Defining and Engaging Transcendental Religion

Yesterday's post about the series on the national parks implicitly engaged transcendental religion in the 19th century, which went into forming the religion of nature that informed the response to places like Yosemite and Yellowstone. Today's post follows up on that a bit. Our guest post today comes from Benjamin Park, a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and a blogger at Juvenile Instructor. Ben's post reflects on the scholarly study of Transcendentalism.


Defining and Engaging Transcendental Religion
Benjamin Park

American Transcendentalism has long been acknowledged as one of the first intellectual movements of early American republic. However, because of modern scholarship’s characterization of the movement as being primarily literary in nature (likely due to the dominance of literary critics in the field), its influence on—and indeed, its birth as a reaction to—American religious life has been largely relegated as merely consequential. And yet, Transcendentalism is clearly inseparable from the religious controversies that not only produced but also defined it. Indeed, not only were many members of the movement at one point Unitarian ministers, but the earliest texts and manifestos stemming from these voices were largely religious and spiritual in both scope and vision.

Ever since Perry Miller famously labeled the Transcendentalist movement as a “religious demonstration” half a century ago, most Transcendentalists scholars have been forced to admit that religiosity was at the center of the movement. Even in Philip Gura’s recent survey—where characterizations like “eclectic,” “multi-faceted,” and “interdisciplinary” reign supreme—he acknowledges that at least their origins were primarily religious. Charles Capper, however, has noted that historians’ inability to define “the character, parameters, and sources of [Transcendental] religion” has led to this important aspect of the intellectual movement unclear and, therefore, unable to situate among its larger context of nineteenth century liberal religion. Beyond Catherine Albanese’s fascinating Corresponding Motion (which, despite being an significantly important contribution to the field, is both dated and methodologically limited), the nature and significance of Transcendentalist views of religion have largely remained shrouded in uncertainty.[1]

This is unfortunate, for I believe that figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and Henry Hedge, among others, play an important role in shaping American antebellum religious thought specifically, and the movement in general had vast implications on mapping nineteenth century generally. Beyond merely being identified as frontrunners America’s developing liberal religion, these thinkers challenged and even shifted at least three significant fields: what it required to be labeled a Christian; how spirituality might be maintained in an increasingly rational environment; and finally, what sources of knowledge—and, indeed, what ideologies in general—could be accepted and engaged within the American religious scene.[2]

The first of these three possibilities is an important study in boundary maintenance, for it forced competing religions, especially those within the Unitarian faith, to draw boundaries that they originally felt were unnecessary. Unitarianism, already thought by many Protestants to be a halfway house to infidelity, were now required to prove that they were willing to draw the theological line somewhere. Even though some Transcendentalists, most notably Emerson, publically left the fold and could thus be easily dismissed as outside the Christian faith, others like Theodore Parker refused to relinquish the title of “Christian” and instead fought to redefine what Christianity meant. Refuting the many ministers defined Parker’s theology as “nothing more or less than Deism,” Parker responded by insisting that he “object[ed] to the names deism and infidelity” because they contradict “the general philosophy which is presupposed in all I teach”—namely, immediate inspiration to the individual and divine intervention in the individual’s life, not to mention the belief that the Christian tradition contained more truth than any other traditional philosophy. And, given the enormous success of Parker’s preaching, it is evident that many others agreed with his theology. Thus, these specific theological debates that birthed Transcendentalism also gave rise to foundational questions for Christianity in general.[3]

A recent focus in religious scholarship has been to see the Transcendentalists as the beginning point of American spiritualism, or the seeking for spirituality outside of traditional religion. Though “mysticism” was seen as a pejorative during the 1800s, the following century gave rise a growing number of spiritualists who, according to Leigh Eric Schmidt, “emancipated souls” from the shackles of classical organized religion, and urged them to look inward for spiritual truth. When theologian John W. Chadwick, writing near the turn of the twentieth century, tried to trace the development of American “spirituality,” he chose Emerson and Parker. This framework has been especially popular for the current generation, for it gives roots to the predominance of the current “spiritual, not religious” culture, most recently exemplified in the forty page “sermon” found in the end of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.[4]

