Development of Transcendentalism

The resistance of some ministers and congregations in Boston and eastern Massachusetts to key doctrines of Calvinism started to divide the New England Puritan churches during the mid-1700s. Calvinism centered on the doctrines of John Calvin whose theology emphasized the absolute nature of sovereignty of God and the certainty of human depravity (Robinson). The religious divisions became significant because they resulted to the establishment of a religious liberalism movement that eventually called Unitarianism (Robinson).

The Unitarianism movement became the center of various well-established churches in Boston and at Harvard College. It allowed the liberals to achieve cultural and intellectual influence that exceeded their small numbers and played a significant role in the formation of a powerful American liberal tradition in literature, education, politics, and the arts (Robinson). The political and literary movement of transcendentalism was formed in the 1830s and 1840s because of the movement of liberal theology in Boston (Robinson).

The goal of the Unitarianism was to spread its message of human capability and positive spiritual development even though it continued to be in conflict with its Calvinist opponents (Robinson). However, several younger Unitarian ministers started to take a different approach to the problem concerning religious knowledge, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (Robinson). Emerson, who was the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, considered that the transcendental law was the moral law through which people discovered the living spirit of God (“Transcendentalism”).

He published his book, titled “Nature” in 1836, which formed a novel way of intellectual thinking in the United States (“Transcendentalism”). He suggested a theory of religion based on intuition instead of empirical evidence, which explains that the religious sentiment is deeply rooted into the nature of mind itself (Robinson). He insisted the relation between mind and nature because both were instruments of a divine energy that formed reality and provided value and significance (Robinson).

Emerson shifted into the role of freelance lecturer and followed his book “Nature” with two lectures at Harvard: “The American Scholar” and the “Divinity School Address” (Robinson). He also published two books about his developing philosophy, “Essays” (1841) and “Essays: Second Series (1844) (Robinson). In the “Divinity School Address,” Emerson pointed out the criticism of the traditional preaching during Emerson’s time and its consideration of a universally available capability of the religious sentiment rather than mediated by the church or by the supernatural intervention of Jesus (Robinson).

The transcendentalist philosophy of Emerson is a religion of the spiritually liberated heart and mind, unbounded by party or church (Erickson viii). Emerson urged in his lecture, titled “The American Scholar,” to remove America’s two-hundred-year-long reliance on European thought and to realize oneself as a civilization who can think his or her own thought and can create his or her own philosophy, poetry and vision of life (Ericson viii). His religion is described as a metaphysical idealism in which the material universe is only the appearance of underlying divine unity expressed in various individuals (Ericson x).

He also visualized religions as an emotional interaction between the unitary spiritual power of goodness called “Oversoul” and an individual soul (“Transcendentalism”). Emerson also referred “Oversoul” to spirit of God as the most significant thing in the world (“Transcendentalism”). Several works by other individuals who believed in transcendentalist movement were also published in 1836, the year when the book “Nature” was also published.

These included William Henry Furness’ “Remarks of the Four Gospels,” Convers Francis’ “Christianity as a Purely Internal Principle,” and Amos Bronson Alcott’s “Conversations with Children on the Gospels” (Robinson). One of the key legacies of Transcendentalism is the “The Dial,” a journal edited by Emerson and Margaret Fuller to offer a venue of expression for transcendental writing (Robinson). “The Dial” published poetry, book reviews and fiction as well as preaching and theological writings and commentary about social and political reform (Robinson).

It also provided a chance for transcendentalists such as Emerson, Theodore Parker, Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, Christopher Pearse Cranch, Jones Very, and Henry David Thoreau to have a place in the literary movement in New England (Robinson). Thoreau often helped Emerson in copyediting and preparing the publication of “The Dial” magazine (Robinson). His involvement in “The Dial” magazine provided him a chance to know every detail of publishing operations and an exposure to the writing of his contemporaries (Robinson).

Emerson and Thoreau played an important role in the emergence of New England Transcendentalism by representing it in the United States. They influenced other writers to apply transcendental ideas in their works (“Transcendentalism”). Thoreau’s book, titled “Walden,” or “Life in the Woods,” published in 1845 turned out to be a literary and environmental classic. It reflected on the dual identity of Thoreau as a poet-seer and a skillfull and grounded realist (Robinson). In addition to “Walden”, Thoreau published his “Journal” and various key nature essays such as “Walking,” “Wild Apples,” and “Autumnal Tints” in 1862.

These publications focused on Emerson’s characterization of the spiritual importance of the natural world and the preservation of nature (Robinson). Thoreau became the original literary voice in a significant tradition of environmental writing and American nature (Robinson). He represented an American culture’s longing for the simpler life, symbolizing an increasing collective desire for a freedom from a society described as meaningless work and full of material consumption (Robinson).

His writings during the 1960s and 1970s focused on the enhancement of the environmental ethic during that time (Robinson). According to Reuben, the basic premises of Transcendentalism are that: an individual is the spiritual center of the universe, acceptance of the neo-Platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, similarity between the structure of the universe and the structure of the individual self, and the belief that individual virtue and happiness rely on self-realization.

The author also mentions the reasons behind the emergence of American Transcendentalism, which include the continuous decline in Calvinism, the impact of science and technology on the advancement of secularization of modern thought, the rise of a Unitarian intellectual elite with the means and training to continue literature and scholarship, the growing irrelevance of liberal religion, the effect of European ideas on Americans traveling abroad, and the appearance of talented individuals such as Emerson, Fuller and Thoreau on the scene.

The significance of the Transcendentalism is the manifestation of a romantic movement in philosophy and literature (“Transcendentalism”). Transcendentalism became an ethical guide to positive life and focused on the positive side of human nature. Moreover, it emphasized the tolerance of difference in religious belief and asserted on the importance of dignity and worth of the individual as a powerful tool for democracy (“Transcendentalism”).

The transcendentalists played an important role in giving American culture its first distinctive voice in literature, bringing artistic undertaking and aesthetic appreciation in culture and providing advancement on several issues such as the cause of social justice and human rights (Robinson).