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Divinity School Address | Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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At a Glance

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) was a transcendentalist philosopher and writer.
  • Emerson was a Unitarian minister who left the vocation in 1832 and remained active in the Christian community.
  • In 1838 he addressed the Harvard Divinity School and argued for a more liberal, transcendentalist interpretation of the Bible.
  • He advocated for spiritual self-reliance in accordance with his transcendentalist philosophy.
  • Emerson did not believe there should be needless spiritual mediators. Believers could have a direct relationship with God. The quest for spiritual fulfillment should be intuitive and based on lived experience and connection with nature.
  • According to Emerson the formalism of Unitarian preachings did not properly convey the lived experience and humanity of the ministers. The result was an unnecessary division between the clergy (those ordained to perform religious duties) and the laity (non-ordained members of the church).
  • Emerson's call for potential divinity in every person and not just Jesus Christ was at first controversial especially among Unitarian elders and Harvard professors.
  • Unitarians eventually embraced transcendentalist philosophy. This acceptance speaks to Emerson's lasting impact on the denomination.


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