Misunderstood Mister Emerson

Rev. Victoria Weinstein

First Parish in Norwell
May 18, 2003

How does the preacher begin to speak about a man who once wrote in his journal: " I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching?" Carefully, very carefully. Or perhaps not at all.

But you know better than that. You know of my enthusiasm for Emerson; you may have read my remarks, somewhat dingbatty remarks, in a recent issue of the UU World, where I am quoted as saying " I was never excited by the Emerson selections in the standard anthologies, but I was drawn to him in a personal way when I began to read the essays. He spoke across the ages, in eternal truths… he appealed to me as my friend. I would say I' ve had an intimate relationship with Mr. Emerson ever since… I can' t read the Divinity School Address without being excited." (Richard Higgins, " Emerson' s Mirror," UU World, March/April 2003). If you didn' t think I was an Emerson maniac before, you do now.

Let me tell you a little bit about this friend, this man who was born two hundred years ago on May 25. He was born Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he was " the son of a preacher man" as Dusty Springfield once sang: his father William Emerson was a minister as had been ten Emerson fathers before him (or at least deacons). Waldo Emerson (we don' t really know why Ralph Waldo decided to go by his middle name wi0hen he was about fourteen) lost his father when he was eight, and was raised by his gentle mother Ruth Haskins Emerson, with the strong influence of his remarkably brilliant Aunt Mary Moody Emerson. Waldo was very close to his brothers Charles, William and Edward, and there was a fifth Emerson boy, Bulkeley, who was mentally disabled and institutionalized all his life. Tuberculosis was a common disease in those days and it killed two of Waldo' s brothers when they were yet young men. Almost killed him, too, when he was in his twenties. He was, if you can believe it, considered the least intellectually remarkable of the Emerson boys.

He went to Harvard at the age of fourteen, feeling penny-pinched compared to his more privileged classmates, and he prepared for the ministry. As the world celebrates the bicentennial of this remarkable man, it occurs to me that everyone wants a piece of him: English teachers claim his as the father of American literature, and he really was. Philosophers claim him – Pragmatists and those of the German Romantic schools, and neo-Platonists, nihilists and existentialists – they' re all happy to claim him as one of theirs. They' re not entirely off-base in doing so, either, any of them. Poets call him a poet. Okay, that' s accurate too. And social activists claim him, and pagans and environmentalists. You start to get the picture. So let me jump into the fray and claim him for us too, as he was a Unitarian all of his life, although a reforming and non-conformist Unitarian. He was a Unitarian minister like his father for awhile, as a matter of fact.

Emerson served in our ministry for a short while: he pastored at Second Church in Boston from 1829 to 1833. He was well-loved by his people but it just wasn' t his passion. For one thing, he really hated parish visits and he felt a pastor oughtn' t have to spend much time on them. He much preferred the model of ministry that cultivates the minister as a preaching star: brilliant in the pulpit on Sundays, kind of a distant celebrity the rest of the week. For another thing, he was troubled by the regular practice of Holy Communion, or the Lord' s Supper as they called it then. He felt that Jesus never meant to institute an ongoing ritual during the Last Supper -- that is, the breaking of the bread and sharing of the wine was meant to be a one-time event -- and it didn' t feel right to him to administer the eucharistic rite on a regular basis. So it' s just as well for his congregation and for posterity that he quit the ministry in December of 1832 and pursued the life of a lecturer, poet and Sage of Concord. In this adventure, as it was for so much of his life, Waldo was nurtured by the generosity of a woman.
Ellen Tucker Emerson, his beautiful young wife of only eighteen months, died before she was 20 years old and left her fortune to her grieving young husband. It was Ellen' s legacy that allowed Waldo to resign his position at Second Church and move to Concord, take up his pen, and change the world from the quiet of his study. And yes, the rumors you have heard are true: Waldo did walk all the way to the cemetery in Roxbury a year and two months after Ellen' s death and unearth her coffin and look inside it. When he lost his five year old son Waldo to scarlatina later in his life, he did the same with little Waldo' s coffin on what would have been his son' s 21st birthday. While I respect Mr. Emerson' s private reasons for doing this, I do wonder that this is the man who writes in his essay " The Over Soul" that when it comes to great spiritual mysteries, " we must pick no locks. We must check this low curiosity."

But then, this is also the man who famously said that " a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

In 1838, Emerson received an invitation from the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to speak at their graduation. The invitation came addressed to " The Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson," so we know that the new " divines" considered Emerson one of their colleagues even though by then he wasn' t serving a parish and wasn' t even preaching in East Lexington very much any more. He accepted the invitation, however, and wrote an address for the occasion that was either totally inspirational or totally heretical and offensive, depending on who you were at the time, or who you are today! I find it to be totally inspirational although admittedly troubling in parts.

What Emerson said at this occasion in 1838, and what he said forever after in many different ways was this: the divine is within you. Whether you are a minister or a layperson, you cannot rely on tradition to bring you God, as if God is something that happened, past tense, and is all done with. Look, he said, Jesus belonged to the true race of prophets. He (Jesus) alone estimated the greatness that is within man. He was directly hooked into God and it created in him an ecstatic ability to say " I am divine!" But the mistake, says Emerson, is to have created a religion that " dwells with noxious exaggeration on the person of Jesus."
In other words, we are today practicing a religion that is about Jesus, rather than living the spiritual life that Jesus himself lived, or practicing the religion of Jesus. We have got to stop looking for secondhand answers and long-dead prophets to show us how to live, says Emerson. We have got to have an original relationship to the Universe, and preachers must be " newborn Bards of the Holy Ghost, and acquaint men at firsthand with the deity!"

