At the core of both Unitarianism and Transcendentalism is the belief in the inherent goodness of people and nature. This week, we will explore the confluence of the Unitarians and Transcendentalists in the 19th century and the influence it has on us today.


“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”

Henry David Thoreau

We all know Unitarianism as a liberal religion, progressive and challenging to the more conventional established religions. But back in the early 1800s, a group from the New England United States who were called the Transcendentalists advanced a new philosophy that pushed the boundaries of Unitarianism.

Back when I was at University studying Literature, these transcendentalists were scattered among my reading lists. I guess I was in a more hedonistic phase of life then, because I remember reading Walden and just wanting to put out some good teak lawn furniture for poor Henry David. And when I read Whitman’s “Song to Myself” I wanted to scream at him to put some clothes on! Even at that time, I was a Unitarian, so I can easily believe that the romantic poets and transcendentalists were pushing boundaries. I admit they sound a bit far-fetched.

Core Beliefs of Transcendentalism

But as I age and mellow out, I feel much closer to these concepts. At the core of transcendentalism is the belief in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Transcendentalists believe that “society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly self-reliant and independent.”

This movement ran partially parallel to the Romantic movement in Europe. Like the Europeans, the American Romantics had a high level of moral enthusiasm, and a strong commitment to individualism and realizing and nurturing the self. There was an emphasis on intuition and natural perception, and the assumption that the world of nature was inherently good, but human society was corrupt and seductive.

As I mentioned, Transcendentalism is closely related to Unitarianism, which was the dominant religious movement in Boston in the early nineteenth century. But the transcendentalists felt restless and discontent with the sobriety, mildness, and calm rationalism of Unitarianism. Even now other people tend to see us as sober do-gooders, too serious, too scientific, and not fun enough. The transcendentalists reached for a more intense spiritual experience. So you see, Transcendentalism was not born as a counter-movement to Unitarianism, but as a parallel movement to the very ideas introduced by the Unitarians.

Oneness With God

These writers, poets, naturalists, and progressive Unitarian ministers embraced a natural “supernaturalis.” This is the view that all nature, human beings included, has the power and authority that is traditionally attributed to an independent deity, or God. In other words, we are all part of God.

There are political, philosophical and theological aspects to Transcendentalism too, and much of its first thoughts were sprung from early Hindu texts as well as Plato and early German philosophers and romanticism. And it went on to influence generations of freedom fighters. The words of Emerson and Thoreau can be found in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and MLK. Even modern Hinduism has borrowed a little sparkle from Transcendentalism.

Oneness with God isn’t such a new idea to us anymore, but back in those days these philosophers created quite a stir. Many of them are required reading now in American schools, but little emphasis is placed on their dissident tendencies and break with mainstream society. Often, teachers want students to learn the poetry for the meter and rhyme, not to get any crazy ideas about being a nonconformist!

Prominent Transcendentalists

So many brilliant writers ands o little time to explore them here. To name a few of the most widely known:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Louisa May Alcott
  • Emily Dickinson
  • William Ellery Channing
  • Theodore Parker
  • Walt Whitman

There’s your summer reading list! There are a couple of Unitarian ministers in that list.

Let’s take a quick look at just a few of them. In my reading, there were so many names, so many titles, so many links and links to links that I realized that this sermon topic could use a Part II.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered to be the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, and he strongly promoted individualism. He was also a pantheist and a pandeist, embracing the notion of God as part of the world, not separate from it. He attended Harvard Divinity School.

Here is an excerpt from his essay, “Nature”:

“… Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of particle of God.

Emerson also wrote extensively on the need for us to establish our own faith, religion, and ideas, and not to depend on or believe in the ideas passed down to us. He said we all deserve to see the world through fresh eyes, with our own vision. That mirrors our Unitarian principle, that we are all welcome to come to our higher being in our own way. We are all right, right for ourselves.

Henry David Thoreau

Emerson mentored Henry David Thoreau, the Transcendentalist who is considered to be the first real environmentalist. Thoreau also attended Harvard college. He was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian, and considered by some to be an anarchist. Thoreau is best known for his journal kept at Walden Pond, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. He built his cabin out of local materials, some which came directly out of the Pond about which he wrote. Other materials were recycled from local houses falling to ruin, and his furniture was all reclaimed or rebuilt, or built new by himself. His house was so small, he said it could hardly entertain an echo. He wrote as well his essay “Civil Disobedience,” an argument for disobeying unjust laws.

Some little gems of quotes here:

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”

“Thank god men cannot fly, and lay waste to the sky as well as the earth.”

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

Henry David Thoreau

Theodore Parker

We should also mention Theodore Parker, as he was a Transcendentalist as well as a reforming Unitarian Minister. He attended Harvard Divinity School. You can see why this group of scholars is exceptional. Reading about the life and struggles of Parker reminded me of Norbert Capek, the founder of Czech Unitarianism because their progressive ideas that extended beyond the current boundaries of religious beliefs and their relentless courage to keep ideas alive. They both endured persecution and rejection, and yet carried on fearlessly to bring their concepts to the people.

To Parker, Christianity was natural rather than miraculous. He praised social reform movements such as those for temperance, peace, and the abolition of slavery. He designed a career that revolved around anti-slavery, democracy, and religious social activism.

His church in West Roxbury was renamed Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church in 1962, and retains this name today.

Some words for you from Reverend Parker:

“The world no doubt grows better; comfort is increased from age to age. What is luxury in one generation, scarce attainable by the wealthy, becomes at least the possession of most men. Solomon with all his wealth had no carpet on his chamber-floor; no glass in his windows; no shirt to his back. But as the world goes, the increase of comforts does not fall chiefly into the hands of those who create them by their work. The mechanic cannot use the costly furniture he makes. This, however, is of small consequence; but as he as not always the more valuable consideration, time – to grow wiser and better in. As Society advances, the standard of poverty rises. A man in New England called poor at this day, who would have be rich a hundred and fifty years ago; but as it rises, the number that falls beneath that standard becomes a greater part of the whole population. Of course, the comfort of a few is purchased by the loss of the many. The world has grown rich and refined, but chiefly by the efforts of those who themselves continue poor and ignorant. So, the ass, while he carried wood and spices to the Roman bath, but was himself always dirty and overworked. It is easy to see these evils, and weep for them. It is common also to censure some one class of men – the rich or the educated, the manufacturers, the merchants, or the politicians, for example – as if the sin rested solely with them, while it belongs to society at large. But the world yet waits for someone to heal these dreadful evils, by devising some new remedy, or applying the old. Who shall apply for us Christianity to social life?”

“A Lesson for the Day; or The Christianity of Christ, of the Church, and of Society” by Reverend Theodore Parker

Indeed, we are asking these questions today.

I’d like to close with a sweet quote from Louisa May Alcott, beloved writer of children’s books, daughter of actively transcendental parents.

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”

Louisa May Alcott

I think she speaks for us all. We do aspire to the highest, and we are one with each other, and with god.

So be it.


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