The Divinity School Address

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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First published: 1838

Edition(s) used: “An Address,” in The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited with a biographical introduction by Brooks Atkinson. New York: The Modern Library, 1940

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Essays; philosophy

Core issue(s):Beauty; the divine; God; Incarnation; Jesus Christ; life; nature; preaching; religion; revelation; soul


With the publication of Nature in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson found himself the center of controversy with the Unitarian community at Harvard. In the introduction to that essay, he had insisted that his contemporaries discover their own “original relation to the universe” instead of living out the history of the forefathers’ understanding. Those “dry bones” of the past ought to be discarded, he declared, in favor of a “religion of revelation to us” in which one could behold God and nature face to face in a new immediacy of spiritual life. In the remainder of the essay, he outlined a vision of the created order in which currents of divinity, stemming from an “Over-Soul,” were immanent in the natural world and described a form of the essential human “self,” the soul, and the forms of its potency and striving that could take possession of such a world for those people daring enough to seize such possibilities for personal spiritual fulfillment.

In more particular terms, as a “self” enjoyed its most glorious prospects, Emerson argued, it would ascend through the world of nature by approaching it not only for its “commodity,” its practical uses, and not only for its “Beauty,” its aesthetic and moral uses, but for its “Spirit,” its revelation to the self of that presence of world-soul that corresponded to the human soul. Thus would the human spirit be nurtured by self-reliance, the active independent seeking of the soul in the realm of direct experience, through the medium of intuition, for that which would answer it and on which it was ultimately dependent, the immanence of Spirit.

This early, visionary piece of writing, foundational for virtually every feature of Emerson’s subsequent thinking, removed him from his intellectual and religious lineage in the American Puritan tradition and disaffected all but the most radical members of the Unitarian community he served in his own generation. Thus, when Emerson was approached in 1838 to speak to the senior class at the Harvard Divinity School, the invitation came neither from the Unitarian clergy nor from the officers of the school but, rather, from the seniors themselves, eager to get a look at this challenging new figure on the New England scene. He did not disappoint them: The challenge to the doctrinal tradition, generalized and muted in Nature, now became decidedly more specific; the hints in the earlier essay about divine capacity in humans were now spelled out more explicitly; the new vision, proposed in broad cultural terms in 1836, was directed during that July of 1838 to inspire a particular community of religious belief.

If the senior divinity students might have been stirred by the speech and if it was highly regarded by men such as William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, many others, however, resented this little talk, entitled simply “An Address.” If for his part Emerson had delivered a clear remedy for the overemphasis on formalist and rationalist aspects of religion (which he spotted most especially in Unitarianism and which he would elsewhere refer to as its “pale negations”), and if he had done so in what he thought a congenial and constructive manner, one prominent Unitarian, Andrews Norton, vigorously attacked the address as “the latest form of infidelity,” expressing a sentiment apparently shared widely among...

(This entire section contains 2483 words.)

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the clergy since only after nearly three decades was Emerson invited again to address the Harvard community.

Planning his talk (later to be called “The Divinity School Address”) fully in continuity with the vision of the world articulated in Nature, Emerson opens his remarks with a melodious description of the New England summer and suggests how the plenitude and beauty of nature, its breadth and variety, invite the participation of human life in such abundance. Quickly, however, he turns from the questions of subduing the world for the realm of commodity and of enjoying the world at the level of beauty in order to raise the question of “the laws which traverse the universe” and which contain and unite all of its “infinite relations.”

This is the ultimate question the human spirit has sought to answer, Emerson insists, because the human intuition of the spiritual unity of the world has always been the source of morality and worship. To sense the unifying laws of the world is also to have an “insight of the perfections of the laws of the soul” which insight, in turn, leads to “the sentiment of virtue” as the soul seeks to live in harmony with the universal principles of life. If the human soul realizes its implication in the spirit of the universe, it attempts to practice that “reverence and delight in the presence of . . . divine laws” that constitute moral essence. The intuition of these spiritual laws also, however, leads the open soul to the perception that “all things proceed out of the same spirit,” to the recognition of “the sublime creed that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active” in the created order. With the perception of this “law of laws,” there is awakened “the religious sentiment” that is both “divine and deifying” because it makes the human soul illimitable in its communion with this Supreme Mind. While the Supreme Mind cannot be fully comprehended by human rationality, it can be approached through the intuitions of a human soul enlarged by worship.

To be opened to and infused by the divine law of the natural world is to exhibit such worship and to practice faith in “the doctrine of soul,” which gives full release to the moral and religious sentiments potential in all people. While these sentiments have been embodied fully and uniquely only in Jesus Christ, they are capable of realization by everyone, Emerson thinks, even if now all seem to struggle in darkness and limitation. Were people to enter the world fully open to the currents of spirit flowing through it, they might move in delight and reverence and worship through a confluence of divine spirit with human spirit, and this new conduct of piety would bring to them “the privilege of the immeasurable mind” to seize a world brimming with the miracles of natural life “in the blowing clover and falling rain,” a world now seen as revelatory of spirit at every turn, a world forever to be beheld in astonishment by that form of human response to which that world corresponds and for which it is made perfect.

