Emerson’s Reformation
Douglas Taylor

All around the world, Lutheran and other Protestant ministers are celebrating “Reformation Sunday” this morning. History has decided that the Protestant Reformation officially began when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Catholic church in Wittenberg on the Eve of All Saints Day in the year 1517. And so, now, in the protestant liturgical calendar, the last Sunday in October is set aside as an anniversary. The 95 Theses where a scathing rebuke against some of the practices of the Catholic Church at that time, most prominent among which was the practice of selling indulgences. The time was ripe for change and a series of reformers gained footholds in the public religious landscape. Interpretation of the sacraments was questioned. The language of liturgy, the process of justification and sanctification, the role of the priest; all this and more were up for debate when these weighty reformers got rolling.

We were even a part of all that with Michael Servetus writing his treatise on “The Errors of the Trinity” in 1533. Unitarianism grew out of the most liberal wing of that reformation. It has been nearly five hundred years since the initial Protestant split and we have seen a great number of subsequent splits and divisions. Protestants were not the first or only group of religious people to come up with the idea of reform, but they sure made an art of it. It used to be enough to ask a person “Are you religious?” “Yes.” “Oh, good. Are you Christian or Jewish?” But then it became, “Oh, you’re Christian, are you Protestant or Catholic?” And then, “What kind of Protestant: Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian?” And then, “Oh, Baptist, are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” And then, “Uh, are you Original Baptist Church of God, or Reformed Baptist Church of God?” “Oh, great, Reformed Baptist Church of God. Now is that Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?” And it seems to go on like this, people trying to figure out, “Are you on my team?”

We Unitarians Universalists have had our reformations too, but we’ve managed to have them and the reforms they bring without a lot of splitting and dividing. We still have that questioning about ‘which team are you on.’ You know, “Are you Humanist, Neo-Pagan, or Theist?” “Oh, Theist, are you a Christian Theist or a Natural Theist?” “So is that a Process Natural Theism or a Transcendental Natural Theism?” “Uh-huh, now how does that work for you, are you an Emersonian Transcendental Natural Theist or Neo-Transcendental Natural Theist?” But the best part is that we’re all still under the same roof. We’re still all on the same team! We’re not kicking each other out for heresy. Most of the time when we move in the direction of reform, rather than break away from traditional understandings, we broaden our tent to include new ideas and new people. Now, we’re not always perfect in that respect, but who is? Historically, the embracing of innovation is our pattern.
I spent the better half of the past few weeks trying to find out who wrote this great quote I remember from my early seminary reading. “The heresies of yesterday are the accepted beliefs of today, and become the orthodoxies of tomorrow.” For a long time I would think of William Ellery Channing whenever I thought of that quote, but I’ve not been able to find out whether he said it or not. William Ellery Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism for his landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” in 1819. He broke new ground. He brought forth a new identity. He was a reformer. The reason I think of him when I recall that quote about yesterday’s heresy and tomorrow’s orthodoxies, is that he did not want the beliefs as he articulated them to become Unitarian orthodoxy. I imagine many (but by no means all) of you have a sense of this story from our history. Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, as it is sometimes called because that is where he was when he delivered it, outlined the radical beliefs that were coalescing within a number of religious communities developing out of what was New England Congregationalism. He delineated the theological rejections and affirmations that characterized the group of people who soon after became known as Unitarians.

This sermon, which started American Unitarianism, was a two-part sermon of which most people recall only the second part. Primarily, the first part of the sermon emphasizes reason as the best tool for the study of scripture. Channing then lists out several doctrines found in scripture when reason is so applied. The first two sound like this: “In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and only one. … We object to the doctrine of the trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. … We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly we are, and equally distinct form the one God. We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity, that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character.”

This was reformation work that Channing was doing. “What everyone else is doing is wrong. We see the true and original Christianity that all the rest of the Christians have missed. We’re going to go now and start our own team.” This was reformation in the standard sense in that it followed the model of Luther and Calvin and the Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915. Channing’s reformation caused a break from the traditional understandings and began a new group. That was the last major break-away style reform in our history. All our subsequent reforms moved forward while still holding earlier understandings. We grew beyond liberal Protestant Christianity as it was articulated by Channing, but we have kept some of the liberal Protestant Christians. We grew beyond Theism, but have kept many Theists. We grew beyond Atheistic Humanism, but we have kept a bunch of Atheistic Humanists.

One facet of this I want to lift up, if only because it is often neglected when we talk about Channing and his sermon, is that this was sound Biblical preaching. Channing reached the conclusions he reached not because they made sense to him in some abstract way, but because these are the conclusions he found upon careful study of scripture. And further, scriptures authority, for Channing, was supported by the miracles.

