The Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,031 words.)