Transcendentalism was a movement for religious renewal, literary innovation, and social transformation. Its ideas were grounded in the claim that divine truth could be known intuitively. Based in New England and existing in various forms from the 1830s to the 1880s, transcendentalism is usually considered the principal expression of romanticism in America. Many prominent ministers, reformers, and writers of the era were associated with it, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803???1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817???1862), Margaret Fuller (1810???1850), Theodore Parker (1810???1860), Bronson Alcott (1799???1888), and Orestes Brownson (1803???1876).
Various organizations and periodicals gave the movement shape. The earliest was the so-called “Transcendental Club” (1836???1840), an informal group that met to discuss intellectual and religious topics; also important was the “Saturday Club,” organized much later (1854). Many transcendentalists participated in the utopian communities of Brook Farm (1841???1848; located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts), founded by George Ripley (1802???1880) and his wife, Sophia Dana Ripley (1803???1861), and the short-lived Fruitlands (1843???1844; located in Harvard, Massachusetts), founded by Alcott.
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A number of transcendentalist ministers established experimental churches to give their religious ideas institutional form. The most important of these churches were three in Boston: Orestes Brownson’s Society for Christian Union and Progress (1836???1841); the Church of the Disciples (founded 1841), pastored by James Freeman Clarke (1810???1888); and Theodore Parker’s Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society (founded 1845???1846).
The most famous transcendentalist magazine was the Dial (1840???1844), edited by Fuller and then by Emerson; other major periodicals associated with the movement included the Boston Quarterly Review (1838???1842), edited by Brownson, and the Massachusetts Quarterly Review (1847???1850), edited by Parker. Transcendentalism emerged from Unitarianism, or “liberal Christianity”???an anti-Calvinist, anti-Trinitarian, anticreedal offshoot of Puritanism that had taken hold among the middle and upper classes of eastern Massachusetts.
The founders of transcendentalism were Unitarian intellectuals who came of age, or became Unitarians, in the 1820s and 1830s. From Unitarianism the transcendentalists took a concern for self-culture, a sense of moral seriousness, a neo-Platonic concept of piety, a tendency toward individualism, a belief in the importance of literature, and an interest in moral reform. They looked to certain Unitarians as mentors, especially the great Boston preacher William Ellery Channing. Yet transcendentalists came to reject key aspects of the Unitarian worldview, starting with their rational, historical Christian apologetic.
The Unitarian apologetic took as its starting point the thesis of the British philosopher John Locke that all knowledge, including religious knowledge, was based on sense data. The Unitarians were not strict Lockeans; under the influence of the Scottish “Common Sense” philosophers, notably Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, they held that some fundamental knowledge could be known intuitively???for example, that certain things were morally right and wrong, and that the world that human senses perceive in fact exists. Nonetheless, Unitarians held that only “objective” evidence could prove Jesus had delivered an authoritative revelation from God.
They believed they had found such evidence in the testimony, provided in the Gospels, of Jesus’ miracles. The Unitarians valued the historical study of Gospel accounts, in order to prove them “genuine” and therefore credible. Transcendentalists rejected as “sensual” and “materialistic” Unitarianism’s Lockean assumptions about the mind, and were inspired instead by German philosophical idealism. Its seminal figure, Immanuel Kant, argued that sense data were structured by the mind according to certain “transcendental” categories (such as space, time, and cause and effect), which did not inhere in the data, but in the mind itself.
The transcendentalists liked the Kantian approach, which gave the mind, not matter, ultimate control over the shape of human experience. The name of their movement was derived from Kant’s philosophical term. Yet the transcendentalists, unlike Kant but like other Romantics (and, to an extent, the Common Sense philosophers), held that religious knowledge itself could be intuitively known. According to this view, people could tell “subjectively” that Jesus had given a revelation from God, because his doctrine was self-evidently true and his life self-evidently good.
