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“From Edwards to Emerson”


Perry Miller


Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Belknap, 1996), pp. 184–203.

[Author’s Note: There can be no doubt that Jonathan Edwards would have abhorred from the bottom of his soul every proposition Ralph Waldo Emerson blandly put forth in the manifesto of 1836, Nature. We may be certain that he would have regarded it, as did the stalwart Calvinists at Princeton, as an inevitable outcome of that degenerate “Arminianism,” the initial stirrings of which he had been the first to detect and to the destruction of which he devoted his life. Could he have lived long enough to witness the appearance in New England of “transcendentalism,” he would have beheld in it the logical and predictable collapse of the “liberal” theology which, in New England, became institutionalized as Unitarianism. If Edwards ever laughed, then he would have laughed — along with the other theologians of his party, few of whom were given to laughter — over the discomfiture of the Unitarians upon discovering a heresy in their midst, but I suspect he would have seen even more vividly than did the Princeton pundits the threat which the gentle Emerson raised against everything Edwards stood for. In that strictly historical regard, then, there is no organic evolution of ideas from Edwards to Emerson.

This essay — let me for once call a piece by that name using it here in the original sense of an endeavor or an exertion that does not quite reach its goal — has been unhappily construed by many readers, since it first appeared in The New England Quarterly for December 1940 (XIII, 589–617), as meaning that in some mystical pretension I argue for a direct line of intellectual descent, as though Edwards were a Holinshed to Emerson’s Shakespeare. That notion — which would require the fatigue of a journey from the Puritans of the covenant out into the Connecticut Valley, and then back to the Harvard Divinity School — I never contemplated. That would obviously be a silly version of how ideas get transmitted, even in so confined a laboratory as New England then was. For a while I regretted ever having published this speculation.

Clearly, the sequence I strove to outline in this tentative form requires at least a volume of documentation. Possibly I may yet find the time and energy to supply it, but I welcome assistance, even though that shall prove my hunches wrong. For the moment, I must be content to let this exploration stand, with all its faults.

On the crudest of levels, I am arguing that certain basic continuities persist in a culture — in this case taking New England as the test tube which underlie the successive articulation of “ideas.” Or, I might put it, the history of ideas – if it is to be anything more than a mail-order catalogue – demands of the historian not only a fluency in the concepts themselves but an ability to get underneath them. This, certainly, is a dangerous invitation, opening the iron gates of scholarship to all sorts of obscurantist divination. However, if the safeguards of discrimination and of humor are adequately supplied, then it may be permissible to suggest that the gulf between Edwards and Emerson is not so deep nor so wide as a strictly doctrinal definition would lead us to believe. What is persistent, from the covenant theology (and from the heretics against the covenant) to Edwards and to Emerson is the Puritan’s effort to confront, face to face, the image of a blinding divinity in the physical universe, and to look upon that universe without the intermediacy of ritual, of ceremony, of the Mass and the confessional.

The real difference between Edwards and Emerson, if they can thus be viewed as variants within their culture, lies not in the fact that Edwards was a Calvinist while Emerson rejected all systematic theologies, but in the quite other fact that Edwards went to nature, in all passionate love, convinced that man could receive from it impressions which he must then try to interpret, whereas Emerson went to Nature, no less in love with it, convinced that in man there is a spontaneous correlation with the received impressions.

Another way of saying this might, it is evident, be to define Emerson as an Edwards in whom the concept of original sin, has evaporated. This would satisfy the textbooks: Edwards sought the “images or shadows of divine things” in nature, but could not trust his discoveries because he knew man to be cut off from full communion with the created order because of his inherent depravity. But Emerson, having decided that man is unfallen (except as his sensibilities have been blunted by civilization), announced that there is no inherent separation between the mind and the thing, that in reality they leap to embrace each other. Yes, that will do for the textbooks, or for students’ notebooks. Yet true though it be, such an account leaves out the basic continuance: the incessant drive of the Puritan to learn how, and how most ecstatically, he can hold any sort of communion with the environing wilderness.]

Ralph Waldo Emerson, young (click for large image)
Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Click for large image.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON believed that every man has an inward and immediate access to that Being for whom he found the word “God” inadequate and whom he preferred to designate as the “OverSoul.” He believed that this Over-Soul, this dread universal essence, which is beauty, love, wisdom, and power all in one, is present in Nature and throughout Nature. Consequently Emerson, and the young transcendentalists of New England with him, could look with complacence upon certain prospects which our less transcendental generation beholds with misgiving:

If the red slayer thinks he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Life was exciting in Massachusetts of the 1830’s and ‘40’s; abolitionists were mobbed, and for a time Mr. Emerson was a dangerous radical; Dr. Webster committed an ingenious murder; but by and large, young men were not called upon to confront possible slaughter unless they elected to travel the Oregon Trail, and the only scholar who did that was definitely not a transcendentalist. Thus it seems today that Emerson ran no great risk in asserting that should he ever be bayoneted he would fall by his own hand disguised in another uniform, that because all men participate in the Over-Soul those who shoot and those who are shot prove to be identical, that in the realm of the transcendental there is nothing to choose between eating and being eaten.

It is hardly surprising that the present generation, those who are called upon to serve not merely as doubters and the doubt but also as slayers and slain, greet the serene pronouncements of Brahma with cries of dissent. Professors somewhat nervously explain to unsympathetic undergraduates that of course these theories are not the real Emerson, much less the real Thoreau. They were importations, not native American growths. They came from Germany, through Coleridge; they were extracted from imperfect translations of the Hindu scriptures, misunderstood and extravagantly embraced by Yankees who ought to have known better — and who fortunately in some moments did know better, for whenever Emerson and Parker and Thoreau looked upon the mill towns or the conflict of classes they could perceive a few realities through the haze of their transcendentalism. They were but transcendental north-north-west; when the wind was southerly they knew the difference between Beacon Hill and South Boston. I suppose that many who now read Emerson, and surely all who endeavor to read Bronson Alcott, are put off by the “philosophy.” The doctrines of the Over-Soul, correspondence, and compensation seem nowadays to add up to shallow optimism and insufferable smugness. Contemporary criticism reflects this distaste, and would lead us to prize these men, if at all, for their incidental remarks, their shrewd observations upon society, art, manners, or the weather, while we put aside their premises and their conclusions, the ideas to which they devoted their principal energies, as notions too utterly fantastic to be any longer taken seriously.