Perhaps you are wondering why this sermon is called “Emerson’s Reformation” when I spend all my time discussing Channing’s reformation. I’m getting to that. To fully appreciate the amazing reform that Emerson inaugurated, we must grasp the environment in which that reform arose. Channing preached his Baltimore Sermon in 1819. Six years later, in 1825, the Unitarians organized themselves into the American Unitarian Association. A mere 13 years after that, in1838, not even a full twenty years after Channing started the new team, Emerson offers a radical reform.

Conrad Wright, editor of the book, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing Emerson, Parker characterized it this way: “Channing took the liberal wing of New England congregationalism, fastened a name to it, and forced it to overcome its reluctance to recognize that it had become, willy-nilly, a separate and distinct Christian body. Emerson cut deeply at the traditional philosophical presuppositions of the Unitarianism of his day, so that it was never thereafter possible for Unitarians to return to the position that Christianity is based on the authority of Christ as the unique channel of God’s revelation to humanity.” (p3-4) Emerson, and to a great extent Parker right after him, universalized us. He took Unitarianism beyond liberal Christianity by emphasizing the primacy and universality of the religious impulse.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born two hundred years ago in the spring of 1803. He studied to become a Unitarian minister and saw Channing as all the young ministers of the time saw him: a grand and wise model to follow. Emerson, however, did not remain in the ministry, and though he did remain a Unitarian, his greatest contributions to our movement came after he had severed significant ties to Unitarianism. Technically he left the church over Communion. At the time, communion was a regular part of the worship life of Unitarians. Biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr. in his book, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, puts it this way; “He found the Communion ceremony meaningless because it reduces Communion to eating and drinking.” (p125)
Emerson left the ministry, traveled and began his career as an essayist and lecturer. During that time his personal philosophy underwent a radical expansion. This was partly shaped by the reading he was doing, partly from key intellectually supportive relationships, and partly from key losses he experienced. It all lead him to see that a religious life is not one filled with correct and reasoned interpretations of scripture or occupied by any number of external authorities and evidences. Richardson wrote that Emerson “had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience. That is what he meant when he insisted that one should strive for an original relation to the universe. Not a novel relation, just one’s own.” (p3) Emerson’s first book, Nature, was about the relationship between humanity and nature with this deeply religious thread running through it which takes shape in that question: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

This very simple idea undercut so very much of the traditional religious philosophy of the time, indeed of our time as well. Why should we read in scripture about the experiences of others, should not we also have experiences worthy of being written down in holy books? Why should we go through sacramental rituals commemorating the experiences of others, should not we also experience the sacrament of communion in the regular course of our lives?

Now, his ideas would not have a big an impact on us until another major event brought it to us. Emerson was invited by the graduating students of the Harvard Divinity School to deliver the graduation address in 1838. One must wonder why the Harvard Divinity School invited him to speak when he was known to have taken such radical steps away from commonly held beliefs and understandings. I can only guess that it was because the choice was made by the students, not by the teachers. It was on this occasion, with a sentiment similar to that of his first book, that he initiated a transcendentalist reformation within not only the stayed rationalism of Boston Unitarianism but also the broader culture. He advised them to let their lives show through in their preaching. Many a preacher now loves this line: “The true preacher can be known by this; that [you] deal out to the people [your] life – life passed through the fire of thought.” And near the end of his address he offered this: “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse all good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of [humanity], and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” This was a remarkably scandalous suggestion!

Emerson was a remarkably well read and intelligent man. The biography by Richardson that I’ve been reading is filled with accounts of what Emerson was reading when this or that event was going on in his life. Richardson says, “Over the years, Emerson’s openness to science kept his thoughts ballasted with fact and observation and his writing anchored solidly in the real world.” (p142) Emerson’s call to refuse all good models is not a call to ignore the thoughts and writings of other people’s experiences. Instead it is a call to also have your own experiences and to value your own above all others.

The impact of this call to reform was profound and the impact was momentous. The response within Unitarianism was strong, both to the positive and to the negative. Yet we managed at that time to stay one group despite the tremendous gap between the two opposing predominant views. But here is the best part: because this reform did not cause a permanent split or a break for the old when the new ideas arose, we ended up holding both stories positively. At our beginning there were rational liberal Christian Unitarians and experiential transcendental Unitarians on the same team.

And perhaps that sounds a little familiar? Today many people are joining our churches with a great desire to experience spirituality in their worship and daily life. Today we also have rational skeptics with a strong desire for intelligent conversation about principles and values and what we are going to do. There is some healthy tension around this. I feel that tension within myself regularly. We owe a debt of gratitude, not only to Channing and Emerson, the first reformers from the Unitarian branch of our family, but more so to the people at that time and their ability to some how navigate that tension, that we now have the gift to experience our version of it as well.

Emerson’s reform did not exclude reason, it simply claimed reason alone without experience insufficient. I encourage you to use reason in the interpretation of scripture of all kinds. And yet, when you read of the ideas and experiences of others, don’t forget to have your own as well! “Refuse all good models, dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

In a world without end,
May it be so.