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Emerson's shadow

There's a shadow side to Emerson's influence on Unitarian Universalism.
By Forrest Church
May/June 2003 5.1.03

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Ralph Waldo Emerson memorably said, "Every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." Unitarian Universalism is too multidimensional to fit neatly within a single shadow, but if any reflection were protean enough to encompass us it would certainly be Emerson's. Free-spirited, iconoclastic, and self-actualizing, the sage of Concord—far more than the Boston Unitarians of his own day—is the true father of our faith.

Two hundred years have passed since Waldo was born into the family of a prominent Unitarian minister. After following his father into the ministry for a brief tenure at Boston’s Second Church, in quick succession he left first his pastorate, then preaching, and finally the church altogether (only to return in his dotage). Yet today, having completely recovered from Emerson’s rejection, Unitarian Universalism positively basks in his reflected aura. Roof to pillar, all manner of things Unitarian Universalist—from churches to UUA donor recognition circles—boast his name. Theologically as well, Emerson continues to shape and enliven the faith he once so eloquently scorned. As do many of our ministers, I turn to him often for theological guidance and spiritual illumination.

Beyond the ironies implicit here, there is also a shadow side to Emerson’s influence. To whatever extent organized Unitarian Universalism represents “the lengthened shadow of one man,” it languishes in that shadow. Emerson’s shadow blocks us from becoming who we might be, should we ever decide to grow up.

Emerson was the quintessential adolescent sage. I don’t mean that pejoratively. Adolescence, the passage from childish dependence to maturity, is no less necessary a stage for a nation or a faith than for an individual. Coming of age together, Emerson, the United States, and the Unitarian movement shared the same adolescent passage: Newly liberated from England, the nation was a child when Emerson was born in 1803; the American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825, when Emerson was studying for the ministry; quickly thereafter, freethinkers in the movement began to challenge every lingering assumption tying young Unitarianism to its Christian parentage.

Emerson chafed at every form of servitude. He dedicated his full intellectual energy to the liberation of American letters from outworn and derivative old-world models. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” he wrote in his personal declaration of independence, “The American Scholar.”

From the publication of Nature in 1836 until his death in 1882, no figure—political, literary, or religious—better kindled the adolescent spirit necessary for a young people to stand on its own feet and chart a course independent from that of their elders.

To be functional, adolescence must be age-appropriate. If Emerson’s philosophy spoke to his own times, one might hope that our nation and faith have matured. In developmental theory the progression goes as follows: dependence, independence, interdependence. In an age of bondlessness, Emerson’s script—sovereign individualism and self-reliance—does not address today’s need for interdependence. This holds true for nation and denomination both. If we are ever to grow up, the anti-institutionalists who gravitate to our institutions must take a little of their precious Emersonian freedom and invest it more generously. Only then will we bond together in redemptive community. Until we, as Unitarian Universalists, come out from under Emerson’s shadow, we will not mature as a movement.


To build an institution on a foundation laid by an anti-institutionalist is a little like hiring a demolition expert as one’s architect. Emerson left his parish over a disagreement with the entire standing committee of the Second Church over his refusal to perform the sacrament of communion. To a majority of modern Unitarian Universalists, this confirms his reputation as a prophet. But Emerson’s rebellion against the church went much deeper. To begin with, his shyness and aversion to intimacy made him temperamentally unsuited to the pastorate. “It has many duties for which I am feebly qualified,” he confessed to his congregation. More importantly, he came to view the church as a mausoleum. “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching,” Emerson said. Even then he must have felt uncomfortable; after all, it was filled with people.

If one were to pick a word to describe Ralph Waldo Emerson, it would be “counterdependent.” “Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, ‘Come out to us,’” he complained. “But keep thy state; come not into their confusion.” Believing that people “descend to meet” and that “nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” this gentle Platonist was adamantine in his diffidence. Lacking empathetic imagination, he considered sympathy “base.” “No man can come near me but through my act,” he said.