Fortunately, no one is compelled to take them seriously. We are not required to persuade ourselves the next time we venture into the woods that we may become, as Emerson said we might, transparent eyeballs, and that thereupon all disagreeable appearances — “swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies” — shall vanish and be no more seen. These afflictions have not proved temporary or illusory to many, or the compensations always obvious. But whether such ideas are or are not intelligible to us, there remains the question of whence they came. Where did Emerson, Alcott, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller find this pantheism which they preached in varying degrees, which the Harvard faculty and most Boston businessmen found both disconcerting and contemptible? Was New England’s transcendentalism wholly Germanic or Hindu in origin? Is there any sense, even though a loose one, in which we can say that this particular blossom in the flowering of New England had its roots in the soil? Was it foolishly transplanted from some desert where it had better been left to blush unseen? Emerson becomes most vivid to us when he is inscribing his pungent remarks upon the depression of 1837, and Thoreau in his grim comments upon the American blitzkrieg against Mexico. But our age has a tendency, when dealing with figures of the past, to amputate whatever we find irrelevant from what the past itself considered the body of its teaching. Certain fragments may be kept alive in the critical test tubes of the Great Tradition, while the rest is shoveled off to potter’s field. The question of how much in the transcendental philosophy emerged out of the American background, of how much of it was not appropriated from foreign sources, a question that concerns the entire American tradition, with which and in which we still must work. Although the metaphysic of the Over-Soul, of self-reliance, and of compensation is not one to which we can easily subscribe, yet if the particular formulations achieved by Emerson and Thoreau, Parker and Ripley, were restatements of a native disposition rather than amateur version of The Critique of Pure Reason, then we who must also reformulate our traditions may find their philosophy meaningful, not for what it held, at least for whence they got it.

Among the tenets of transcendentalism is one which today excites the minimum of our sympathy, which declared truth to be forever and everywhere one and the same, and all ideas to be one idea, all religions the same religion, all poets singers of the same music of the same spheres, chanting eternally the recurrent theme. We have become certain, on the contrary, that ideas are born in time and place, that they spring from specific environments, that they express the force of societies and classes, that they are generated by power relations. We are impatient with an undiscriminating eclecticism which merges the Bhagavad-Gita, Robert Herrick, Saadi, Swedenborg, Plotinus, and Confucius into one monotonous iteration. Emerson found a positive pleasure — which he called “the most modern joy” — in extracting all time from the verses of Chaucer, Marvell, and Dryden, and so concluded that one nature wrote all the good books and one nature would read them. The bad books, one infers, were written by fragmentary individuals temporarily out of touch with the Over-Soul, and are bad because they do partake of their age and nation. “There is such equality and identity both of judgment and point of view in the narrative that it is plainly the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman.” We have labored to restore the historical time to Chaucer and Dryden; we do not find it at all plain that they were mouthpieces of one all-seeing agency, and we are sure that if there is any such universal agent he certainly is not a gentleman. We are exasperated with Emerson’s tedious habit of seeing everything sub specie aeternitatis. When we find him writing in 1872, just before his mind and memory began that retreat into the Over-Soul which makes his last years so pathetic, that while in our day we have witnessed great revolutions in religion we do not therefore lose faith “in the eternal pillars which we so differently name, but cannot choose but see their identity in all healthy souls,” we are ready to agree heartily with Walt Whitman, who growled that Emerson showed no signs of adapting himself to new times, but had “about the same attitude as twenty-five or thirty years ago,” and that he himself was “utterly tired of these scholarly things.” We may become even more tired of scholarly things when we find that from the very beginning Emerson conceived the movement which we call transcendentalism as one more expression of the benign gentleman who previously had spoken in the persons of Socrates and Zoroaster, Mohammed and Buddha, Shakespeare and St. Paul. He does not assist our quest for native origins, indeed forany origins which we are prepared to credit, when he says in 1842, in the Boston Masonic Temple, that transcendentalism is a “Saturnalia of Faith,” an age-old way of thinking which, falling upon Roman times, made Stoic philosophers; falling on despotic times, made Catos and Brutuses; on Popish times, made Protestants; “on prelatical times, made Puritans and Quakers, and falling on Unitarian and commercial times, makes the peculiar shades of Idealism which we know.” Were we to take him at his word, and agree that he himself was a Stoic revisiting the glimpses of the moon, and that Henry Thoreau was Cato redivivus, we might then decide that both of them could fetch the shades of their idealism from ancient Rome or, if they wished, from Timbuktu, and that they would bear at best only an incidental relation to the American scene. We might conclude with the luckless San Francisco journalist, assigned the task of reporting an Emerson lecture, who wrote, “All left the church feeling that an elegant tribute had been paid to the Creative genius of the First Cause,” but we should not perceive that any compliments had been paid to the intellectual history of New England.

