top of page

“Emerson Revisited”

The first course I took at Andover Newton Theological School as I began my journey to a Master of Divinity degree, wasn’t actually at the school at all! It was a weeklong intensive held at Ferry Beach Camp and Conference Center in Saco, Maine. The professor was my would-be internship supervisor and notable UU historian, the Rev. Mark Harris and the subject of study was, of course, Unitarian Universalist History. And I remember part way through the week when we arrived at the 1800’s, learning about this group of young upstart ministers and thinkers who had deviated somewhat from the standard Unitarian line. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who penned our opening words and our reading today, was one among them, but Frederick Henry Hedge, whose words we sang in our opening hymn, Theodore Parker with whom we will close, along with Margaret Fuller – initially the only woman in the cohort, Orestes Brownson, William Ellery Channing, Henry David Thoreau, to name a few with whom we are likely familiar if we have spent any time in this tradition. They had formed what came to be known as ‘The Transcendentalist Club’ where they met to discuss their theological ponderings and to share their writings. And the more we delved into their beliefs the more I began to say, “I think I might be a Transcendentalist!”

So, just who were the Transcendentalists? How many of you have heard of them?

Transcendentalism was a movement that arose as part of a rebellion against the liberal Christian Unitarians who espoused a faith based in rational biblical criticism and historical tradition. They followed the path of German Idealism and were known to have been influenced by the Eastern religions. It was more of a spiritual approach to life. Its practitioners longed for a religious intensity that they found lacking in the formal tradition with its dry rationalism tied to the Age of Reason, lacking in immediacy and emotion. They believed that every person could experience the divine in a personal way. And beyond that, it turns out, they didn’t actually hold a lot of beliefs completely in common, other than that the deep experience which each brought to the whole was of value, even as it differed and was cause for spirited debate.

Emerson is probably the most widely known of the bunch, his essays and penchant for public speaking won him much regard. The interesting thing about him in terms of the UU ministry is that he only served one church for about three years after which he resigned his call. He had developed a distaste for organizations and associations over his lifetime and struggled to reconcile this with the work. From the start of his preaching, he moved continuously away from the idea of biblical revelation as a basis for religious faith. The supernaturalism he learned while studying at Harvard had by this time evolved into a confirmed naturalism. And it was his Divinity School Address in 1838 wherein he proclaimed that the miracles of Jesus that Christians accepted were nothing when compared with “the blowing clover and the falling rain” that cemented his departure. It should have been no surprise as his 1936 publication of a book-length essay entitled, “Nature” asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we not have a poetry of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” For Emerson, the natural order was set before us as a means to know the Divine, here to meet our basic needs, for our delight, and as a means to communicate an understanding of the world. It is as much imbued with the Divine as we are; a panentheism of sorts that placed the Holy at the very center of all being.

Emerson and his cohort are responsible in some part for the individualism we are known for in our tradition. If every person has the ability to know the Divine on their own, through their experience of life and the beauty around them, then what do we need the institutional church for? Perhaps it is a Transcendentalist spirit that has captured the hearts of Gen X! There was this sense of the soul as all pervasive, a universal Oneness that connects all beings, something deeper than the more surface ego of which we are conscious, and which is limited in comparison. Emerson was chief among those whose penchant for solitude drew them deeper into their souls. And his move away from church doctrine and traditions was based in an understanding that these were distractions I think from the individual experience of the purest illuminations of God.

Buddhist teaching tells us that we have a body, but we are not our body, which is everchanging. We have thoughts, too, which are also not permanent. Our awareness is always in flux. Theodore Parker spoke to this notion in his famous sermon on “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” Therein he put forth the idea that - this is my down and dirty take on it for the sake of expedience – what Jesus lived and taught would go on forever, while what we have done with what he gave us is always changing, shifting sands reacting to the moment. This is true of the church also if you follow the Transcendentalist line. For them all this is just surface stuff, the real meaning to be gleaned lies beneath in each individual soul as it awakens to the Sacred within.

