Ralph Waldo Emerson and Radical Religious Individualism

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Around the time when America had gained independence from Great Britain, the Second Great Awakening was taking place where it emphasized an emotion-based religious style of practice. For example, in order for sinners to turn again from their sinful past, they must perform emotional religious practice to gain personal salvation to be “born again.”

While a lot of religious enthusiasm and passion involved at this time in various Christian communities, there were also a lot of social and political changes taking place. The population was increasing, the west was expanding, and there was more participation in democracy. As a result of these political and social changes, a lot of people in the society during this time felt more mixed emotions, where only religious practice during the Secondary Great Awakening could provide relief and comfort to Americans who are experiencing these rapid changes.

Although this benefited many religious groups by having a large number of converts to different religious sects, at the same time, many religious groups were not happy because religious ideas during this time didn’t align with previously established faith and doctrines. The fact that certain religious groups gained benefit from this religious movement while others didn’t allow some religious individualism because people now had the capability to choose whether to attend church or not.

Soon after, during the early 19th century, the Transcendentalist movement started to rise in the northeastern region of America. The term, “transcend,” at the time was often associated with the idea of going beyond one’s own sense of perception to gain direct insight as to what reality truly meant. Based on the definition of this term, transcendentalists believe that every human being can get a better understanding of his or her surroundings without having to rely on rational thoughts that are based on factual and scientific information, an idea that was strongly stressed and advocated for by rationalists during the Age of Enlightenment.

A key belief that was essential in transcendentalism was the idea that each individual could “go beyond” the physical world and into one’s deep spiritual experience using non-scientific behaviors like free will, individualism, and intuition. Unlike rationalists, people who believed in transcendentalism advocated for one’s own individualism rather than following a certain set of standards or laws. Many historians believe that transcendentalism, a social idea that originated in America, was influenced by European romanticism, a literary movement that emphasized the importance of one’s emotion rather than scientific reasoning. One of the most influential figures that lead the Transcendentalist movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a 19th-century American essayist, philosopher, and poet. Coming from a very religious background, Emerson served as a Unitarian minister after graduating from Harvard Divinity School like his father. After the death of his wife and leaving the clergy, Emerson took a trip to Europe during the 1830s where he met many leading figures of romanticism, who strongly rejected rationalistic ideas and beliefs. After the trip, he returned to the States and started giving lectures that emphasized romantic ideas. He eventually published popular essays like “Nature” and “Self-Reliance” to encourage the public to fight for one’s true spirituality instead of constantly relying on various conformity, which Emerson believed was a serious problem at the time.

As much as Emerson’s literary works drew a lot of criticism to his social movement, many were just as well drawn to his transcendentalist idea. Many adults from the middle working class, who were constantly not happy with their ordinary industrialized life, were fond of Emerson’s ideas expressed through his literary works and eventually to start expressing meaning in their own work as a way to search for one’s greater spiritual meaning in life. As he wrote and published more literary works that incorporate transcendentalism, not only did this give Emerson a chance to explain his ideas but also advocated for other’s individualistic character.

Throughout the 19th century, as he continued to spread individualistic ideas through his literary works and social activities, his philosophical ideas and beliefs eventually started to move away from religion and other social communities that went against his transcendentalism ideas, even though he originally came from a religious background. As Emerson started to stray away from religion, which was often reflected in his published works, specifically with “Harvard Divinity School Address,” this created a shift in society where more and more people started to become radical religious individualists.

In the “Harvard Divinity School Address” and “The Transcendentalists,” there were two philosophical aspects, which Emerson discusses in depth: emphasizes the importance of one’s spirituality, which focuses on one’s self without having to rely on any external source, and analyzing different parts of the Christian churches to show how they failed in many various religious aspects.

While Emerson leads the transcendentalist movement, he also indirectly promoting radical religious individualism. One way Emerson encouraged radial religious individualism was by depicting a strong relationship between an individual and his or her own spiritual self. One of his well-known essays, “The Transcendentalists,” mostly tries to clarify any misunderstanding that may occur between the general public and supporters of the transcendentalist movements. Through this essay, he not only defines and describes the philosophy behind his social movement, but he also tries to target a specific group of people who may feel isolated or misunderstood. The main purpose of this essay was to inform the public about how his idea of transcendentalism came to be, what it means, and to hopefully inspire some people to follow in his footsteps during this social movement.

At the beginning of “The Transcendentalists,” Emerson not only talks about how transcendentalism is just a prolonged version of idealism, but he also tries to show through comparing and contrasting materialistic and idealistic ways of thinking for clarification. In the essay, he uses phrases like, “animal wants of man,” and “individual culture,” to point out that materialists are very concentric with the idea of facts and evidence, while idealistic thinkers are more spiritual and attend to one’s imagination and intuition rather than just pure facts alone. He believes that materialists can change to become idealists, but the opposite cannot happen due to the fact that once an idealist realizes one’s own spiritual life, they will continue to seek it, preventing them from ever just relying on scientific-based evidence alone.