Still, to take Emerson literally is often hazardous. We many allow him his Stoics, his Catos and Brutuses, for rhetorical embellishment. He is coming closer home, however, when he comes to Puritans and Quakers, to Unitarian and commercial times. Whether he intended it or not, this particular sequence constitutes in little an intellectual and social history of New England: first Puritans and Quakers, then Unitarians and commercial times, and now transcendentalists! Emerson contended that when poets spoke out of the transcendental Reason, which knows the eternal correspondence of things, rather than out of the shortsighted Understanding — which dwells slavishly in the present, the expedient, and the customary, and thinks in terms of history, economics, and institutions — they builded better than they knew. When they were ravished by the imagination, which makes every dull fact an emblem of the spirit, and were not held earthbound by the fancy, which knows only the surfaces of things, they brought their creations from no vain or shallow thought. Yet he did not intend ever to dispense with the understanding and the fancy, to forget the customary and the institutional — as witness his constant concern with “manners.”  He would not raise the siege of his hencoop to march away to a pretended siege of Babylon; though he was not conspicuously successful with a shovel in his garden, he was never, like Elizabeth Peabody, so entirely subjective as to walk straight into a tree because “I saw it, but I did not realize it.” Could it be, therefore, that while his reason was dreaming among the Upanishads, and his imagination reveling with Swedenborg, his understanding perceived that on the plain of material causation the transcendentalism of New England had some connection with New England experience, and that his fancy, which remained at home with the customary and with history, guided this choice of words? Did these lower faculties contrive, by that cunning which distinguishes them from reason and imagination in the very moment when transcendentalism was being proclaimed a saturnalia of faith, that there should appear a cryptic suggestion that it betokened less an Oriental ecstasy and more a natural reaction of some descendants of Puritans and Quakers to Unitarian and commercial times?

I have called Emerson mystical and pantheistical. These are difficult adjectives; we might conveniently begin with Webster’s dictionary, which declares mysticism to be the doctrine that the ultimate nature of reality or of the divine essence may be known by an immediate insight. The connotations of pantheism are infinite, but in general a pantheist holds that the universe itself is God, or that God is the combined forces and laws manifested in the existing universe, that God is, in short, both the slayer and the slain. Emerson and the others might qualify their doctrine, but when Professor Andrews Norton read that in the woods “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God,” in his forthright fashion he could not help perceiving that this was both mysticism and pantheism, and so attacking it as “the latest form of infidelity.”

Could we go back to the Puritans whom Emerson adduced as his predecessors, and ask the Emersons and Ripleys, not to mention the Winthrops, Cottons, and Mathers, of the seventeenth century whether the eyeball passage was infidelity, there would be no doubt about the answer. They too might call it the “latest” form of infidelity, for in the first years of New England Winthrop and Cotton had very bitter experience with a similar doctrine. Our wonder is that they did not have more. To our minds, no longer at home in the fine distinctions of theology, it might seem that from the Calvinist doctrine of regeneration, from the theory that a regenerate soul reaches an influx of divine spirit, and is joined to God by a direct infusion of His grace, we might deduce the possibility of receiving all instruction immediately from the indwelling spirit, through an inward communication which is essentially mystical. Such was exactly the deduction of Mistress Anne Hutchinson, for which she was expelled into Rhode Island. It was exactly the conclusion of the Quakers, who added that every man was naturally Susceptible to this inward communication, that he did not need a special and supernatural dispensation. Quakers also were cast into Rhode Island or, if they refused to stay there, hanged on Boston Common. Emerson, descendant of Puritans, found the descendants of Quakers “a sublime class of speculators,” and wrote in 1835 that they had been the most explicit teachers” of the highest article to which human faith soars [,] the strict union of the willing soul to God & so the soul’s access at all times to a verdict upon every question which the opinion of all mankind cannot shake & which the opinion of all mankind cannot confirm.” But his ancestors had held that while the soul does indeed have an access to God, it receives from the spirit no verdict upon any question, only a dutiful disposition to accept the verdict confirmed by Scripture, by authority, and by logic. As Roger Clap remarked, both Anne Hutchinson and the Quakers “would talk of the Spirit, and of revelations by the Spirit without the Word, . . . of the Light within them, rejecting the holy Scripture”; and the Puritan minister declared that the errors of the Antinomians, “like strong wine, make men’s judgments reel and stagger, who are drunken therewith.” The more one studies the history of Puritan New England, the more astonished he becomes at the amount of reeling and staggering there was in it.

These seventeenth—century “infidels” were more interested in enlarging the soul’s access to God from within than in exploring the possibilities of an access from without, from nature. But if we, in our interrogation of the shades of Puritans, were to ask them whether there exists a spirit that rolls through all things and propels all things, whose dwelling is the light of setting sun, and the round ocean, and the mind of man, a spirit from whom we should learn to be disturbed by the joy of elevated thoughts, the Puritans would feel at once that we needed looking after. They would concede that the visible universe is the handiwork of God, that He governs it and is present in the flight of every sparrow, the fall of every stone, the rising and petting of suns, in the tempests of the round ocean. “Who set those candles, those torches of heaven, on the table? Who hung out those lanterns in heaven to enlighten a dark world?” asked the preacher, informing his flock that although we do not see God in nature, yet in it His finger is constantly evident. The textbook of theology used at Harvard told New England students that every creature would return into nothing if God did not uphold it — “the very cessation of Divine conservation, would without any otl1er operation presently reduce every Creature into nothing.” In regard of His essence, said Thomas Hooker, God is in all places alike, He is in all creatures and beyond them, “he is excluded out of no place, included in no place.” But it did not follow that the universe, though created by God and sustained by His continuous presence, was God Himself. We were not to go to nature and, by surrendering to the stream of natural forces, derive from it our elevated thoughts. We were not to become nothing and let the currents of Universal Being circulate through us. Whatever difficulties were involved in explaining that the universe is the work of God but that we do not meet God face to face in the universe, Puritan theologians knew that the distinction must be maintained, lest excitable Yankees reel and stagger with another error which they would pretend was an elevated thought. The difficulties of explanation were so great that the preachers often avoided the issue, declaring, “this is but a curious question: therefore I will leave it,” or remarking that the Lord fills both heaven and earth, yet He is not in the world as the soul is in the body, “but in an incomprehensible manner, which we cannot express to you.” Thomas Shepard in Cambridge tried to be more explicit: the Godhead, he said, is common to everything and every man, even to the most wicked man, “nay, to the vilest creature in the world.” The same power that made a blade of grass made also the angels, but grass and angels are not the same substance, and so the spirit of God which is in the setting sun and the round ocean is not the same manifestation which He puts forth as a special and “supernatural” grace in the regenerate soul. “There comes another spirit upon us, which common men have not.” This other spirit teaches us, not elevated thoughts, but how to submit our corrupt thoughts to the rule of Scripture, to the law and the gospel as expounded at Harvard College and by Harvard graduates.