This vision of the world, the doctrine of soul at its heart, and the new conduct of life it would create are yet to be born in his time, Emerson believes, because the age is suffering under a lower estimate of human spiritual potential and under forms of religious understanding and practice that clouded the spiritual horizons. Only one man, Jesus Christ, has ever been true to the doctrine of soul, Emerson argues: Jesus “saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. . . . He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World.” What was open to Jesus, the realization of God in him, is open to all people because the principle of incarnation is structured into the divine laws of the world, Emerson notes, but “alone in all history he [Jesus] estimated the greatness of man.” Such an estimate cannot be taught to the rational understanding; it can arrive only through the example of those who have themselves intuited the spiritual unity of the universe by worshiping within the doctrine of soul. Sadly, however, the ages have not followed the soul-principle evident in Jesus Christ but have instead followed his “tropes” to worship with “a doctrine of church.”

Thus, historical Christianity itself has erred in two considerable ways, Emerson declares, which further prevent the recognition of people that they have and can do all that Jesus had and did, that by “coming again to themselves, or to God in themselves, can they grow forevermore.” First, Christianity errs by confusing the person of Jesus with the soul of Jesus. In such a misunderstanding, people are urged to subordinate their own natures to the person of Christ and are not inspired to recognize that the capacity of soul in Christ is duplicated in themselves, in their essential selves, their souls, given by the divine mind for the venturous reach for complete spiritual fulfillment. “The soul knows no persons,” Emerson boldly states, and the invitation to the soul is for “every man to expand to the full circle of the universe,” not to shackle the self in imitation of another. The second defect of the Christian Church is a related one. By emphasizing the unique person of Christ, Emerson points out, “men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were [now] dead.” So long as the Supreme Mind flows through the world of nature and history, however, the principle of revelation centered in Jesus Christ must be seen as a continuing principle—indeed a divine law—that beckons the soul to enter into that “original relation to the universe” Emerson craved in Nature. To regard revelation as having gone out of the world after Jesus is to cripple efforts to make the doctrine of the illimitable soul the wellspring of religion and society. Such an “injury to faith throttles the preacher,” Emerson thinks, and gives the Church “an uncertain and inarticulate voice.”

With these errors of historical Christianity exposed, Emerson becomes more explicitly mindful of his audience, a group of young men poised to take up the vocations of Christian ministry. He challenges them directly: “In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the heavens and earth are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God?” The pulpit has been usurped by formalists, Emerson argues, while the necessities of the age require a preacher “on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks.” At a moment in which “the need was never greater of new revelation,” the pulpit was being mounted too often by those as yet unawakened to the real presence of spirit in the world, by those cloaked so securely in the doctrinal garments of the Church that they remained untouched by those miraculous currents of life that answer to the struggle of soul for the realization of spirit. Against this deformity in the ministry, Emerson tells the divinity students, the new preacher must “live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind,” must not confuse the soul with the Church, must deal with men and women in the immediacy of their experience, which would be to “acquaint [them] at first hand with Deity” by now cheering “their waiting, fainting hearts . . . with new hope and new revelation.” In order to accomplish this, he asserts, the young preachers will need to “cast behind . . . all conformity” in favor of their own souls’ intuitions of the laws in the world of divine immanence. “I shall look for the New Teacher,” Emerson closes, “that shall follow so far those shining laws that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be a mirror of the soul.”

Finally, then, Emerson sought in “The Divinity School Address” to instill in the ministers of the young American nation a sense of the revelatory dimensions of the abundantly spiritual world he thought awaited their possession. In this, he spoke with a vibrancy of soul, a hope of heart, an attitude of spiritual conviction that made him less interested in being accredited in terms of the doctrinal measurements of historical Christianity than he was committed to respond out of his own sense of life’s mysterious plenitude and humankind’s potential spiritual dominion. Above all, he thirsted for an immediacy in spiritual existence. At the last, although he would vaunt the enlarged soul over any constricted sense of the person, Emerson’s own passionate voice proposed him as the “New Teacher,” captivated by the doctrine of soul and poised to find revelation restored to nature and history.

Christian Themes

Emerson’s Transcendental message can be said to be more spiritual than doctrinally Christian. Nevertheless, it grew out of his Protestant New England roots. As Emerson saw it, the world is infused with currents of spirit, emanating from Supreme Being, to which all people have direct access if they will turn themselves to the ways the world answers to the cravings of the human soul. To sense the presence of this divine law in the natural order is to awaken the genuine religious sentiment and to participate in such a perfect world of spirit is to grasp new “miracles,” new sources of revelation. Jesus Christ was the only one who fully practiced the religious sentiment and grasped the divine law, who followed out the ultimate reaches of the soul, and who thus participated in the Supreme Mind—but all others have such possibilities open to them in a world permeated with influences of divinity. All people have within them the same capacity of soul, but that spiritual potential is dimmed in an age that fails to comprehend the great unrealized dominion of humankind.

Emerson took issue with historical Christianity in its tendency to assume or teach or practice the idea that such possibilities, centrally evident in Jesus Christ, ended in nature and history with him. Instead, Emerson called for a new kind of preaching that recognizes this “doctrine of soul” and that urges a corresponding conduct of worship in a world understood in its complete spiritual dimensions.

Sources for Further Study

  • Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. Allen’s magisterial critical biography treats Emerson’s thought in the contexts both of the age and of the personal life history with which Emerson’s ideas were so deeply intertwined.
  • Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Emerson at the Divinity School: His Address of 1838 and Its Significance. Hartford, Conn.: Transcendental Books, 1994. A full study devoted exlusively to the “The Divinity School Address.”
  • Geldard, Richard G. The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Foreword by Robert Richardson. Great Barrington, Mass.: Lindisfarne Books, 2001. Explores Emerson’s spiritual life and religion in literature.
  • Robinson, David. Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Following the evolution of Emerson’s thought over the course of his career, Robinson studies the shifts of mode involved in Emerson’s movement from preacher to lecturer to essayist.