Ralph Waldo Emerson's Harvard Divinity Address

by Arthur Paul Patterson

The average temperature in Boston during the summer of 1838 was a stifling 90 degrees Fahrenheit - hot enough to cause the six graduates and a select group of esteemed guests to loosen their starched collars as they crowded into the tiny side chapel at Harvard Divinity School for the graduation address (for the original text, click here). Neither diminutive numbers nor heat would dampen the refreshing gust of new thought and inspiration that Ralph Waldo Emerson brought that day.

No matter how claustrophobic the physical space or the minds of his listeners, Emerson’s reflections opened onto vistas of spirit that would either magnetically draw them toward his expansive vision or cause them to recoil into the protection of the status quo. What smelt sweet to some stunk in the nostrils of others. The graduates loved his address; it met their deepest need for a vital word that would sustain them in their new calling. The old guard recoiled because Emerson laid bare the inadequacy of their spirituality and questioned the foundations of their power base in traditional religion. These brokers of religion could not tolerate Emerson’s accusation that their cold faith was bankrupt. Unlike jaded skeptics that had attacked the Establishment in the past, Emerson offered an invigorating spirituality. Deep unmediated religious experience was the true offense of The Harvard Divinity Address.

Emerson did not begin his address on a scathing note. He was positive, poetic, brimming with the fullness of accumulated thoughts that had preoccupied him for years. Emerson applied much of what he said in his recent publication Nature to the vocational calling of the graduates, transforming his philosophy into an ode to Nature mysticism. To truly meet the needs of the modern 19th century American, the minister was to become an eloquent poet of Nature.

First, Nature’s poets, said Emerson, need to interpret what they see around and within them. He invited his listeners to look beyond the walls of their classrooms, out into the nearby fields and rivers of Massachusetts. He reminded them that they exist in the world. This world doesn't overtly speak or have language but transmits its meaning through the ecstasy of being alive.

Sensual education was the starting point for these dusty academics. Instead of arguing about the possibility of supernatural miracles in order to confirm the spiritual life, Emerson advised his listeners to see life itself as a miracle. There is only one world and that world is truly miraculous.


Sensual education was the starting point for these dusty academics. Instead of arguing about the possibility of supernatural miracles in order to confirm the spiritual life, Emerson advised his listeners to see life itself as a miracle. There is only one world and that world is truly miraculous.

Sensuality is not a top priority for those of us who are educators of the spirit yet without this rootedness in nature our attempts to spiritually inspire others are doomed to frigidity. It is so easy to substitute the secondary language of concept for the primal language of the instincts. Emerson engraved a verbal cameo of a typical New England preacher on the mind of his audience. Mercifully he did not name the origin of his example. Nevertheless, he was drawing from a living metaphor of dull preaching represented by Concord's new assistant minister, Barzillai Frost. Using a parody on Frost's name, he alluded to the fact that the frost outside on the church windows was more inspiring than the Frost in the pulpit. The snowstorm that distracted him mediated the spirit better than the minister did. The thrust of his argument is that nothing of the man's life entered his sermon leading to its pallid tone. The preacher was full of second-hand thoughts that didn’t carry the depth of lived experience. Emerson exhorted the graduates to preach what they lived, not what they had merely heard. "But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as fashion guides, and interest commands, babbles. Let him hush," he said.

Direct experience was mediated through Nature, received in human consciousness and embraced in a spirit of love. Reception of Nature's revelation transforms human character and improves the morality of culture and individuals. The goal for these seniors was to mediate life. Emerson said that "the true Preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to his people his life - life passed through the power of thought." To put it in contemporary language, if you don't have a conscious life tethered to your own experience you have nothing to share worth hearing. In short: "Graduates, get a life!"

Inspired by the Address, I sit at my computer contemplating how to adopt the miracle of life that is going on around me. How can I trade the ideas, concepts, and the books I have read for a primary experience of life that renews me? An answer comes as I relax and don’t try too hard. I begin noticing my surroundings. Chief among them is a cat whom my stepson creatively named Smokey Cheese Dog. The cat lies in the computer paper box breathing rhythmically and looking ever so contented. Peering through the frosty winter window, I see a variety of icicles hanging from my neighbour’s eavestrough. The crystalline assortment reminds me that nature comes choreographed, apparently random yet inexplicably meaningful. The effect of these two sensate impressions is contentment and joy. So long steeped in idea crunching I realize that this type of reflection enables me to renew myself. I become aware that a forgotten self can care for no one else.