Mr. Emerson also had a few choice things to say on this occasion about the kind of preaching that he felt was " a central cause of the decaying church." These choice words go on for about nine long paragraphs that sometimes sound like pure ranting, and if you took him at his word you would think that the Unitarian churches at the time were places that, if you dared to inhabit a pew on a Sunday morning, would just cause you to keel over with boredom and deeply regret that you hadn' t gone to the golf course instead. As it turns out, Emerson, like most people in the world, wasn' t going to every church in the area and couldn' t actually speak to the art of preaching in a broad sense. He was attending church at First Parish in Concord most Sundays and listening to a young minister named Barzallai Frost who was, let' s face it, no talent in the pulpit. So Emerson did what Emerson often did, which is to extrapolate from one personal experience and from it, make a broad and almost universal statement about the condition of some great entity, in this case, The Church.

But he did say this great thing during his long harangue, and it is this: " The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people in his life, -- life passed through the fire of thought." That' s a keeper.

I am focusing on the ideas presented in the Divinity School Address this morning but I want to assure you that they are representative of Emerson' s writings and thinking in later years, too. He said on that July evening in 1838 something that he was to say again and again and again in many different ways, and that is that the solution to the empty church experience, and the solution to the empty life experience is " first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul."

If it reminds you a little bit of Henry David Thoreau' s famous remark about wanting to suck the marrow out of life, that' s fine. It should. The two men had tremendous influence on each other. That little house in the woods that we are going to visit today was constructed, after all, from timber taken from Emerson' s wood lot. Thoreau and Emerson' s special genius, I think, was to allow us to see the workings of their minds through the works of their pens; to, as one writer put it, follow " the adventure of thought," the mind on fire. They were great individualists, the Transcendentalists, but for all their non-conformity they still steeped themselves in the classics, spent a tremendous amount of time in conversation with other thinkers (both dead and living, and from many different cultures and religions), and made almost a cult of friendship. Oh yes, it' s true, for non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure, and you must be for yourself, or not at all, and what else… oh yes, Trust Thyself! But it' s probably important to know that when brave Waldo penned those very lines, he was smarting pretty badly from the storm of controversy that erupted after he delivered his 1838 Address at Harvard. He was banned from speaking at Harvard for almost thirty years, folks. Yes, it bothered him.

So as it turns out, this exemplar of self-reliance really needed, and wanted, to be in right relation with other people. Their opinions mattered, and he put a tremendous amount of effort and energy into being a good friend and a worthy colleague, neighbor and citizen. He placed such a high premium on decency that people say he never once had a disagreement or run-in with any of his neighbors in his entire life. While Mr. Emerson did not rely on anyone' s approval in order to achieve his work, he was still human, and he flourished within a context of relationships. Kind of funny to be writing these great exhortations to individualism while your wife Lydian is making pie in the kitchen and the children are playing outside, or at your feet in the study (& he was always incredibly kind to children). Remember that Emerson was an idealist, he was writing in the great Romantic tradition, he preached what he called " the infinitude of the private man" all his life while never becoming anything like a hermit himself.

And he went to church all his life. He said, and I quote, " what greater calamity can fall upo a nation, than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay." So while he criticized what he felt was the " corpse-cold" Unitarianism he saw practiced in the churches of his day, and while he claimed that he communed with the great god Pan on his long rambles in the woods of Concord and delighted in the sacred presence he felt in the falling rain and the blowing clover, he did not, as so many Unitarian Universalist admirers like to think, recommend that we all abandon our churches and worship merely on the beach or in the garden or in the mountains. He wanted to " breathe new life" into old forms, not to jettison old forms altogether. Yes, he belongs to the poets, the philosophers, the literary world, the social reformer. But he belongs to us right here, right in this meetinghouse. Mr. Emerson spent plenty of time doing exactly what you are doing right now, sitting leg to leg in the pews with others.

Remember where he started from: the son of a Yankee minister who was thoroughly educated in tradition and grounded in religious learning that very few of us have today. It is one thing to boldly expand on tradition when you know that the tradition is; to breathe new life into old forms when you know exactly what those old forms are. It is not enough in our generation to take the Transcendentalist ideal to heart without acknowledging that their foundations were secure, and that ours are far less so. Mr. Emerson meant his ideas to be liberating, not demolishing. His legacy, I think, was meant to inspire us, and not to encourage us to swim so far from shore that we cannot find our way back to dry land.

His favorite biblical text was from the gospel of Luke, and it was a text he preached often: " The kingdom of God is within you." So said Jesus, and so it pleased Ralph Waldo Emerson to say. How appropriate, then, for us to consider that that word " within" can also just as legitimately be translated as " among." The kingdom of God is among you. Within you, Waldo would most likely emphasize, and earnestly urge us to live by that light as though by the life-giving sun. But the kingdom of God is among you, Mr. Emerson, and you know that just as well. That is why you went to church, and that is why you worked so diligently to be a good man, a true and a conscientious friend all your life, and that is what we are doing here, together, remembering and honoring one of our own saints. There' s not much good keeping my little kingdom of God at home all by itself all the time. This is not how we best honor the indwelling divine spirit.

Waldo wrote in his journal in December 8, 1839, " I woke this morn with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new," and so I conclude my own remarks with devout thanksgiving for this old friend, and for these new friends gathered here.

Mr. Emerson wrote that " like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks from this one, and for another from that one." May the Power which is Love speak and act through you as you go forth into your week. May you know yourselves blessed and may you share those blessings, and may, in Mr. Emerson' s words " dare to love God without mediator or veil." Go in peace.