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History of American Transcendentalism Essay


The term transcendentalism is often correlated with a set of fresh thoughts in literature, which came forward in New England (Schneider 248). These events took place from the onset of the19th century and went ahead for several years. Adherents quit orthodox Calvinism as a result of two crucial issues, which proved divisive: they upheld the value and efficacy of human determination, as opposed to the desolate Puritan depiction of complete and unpreventable human immorality.

Emphasis was laid on the unity instead of Trinity, with respect to God and divinity. This created the platform for adopting the name ‘Unitarian,’ which was initially perceived as an abusive name. A majority of the Unitarians argued that God was relatively superior to Jesus, although the latter was greater than mankind (Sacvan & Cyrus 87).

Other multitudes subscribed to the teachings of Joseph Priestley, an English Unitarian who claimed that Jesus was entirely human; although he had supernatural power extraordinary authority. William Ellery Channing, who was a top cleric among the Unitarians, described orthodox Congregationalism as a religious conviction perpetrating fear, thereby advancing the concept that Jesus rescued mankind out of transgression, and not just from chastisement (Schneider 55).

It is habitually referred to as American transcendentalism, in order to highlight the existing disparities with other applications of the term Transcendental. The interest group developed in the 1830s and 40s as a remonstration against the state of affairs, with reference to culture and the social order.

The most prominent topic was the status of intellectualism at Harvard in addition, to the canon of the Unitarian church trained at Harvard School of religion. The transcendentalists’ had several beliefs, with the core among them advocating for the existence of an ideal, spiritual state, which goes beyond the bodily and experimental perceptions. This means that it is recognized only through the individual’s instinct, as opposed to doctrines propagated by established religions.

Before the concept of transcendentalism is appreciated, the circumstance of Unitarianism, which was the prevailing creed among residents of Boston throughout the 19th century, should be understood. These awakenings took place in two phases, which majored on matters of celestial election and original transgression. This led to a pithy duration of revivalism.

The prevalent Orthodox conviction in intrinsic degeneracy and the emotionalism espoused by the revivalists was rebuffed by the liberals. The move was occasioned by tenets and represented deadly eagerness. As a rejoinder, liberals and Christians of American descent integrated their principles, which lay emphasis on the benefits of academic reason as the conduit to heavenly intelligence. On the other hand, Unitarians established themselves in Boston by advocating for the rejection of heavenly trinity (Carpenter 2).

They also established a premium on constancy, synchronization, lucid thought, progressive ethics, conventional erudition, and other traits of Enlightenment Christianity. They advocated for a philosophy that gave prominence to the benefits deliberate ethical behavior, and allowing common sense to define the constituents of moral mannerisms. This was contrary to the doctrines of Calvinism, which set out to induce obedience.

Unitarians proposed natural statements of belief, in which individuals who were empowered by observed psychoanalysis or their reasoning capacities found out the orderly and munificent temperament displayed by the universe and divine laws. Celestial disclosure, which, was highly manifested in the Bible served as an external process useful in establishing the discoveries advanced by reason. This explains the existence of Unitarian sermons that were characterized by optimistic judiciousness.

The scholarly essence of Unitarianism had a counterbalance in a twist of sentimentalism. It was argued that the rational mind issued directives, while emotions were responsible for converting ethical knowledge to morally acceptable behavior. In spite of this, Unitarians disapproved the extreme emotionalism exhibited at revival sessions.

It was looked upon, as a temporary burst of religious sentiment that would eventually fritter away. Since they conjured up revelation as a peripheral act of kindness granted by God to reassure the mind of spiritual advancement, they had misgivings that internal disclosure, which was devoid of cognizant endeavor represented a spiritual makeover in the true sense.

It is notable that Evangelical Protestants continued enlisting recruits through revival ventures, a move that substantially diversified Boston and raised the number of denominations in the contest for the loyalty of the populace. This happened on the backdrop of a push towards the secular lifestyle that was exerted on the populace by urbanization and industrialization.

Unitarians were forced to take up new evangelical techniques, in a bid to maintain relevance and pass on their beliefs on temperance and order to the society. The most common methods used included initiating and playing a part in missionary and philanthropic societies. By doing this, they hoped to spread the Unitarian message and unite persons together in an increasingly disjointed societal climate. Unitarians appealed more to the sensitivity in their sermons a tendency replicated in the concepts advanced at their Pastoral institutions.

Many Unitarian clerics, including Joseph S. Buckminster and Edward Everett established a model for preachers who could afford literacy in the place of doctrinaire; could employ poetical excerpts, as opposed, to eschatology; could glorify stylist tendencies and scorn controversy simultaneously. All these modifications failed to match the emotionalism of the bucolic Evangelical Protestants.

Unitarianism was perceived as a religion for upright, reputable and affluent Boston citizens, not for the jagged jostle and common men rough country. The tolerance Unitarians demonstrated in their embrace of Enlightenment philosophy was evened out; by an unyielding conservatism they kept hold of with regards to matters of social conduct and status.

