Happy Birthday Waldo!

Here’s the piece I did for yesterday’s “Story for All Ages”:

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803, the son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister. After completing school, he was a teacher, then went to Harvard Divinity School.

He was ordained in 1829 by the Second Church of Boston, and he served there for three years. But disagreements with church officials over the Communion service and questions about public prayer led him to resign in 1832. At the time, he said “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. … In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.”

I think so many UUs like Emerson because of his emphasis on individualism and the need for each of us to discover for ourselves what is good and true and beautiful. Here’s a quote from his famous commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School:

whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day … and the oracles of … truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; … it is an intuition. It cannot be received … second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word … be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

I think those are words that most of us can agree with.

But in the March 2003 issue of UU World, Rev. Forrest Church wrote an article titled “Emerson’s Shadow”. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

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.

But Rev. Church suggests that while that adolescent spirit was good and necessary, it wasn’t enough. He says:

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.

And finally, Rev. Church says:

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 … 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.

Happy 201st birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.


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