All these quotes are from Emerson’s most abidingly influential essay, “Self-Reliance,” published in 1841, a relentless screed against every manner of conformity to the “profane” expectations of society. “Self-help” (a term that he was among the first to employ) was Emerson’s watchword. As reported by his grandson, Emerson often admitted, “My strength and my doom is to be solitary.” He reveled in his strength and doom. “Leave me alone and I should relish every hour and what it brought me,” he wrote in “Experience.” But in the same essay he was also pensive: “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing.”

“Profane” was Emerson’s favorite epithet. He applied it to his own person, if not to his essential self. In 1841, he confided in his journal, “These hands, this body, this history are profane and wearisome, but I, I descend not to mix myself with that or with any man.” In those rare moments of self-assessment that punctuate his litanies of divine elevation, Emerson lamented his emotional austerity, especially the toll it took on those closest to him. Accounting truth “handsomer than the affection of love,” he nonetheless appears to have craved the affection he spurned in subordination to his higher goal. But never for long. “The great man,” he reminded himself in “Compensation,” “must always outrun that sympathy which gives him such satisfaction. . . . He must hate father and mother, wife and child.”

From all accounts, during the ten-month separation from his family when Emerson took his second tour of Europe in 1847, his long-suffering wife, Lydia, knew unaccustomed health and joy in the chaste company of Henry David Thoreau. Even then, she longed for Emerson’s withheld affection. “You still ask me for that unwritten letter always due, always unwritten, from year to year, by me to you,” he wrote his wife from England. Unable to honor his wife’s request for a simple declaration of love, Emerson responded to her cry for sympathy by indulging in his own pathos: “I truly acknowledge a poverty of nature, and have really no proud defense to set up, but ill-health, puniness, and Stygian limitations.”

Emerson’s aversion to human intimacy did not prevent him from idealizing (almost idolizing) friendship. And what friends he had. His otherworldly wisdom, coupled with a serene temperament, were magnets to a dozen or more brilliant companions. Throughout much of their adult lives Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott each sought his friendship and approval. He was especially drawn to insouciant young poets like Ellery Channing and Jones Very. To Emerson, the ideal community was a company of two like-minded spirits walking together—ideally in silence—through the woods.

Emerson’s belief that “every man alone is sincere; at the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins,” put a strain on even his closest relations. Due to his intolerance of imperfection, Emerson’s friendships were phosphorescent—spontaneously illuminating and as quickly extinguished by his aversion to intimacy. Poised to retreat at the slightest sign of entanglement, he kept his friends (alternatively ecstatic at his attentions and disappointed by their removal) at arm’s length.

Pure in his idealism, Emerson too met disappointment in his friendships. “All association must be a compromise,” he pined. In his essay, “Circles,” Emerson summed up his regrets about the chosen few in whom he serially invested and withheld intimacy. “Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man’s limitation, it is all over with him.”

Given his nature, it is not surprising that Emerson stood aloof—despite his liberal social sympathies—from those who were attempting to reform society. Describing Sunday schools, churches, and charitable associations as “yokes to the neck,” he was especially barbed in his dismissal of Unitarians. In “The Sovereignty of Ethics”—displaying a rare flash of humor—he speculated that “Luther would cut his hand off sooner than write theses against the pope if he suspected that he was bringing on with all his might the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism.” Unitarian Universalists who today might join him, as I do, in rejecting the spiritual aridity and constrictive rationalism early dominant in the mother church, should not rejoice prematurely in their kinship with Emerson. “Your miscellaneous popular charities;” he wrote in “Self-Reliance,” “the education at college of fools; the building of meeting houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies; though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.” On this foundation one cannot build a church.