Emerson, however, doesn’t leave us endlessly contemplating icicles and cats. Beneath the miracle of the present moment lies the Eternal which speaks in silence but speaks nonetheless. If a meaningful speech pours through Nature, what does it say? More importantly, what or who is doing the talking? Emerson called the unifying speech of Nature, Oversoul. It would be tempting to call Oversoul, God, but the word God has lost its coinage in many ways. It has become too personal, too mythological and even childish to capture what Emerson was pointing toward. His synonym for Oversoul was Reason. But this too is an inadequate word that has come to mean only impersonal logical connection and not depth. I would like to call Oversoul by the ancient name Logos, meaning a fiery word that holds all things together. Logos may be too clumsy, too antiquated. So intuition, the capacity to see how disparate things form personal meaning, may be the best we can do.

It is not the definition that ultimately counts; it’s the cat. The sleeping cat in my computer paper box is living speech that declares what peacefulness, contentment and rest means. Since he has discovered my box located just above the heating vent, he returns to it as a womb. Just before he enters the REM of sleep, heat and mellow music surround him. He purrs contentment. Contentment is the speech of Oversoul.

Now that is a first-hand living revelation rooted in my personal experience of what is promised by Nature if I take the time to listen. Emerson called this manifestation a Spiritual Law. The experience of contentment is a spiritual inevitability when I obey my intuition and listen to what is going on around me. When I don’t listen I become frantic and may even disturb what contentment there is by shooing my cat off my table or exchanging the Enya CD for Jim Hendrix. Emerson suggests that morality, the ethical basis of our actions, ought to arise from listening to and obeying this natural revelation found in our intuitions.

In the Address, Emerson warns that conventional churchly ideas about revelation, laws, Oversoul and morality are not only inadequate but impede spirituality directly. Here his argument turns from a pastoral approach to a prophetic one. In short, dogma and doctrine have replaced spiritual law in the hearts of men and women. Externalized authority will not suffice.

How then do I guide my moral life through natural spiritual law? Take the command "Thou shalt not kill." These words etched on the ancient tablet need to be written on my heart. The place where the commandment meets my intuition is in the ritual of the daily news. It is the closest I have yet come to real killing, thank goodness. But if I contemplate the drama of the daily news instead of the abstract command, I see a torn body of a child whose arms have been blow off by a land mine. Here is an inbreaking, a revelation about killing that ought to break my heart in a way that no recitation of the Ten Commandments ever could. Morality requires that I enter this experience of murder as a witness who is deeply effected. While watching actions such as these, do I just roll over, grunt and program my VCR for another diversion, or do I allow myself to be effected, even momentarily, with life as it is? If I listen I become morally compassionate, a better spiritual companion to others.

Emerson did not tread lightly when he announced that externalized doctrine is harmful but that externalized divinisation is even worse. Traditionalism, said Emerson, dwelt on the noxious exaggeration of the person of Jesus. These two criticisms of the church are connected since revelation is found in the milliseconds of moral decision grounded in our conscious life. When we replace our need for realizing the divine image in ourselves with adoration and worship of God in Christ we, according to Emerson, skew the very message of Jesus. What I understand Emerson to be saying is not that Jesus was just a human like us but that we are like Jesus, we share a divine image. This divine image is expressed in the way that Jesus of Nazareth obeyed Oversoul’s prompting through his direct experience of life.

A second-hand life, even the life of Christ, Emerson said, is unworthy. The authority of Christ was rooted in his direct experience and authority in our lives is found in the same place. Emerson says this eloquently,

Jesus belonged to a true race of prophets. He saw with opened eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished by its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is within you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of His World. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me he speaks. Would you see God, see me, or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.

Tradition estranged humanity from itself. Jesus who was a friend of humanity was turned by the Church into the injurer of humanity. Emerson strove to liberate the senior class from an inadequate understanding of Christ that he considered a barrier to natural sanctity. In traditional terms, Emerson was accusing the Church of docetism, the doctrine that Jesus only appeared to be human. Had he appealed to traditional sources, a bit of a contradiction given his overall message, he could have quoted an early church Father that said that, "God became man in order that man could become god." Emerson once said that what traditionalists called Christianity he called consciousness.

Emerson was not the typical revolutionary. While he eventually abandoned historic Christianity, Emerson paradoxically in this Address advised the graduates to not be swayed by his eloquence or message to the point of starting a new denomination. Emerson was so committed to individual self-recovery at the core of spiritual renewal that he didn’t place hope in structural reform. He suggested that the seniors, if at all possible, stay in the existing structures and change themselves. His parting words are:

Rather, let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For if you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic (flexible) and new. The remedy to their deformity is first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore soul. In modern terms what Emerson is pointing to is that building new structures without the requisite of deepening spirituality is virtually useless and doomed to failure. If you want to serve, get a life, a spiritually formed, natural life.


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