Their differences played out during the 19th century, after Unitarians had assumed control of Harvard after the election. In this edition of polling, the Rev. Henry Ware Sr. and the Rev. John Thorton were appointed to leadership slots, albeit 5 years apart. This instigated insubordination against Unitarianism by the mainstream Transcendentalists who schooled there at the period.

It is inaccurate to note that transcendentalism brought about a rejection of Unitarianism since it changed as a natural outcome of the parent religion. By creating allowances for the extensive application of intelligence and free ethics, and encouraging individuals in the quest for celestial connotation, Unitarians had inadvertently propagated the seeds of the Transcendentalist revolution (Tarrant 40).

The Unitarians came across as modernized and made efforts to patch up the empiricism of Locke with Christianity. This was enabled by the argument that the Biblical stories of miracles adduce awe-inspiring evidence for the legitimacy of religion. It is notable that Transcendentalists and adherents of Unitarianism differed on this same premise.

This is because they held on to their aspersions, which, were brought about by the absence of experiential evidence of religion while depicting appreciation for the notion of mankind assuming a status similar to that of God. All through his initial years in Harvard, he authored several epistles in which he sought to establish the effect these concepts will have on his aunt, who was a staunch religionist.

He raises several fundamental issues in these missives, most notably the absence of first-hand experience of a Creator. He translates this to imply the complete absence. Transcendentalists felt a deficiency in Unitarianism, since the soberness, leniency and serene rationalism did not gratify that intense spiritual experience which Transcendentalists longed to have.

A post of professor was created at Harvard, a move which led to the rejection of Unitarian doctrines and in totality by a segment of the student body. He was to oversee areas of Natural Religious Conviction, Moral Viewpoint and Communal Polity.

His duties entailed demonstrating the existence of a Deity, to provide evidence and demonstrate his indispensable attributes, both natural and moral; to substantiate and give explanations on his destiny and regime, together with the dogma of a future status of rewards and reprimand; also to construe and implement the responsibility which man has under his Maker.

All these responsibilities were coupled with imperative duties of societal life, which came about; as a result of numerous relations, which men reciprocally bear to each other. This call entails combining with clarification, depicting the concurrence that occurs between the canon of revelation and the orders of the rationale in these important points. Most importantly, he was to affirm the importance and widespread application of heavenly revelation, irrespective of the existent coincidence.

Cynicism in relation to creed was further provoked by the release of a publication by F. Schleiermacher, which was an essay that established the notion that the Bible arose from human history and culture. A translation, to the esteemed publication, was made in 1833, approximately 50 years after an initial release in Germany. Most writers distorted the outline between religious texts and human made poetry, a move that instigated doubt on the clout of the Bible, by proposing that texts bearing similar influence could still be written.

All this took place because some authors had proposed the creation of poetry espousing philosophies of insight, as opposed to those of tradition and religious beliefs derived from revelations to mankind as opposed to a history. These concepts of an individual revelation and intuition were later to oppose both Unitarian empiricism and Human skepticism.

For transcendentalists, German philosophy constituted an integral segment of their lifestyle. Most of the readings used as from 1805 were proposed by Frederic Henry Hedge, a German Philosopher. He was born to a professor who was plying his trade at Harvard. Hedge learnt in his home nation, before taking up a place at Harvard during the later stages.

He went to pursue spirituality and other related studies. As an ordained Unitarian minister, he authored extensive reviews of several works, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christian Examiner. He notes Coleridge’s fondness for German Metaphysics and his immense gifts of intellect, expression and laments Coleridge’s failure to avail Kant and the post-Kantians to an English-speaking audience. He; therefore, takes it upon himself to introduce the Transcendental Philosophy of Kant (Smither 428).

Prominence is given to the explanations on Kant’s suggestion of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy (MacKinnon 346). He notes that the supposition that personal intuitions are dependent on the nature of the external world does not issue academic response to matters, rather the temperament of personal intuitions. In order to make sense of the entire critical philosophy, acquaintance with concepts on the priori knowledge is mandatory (MacKinnon 352).

Hedge oversaw the formation of a society which brought Transcendentalists together, with the intention of thrashing out matters pertinent to Unitarian clergymen who were not satisfied. They conducted 30 meetings during the first four years, before offering sponsorships to The Dial and Brook Farm.

Hedge came across as a vocal adversary of slavery in the 1830’s and was recognized as a defender of women’s privileges during the 1850’s, but he continued to serve as a Unitarian minister, before assuming professorial duties at the school of Divinity in Harvard.

Further insight into German philosophy was offered to the transcendentalists’ by Miss Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker. It commenced in 1766 and lasted in1817. Emerson observes that her perspectives and analyses on Germany constituted her best columns. She recognizes the dedication towards attaining emancipation as displayed by Locke.

This comes in spite of the perception she has of him as the main contributor to an exaggeration of melodramatics. She also views him as an epistemologist who is directly responsible for the unrest displayed by Hume. Most importantly, she identifies several differences depicted by German custom, which verify the influence wielded by the human mind (Ryder 104).

