On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School, his alma mater. The audience at Divinity Hall Chapel was tiny compared to the crowds who would fill auditoriums as his fame grew. It consisted of the school’s six graduates, plus their families and the faculty. But, in the aftermath, the speech reverberated so mightily that the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior (father of the Supreme Court Justice) called it “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
Emerson was 35 at the time and had already given up his ministry—“self-defrocked” as he put it—in large part because his study of other religions “dispelled once and for all the dream about Christianity being the sole revelation.” He had also published his most famous essay, “Nature,” which launched his career as a lecturer and put the Transcendentalist movement, of which he was the most celebrated member, on the map. That essay included this memorable description of union with the divine: “Standing on the bare ground, ... my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, ... all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
If that sounds vaguely Eastern, it’s because Emerson was strongly influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist texts that had been finding their way to New England in growing numbers since his boyhood.
In his Divinity School Address, the Sage of Concord did the religious equivalent of speaking truth to power. “Let me admonish you first of all to go alone;” he told the ministers-to-be, “to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
He called for an end to blind obedience to doctrine. He rebuked ordinary preaching because it came “out of the memory, and not out of the soul.” He spoke of the typical Sunday service with such disdain that it’s a wonder anyone present ever attended church again. “Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist,” he said, “then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate.”
He accused “historical Christianity” of engaging in “noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus,” calling it a “perversion” to say that one person alone was by nature divine and the rest of us are not. Christianity, he said, had become “a Mythus,” like the religions of Greece and Egypt, and had turned Christ into “a demigod,” like Apollo or Osiris.
This was radical stuff in pre-Civil War America. Emerson was essentially turning religion 180 degrees on its axis. Instead of a deity presiding over creation from somewhere up there, divinity was here, there, and everywhere. God was the essence of all that is, the “cause behind every stump and clod,” and, most radical of all, it was within us, as our own essential nature. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me,” he said at Harvard. “That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen” (a boil or cyst).
[Listen now to the Essential Conversations Podcast: “Progressive Minister Rev. Jes Kast.”]
In the Emersonian vision, as in that of the Eastern sages, we are neither fallen nor depraved, and divinity is incarnate not just in the past but at every instant. “God is, not was,” he said, and each of us is “an infinite Soul” who is “drinking forever the soul of God.”
Emerson was essentially turning religion 180 degrees on its axis. Instead of a deity presiding over creation from somewhere up there, divinity was here, there, and everywhere.
The lesson for the future ministers was plain: what truly mattered was to encounter the Infinite directly. “Cast behind you all conformity,” he said, “and acquaint men firsthand with Deity.”
The speech went over well with the students, who had invited Emerson in the first place. The rest of the crowd? Not so much. When the text was published, as speeches in those days often were, clerics and theologians were outraged. Emerson’s response was to declare, proudly, that he had been “raised into the importance of a heretic.” Harvard pronounced its distinguished alumnus persona non grata. However, he went on to become such a superstar that, 28 years later, they gave him an honorary doctorate.
I think of Emerson as the Founding Father of the spiritual-but-not-religious phenomenon. On July 15th, everyone who values spiritual independence and the fundamental right to pursue the divine in one’s own unique way should celebrate the anniversary of his landmark Divinity School Address. The date should be commemorated by everyone who pursues firsthand and courageously the “indwelling Supreme Spirit,” and by everyone who knows that “the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never.”
Read the entire Divinity School Address and learn more about Emerson here.
Keep reading: Interviews with 7 Spiritual Radicals from the January/February 2021 issue.