Spirituality and Religion in American Culture, Olomouc 2000



Prof. Elvira Osipova, Ph.D., St. Petersburg University, Russia

Elvira Osipova is a professor of St. Petersburg University. She teaches West European literature of the 19th century, American literature, American studies and the English language. She is the author of three books: "Henry Thoreau: His Life and Work" (1985), "Ralph Emerson: The Writer and the Time" (1991) and "Ralph Emerson and American Romanticism" (2000). She also contributed seven chapters to the five-volume "History of American Literature" published in Moscow.


American Transcendentalism was a movement in literature and culture which spanned the period of 1830s-1860s. It was a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and Unitarianism whose legacy it had inherited. Though Transcendentalists borrowed and developed many ideas and concepts of the Enlighteners (optimism, the idea of people's sovereignity, equality, democratism), they rejected their rationalism and materialism. The philosophic principles underpinning their beliefs were different: - mysticism and pantheism versus rationalism; - dialectical method versus metaphisycal method; - idealism versus materialism. Transcendentalism was also a kind of religion - with its own prophets, scriptures, preachers and followers. Among the members of the Transcendental Club there were many New England preachers, writers, poets and educationalists whose literary and spiritual legacy shaped American literature of the XIX century and left its mark on the cultural life of this period.

Members of the Transcendental Club:

The precursor of the Transcendentalists was W.E.Channing (1780-1842), the great Unitarian divine. He preached liberal religious doctrines of equality before God, the divine nature of man's soul, enormous possibilities for self-improvement. They were a specific fusion of European Unitarian beliefs and the thought of the Enlightenment. In 1819 he broke with orthodox Calvinism ("Unitarian Christianity") and became one of the founders of American Unitarianism. His sermons and pamphlets were handbooks for the Transcendentalists, who built their philosophy partly on his premises. They were influenced by his optimistic belief in endless possibilities of man and his divine nature. He worked out the doctrine of amelioration, which being adopted by his Transcendental followers was mercilessly attacked by E.A.Poe. In "Self-Culture" and "The Elevation of the Laboring Classes" Channing expressed his views on how to enhance men's spirituality:

  1. The universe is not a disorderly, disconnected heap, but a beautiful whole, stamped throughout with unity, so as to be an image of the One Infinite Spirit. Nothing stands alone. All things are knit together, each existing for all and all for each...
  2. Much may be hoped from the growing self-respect of the people, which will make them shrink indignantly from the disgrace of being used as blinded partisans and unreflecting tools. Much also is to be hoped from the discovery, which must sooner or later be made, that the importance of government is enormously overrated, that it does not deserve all this stir, that there are vastly more effectual means of human happiness. Political institutions are to be less and less deified, and to shrink into a narrower space; and just in proportion as a wiser estimate of government prevails, the present frenzy of political excitement will be discovered and put to shame (1).

The views of the Transcendentalists were shaped to a certain extent by the national Puritan tradition exemplified by Cotton Mather and Increase Mather, and the major theoretician of Calvinism in the XVIII century Jonathan Edwards, who preached the doctrine of "inner light". Edwards was a religious reformer: the doctrine of predestination was reinterpreted by him in such a way as to admit that everybody can get divine revelation and shape his/her own destiny. One of the facets of faith shared by the Transcendentalists and the Puritans was the myth of America being "the City on the Hill" created by the first Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop. But Emerson and his Transcendental friends rejected the severity of Calvinist morality, the concept of a punishing God, the sinfulness of man, and the doctrine of redemption. Religion was one of the mainstays of American Transcendentalism. This religious and philosophical movement emerged as a reaction against Puritanism and a negation of some doctrines of Unitarianism. Its main value was Christian ethics. Being advocates of a "natural religion", which did not recognize intermediaries between man and God, and challenged the necessity of church as an institution, Emerson, Thoreau, Ripley, Parker, Alcott and Brownson could not but clash with the established Unitarian orthodoxy whose main spokesman was Andrews Norton. After Emerson's Divinity School Address (1838) in which the sage of Concord spoke about religious self-reliance, Norton published his treatise On the Latest Form of Infidelity (1839). The ensuing polemics between Norton and Emerson was supported by George Ripley and Theodore Parker and is known as "the war of pamphlets". Theodore Parker made another assault on the bulwark of Unitarianism in his famous discourse On the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (1841), whose radicalism was unprecedented in America. (He was even called "Transcendentalist Savonarola"). He laid down the principles of his philosophy of religion, declared the superfluousness of the clergy by referring to Christ himself:

  1. He would have us do the same; worship with nothing between us and God; act, think, feel, live, in perfect obedience to him: and we never are Christians as he was the Christ, until we worship, as Jesus did, with no mediator, with nothing between us and the Father of all.
  2. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and "only infallible rule" of the next;
  3. That pure ideal religion which Jesus saw on the mount of his vision, and lived out in the lowly life of a Galilean peasant <... >cannot pass away;
  4. Christianity is not a system of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God;
  5. <> <...>since the fourth century the true Christian life has been out of the established church, and not in it, but rather in the ranks of dissenters (2).

Following this discourse Parker was proclaimed a heresiarch, who intended to shake the very foundations of faith and church.

The Transcendentalists strove to achieve a religious reformation which they saw in rejecting Calvinist doctrines of predestination, original sin, and redemption. They also negated the rationalism of Unitarians ("the dead hand of Locke", as they put it), who insisted on the necessity to prove the divinity of Christ by his miracles.