Finally, Transcendentalism—and more specifically, the intellectual sources Transcendentalism introduced—challenged the way American understood knowledge and truth. When Andrews Norton, the Unitarian minister most often in conflict with the Transcendentalists, summarized Emerson, Parker, and Ripley’s “heresies,” he pointed specifically to their ideology’s origin: “Infidelity has but assumed another form,” he accused,”and especially in Germany, has made its way among a very large portion of nominally Christian theologians.” German theology, he continued, “was most hostile to all that characterizes our faith” and in the end is merely disguised atheism. Indeed, much of the surrounding debate revolved around a symbolic geography that pitted the traditionally American intellectual roots, British epistemology, against the growing threat of German idealism. In the young American republic, Lockean empiricism—even if it was tempered by Scottish Common Sensism—reigned unchallenged, and thus this crisis was not only religious in nature, but also ideological in scope. The Transcendentalists offered an alternative form of religious epistemology and ontology, challenging intellectual as well as religious boundaries. This, understandably, had profound implications on perceptions of God and man, as well as the relationship between the two.[5]

Obviously, these three frameworks of study are closely related and probably impossible to separate, yet they offer not only what I believe are some of the important implications Transcendentalists pose to American religious history, but also fresh perspectives that have, until the last decade or so, not been engaged. I am interested in how others have not only characterized Transcendental religion, but have situated it within the larger context of American religious and liberal theology.


[1] Charles Capper, “‘A Little Beyond’: The Problem of the Transcendentalist Movement in American History.” The Journal of American History 85 (Sep. 1998): 532-533. Perry Miller, The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), 8. Philip Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), 13. Catherine L. Albanese, Corresponding Motion: Transcendental Religion and the New America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977). For an argument that the focus on religion and theology diminishes the Transcendentalist movement’s usefulness, see Albert J. Von Frank, “On Transcendentalism: Its History and Uses,” Modern Intellectual History 6 (Winter, 2009): 195-196.

[2] For Transcendentalists as the forerunners for liberal religion, see Gary J. Dorrien, The making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900, 58-110.

[3] On the irony of boundary formation within Unitarianism, see Perry Miller, “Apostasy Within Liberalism,” The Harvard Theological Review 54 (Oct. 1961): 275-295. “Nothing more or less than Deism” comes from Noah Porter, “Theodore Parker,” New Englander 2, no. 3 (July 1844): 371-372. “Object” comes from Theodore Parker to Noah Porter, 1 October 1844, Theodore Parker Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. For a representative pamphlet for refuting Parkerism and establishing Unitarian boundaries, see Samuel K. Lothrop, The Christian Name and Christian Liberty: A Sermon Preached at the Church in Brattle Square (Boston: John H. Eastburn, 1843). For Parker’s success, see Joel Myerson, “On the Importance of Theodore Parker,” The New England Quarterly 76 (Sep., 2003): 466-476.

[4] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, from Emerson to Oprah (San Francisco: HarperOne Press, 2005), 11. For the argument that the Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were the roots of America’s separation of Christ from Christianity, see Harold Bloom, The American Religion:The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1993); Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004).

[5] “Infidelity” comes from Andrews Norton, A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity (Cambridge: John Owen, 1839), 9-10. This intellectual shift was how E. Brooks Holifield situated Transcendentalist theology in his Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007).


Albanese in Nature Religion interprets John Muir as the heir of the east coast Transcendentalists. She finds that, in the superlative landscape of the American west, Muir is able to iron out some of the tensions between the purity of mind/Reason and the messy beauty of matter that Emerson and Thoreau never quite worked through.

The romanticization of place (and its indigenous inhabitants) certainly is a fourth theme linking U.S. religious history and Transcendentalism. Are places like Walden Pond, Cassadaga, and Sedona all stops--and ideas--on the same line?
Ben said…
Awesome, Brett. I had not really considered their contribution to the romanticization of place, nor have I looked closely at John Muir. Thanks for the heads-up.
Preslee245 said…
I recently read a blog post by conservative blogger Mark Finkelstein 'accusing' Barack Obama of practising pandeism (see Happy Pan-Deism Day From Gail Collins -- which doesn't even seem to get what pandeism is all about!

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