Divinity School Address | Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Divinity School Address | Main Ideas


Self-Awareness and Self-Divinity

The "Divinity School Address" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) claims individuals should seek religious sentiment, a spiritual feeling "which makes our highest happiness," within themselves rather than taking strict cues from church authorities. He states that the traditional Unitarian Church of his time does not aid a person in this endeavor because it is no longer a vital institution. He intuits that the Unitarian Church regarded the "age of inspiration" as past and "the Bible was closed." Emerson emphasizes that an institution not open to change and debate was a dead institution. He disagrees with some of the established dogma of the Unitarian Church. The church's overemphasis on Jesus as the human embodiment of God troubles Emerson. The obsessive attention to Jesus came at the expense of individual spiritual potential so that "once man was all; now he is an appendage, a nuisance." He charges that within the teachings of the church, "the doctrine of [the Supreme Spirit] suffers this perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest, and denied with fury." Emerson accepts that Jesus was a virtuous prophet, but not the embodiment of God and argues that Jesus himself saw that "God incarnates himself in man." Emerson aligns himself with Jesus's profound insight that God exists within each person.

Emerson developed his ideas on moral individualism in his writings throughout the 1830s. He wrote his book Nature in 1836 and expressed the ideas on which he elaborates in his "Divinity School Address." He stresses that human beings should rely on their own intuitions to discover the religious sentiment within themselves. He argues that man's experiences in a life mindfully lived could bring him to a realization of his personal religious sentiment. He encouraged the graduates in his audience to translate the experiences of their lives into the sermons they delivered to their congregations. Emerson relates the results of his personal queries and studies on religious sentiment. God was within himself and all people, according to Emerson. Each person could discover God within themselves through personal contemplation that was inspired but not taught by others.

Reverence for the Natural World

Emerson begins his address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School by praising the natural world and reflecting the transcendentalist belief that Unitarians are sometimes too rational in their approach to religion. He says, "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 tints of flowers." Emerson was part of the transcendentalist movement which began in 1830 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and continued through the mid-19th century. The transcendentalists not only revered nature but also included human beings as part of the natural world. They believed in the perfection of the natural world and in the innate goodness of humanity. The transcendentalists as a group believed that the Unitarians' approach to religion was not spiritual enough.

Emerson and other transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) and Margaret Fuller (1810–50) were inspired by the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, mystic, philosopher, and theologian. He believed that human beings had an immortal soul. His approach to understanding the soul of human beings was unique in that he based it on science. He made a thorough study of the human anatomy and physiology because he believed that is where the soul resided. He wanted to prove the immortality of the soul to the human senses. The New England transcendentalists did not take this scientific approach to proving the existence of the soul, relying instead on intuition and personal experience. Yet they did believe in the divinity of each man's soul and in the unity of all creation. They did not separate human beings from the natural world. Their focus on understanding the human soul led them to reject the traditions and dogma of 18th-century thought.

The transcendentalists engaged in literary and social pursuits. In 1840 the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller began a publication called The Dial which aired transcendental thoughts and beliefs. Emerson contributed to the publication as did Thoreau who reported on wildlife in Massachusetts. The Dial discontinued publication in 1844. The transcendentalists also founded a commune called Brook Farm, or which Emerson was not a part.


Emerson states that it could be difficult for individuals to accept the spiritual ideas of a group without searching deeply within themselves. He believed an understanding of the universal moral law could only be achieved on a personal basis and through personal introspection. Emerson interpreted the universal moral law to mean leading a virtuous life. People needed to understand for themselves what it meant to lead a virtuous life. In his speech Emerson says, "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject." Emerson believed that this understanding of morality could not be discovered through the dogma or traditions of a church or from another person. Emerson believed this understanding was through personal revelation and personal self-discovery.

Emerson continued his theme of self-discovery in the speech by explaining how people could pursue their religious lives. He said that if man would look inward and open his heart and mind to the meaning of virtue, then he would be fulfilling God's purpose. Emerson is of the mind that the man who led a virtuous life of good acts embodied God within himself. He writes, "If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God." Emerson argues for the innate goodness of humanity. Men need only recognize their goodness and their part in the perfection of the natural world and with this realization their goodness would thrive. He tells the graduates, "Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature."

Emerson goes on to say that divine nature is in all humanity. His belief is in line with the belief of the transcendentalists regarding the concept of the Oversoul. The transcendentalists believed that the Oversoul was the universal spirit or God. All organisms in the natural world including humans were part of the Oversoul. Because of this idea Emerson encouraged the graduates of Harvard Divinity School not to subordinate themselves to the church. Emerson advocated that they listen to themselves and understand that God was within them and within all living things.

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