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

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