The reason for Puritan opposition to these ideas is not far to seek. The Renaissance mind — which was still a medieval mind — remembered that for fifteen hundred years Christian thinkers had striven to conceive of the relation of God to the world in such a fashion that the transcendence of God should not be called in question, that while God was presented as the creator and governor of the world, He would always be something other than the world itself. Both mysticism and pantheism, in whatever form, identified Him with nature, made Him over in the image of man, interpreted Him in the terms either of human intuitions or of human perceptions, made Him one with the forces of psychology or of matter. The Renaissance produced a number of eccentrics who broached these dangerous ideas —Giordano Bruno, for instance, who was burned at the stake by a sentence which Catholics and Calvinists alike found just. The Puritans carried to New England the historic convictions of Christian orthodoxy, and in America found an added incentive for maintaining them intact. Puritanism was not merely a religious creed and a theology, it was also a program for society. We go to New England, said John Winthrop, to establish a due form of government, both civil and ecclesiastical, under the rule of law and Scripture. It was to be a medieval society of status, with every man in his place and a place for every man; it was to be no utopia of rugged individualists and transcendental freethinkers. But if Anne Hutchinson was correct, and if men could hear the voice of’ God within themselves, or if they could go into the woods and feel the currents of Universal Being circulate through them — in either event they would pay little heed to governors and ministers. The New England tradition commenced with a clear understanding that both mysticism and pantheism were heretical, and also with a frank admission that such ideas were dangerous to society, that men who imbibed noxious errors from an inner voice of from the presence of God in the natural landscape would reel and stagger through the streets of Boston and disturb the civil peace.

Yet from the works of the most orthodox of Calvinists we can perceive that the Puritans had good cause to be apprehensive lest mystical or pantheistical conclusions arise out of their premises. Anne Hutchinson and the Quakers commenced as Calvinists from the idea of regeneration they drew, with what seemed to their impeccable logic, the idea that God imparted His teaching directly to the individual spirit. With equal ease others could deduce from the doctrines of divine creation and providence the idea that God was immanent in nature. The point might be put thus:

there was in Puritanism a piety, a religious Passion, the sense of an inward communication and of the divine symbolism of nature. One side of the Puritan nature hungered for these excitements; certain of its appetites desired these satisfactions and therefore found delight and ecstasy in the doctrines of regeneration and providence. But in Puritanism there was also another side, an ideal of social conformity, of law and order, of regulation and control. At the core of the theology there was an indestructible element which was mystical, and a feeling for the universe which was almost pantheistic; but there was also a social code demanding obedience to external law, a code to which good people voluntarily, conformed and to which bad people should be made to conform. It aimed at propriety and decency, the virtues of middle—class respectability, self—control, thrift, and dignity, at a discipline of the emotions. It demanded, as Winthrop informed the citizens of Massachusetts Bay in 1645, “that men forbear to exercise the liberty they had by nature, the freedom to do anything they chose, and having entered into society thereafter, devote themselves to doing only that which the authorities defined as intrinsically good, just and honest.” The New England tradition contained a dual heritage, the heritage of the troubled spirit and the heritage of worldly caution and social conservatism. It gave with one hand what it took away with the other: it taught men that God is present to their intuitions and in the beauty and terror of nature, but it disciplined them into subjecting their intuitions to the wisdom of society and their impressions of nature to the standards of decorum.

In the eighteenth century, certain sections of New England, or certain persons, grew wealthy. It can hardly be a coincidence that among those who were acquiring the rewards of industry and commerce there should be progressively developed the second part of the heritage, the tradition of reason and criticism, and that among them the tradition of emotion and ecstasy should dwindle. Even though a few of the clergy, like Jonathan Mayhew and Lemuel Briant, were moving faster than their congregations, yet in Boston and Salem, the centers of shipping and banking, ministers preached rationality rather than dogma, the Newtonian universe and the sensational psychology rather than providence and innate depravity. The back country, the Connecticut Valley, burst into flame with the Great Awakening of the 1740’s; but the massive Charles Chauncy, minister at the First Church, the successor of John Cotton, declared that “the passionate discovery” of divine love is not a good evidence of election. “The surest and most substantial Proof is, Obedience to the Commandments of God, and the stronger the Love, the more uniform, steady and pleasant will be this Obedience.” Religion is of the understanding as well as of the affections, and when the emotions are stressed at the expense of reason, “it can’t be but People should run into Disorders.” In his ponderous way, Chauncy was here indulging in Yankee understatement. During the Awakening the people of the back country ran into more than disorders; they gave the most extravagant exhibition of staggering and reeling that New England had yet beheld. Chauncy was aroused, not merely because he disapproved of displays of emotion, but because the whole society seemed in danger when persons who made a high pretense to religion displayed it in their conduct “as something wild and fanciful.” On the contrary, he stoutly insisted, true religion is sober and well-behaved; as it is taught in the Bible, “it approves itself to the Understanding and Conscience, . . . and is in the best Manner calculated to promote the Good of Mankind.” The transformation of this segment of Puritanism from a piety to an ethic, from a religious faith to a social code, was here completed, although an explicit break with the formal theology was yet to come.

