UU Minute #99

Emerson Re-defines Us

“Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, Emerson’s Divinity School Address, and Parker’s South Boston Sermon have long been accepted as the three great classic utterances of American Unitarianism.” (Conrad Wright, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism)
All three were widely controversial – and widely influential.

William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” in 1819 was the manifesto that launched and defined Unitarianism as a new denomination. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address in 1838 spoke for a new generation. Channing had defined us, and Emerson re-defined us.

Invited to address the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, Emerson, then 35 years old, delivered “Acquaint Thyself At First Hand with Deity” – commonly called simply the Divinity School Address.

Emerson discounted biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. Emerson said:
“The language that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and formal, — paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo. Accept the injurious impositions of our early catachetical instruction, and even honesty and self-denial were but splendid sins, if they did not wear the Christian name. One would 'rather be a pagan, suckled in a creed outworn' [Wordsworth].” (Emerson, Divinity School Address)
If the language of Christianity was like the language describing pagan gods, then, Emerson was implying, the Christ described in those terms was comparable to pagan gods.

There was, as you might expect, considerable outrage. Emerson was denounced as an atheist and a poisoner of young minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense.

We’ll look more into the context and content of Emerson’s remarkable Divinity School Address in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Young Waldo

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