UU Minute #100

Young Waldo

William Emerson, distinguished minister of Boston’s First Church, drew his congregation with him into Unitarianism. So Ralph Waldo, born in 1803, the fourth of William’s eight children, grew up in a climate that prized learning, and culture – and became, himself, a Unitarian minister.

William died when Waldo was age 8, and the family was plunged into poverty. His Aunt Mary, William’s sister, was Waldo’s dominant influence. She taught him aphorisms he would teach his children:
  • "Lift your aims."
  • "Always do what you are afraid to do."
  • "Despise trifles."
  • "Turn up your nose at glory, honor, and money."
  • "Oh, blessed, blessed poverty."
She introduced Waldo to Hindu scriptures and Neoplatonism, and her openness to natural religion informed the Transcendentalism Waldo would later develop.

At 14, Waldo entered Harvard.

At 24, he began to preach at Unitarian Churches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. At 26, he became associate minister at Boston’s Unitarian Second Church. A year later, when the Senior minister left, Waldo was made the Senior Minister.

He never relished parish work, but he liked preaching. While most of his colleagues preached from Biblical texts – explicating what the text wanted to say – Rev. Waldo Emerson was more inclined to employ Biblical texts to illustrate what he wanted to say. Yet he conveyed a homely elevation that charmed his congregants, and the membership was growing.

Then in 1832, at age 29, Waldo resigned his pulpit and never served another congregation. He said it was because he could not in conscience serve communion, knowing the members construed the meaning of the rite differently than he did. The real issue was probably vocational calling. He wasn’t sure to what he was called, but he began to feel that it wasn’t the ministry.

NEXT: The Divinity School Address, part 1

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