Charles Chauncy had already split the Puritan heritage. Emerson tells that Chauncy, going into his pulpit for the Thursday lecture (people at that time came all the way from Salem to hear him), was informed that a little boy had fallen into Frog Pond and drowned. Requested to improve the occasion, the doctor was much distressed, and in his prayer he hesitated, he tried to make soft approaches, he prayed for Harvard College, he prayed for the schools, he implored the Divine Being “to — to — to bless to them all the boy that was this morning drowned in Frog Pond.”

But Jonathan Edwards felt an ardency of soul which he knew not how to express, a desire “to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity.” To one who conceived the highest function of religion to be the promotion of the good of mankind, Jonathan Edwardsstood guilty of fomenting disorders. Chauncy blamed Edwards for inciting the populace, and was pleased when the congregation at Northampton, refusing to measure to the standards of sanctification demanded by Edwards, banished him into the wilderness of Stockbridge. Edwards, though he was distressed over the disorders of the Awakening, would never grant that a concern for the good of mankind should take precedence over the desire to be perfectly sanctified and made pure. In his exile at Stockbridge he wrote the great tracts which have secured his fame for all time, the magnificent studies of the freedom of the will, of the nature of true virtue, of the purpose of God in creating the universe, in which Chauncy and Harvard College were refuted; in which, though still in the language of logic and systematic theology, the other half of the Puritan heritage — the sense of God’s overwhelming presence in the soul and in nature — once more found perfect expression.

Though the treatises on the will and on virtue are the more impressive performances, for our purposes the eloquent Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World is the more relevant, if only because when he came to this question Edwards was forced to reply specifically to the scientific rationalism toward which Chauncy and Harvard College were tending. He had, therefore, to make even more explicit than did the earlier divines the doctrines which verged upon both mysticism and pantheism, the doctrines of inward communication and of the divine in nature. It was not enough for Edwards to say, as John Cotton had done, that God created the world out of nothing to show His glory; rationalists in Boston could reply, that God’s glory was manifested in the orderly machine of Newtonian physics, and that a man glorified God in such a world by going about his rational business: real estate, the triangular trade, or the manufacture of rum out of smuggled molasses. God did not create the world, said Edwards, merely to exhibit His glory; He did not create it out of nothing simply to show that He could: He who is Himself the source of all being, the substance of all life, created the world out of Himself by a diffusion of himself into time and space. He made the world, not by sitting outside and above it, by modeling it as a child models sand, but by an extension of Himself, by taking upon Himself the forms of stones and trees and of man. He created without any ulterior object in view, neither for His glory nor for his power, but for the pure joy of self—expression, as an artist creates beauty, for the love of beauty. God does not need a world or the worship of man; He is perfect in Himself. If He bothers to create, it is out of the fullness of His own nature, the overflowing virtue that is in Him. Edwards did not use my simile of the artist; his way of saying it was, “The disposition to communicate himself, or diffuse his own fulness, which we must conceive of as being originally in God as a perfection of his nature, was what moved him to create the world,” but we may still employ the simile because Edwards invested his God with the sublime egotism of a very great artist. God created by the laws of His own nature, with no thought of doing good for anybody or for mankind, with no didactic purpose, for no other reason but the joy of creativeness “It is a regard to himself that disposes him to diffuse and communicate himself. It is such a delight in his own internal fulness and glory, that disposes him to an abundant effusion and emanation of that glory.”

Edwards was much too skilled in the historic problems of theology to lose sight of the distinction between God and the world or to fuse them into one substance, to blur the all-important doctrine of the divine transcendence. He forced into his system every safeguard against identifying the inward experience of the saint with the Deity Himself, or of God with nature. Nevertheless, assuming, as we have some right to assume, that what subsequent generations find to be a hidden or potential implication in a thought is a part of that thought, we may venture to feel that Edwards was particularly careful to hold in check the mystical and pantheistical tendencies of his teaching because he himself was so apt to beck: me a mystic and a pantheist. The imagery in which a great thinker expresses his sense of things is often more revealing than his explicit contentions, and Edwards betrays the nature of his insight when he uses as the symbol of God’s relation to the world the metaphor that has perennially been invoked by mystics, the metaphor of light and of the sun:

“And [it] is fitly compared to an effulgence or emanation of light from a luminary, by which this glory of God is abundantly represented in Scripture. Light is the external expression, exhibition and manifestation of the excellency of the luminary, of the sun for instance: it is the abundant, extensive emanation and communication of the fulness of the sun to innumerable beings that partake of it. It is by this that the sun itself is seen, and his glory beheld, and all other things are discovered; it is by a participation of this communication from the sun, that surrounding objects receive all their lustre, beauty and brightness. It is by this that all nature is quickened and receives life, comfort, and joy.”

Here is the respect that makes Edwards great among theologians, and here in fact he strained theology to the breaking point. Holding himself by brute will power within the forms of ancient Calvinism, he filled those forms with a new and throbbing spirit. Beneath the dogmas of the old theology he discovered a different cosmos from that of the seventeenth century, a dynamic world, filled with the presence of God, quickened with divine life, pervaded with joy and ecstasy. With this insight he turned to combat the rationalism of Boston, to argue that man cannot live by Newtonian schemes and mathematical calculations, but only by surrender to the will of God, by reflecting back the beauty of God as a jewel gives back the light of the sun. But another result of Edwards’s doctrine, one which he would denounce to the nethermost circle of Hell but which is implicit in the texture, if not in the logic, of his thought, could very easily be what we have called mysticism or pantheism, or both. If God is diffused through nature, and the substance of man is the substance of God, then it may follow that man is divine, that nature is the garment of the Over-Soul, that man must be self-reliant, and that when he goes into the woods the currents of Being will indeed circulate through him. All that prevented this deduction was the orthodox theology, supposedly derived from the Word of God, which taught that God and nature are not one, that man is corrupt and his self-reliance is reliance on evil. But take away the theology, remove this overlying stone of dogma from the wellsprings of Puritan conviction, and both nature and man become divine.

