe was effectively the ending of Brook Farm.  Many members began to drift away. 

By 1847, Ripley and his wife rented out the farm grounds and moved to the city.  Ripley eventually became a wealthy and influential literary critic in New York City.

The experiment, though doomed economically, was not a total failure in terms of personal fruition.   Many women came into their own in the community. In addition there were individual members who experienced delight and fulfillment during their sojourn at Brook Farm.  Here is John Codman, writing fifty years later: “All were kind to me.  I was well mentally and physically.  There remained one thing for me- to know I was happy.  Did I know it?  Yes, I did.” Here is another member, Marianne Dwight: “The great doctrines of Association fire my soul every day more and more…a deep, solemn joy has taken possession of my soul…I feel that I have a treasure that nothing can deprive me of.”

Brook Farm’s idealism is still an inspiring message:  people may fail, but they are often at their best when they try to bring new and stirring ideas into their culture.  What courage these transcendentalists had, to attempt to reify a social vision, to strive to bring it into reality.  Their courage and good will shines through.  The brief life of Brook Farm and its unique experiment would influence the United States’ communal living movement of the middle and latter part of the 20th Century.  Some of those later communities did succeed and a few still survive.  In the present day, such experiments are often called intentional communities, and they are an interesting and growing array of communes, ecovillages, housing cooperatives and so on.

Bronson Alcott (1799- 1888,) a noted philosopher, author and teacher, would also attempt to found an experimental community. Alcott was an inspiration to Emerson and Thoreau.

He was a fervent abolitionist and vegan, a principled thinker in many ways ahead of his time.  Today he is better known as the father of the famous novelist, Louisa May Alcott, whose girls’ classic, Little Women, published in 1868, was a fictionalized account of the Alcott family.  She wrote popular novels, and pieces for magazines, which helped support her parents and sisters. 

Bronson Alcott was born in Connecticut in 1799.  His father traced their ancestry back to the colonial era.  Alcott had little formal schooling.  After trying a career as a traveling salesman, he left it, fearing that it would negatively affect what he called his soul.  In 1830, he married Abigail May and they had four surviving daughters. His wife, better known as Abba, was a devoted and long suffering support to Alcott until her death.  Bronson Alcott was notoriously quixotic in most monetary and practical affairs.  His father-in-law and brother-in-law, along with Emerson, helped keep the family afloat financially.  Abba May was very practical and her efforts helped the Alcott family to survive, along with the later success of Louisa May Alcott’s writing and the income it brought in.

Alcott began teaching in the Concord Public School System, building comfortable seats for the children, leaving an area in the room where they could dance, and introducing interesting teaching materials.  At the same time he was reading philosophy and the works of contemporary school reformers, trying to formulate a theory of education.  He had read the romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1825 Aids to Reflection and became convinced that the world and the mind influenced each other.  He believed that a good teaching style would bring the knowledge of such influence out in a student.

Alcott rejected corporal punishment for students and rote learning.  Parents objected to many of his methods and he went from city to city, opening and closing schools.  When his four daughters were born, he determined to watch their mental development closely, to learn about the mind from the time of its infancy.  He believed that such observation would teach him more than all his deep study of philosophy.

Alcott decided to open yet another school in Boston, and William Ellery Channing, the prominent Unitarian minister, promised to help bring pupils to the fledging institution. The Temple School opened its doors on September 22, 1834, with thirty pupils, many from very influential Boston families.  Matters seemed to be going well for a while. Another transcendentalist, Elizabeth Peabody, became his assistant. 

She wrote Record of a School in 1835, explaining Alcott’s teaching philosophy.  People from Europe began to visit the school. 

Many parents remained uneasy about Temple School’s educational methods, and Peabody began a second book by 1836.  She expanded her explanations about Alcott’s educational theories, and in this volume, Alcott was supposed to provide Gospel texts which he had used in his classes.  The book was titled Conversations with Children on the Gospels.  Unfortunately it became apparent that Alcott was talking with the children about Jesus’ circumcision, as well as conception and childbirth in general.  Peabody, in the summer of 1836, begged Alcott to excise her part in the conversation about circumcision in the book.  He did so, but left in all the other sections she had encouraged him to delete. 

