UU Minute #102

The Divinity School Address, part 2

One thing Emerson did in his Divinity School Address was criticize the style of preaching of his day. And because it is a style liable to creep into any era, Emerson’s words on this point are taught to every Unitarian ministerial student to this day. Through Emerson we are given to understand that to be called to ministry means being called to deal out to the people our lives, passed through the fire of thought.

In this famous passage in the Divinity School Address, Emerson describes attending a Unitarian service. Emerson said:
A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.

NEXT: Transcendentalism and Unitarianism


UU Minute #101

The Divinity School Address, part 1

“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine. At night the stars pour their almost spiritual rays.”
Thus Ralph Waldo Emerson began his divinity school address, delivered in 1838, when Emerson was age 35.

When he strolled into the chapel that Sunday evening to address the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, their professors, and assorted local clergy, he was a former Unitarian minister who had resigned from Boston’s Second Church six years before. He was pursuing a career as an essayist and lecturer, though he still used the title, “Reverend” and was frequently a guest preacher in Unitarian pulpits. His audience was at the center of academic Unitarian thought. From that gentle and reassuring beginning, before his hour-long talk was ended, his audience would be stunned.

In Emerson’s Journal a year before he had referred to “corpse-cold Unitarianism,” and, though he avoided the phrase in his address, he castigated the church’s ministers for suffocating the soul through lifeless preaching. He critiqued the failures of historical Christianity and advanced the tenets of Transcendentalism against conventional Unitarian theology. Moral intuition, he said, is a better guide to the moral sentiment than religious doctrine – and there is true moral sentiment in every individual. He rejected the notion of a personal God and discounted the necessity of belief in the historical miracles of Jesus.

Emerson was through with Unitarianism, but Unitarianism, it seems, was not through with Emerson. Though many of us staunchly resisted, his ideas began seeping into the pulpits and pews of our congregations.

NEXT: The Divinity School Address, part 2