Their religious views were expressed :

Another important factor in the ideology of Transcendentalists was their religious tolerance. They took great interest in the activities of various Christian sects, such as shakers, mormons, universalists, New Jerusalem church (as Swedenborgians in America termed themselves), Moravian brothers and quakers. Some doctrines of William Penn's followers became aspects of their own belief. These were borrowed by Henry Thoreau for his doctrine of civil disobedience, which was also in line with the tradition of American religious dissidents Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams.

Thus, in the legacy of the Transcendentalists religion and philosophy became entwined, their Christianity being of a special kind, close to the "natural religion" of the Enlighteners, and half a century later, of Leo Tolstoy.

They followed the tradition of J.J.Rousseau, Th. Jefferson and Th. Paine who had criticised dogmatic Christianity from the standpoit of "natural religion". Like the theory of "natural right" it helped them to revise the dogmas which paralized the development of social thought. Th.Paine once said, "My Reason is my Religion"; Emerson and Thoreau could have said, "My conscience is my religion".

The philosophy of religion was only one aspect of Transcendental worldview as it was formulated in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott. Their philosophy comprised ontological, epistemological, ethical and aesthetic aspects.

  1. ontology: Transcendentalists revived and propagated Neo-Platonic concept of the Over-Soul (Plotinus, Proclus, Jamblicus). This became the foundation of their philosophy, i.e. their concept of the essence of the world, its moral foundation, so to say. Hence, they believed in the of Unity of all things, the interconnectedness of the Good, the True, the Beautiful. This triad propped up their optimism. "The world, wrote Emerson in his "Nature", proceeds from the same Spirit as the body of man. It is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious"; "As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit" (5).
  2. epistemology : Schelling's philosophy of transcendental idealism was adopted to create their own system of transcendental idealism, with its hierarchy of Reason and Understanding (or, Intuition and Logical Reasoning). Intuitive cognition of Kant's "things-in-themselves" (God, Eternity, Immortality) became possible. For American Transcendentalists, as well as for other Romantic writers and philosophers, as different from the Enlighteners and Kant, Intuition became the highest means of cognition. Theodore Parker expressed this idea in his discourse "On the Transient and Permanent in Christianity" thus: ...The great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable (6).
  3. aesthetics: They built their theory on some of Plato's ideas of the Supreme beauty; Coleridge's organic theory of art; Romantic concept of the Poet, the mission of art; the mystical nature of poetic creation.
  4. ethics: There were five pillars in the Transcendental ethical doctrine: self-reliance, unity with nature, love, simple life, or, deliberate poverty ("plain living and high thinking"), manual labour.

All these were deemed conductive to intense spiritual life; to spiritual self-perfection as a way of creating a more perfect society. They built Utopias - in theory and in practice (Brook-Farm, Fruitlands), Thoreau's one-man Utopia on Walden Pond. The Transcendental "philosophy of life" is expressed in a poetic way in Thoreau's "Walden":

  1. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched;
  2. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away;
  3. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like a sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them (7) .
  4. Poor old man! All he has is something he has bought... But I am the richest owner on the Merrimack: what I see is mine. A true rich man is he who - in summer and winter - finds satisfaction in his own thoughts (8).

Transcendental philisophy of love was a blend of Platonic and Christian ideas. It had three stages - 1/ love initial, 2/ friendship (or, love daemonic, heroic enthusiasm, in Neo-Platonic terms), 3/ love celestial (love to God, or all humanity). Thus, the image of "Diotima's ladder" (from Plato's "Symposium") was supplemented by the Christian concept of love to God, as the consummation of their theory of love. These ideas were expressed in essays "Friendship" by both Thoreau and Emerson, in the latter's essay "Love", and their poems. In his journal Thoreau wrote in April 1838: "I think awile of love, and, while I think,/ Love is to me a world, /Sole meat and sweetest drink, /And close connecting link /'Tween heaven and earth".

The concept of self-reliance is fundamental to understanding the essence of the philosophy and whole legacy of the Transcendentalists. It became the foundation of Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience.

  1. I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right;
  2. Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison;
  3. the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honour...(9)

It is well known that Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King regarded Thoreau's doctrine of civil disobedience as a means of enacting a peaceful revolution. This is one of the fruits of the Transcendental thinking and religious aspirations - they strove to increase spirituality as a result of the influx of Spirit.


  1. Channing, Willam Ellery. On the Elevation of the Laboring Classes /Essays English ansd American. The Harvard Classics. New York, 1938. P.324-325, 320.
  2. Parker, Theodore. A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity / The American Transcendentalists. Their Prose ans Poetry //Ed.by Perry Miller. Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1957. P.P. 130, 114, 132, 129, 120.
  3. Emerson R.W. Complete Works. In 2 vls. Vol.2. L., 1875. P.201.
  4. Thoreau, Henry. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. A Signet Classic. New York, 1961. P.P. 66, 73, 70, 71, 71.
  5. Emerson R.W. Op.cit. Vol.2. P.167, 173.
  6. Parker Th. Op.cit. P.115.
  7. Thoreau, Henry. Walden, Or Life in the Woods. A Signet Book, New York, 1949. P. 147, 216, 218.
  8. Thoreau, Henry. The Writings in 20 vols. Boston; New York. Vol.1. P. 373..
  9. Thoreau, Henry. Civil Disobedience and other Essays. Dover Publications, New York, 1993. P.P. 2, 9, 9.


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