Interestingly enough, the children failed to become skeptical about conventional faith, despite Alcott’s efforts. The book reveals that most of the children remained staunch believers in miracles.  Furthermore, they resisted the concept that divinity was within each person.  The students, says Barbara Packer, “still refused to be budged from the idea that they were not as good as god, or as powerful as god or Jesus, with or without their bodies.” Poor Alcott- his gentle explanations fell on deaf ears.  The book created a scandal.  Ministers and parents were outraged.  Peabody resigned.  In December of 1836, Alcott had sent out review copies to the newspapers and they proceeded to savage him.  Margaret Fuller became his new assistant and she and his transcendentalist friends defended him vigorously. But nothing they did could help. His school was forced to close in another year.

While on a visit to London in 1842, Alcott was met by two admirers, the communitarians, Charles Lane and Henry Wright.  They wanted to launch a new Eden.  The members of such a community, they theorized, would live off the land and their own labors.  They would be chaste and healthy, strict vegetarians (Bronson was already a vegan), take cold baths and vigorous exercise.  They would keep themselves apart from mainstream society’s corruption.

Alcott came back to Massachusetts on October 21, 1842.  He brought Wright, Lane and Lane’s nine year old son with him.  In a few months, Wright, tired of the strict diet and cold bathing imposed by Lane, returned to England.  In 1843, Alcott and Lane found a ninety acre farm in Harvard, Massachusetts, on which only eleven acres were arable.  They called it Fruitlands, which was a little ironic, as the land only had eleven ancient apple trees on it. 

They had thirteen members, including the Alcott and Lane families, and the people who joined them were for the most part a collection of eccentrics.

Louisa May Alcott, ten years old at the time, wrote an amusing piece about Fruitlands in a publication years later, titled “Transcendental Wild Oats.”  She gently mocked the inexperienced thinkers’ speedy waning of enthusiasm after a few days of manual farm labor.  She described the Fruitlands diet: “…unleavened bread, porridge and water for breakfast; bread, fruit, vegetables and water for supper was the bill of fare ordained by the elders.” She spoke of their clothing: “…cotton, silk, and wool were forbidden as the product of slave labor of animals and humans…tunics and trousers of brown linen were the only wear.”

Lane and Alcott went off on a tour to enlist new members to their commune at harvest time.  Abba Alcott, the three Alcott daughters and Lane’s son had to get the harvest in by themselves, protecting it from an October storm.  They did it, but it was a meager harvest.  By October, 1843, the members of Fruitland began to leave.  Lane, who had financed the enterprise, had a series of conflicts with Alcott and departed, with his son, to a nearby Shaker community in January, 1884.  Alcott fell into a three day depression, not moving or eating.  His steadfast wife and daughters persuaded him to eat and finally to get up from bed.  He managed, with his wife’s help, to stay at a neighboring farm, and finally to depart from the area.

A final footnote, a pleasant one, to poor Alcott’s failed attempts and inability to create the human perfectibility he believed in.  Abba May Alcott inherited some money from her father’s estate that was quickly put into trust. 

The Alcotts were able to purchase a home in Concord and their subsequent family life was very happy.  Louisa May Alcott described those years as the happiest of her life.  Her rich literary production also brought in income and the family finally lived comfortably.  After a number of years, Alcott became the superintendent of Concord’s schools and later founded the Concord School of Philosophy for adult education in 1879.

Bronson Alcott was never an elegant or clear stylist and people made fun of his vague, oracular prose.  But Thoreau, who did not suffer fools gladly, wrote glowingly of the wisdom of Alcott’s conversations.  Emerson and Channing went to great efforts to help him financially and his wife and daughters loved and revered him. 

We have glanced at his abolitionist beliefs and his vegan philosophy.  With all his faults, he was an admirable and principled man.