Father Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation wrote some years back that our deepest identity is our true self, this unique blueprint that only we can bring to full fruition over the course of a lifetime. We go clumsily along, he suggests, attempting to align with what is of most importance for us and only us to do and be. It involves a level of intuition which we are invited by life to participate in. I can imagine the Transcendentalists doing their darndest to eschew the religious conventions of the day, squirreling themselves away to gather up time in the Presence of the Holy round about them, and then returning to the fold to share what insights had been wrought upon them, encouraged by the vast well of experiences they brought to their discussions. They were a confusing lot, a heady group, incurable romantics perhaps, not well accepted by the traditional Unitarians, although they managed to develop a considerable following, thousands descending on the sites where their truths were being spoken. It was nothing less than a phenomenon in mid-1800’s Unitarianism and while there are no Transcendentalist sects in our tradition today, at least not so-named, I see their mark among us.

I came to our faith in a time of uproar about the need for more of a spoken reverence and such a spirituality called to me as much as our more intellectual and scientific pursuits. They are not unrelated in my mind, needn’t travel divergent paths. When allowed to converse with one another we arrive at a fullness we might otherwise miss out on. And I am of the mind that much of what passes for our identity as persons – our work, where we live, what we have and do not have, the struggles that ensue as we make our way and the things we choose - all is mere façade, beneath which something more ethereal, intangible exists. So, Transcendentalist, I may be!

But back to Emerson and his cohort – this individual connection to the Divine has its blessings and its curses for us. Yes! By all means, do find yourself that space to discern what lies at the depths of your soul. Feed that with whatever nourishes it. Nurture that inner relationship. Move through this world from that place as anchor and guide. We will all be the better for it in my opinion. But let’s not forget to return to the fold – to share those insights with one another – to be shapers of doctrine that honors the All in all – to allow our communal spaces to be built on that solid Oneness that energizes all of existence while making good use of the transience we know pervades our living. Thank goodness things can change! How we set about those changes can be informed by what is permanent in our midst, at our centers. Let’s not become so self-reliant that we leave no space for collaboration, for the gift of accompaniment, both giving and receiving, within these walls and beyond. We need one another and we need this container shaped by our values and our mission.

The other piece of Emerson, along with Margaret Fuller, who also comes to mind when I think about this part, is their absolute immersion into the natural as a place to encounter the Holy. I reread his Divinity School Address, and this is how it starts out – somewhat abridged – “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 pine . . . Night brings no gloom to the heart . . . Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. . . . The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily.” It goes on from there! His countenance truly refreshed by this engagement with the season and its bounty, the natural flow of life encountered in the woods and along the streams, day and night its wonders feed his very Spirit. For Emerson this is all about a sacredness that dwells in all of creation and the idea that if we open ourselves to it, we can become aware of our oneness with it, not separate beings but all of it and us pieces of a whole that is life and being. We heard it in our responsive reading this morning – that whatever Source there is in nature exists also in us. And an awareness of it is available to all of us – no matter our histories or origins or stations in life – those transient descriptors – but to us – our true selves, one with all that is.

It is not likely so for all of us, although we have gravitated to a place of beauty and relative serenity to make our homes, so for many of us I would assume that we find in our natural surroundings some of the majesty and mystery that Emerson espoused. If we are inclined to believe in anything holy or sacred or spiritual, we can probably relate to it in the ocean waves, the marsh grasses, the migrating birds – the scents and sounds and sights that envelop us here on the Cape.

Recently I began to read A Field Guide to Nature Meditation: 52 Mindfulness Practices for Joy, Wisdom and Wonder by author, meditation teacher and wilderness guide Mark Coleman. In it he invites us into weekly meditations to be engaged in outdoors in every season deepening our awareness of the natural world and purporting to bring connection, clarity and focus to our lives. The invitation is to meander below the surface of our existence, to allow our deepest selves to enter into a oneness with the seasons and their offerings, a means to connect with life beyond the human form, to learn from it of our being-ness. Some of you, I know, have explored the concept of ‘forest bathing,’ a relatively new take on an old practice. I plan to give it a try and invite any of you who wish to explore with me to let me know!

We have this vast Universe before us, within us if you follow Emerson and the gang, here for the enhancement of all life. May we not fear that deeper dive into our true selves, nor the rising up with much of love and beauty to be shared. May we in this ‘refulgent summer’ open our senses, our beings, to the gift of life, to the opportunity to live it to its fullest.

So may it be and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson UUMH Chatham, August 13, 2023


American Transcendentalism: A History by Philip F. Gura; Hill and Wang, NY 2007.

The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism by Mark W. Harris; The Scarecrow Press, Inc 2009.

Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing – Emerson – Parker by Conrad Wright, A Skinner House Book, Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston 1986.

Adaptation from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011), ix–xi.



​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

bottom of page