Divinity School Address | Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Divinity School Address | Quotes


One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson has a reverence for nature. He views nature as God's creation and he includes human beings as part of the natural world. Emerson believes that humanity has an innate goodness like the natural world because humanity is part of it. This is a belief held by the group known as the transcendentalists to which Emerson belonged.


The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson clarifies for his audience what those divine laws are. He says the laws direct man to be just, to do good deeds, to be pure, and to be humble. When people follow these laws, they are leading virtuous lives. Transcendentalists put these ideas into practice with their humanitarian actions toward better conditions for workers, women's right to vote, and better education for children.


The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson defines virtue as the essence of all religion. He believes that this important sentiment is not something taught by any Church but rather must be found by religious individuals within themselves. Emerson uses the word "sentiment" because he believes the discovery of morality is an emotional experience and not a rational one.


Showing the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is a door into the deeps of Reason.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson tells his audience that the discovery of the divine moral sentiments within themselves cannot be found by following a religious leader. Emerson uses the word "sentiment" often in his address to the graduates. This is because he believes that people must understand their spirituality on an emotional level rather than through reason. When he says "moral sentiment," Emerson intends for people to understand their own morality and their own virtue on an emotional level. Emerson is explaining to his audience that because God is within everyone each person possesses the divine moral sentiments of God. Every human being can then lead a virtuous life by realizing this within themselves. It is the responsibility of religious people to discover for themselves the virtue that lies within them. Emerson claims that all people possess this goodness.


This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East ... in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson asserts that the contemplative followers of Eastern religions discover their spirituality individually and within themselves rather than receive instruction about their morality from religious officials. Religious fellows of the "contemplative East" are better connected to their spirituality because they practice intense solitary meditation. They are spiritually self-sufficient which is an essential and admirable quality to Emerson.


What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word ... be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson says religious people cannot be taught about the virtue within themselves. Others can provoke or inspire the search for this virtue within themselves. Yet a person must search for this alone. No one can instruct a human being about the virtue within them. One must find this sense of virtue for themselves.


But the very word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson states his belief that events in the natural world are miracles. Emerson does not accept the truth of a miracle such as turning water into wine. He sees miracles in common things and in the natural world.


Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

According to Emerson, Christianity is in error because it does not present a doctrine about the human soul. It sings the praises of Jesus rather than those of the soul of each person. Emerson disagrees with the traditional Unitarian teaching that Jesus is the physical incarnation of God. Emerson is convinced that Jesus is not God but a virtuous prophet.


That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson's belief not in the institution of the church but in the virtue of the individual human being. He is saying that true faith and true belief do not come from anywhere outside oneself.


That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson believes that both virtue and God are within every individual. He urges religious people not to look for God in a church or in others but instead to look for God within themselves.


But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods [church councils] use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson is speaking against tradition, books, and rituals for religious instruction. Each person must seek their own spiritual enlightenment in their own way and on their own terms.


The true preacher can always be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson states that only those who teach from their souls can help others in their pursuit of religious enlightenment. People who practice courage, piety, love, and wisdom can teach others.

Emerson does not espouse that traditional prayers and dogma preached from a pulpit, which are devoid of life experience, can help religious people discover God and virtue within themselves. The true preacher learns from his experiences and shares these lessons with the church members.


Tradition characterizes the preaching of this country; that it comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tradition and ritual are not inspiring to the religious person. Emerson says that historical Christianity is too dependent on old traditions rather than on helping human beings explore their moral natures. He maintains that the sublime virtue of people lies within their moral nature. Christian preaching should inspire people to explore their own moral nature and to discover their virtue.


We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought ... in your soul ... are resources for the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson urges the graduates to not look to the church for redemption; he believes that redemption lies within the soul of the individual. The religious person should look for it within himself and not in the confines of the church.


The evils of that church that now is, are manifest.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson wants the church to be reinvigorated. He declares that the energy of the church has dissipated because the fire has gone out on the altar. He wants new life to be breathed into the old forms. He appreciates the practices of the Sabbath and of preaching and wants these institutions to be grounded in science, beauty, and joy.

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