In 1862, Thoreau died.  The beginning of the Civil War in the United States in 1861 and Thoreau’s death mark the beginning of the end of the Transcendentalist movement.  There are scholars who protest this arbitrary cut-off date, claiming that there were many distinguished post-war transcendentalists.  Some of the most prominent were Samuel Johnson, John Weiss, Samuel Longfellow, David A. Wasson, Moncure Conway, and Octavius B. Frothingham. 

The most eminent of them was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an ardent abolitionist and literary figure.  He carried on a correspondence with Emily Dickinson and was a mentor of sorts to her. He was the co-editor of the first two collections of Dickinson’s poems after her death and lent his considerable literary influence into having them published. 

He is best remembered in many circles because of his connection with that great American poet, who was an atheist.

The Transcendentalist movement left a large and important legacy to American secularism, letters, social issues and psychology.  Some of the aspects I am mentioning here are my contributions and some thoughts have been taken from Professor Reuben. 

There is no question that the Transcendentalist movement influenced the important authors of the time: Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorn, who spent a few months at Brook Farm and wrote about it in his Blithedale Romance in 1852, Herman Melville, whose great American novel, Moby Dick in 1851, reflected many of the questions raised by the transcendentalists, the preeminent Walt Whitman, the author of Leaves of Grass in 1855, and Emily Dickinson.  Bronson Alcott and W.T. Harris began the Concord School of Philosophy in 1879.  Professor Reuben states that the later famous psychologist, William James, was influenced by the movement when formulating his thoughts concerning the “subconscious” in 1890.

 I have already mentioned Thoreau’s influence on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Professor Reuben maintains that the Beat Writers of 1950’s America felt the impact of the transcendentalists as well.  He cites the movement’s impact on later modern poets, such as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Eugene O’Neil and Allen Ginsberg.  He states that Transcendentalism influenced the 20th Century movements of Black Power, Feminism and sexual freedoms in the United States.

Transcendentalism loosened the bonds of both Puritanism and conservative Unitarianism, moving toward a fuller, richer, and more idealistic view of man’s nature and potential.   Many Romantic movements are ruined by the excesses they fall prey to. The transcendentalists struggled against their strict New England habits, but those conventions helped keep them from inordinate behavior and self-indulgence.

They were sometimes called German atheists by their critics, but more to the point, many transcendentalists were very near full secularism. 

That later secularism, known as The Golden Age of Freethought, lasted approximately from 1856 to the start of World War I in 1914. It was a different movement, greatly influenced by the Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) and by Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859. (see Atheist History in the US.) We shall be looking at agnosticism in a future lecture.

These are the words of Theodore Parker on the Transcendentalist movement: “…to test ethics by conscience, science by reason, to try the creeds of churches, the constitution of the States, by the constitution of the Universe.”  The transcendentalists grappled with important social issues that we of the 21st Century are still attempting to resolve. I can only hope that our current secular movement, which is gaining great momentum at present, will retain the same high mindedness, indeed, the grandeur of thought and action of the earlier Transcendentalist movement.  This lecture has been a tribute to a noble movement of the past.

It is also a look forward to a secular future where, in the words of Emerson, the hobgoblin of little minds has been soundly defeated and the mists of superstition have been dispersed by the sunlight of reason.  I would like to quote Thoreau once more as we conclude this lecture. 

He ends Walden by saying that “the sun is but a morning star,” which heralds the breaking of a new day, a new order, a new dispensation in America.

Video of Lecture: American Transcendentalism and Its Liberation from Traditional Christianity

Lecture: American Transcendentalism and Its Liberation from Traditional Christianity

Video of Discussion: American Transcendentalism and Its Liberation from Traditional Christianity

Discussion: American Transcendentalism and Its Liberation from Traditional Christianity


Boller, Paul F. American Transcendentalism 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry.  New York: Putnam, 1974.

Emerson’s Essays and Poems. Arthur Hobson Quinn, Ed. New York: Scribner, 1925.

Fuller, Margaret S. Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1845.

Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History.  New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.

Koster, Donald. Transcendentalism in America.  Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.

Myerson, Joel, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Packer, Barbara.  The Transcendentalists. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2007.

Porte, Joel and Sandra Morris, Eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction. PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods; and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.  New York: Penguin Group, 1980-1993.