The transcendentalist apologetic turned out to have radical implications. Because transcendentalists believed religious truth could be known naturally, like any other truth, they tended to reject the idea of miraculous inspiration as unnecessary and to dismiss as false the claim made for the Bible that it had unique miraculous authority. Transcendentalists still respected Jesus, but the more radical of them, like Emerson in his Divinity School Address (1838), and Parker in Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (1841), attacked the miracle stories in the Gospels as pious myths.
Such attacks were highly controversial; theologically conservative Unitarians accused the transcendentalists of being infidels and atheists. Meanwhile, the transcendentalists began to see religious value in sacred writings beyond the Bible, including those of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. The transcendentalists became pioneers in the American study of comparative religion. Another implication of intuitionism had to do with the role of the artist. The transcendentalists believed all human inspiration, whether biblical or not, drew from the same divine source.
They did not hold religious inspiration to be mundane, like artistic and intellectual inspiration; rather, they held that artistic and intellectual inspiration, like religious inspiration, were divine. The artist, in particular the poet, gained new importance to the transcendentalists as a potential prophet figure, and poetry as a potential source of divine revelation. Emerson was being characteristically transcendentalist when in his first book, Nature (1836), he sought to achieve wholly honest, beautiful, and original forms of expression.
In his address “American Scholar” (1837), meanwhile, he called on American writers to stop imitating foreign models; actually, the transcendentalists promoted American interest in foreign Romantic writers, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772???1834), Thomas Carlyle (1795???1881), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749???1832). Intuitionism also affected the transcendentalist approach to social and political problems. Transcendentalists believed laws should be disobeyed if moral intuition held them to be unjust. Thoreau famously argued this point in his essay “Civil Disobedience” (1848; also called “Resistance to Civil Government”).
He here advised individuals to disobey unjust laws so as to prevent their personal involvement in evil. More broadly, the transcendentalists held that inspiration was blunted by social conformity, which therefore must be resisted. This is a theme of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) and Thoreau’s book Walden (1854). When approaching the education of children, the transcendentalists advocated innovative methods that supposedly developed a child’s innate knowledge; Alcott tried out transcendentalist methods at his famous experimental Boston school in the mid-1830s.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804???1894), who later played a major role in bringing the European kindergarten to America, described Alcott’s approach in her Record of a School (1835), as did Alcott himself in his Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836). Transcendentalists also came to criticize existing social arrangements, which they thought prevented individual spiritual development. There were calls and attempts to change what were seen as oppressive economic structures. Orestes Brownson, in his Boston Quarterly Review articles on the “Laboring Classes” (1840), advocated abolition of inherited private property.
George and Sophia Ripley, with others, tried to make Brook Farm a place with no gap between thinkers and workers. Eventually, the Farmers adopted a system inspired by the French socialist Charles Fourier, who believed that in a properly organized society (one he planned in minute detail), people could accomplish all necessary social work by doing only what they were naturally inclined to do. Margaret Fuller, meanwhile, criticized the lack of educational, political, and economic opportunities for women of the era.
In the famous series of “conversations” she led for women (1839???1844), Fuller set out to encourage their intellectual development, and in her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1846), issued a famous manifesto in favor of women’s rights. She came to embody many of the principles she advocated, and became a significant literary critic and journalist, as well as a participant in the Roman Revolution of 1848. The transcendentalists saw slavery as inherently wrong because it crushed the spiritual development of slaves. They protested against slavery in various ways and a few of them, most notably Parker, became leaders of the abolitionist movement.
Finally, the transcendentalists laid great value on the spiritual value of nature; Thoreau, particularly, is regarded as a principal forerunner of the modern environmental movement. Transcendentalism has always had its critics. It has been accused of subverting Christianity; of assessing human nature too optimistically and underestimating human weakness and potential for evil; of placing too much emphasis on the self-reliant individual at the expense of society and social reform. Yet even those hostile to transcendentalism must concede that American literature, religion, philosophy, and politics have been shaped by the