We know that Edwards failed to revitalize Calvinism. He tried to fill the old bottles with new wine, yet none but himself could savor the vintage. Meanwhile, in the circles where Chauncy had begun to reeducate the New England taste, there developed, by a very gradual process, a rejection of the Westminster Confession, indeed of all theology, and at last emerged the Unitarian churches. Unitarianism was entirely different wine from any that had ever been pressed from the grapes of Calvinism, and in entirely new bottles, which the merchants of Boston found much to their liking. It was a pure, white, dry claret that went well with dinners served by the Harvard Corporation, for it was mild and was guaranteed not to send them home reeling and staggering. As William Ellery Channing declared, to contemplate the horrors of New England’s ancestral creed is “a consideration singularly fitted to teach us tolerant views of error, and to enjoin caution and sobriety.”

In Unitarianism one pall of the New England tradition — that which inculcated caution and sobriety — definitely cast off all allegiance to the other. The ideal of decorum, of law and self-control, was institutionalized. Though Unitarianism was “liberal” in theology, it was generally conservative in its social thinking and in its metaphysics. Even Channing, who strove always to avoid controversy and to appear “mild and amiable,” was still more of an enthusiast than those he supplied with ideas, as was proved when almost alone among Unitarian divines he spoke out against slavery. He frequently found himself thwarted by the suavity of Unitarian breeding. In his effort to establish a literary society in Boston, he repaired, as Emerson tells the story, to the home of Dr. John Collins Warren, where he found a well-chosen assembly of gentlemen variously distinguished; there was mutual greeting and introduction, and they were chatting agreeably on indifferent matters and drawing gently towards their great expectation, when a side-door opened, the whole company streamed in to an oyster supper, crowned by excellent wines; and so ended the first attempt to establish aesthetic society in Boston.

But if the strain in the New England tradition which flowered so agreeably in the home of Dr. Warren, the quality that made for reason and breeding and good suppers, found itself happily divorced from enthusiasm and perfectly enshrined in the liberal profession of Unitarianism, what of the other strain? What of the mysticism, the hunger of the soul, the sense of divine emanation in man and in nature, which had been so important an element in the Puritan character? Had it died out of New England? Was it to live, if at all, forever caged and confined in the prison house of Calvinism? Could it be asserted only by another Edwards in another treatise on the will and a new dissertation on the end for which God created the universe? Andover Seminary was, of course, turning out treatises and dissertations, and there were many New Englanders outside of Boston who were still untouched by Unitarianism. But for those who had been “liberated” by Channing and Norton, who could no longer express their desires in the language of a creed that had been shown to be outworn, Calvinism was dead. Unitarianism rolled away the heavy stone of dogma that had sealed up the mystical springs in the New England character; as far as most Unitarians were concerned, the stone could now be lifted with safety, because to them the code of caution and sobriety, nourished on oyster suppers, would serve quite as well as the old doctrines of original sin and divine transcendence to prevent mankind from reeling and staggering in freedom. But for those in whom the old springs were still living, the removal of the theological stopper might mean a welling up and an overflowing of long suppressed desires. And if these desires could no longer be satisfied in theology, toward what objects would they now be turned? If they could no longer be expressed in the language of supernatural regeneration and divine sovereignty, in what language were they to be described?

The answer was not long forthcoming. If the inherent mysticism, the ingrained pantheism, of certain Yankees could not be stated in the old terms, it could be couched in the new terms of transcendental idealism, of Platonism, of Swedenborg, of “Tintern Abbey” and the Bhagavad-Gita, in the eclectic and polyglot speech of the Over-Soul, in “Brahma,” in “Self-Reliance,” in Nature. The children of Puritans could no longer say that the visible fabric of nature was quickened and made joyful by a diffusion of the fullness of God, but they could recapture the Edwardsean vision by saying, “Nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal and not to a particular end; to a universe of ends and not to one, — a work of ecstasy, to be represented by a circular movement, as intention might be signified by a straight line of definite length.” But in this case the circular conception enjoyed one great advantage — so it seemed at the time —that it had not possessed for Edwards: the new generation of ecstatics had learned from Channing and Norton, from the prophets of intention and the straight line of definite length, that men did not need to grovel in the dust. They did not have to throw themselves on the ground, as did Edwards, with a sense of their own unworthiness; they could say without trepidation that no concept of the understanding, no utilitarian consideration for the good of mankind, could account for any man’s existence, that there was no further reason than so it was to be.” Overtones of the seventeenth century become distinctly audible when Emerson declares, “The royal reason, the Grace of God, seems the only description of our multiform but ever identical fact,” and the force of his heredity is manifest when he must go on to say, having mentioned the grace of God, “There is the incoming or the receding of God,” and as Edwards also would have said, “we can show neither how nor why.” In the face of this awful and arbitrary power, the Puritan had been forced to conclude that man was empty and insignificant, and account for its recedings on the hypothesis of innate depravity. Emerson does not deny that such reflections are in order; when we view the fact of the inexplicable recedings “from the platform of action,” when we see men left high and dry without the grace of God, we see “Self-accusation, remorse, and the didactic morals of self-denial and strife with sin”; but our enlightenment, our liberation from the sterile dogmas of Calvinism, enables us also to view the fact from “the platform of intellection,” and in this view “there is nothing for us but praise and wonder.” The ecstasy and the vision which Calvinists knew only in the moment of vocation, the passing of which left them agonizingly aware of depravity and sin, could become the permanent joy of those who had put aside the conception of depravity, and the moments between could be filled no longer with self-accusation but with praise and wonder. Unitarianism had stripped off the dogmas, and Emerson was free to celebrate purely and simply the presence of God in the soul and in nature, the pure metaphysical essence of the New England tradition. If he could no longer publish it as orthodoxy, he could speak it fearlessly as the very latest form of infidelity.