Emerson espoused the Libertarian belief that self-reliance, if practiced widely, would alone solve most of the world’s problems. He was an early supply-sider, an advocate of trickle-down compassion. “Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor,” he wrote in “Man the Reformer.” Emerson embraced the ideal of reform, but found the petulance of reformers distasteful. His fastidious code of conduct precluded sullying himself in the company of those who were working to ameliorate the plight of the poor, extend democracy, or end slavery (though here he made a brief exception to his rule). Reform is “done profanely, not piously; by management, by tactics and clamor,” he primly complained in his “Introductory Lecture on the Times.” “It is a buzz in the ear. I cannot feel any pleasure in sacrifices which display to me such partiality of character.” In the garden of his times, Emerson was a sensitivity plant; brush rudely up against him and he would instantly recoil.

The closest Emerson comes to a comprehensive self-critique is in “The Transcendentalist,” his essay on the loose school of New England nature mystics that many credit him with founding. Describing his fellow Transcendentalists as “exacting children,” he summed up the movement’s adolescent limitations more succinctly than any critic. “So many promising youths, and never a finished man,” he wrote. “They are not good citizens, not good members of society. . . . They do not willingly share in the public charities, in the public religious rites, in the enterprises of education, of missions foreign and domestic, in the abolition of the slave-trade, or in the temperance society. They do not even like to vote.” In defense of his followers’ scruples, Emerson explains that all great causes seem “paltry matters” to them. “On the part of these children it is replied that life and their faculty seem to them gifts too rich to be squandered on such trifles.” Then, tellingly, he changes tense and speaks in the first person. “What am I? What but a thought of serenity and independence. . . . I do not wish to do one thing but once. . . . The path which the hero travels alone is the highway of health. . . . I will not molest myself for you. I do not wish to be profaned. . . . I will not move until I have the highest command.” Having four adolescent children of my own, these sentiments could not be more familiar.


To mature as a faith, Unitarian Universalism must step out of Emerson’s shadow. Paradoxically—and it is impossible to write about Emerson without invoking paradox—once we do this, the light that shined upon him, illuminating his deepest thoughts, may brighten our own path. As he himself said of Virgil, Emerson “is a thousand books to a thousand persons.” His books may trumpet sovereign individualism, but they are orchestrated with a harmonious spirituality. That spirit enhances our prospects for interdependence by fostering a reverence for all life. Of the “Over-soul” he wrote, “The heart of thee is in the heart of all.”

As intimate with nature as he was guarded in his personal relations, Emerson is the poet laureate of the interdependent web. “Every chemical substance, every plant, every animal in its growth, teaches the unity of cause, the variety of appearance,” he wrote in his essay “History.” Speaking there of “the chain of affinity,” and elsewhere (in “Compensation”) perceiving that “the world globes itself in a drop of dew,” Emerson was a vivid part of the poem he pondered. When walking through Concord on his daily stroll, he almost never failed to enter a field of enchantment. In his essay on “Plato,” Emerson expresses the essential oneness of creation by way of analogy: “The ploughman, the plough, and the furrow are of one stuff.”

Here his pulse can quicken our own. Modern Unitarian Universalism is as captive to linear reasoning and the constrictions of rational positivism as Boston Unitarianism in Emerson’s day was bound to the presumptuous logic of supernatural rationalism. Emerson’s awe and cosmic humility can help us tune life’s wondrous manifestations to “the miraculous hum of their spindle.”

Emerson sought no disciples. He wished no one to languish in his shadow any more than he himself was content to bathe in the reflected glory of his own heroes. What he asked of his own generation in Nature, he also asks of us: “Why should we not also enjoy an original relationship with the universe.” Beyond this, however much it owes to his gospel of self-reliance, Emerson would recoil at the tyranny of modern American individualism. At the inertia and conformity we witness today, he would bridle with a rebellion appropriate to the sins of a new age. He might even cast down the idol of sovereign individualism.

But that is our work now. If we band together, cultivate interdependence, build strong institutions, support them generously, and become more fully accepting and embracing of one another, we too can extricate ourselves from the shadow of the past—in our case Emerson’s shadow. We can come of age. Going one step further, by walking forward together with reverence and awe, we will honor this remarkable man’s memory on his birthday in a way that he would celebrate. We will honor it by emerging from Emerson’s shadow into Emerson’s light.


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