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Ralph Waldo Emerson

1803-1882. American “Transcendentalist” minister. Descended from nine successive generations of ministers, he graduated from Harvard College and attended the divinity school there before accepting a pastorate in 1829 at Second Church of Boston, then Congregationalist and now Unitarian. For years he struggled over his faith and his vocation. Except for preaching, he disliked his work in the ministry. His sermons increasingly complained about “historical Christianity,” denied the distinction between natural and supernatural, and stressed the immanence of God. In 1832, with his refusal to administer Communion as the immediate reason, he resigned his pastorate. His first book, Nature, which became a kind of Transcendentalist bible, appeared in 1836, but it was his address before the Harvard Divinity School in 1838 which clearly drew the lines of the Unitarian controversy. Emerson's Christ was strictly human; he advocated a “faith in man,” not “in Christ” but “like Christ's.” The battle over Christology and miracles was in the open.

Emerson's mature religious thought was essentially pantheistic and syncretistic. His essays were more suggestive than closely reasoned, and in pieces like “Self-Reliance” he advocated a religion of self. His rebellion against Lockean epistemology was an intuitionist stance strongly influenced by German Romanticism via Coleridge and Carlyle. His extreme optimism about man's moral nature and potential was tempered somewhat in his later writings. He was a successful lecturer and essayist during the 1840s and 1850s. Despite his reformist philosophy he kept aloof from the slavery controversy until the 1850s. His most famous writings were the Essays of 1841 and a second series in 1844. Other writings include Poems (1847); Representative Men (1850); English Traits (1856); and The Conduct of Life (1860).

The twelve-volume “Centenary Edition” (1903-4) of his Works edited by his son Edward Waldo Emerson is considered standard, though it has been supplemented by several later volumes of uncollected lectures, sermons, and letters. The definitive biography is that of R.L. Rusk (1949). For the history of Emerson's role in the Unitarian controversy see W.R. Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance (1959).