At this point there might legitimately be raised a question whether my argument is anything more than obscurantism. Do words like “New England tradition” and “Puritan heritage” mean anything concrete and tangible? Do they “explain” anything? Do habits of thought persist in a society as acquired characteristics, and by what mysterious alchemy are they transmitted in the blood stream? I am as guilty as Emerson himself if I treat ideas as a self-contained rhetoric, forgetting that they are, as we are now discovering, weapons, the weapons of classes and interests, a masquerade of power relations.

Yet Emerson, transcendental though he was, could see in his own ideas a certain relation to society. In his imagination transcendentalism was a saturnalia of faith, but in his fancy it was a reaction against Unitarianism and in his understanding a revulsion against commercialism. We can improve his hint by remarking the obvious connection between the growth of rationalism in New England and the history of eighteenth-century capitalism. Once the Unitarian apologists had renounced the Westminster Confession, they attacked Calvinism not merely as irrational but as a species of pantheism, and in their eyes this charge was sufficient condemnation in itself. Calvinism, said Channing, robs the mind of self-determining force and makes men passive recipients of the universal force:

“It is a striking fact that the philosophy which teaches that matter is an inert substance, and that God is the force which pervades it, has led men to question whether any such thing as matter exists. . . . Without a free power in man, he is nothing. The divine agent within him is every thing, Man acts only in show.  He is a phenomenal existence, under which the One Infinite Power is manifested; and is this much better than Pantheism?”

One does not have to be too prone to economic interpretation in order to perceive that there was a connection between the Unitarian insistence that matter is substance and not shadow, that men are self-determining agents and not passive recipients of Infinite Power, and the practical interests of the society in which Unitarianism flourished. Pantheism was not a marketable commodity on State Street, and merchants could most successfully conduct their business if they were not required to lie in the dust and desire to be full of the divine agent within.

Hence the words “New England tradition” and “Puritan heritage” can be shown to have some concrete meaning when applied to the gradual evolution of Unitarianism out of the seventeenth-century background; there is a continuity both social and intellectual. But what of the young men and young women, many of them born and reared in circles in which, Channing said, “Society is going forward in intelligence and charity,” who in their very adolescence instinctively turned their intelligence and even their charity against this liberalism, and sought instead the strange and uncharitable gods of transcendentalism? Why should Emerson and Margaret Fuller, almost from their first reflective moments, have cried out for a philosophy which would reassure them that matter is the shadow and spirit the substance, that man acts by an influx of power — why should they deliberately return to the bondage from which Channing had delivered them? Even before he entered the divinity school Emerson was looking askance at Unitarianism, writing in his twentieth year to his southern friend, John Boynton Hill, that for all the flood of genius and knowledge being poured out from Boston pulpits, the light of Christianity was lost: “An exemplary Christian of today, and even a Minister, is content to be just such a man as was a good Roman in the days of Cicero.” Andrews Norton would not have been distressed over this observation, but young Emerson was. “Presbyterianism & Calvinism at the South,” he wrote, “at least make Christianity a more real & tangible system and give it some novelties which were worth unfolding to the ignorance of men.” Thus much, but no more, he could say for “orthodoxy”: “When I have been to Cambridge & studied Divinity, I will tell you whether I can make out for myself any better system than Luther or Calvin, or the liberal besoms of modern days.” The “Divinity School Address” was forecast in these youthful lines, and Emerson the man declared what the boy had divined when he ridiculed the “pale negations of Unitarianism, called it an “icehouse,” and spoke of “the corpse-cold Unitarianism of Harvard College and Brattle Street.” Margaret Fuller thrilled to the epistle of John read from a Unitarian pulpit: “Every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God,” but she shuddered as the preacher straightway rose up “to deny mysteries, to deny second birth, to deny influx, and to renounce the sovereign gift of insight, for the sake of what he deemed a ‘rational’ exercise of will.” This Unitarianism, she argued in her journal, has had its place, but the time has now come for reinterpreting old dogmas:

“For one I would now preach the Holy Ghost as zealously as they have been preaching Man, and faith instead of the understanding, and mysticism instead.” And there, characteristically enough, she remarks, “But why go on?”

A complete answer to the question of motives is probably not possible as yet. Why Waldo and Margaret in the 1820’s and ‘30’s should instinctively have revolted against a creed that had at last been perfected as the ideology of their own group, of respectable, prosperous, middle-class Boston and Cambridge — why these youngsters, who by all the laws of economic determinism ought to have been the white-headed children of Unitarianism, elected to become transcendental black sheep, cannot be decided until we know more about the period than has been told in The Flowering of New England and more about the nature of social change in general. The personal matter is obviously of crucial importance. The characters of the transcendentalists account for their having become transcendental; still two facts of a more historical nature seem to me worth considering in the effort to answer our question.

The emergence of Unitarianism out of Calvinism was a very gradual, almost an imperceptible, process. One can hardly say at what point rationalists in eastern Massachusetts ceased to be Calvinists, for they were forced to organize into a separate church only after the development of their thought was completed. Consequently, although young men and women in Boston might be, like Waldo and Margaret, the children of rationalists, all about them the society still bore the impress of Calvinism: the theological break had come, but not the cultural. In a thousand ways the forms of society were still those determined by the ancient orthodoxy, piously observed by persons who no longer believed in the creed. We do not need to posit some magical transmission of Puritanism from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in order to account for the fact that these children of Unitarians felt emotionally starved and spiritually undernourished. In 1859 James Cabot sent Emerson The Life of Trust, a crude narrative by one George Muller of his personal conversations with the Lord, which Cabot expected Emerson to enjoy as another instance of man’s communion with the OverSoul, which probably seemed to Cabot no more crackbrained than many of the books Emerson admired. Emerson returned the volume, accompanied by a vigorous rebuke to Cabot for occupying himself with such trash:

I sometimes think that you & your coevals missed much that I & mine found: for Calvinism was still robust & effective on life & character in all the people who surrounded my childhood, & gave a deep religious tinge to manners & conversation. I doubt the race is now extinct, & certainly no sentiment has taken its place on the new generation, — none as pervasive & controlling. But they were a high tragic school, & found much of their own belief in the grander traits of the Greek mythology, — Nemesis, the Fates, & the Eumenides, and, I am sure, would have raised an eyebrow at this pistareen Providence of . . . George Muller.

