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People & Ideas: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Source: Library of Congress

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer, thinker and philosopher who became the leading proponent of Transcendentalism, a movement that imbued the austere New England Unitarian tradition with elements of mysticism.

In 1803, Emerson was born into a Unitarian family in Boston. His father, a minister, died two weeks before his 8th birthday; he was raised by his mother and influenced by his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. He attended Harvard College, graduating in the middle of his class.

After earning a degree at the Harvard Divinity School, he became an ordained Unitarian minister of Boston's Second Church in 1829. He fell into disagreements over the administration of communion and public prayer. After three years, he resigned his post, saying: "This mode of celebrating Christ is no longer suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it."

Emerson settled in Concord, Mass., where he befriended Henry David Thoreau and kept company with the leading intellectuals of his day. In 1836, he and his colleagues founded the Transcendental Club, which served as the center of the Transcendentalist movement. Refusing to acknowledge any authority beyond themselves, the Transcendentalists believed that each individual must make their own decisions about God, the human race and the world. Emerson declared that the Transcendentalist "believes in miracles, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to the new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration and ecstasy."

In July 1838, Emerson was invited to address the graduating class at the Harvard Divinity School. In his speech, Emerson dismissed biblical miracles and claimed that while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. His comments created a firestorm; he was not invited back to the Divinity School for 30 years. He continued to express his ideas, including those about God, in lectures, essays and poems.

For Emerson, God was neither the stern judge of the Calvinists nor the distant clockmaker of the Deists. Emerson believed that God was revealed through nature. Like his British Romantic contemporaries, Emerson saw a direct connection between man, nature and God. Historian Grant Wacker describes Emerson's belief: "God was best understood as a spirit, an ideal, a breath of life; everywhere and always filling the world with the inexhaustible power of the divine presence. God was as close as the atmosphere, as intimate as the 'blowing clover and the falling rain.'"

Unlike most American intellectuals of his day, Emerson garnered considerable fame in Europe, and he exerted significant influence on later generations of theosophists, religious environmentalists and New Agers.

Late in life, Emerson began to lose his memory and stopped making public appearances. He died in April 1882 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., not far from his home.

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Published October 11, 2010

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