Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Ralph Waldo Emerson

More details Emerson's grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is considered to be one of the greatest writers the United States has ever produced. Generations of schoolchildren have read his essays, and his opinions have been drilled into students as the epitome of American individualism and rectitude.

His influence, moreover, has been reinforced by his disciples, such as Henry David Thoreau. In a nutshell, these American Transcendentalists were the first and most eloquent proponents of what is today called being “spiritual, but not religious”. Pantheists and Deists by turns, their views have been a strong current in American intellectual and theological life since Emerson’s time – and greatly due to his pre-eminence.

In 1829, following in his father’s footsteps, Emerson was ordained junior pastor of the Second Church in Boston, which had become officially Unitarian in 1802. Three years later, his ministry came to an end, because he refused to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, declaring in a sermon that he did not believe that Christ had really ordered his Apostles to perform the rite, and that it made Christ the sole mediator between God and man.

More importantly, “This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it. If I believed that it was enjoined by Jesus on his disciples, and that he even contemplated making permanent this mode of commemoration, every way agreeable to an eastern mind, and yet, on trial, it was disagreeable to my own feelings, I should not adopt it.”

While the ensuing uproar ensured the loss of his post and ejection from the ministry, it is in truth the quintessence of the Protestant notion of private judgment. That he is considered the ultimate American philosopher does not speak well for us.