At least two members of the high tragic school Emerson knew intimately and has sympathetically described for us — his stepgrandfather, the Reverend Ezra Ripley, and his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. Miss Emerson put the essence of the Puritan aesthetic into one short sentence: “How insipid is fiction to a mind touched with immortal views!” Speaking as a Calvinist, she anticipated Max Weber’s discovery that the Protestant ethic fathered the spirit of capitalism, in the pungent observation, “I respect in a rich man the order of Providence.” Emerson said that her journal “marks the precise time when the power of the old creed yielded to the influence of modern science and humanity”; still in her the old creed never so far yielded its power to the influence of modern humanity but that she could declare, with a finality granted only to those who have grasped the doctrine of divine sovereignty, “I was never patient with the faults of the good.” When Thomas Cholmondeley once suggested to Emerson that many of his ideas were similar to those of Calvinism, Emerson broke in with irritation, “I see you are speaking of something which had a meaning once, but is now grown obsolete. Those words formerly stood for something, and the world got good from them, but not now.” The old creed would no longer serve, but there had been power in it, a power conspicuously absent from the pale negations of Unitarianism. At this distance in time, we forget that Emerson was in a position fully to appreciate what the obsolete words had formerly stood for, and we are betrayed by the novelty of his vocabulary, which seems to have no relation to the jargon of Calvinism, into overlooking a fact of which he was always aware — the great debt owed by his generation “to that old religion which, in the childhood of most of us, still dwelt like a sabbath morning in the country of New England, teaching privation, self-denial and sorrow!” The retarded tempo of the change in New England, extending through the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, makes comprehensible why young Unitarians had enough contact with the past to receive from it a religious standard by which to condemn the pallid and unexciting liberalism of Unitarianism.

Finally, we do well to remember that what we call the transcendental movement was not an isolated phenomenon in nineteenth-century New England. As Professor Whicher has remarked, “Liberal ideas came slowly to the Connecticut Valley.” They came slowly also to Andover Theological Seminary. But slowly they came, and again undermined Calvinist orthodoxy as they had undermined orthodoxy in eighteenth-century Boston; and again they liberated a succession of New Englanders from the Westminster Confession, but they did not convert them into rationalists and Unitarians. Like Emerson, when other New Englanders were brought to ask themselves, “And what is to replace for us the piety of that race?” they preferred to “bask in the great morning which rises forever out of the eastern sea” rather than to rest content with mere liberation. “I stand here to say, Let us worship the mighty and transcendent Soul” — but not the good of mankind! Over and again the rational attack upon Calvinism served only to release energies which then sought for new forms of expression in directions entirely opposite to rationalism. Some, like Sylvester Judd, revolted against the Calvinism of the Connecticut Valley, went into Unitarianism, and then came under the spell of Emerson’s transcendentalist tuition. Others, late in the century, sought out new heresies, not those of transcendentalism, but interesting parallels and analogues. Out of Andover came Harriet Beecher Stowe, lovingly but firmly underlining the emotional restrictions of Calvinism in The Minister’s Wooing and Oldtown Folks, while she herself left the grim faith at last for the ritualism of the Church of England. Out of Andover also came Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in feverish revolt against the hard logic of her father and grandfather, preaching instead the emotionalism of Gates Ajar. In Connecticut, Horace Bushnell, reacting against the dry intellectualism of Nathaniel Taylor’s Calvinism just as Margaret Fuller had reacted a decade earlier against the dry rationalism of Norton’s Unitarianism, read Coleridge with an avidity equal to hers and Emerson’s, and by 1849 found the answer to his religious quest, as he himself said, “after all his thought and study, not as something reasoned out, but as an inspiration — a revelation from the mind of God himself.” He published the revelation in a book, the very title of which tells the whole story, Nature and the Supernatural Together Constituting One System of God, wherein was preached anew the immanence of God in nature: “God is the spiritual reality of which nature is the manifestation.” With this publication the latest — and yet the oldest — form of New England infidelity stalked in the citadel of orthodoxy, and Calvinism itself was, as it were, transcendentalized. At Amherst, Emily Dickinson’s mental climate, in the Gilded Age, was still Emerson’s; the break-up of Calvinism came later there than in Boston, but when it had come the poems of Emily Dickinson were filled with “Emersonian echoes,” echoes which Professor Whicher wisely declines to point out because, as he says, resemblances in Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, and Emily Dickinson are not evidences of borrowings one from another, but their common response to the spirit of the time, even though the spirit reached Emily Dickinson a little later in time than it did Emerson and Thoreau. “Their work,” he says, “was in various ways a fulfillment of the finer energies of a Puritanism that was discarding the husks of dogma.” From the time of Edwards to that of Emerson, the husks of Puritanism were being discarded, but the energies of many Puritans were not yet diverted — they could not be diverted —from a passionate search of the soul and of nature, from the quest to which Calvinism had devoted them. These New Englanders — a few here and there — turned aside from the doctrines of sin and predestination, and thereupon sought with renewed fervor for the accents of the Holy Ghost in their own hearts and in woods and mountains. But now that the restraining hand of theology was withdrawn, there was nothing to prevent them, as there had been everything to prevent Edwards, from identifying their intuitions with the voice of God, or from fusing God and nature into the one substance of the transcendental imagination. Mystics were no longer inhibited by dogma. They were free to carry on the ancient New England propensity for reeling and staggering with new opinions. They could give themselves over, unrestrainedly, to becoming transparent eyeballs and debauchees of dew.


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