In a social environment, materialists tend to judge based on various characteristics like appearance, size, and number, where the idea of “the bigger, the better” came about. On the other hand, idealists judge or “rank” others based on one’s internal values like standards that an individual can hold despite “all the size or appearance.” By following an idealist’s “ranking system,” this prevents the culture practice where evil should be correct with the help of external influence and instead advocates in the idea of correcting any immoral flaws in one’s own individual moral character.

Instead of being involved with a group of people who are fixated on the idea of perfection and that everything in a human is flawed, an idealist would prefer to be by themselves with just nature to strengthen their spiritual force of insight and understanding to help others within the same community, “They wish a just and even fellowship, or non. They cannot gossip with you, and they do not wish, as they are sincere and religious, to gratify any mere curiosity which you may entertain.” Although these quotes and analysis of “The Transcendentalist,” is not directly related to radical religious individualism, the essay did start to promote one’s sense of individualism and independence.

By drawing analogies and comparing and contrasting various ideas, Emerson helps readers realize that external forces like churches or political officials are not necessary in order for people to enhance their own “goodness.” As a result, this would cause the bond between followers and leaders to be severed. This would then cause people, who used to be followers, to not only reduce their reliance on others for help but to start focusing on themselves rather than what others thought or expected.

Another way in which Emerson started moving towards radical religious individualism was by discussing the flaws of the Christian community. Many people associate religion as a way for an individual to find significant meaning in his or her life by giving that sense of joy and empowerment, which can lead to one’s goodness. Emerson used to be a great Christian believer, but after his first wife passed away, he started to question as well as notice various flaws in the Church’s method, which caused him to slowly step away from his original religion.

Emerson believes that achieving one’s own goodness or any other aspects should be achieved through one’s own epiphanies and self-inspiration rather than “learning” or “received second-handedly.” Although Emerson published a lot of essays, one essay that significantly stressed the failure of the Christian community was in his “Harvard Divinity School Address from the Essential Writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Although in the essay he starts by talking about the physical characteristics on an environment like “The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers,” he later switches sides by emphasizing that a man opening up his mind and heart to “sentiment of virtue” has greater beauty than anything else.

If a person tries to seek his or her own truth and virtues, that person will then be at peace with God’s creation of the world, God’s purpose, and most importantly will please God. If religion is not based on an intuitive individual connection with the divine, the church has no purpose, even though all of society’s worshipping practices are found giving to man directly from God. By relying on the church, a man’s significance is severely devalued, which would result in a diverged path of finding one’s true inner self.

He discusses two main errors within the Christian community as an institution. The first problem with Christianity is the fact that it places Jesus in a much higher position above other men as if it were like a monarchy instead of trying to promote the ideologies and doctrine that relates to the soul. As a result, if this religious monarchy where God and his subordinates were to be continually practiced, Emerson believes that there is absolutely no way for humans to enter into their “divine state.”

If God were to be removed from the picture, it could either weaken man, which shows a strong dependence on him, or simply there wouldn’t be any reason for a man to exist. This shows that society is placing too much dependence on churches than needed. Emerson’s second point examines how Christianity fails to acknowledge that fact that every individual has greatness, which is why many seminars are almost standardized and similar. Because even preachers can’t appreciate their own inner self, they can’t find beauty in anything else.

By pointing out this specific aspect, this would cause the readers to question, “If preachers can’t even appreciate or even realize their own inner self, then what value or trust can be placed on them?” As a result of these reasons and explanations, people reading this essay would start to question the true intentions of church officials as well as try to focus on their own inner self spirituality, rather than relying on others. Eventually, this would result in self-reliance on followers and eventually towards the trend of radical religious individualism in order to find one’s true spiritual self to enhance self-value and goodness.

Works Cites

  1. The Transcendentalist – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  2. Harvard Divinity School Address – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  3. Rice University, and OpenStax U.S. History. “An Awakening of Religion and Individualism.” US History, 7 May 2014, pressbooks-dev.oer.hawaii.edu/ushistory/chapter/an-awakening-of-religion-and-individualism/.
  4. Sack, Harald. “Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalism Movement.” SciHi Blog, 25 May 2019, scihi.org/ralph-waldo-emerson-transcendentalism/.
  5. “Second Great Awakening.” Second Great Awakening – Ohio History Central, ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Second_Great_Awakening.

Cite this paper

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Radical Religious Individualism. (2021, Mar 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/ralph-waldo-emerson-and-radical-religious-individualism/

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