The influence of James Marsh was essential to the process of sustaining opinions held by adherents of Transcendentalism. This came about due to his standing as the president of as academic entity in Vermont. He was influenced to buy into Coleridge’s beliefs; which made use of German philosophy to establish justifications for modernized theology.

This comes out clearly in several publications he authors, mentioning the input of Coleridge towards Kantian terminology. These sentiments are also reflected in the writings of Emerson, where it is stated that imagination is a term used with reference to worldly occurrences as defined by logic.

German philosophy and literature was equally advocated for by Thomas Carlyle. He met Emerson his maiden visit to Europe in 18th century (Young 113). Carlyle’s philosophy of action as depicted in his principal works resonates with Emerson’s concepts in The American Scholar, that human actions, nature and a mentality of the times of yore, is fundamental to human education.

In conjunction with his fellow statesmen namely Wordsworth and Coleridge, Carlyle took up Natural Supernaturalism, which refers to the view that nature, including humankind, bears the supremacy, standing, and influence conventionally attributed to an independent deity. Piety towards temperament also ranked among William Wordsworth’s main themes.

The sagacity that men and women constituted gods in ruins, gives credence to one of transcendentalism’s defining events, which is the delivery of a speech at the ‘Harvard Divinity School’ during a graduation in 1838 by Emerson.

He described the fashionable house of worship that the alumnae were almost assuming guidance of, as an eastern realm of Christianity that had turned out to be a source of harm to man. Emerson is remembered for his reference to Jesus an ally of humanity, who doubled up as a notable spiritualist.

This stemmed from the fact that His doctrines were not self glorifying, but gave prominence to the well being of humankind. Emerson discards the Unitarian argument that miracles prove the legitimacy of Christianity, not just because the evidence is weak but because they visualize attestation of the sort translates to a mistaken view of the nature of religion.

According to transcendentalists, conversion by miracles amounts to a heterodoxy of the soul (Tarrant 18). They believe that evidence for religion should be more direct than testimony in an acuity that produces a devout reaction (Tarrant 28).

As foreseen, his vocalizations drew a speedy and livid rejoinder, issued by Andrews Norton, an attaché of Divinity School in Harvard, who was habitually referred to as the known as the Unitarian Pope.

In one of his subsequent publications, Norton laments of an agitated desire for unsavory reputation and enthusiasm, which he blames on German materialists and Carlyle, who is referred to as an excessively Germanized native of England. He immediately termed the speech by Emerson he concludes, as an affront to religious conviction and a disjointed enthusiasm.

Amos Bronson Alcott was a transcendentalist educator who created a series of schools that worked towards bringing about the best of children’s instinctive knowledge (Wayne 8). He was embroiled in a scandal with the transcendentalists, which emanated from an 18th century publication he authored.

He subscribed to ideologies which propagated priori knowledge that was relayed by Kant and Plato. This prompted Alcott to introduce self made furniture that was more comfortable in place of the previously used hard benches found in many common schools. After this, he created an allowance centrally in the classrooms for dancing.

The publication was anchored on a school Alcott ran with the help of an assistant in Boston. They proposed that proof for the legitimacy of Christianity was apparent in the unconstrained flow of children’s thought. The most notable contents of this book were the forthright discussions of conception, circumcision, and the birth of children.

In the course of a lecture he held during his lifetime that was titled “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson commenced with an idealistic perception, where presently existing concepts are referred to as new. He contends that a majority of those ideas constitute traditional idealism, although on a large scale. New views can be said to constitute larger customs of traditional idealism making it anti-skeptical as proposed by Kant (Grusin 120).

Summarily, it is notable that the 19th Century American transcendentalism should not be viewed as a religious conviction; rather, it constitutes a sensible viewpoint, mental shape, and mysticism (Gura). In addition, it fails to stick to the three concepts widespread in key religions.

These include faith in God, a conviction in the afterlife, also called dualism and a belief that the present life has a bearing on the next. This was explained as bliss to reward the blameless and torment waiting for transgressors. While transcendentalism fails to dispute the existence of an afterlife, it gives prominence to the present life.

The Transcendentalist movement gained recognition between 1820 and 1830; although, the heredity of their religious values can be traced to ancient American religious history. It is noteworthy, that transcendentalism and evangelical Protestantism evolved separately from American Puritanism, since they adopted the 17th and 18th century Calvinism as a universal ancestry.

Works Cited

Carpenter Lant. An examination of the charges made against Unitarians and Unitarianism: and the improved version, by the Right Rev. Dr. Magee, Bishop of Raphoe, in his Discourses and dissertations on atonement and sacrifice : with some strictures on the statements of the Bishop of St. David’s, Dr. Hales, Dean. London: J. T. Manchee, 2006. Print.

Emerson, Ralph & Henry, Thoreau. Transcendentalism: essential essays of Emerson & Thoreau: including Self-reliance & Civil disobedience. Delaware, DE: Prestwick House Inc, 2008. Print.

Grusin, Richard. Transcendentalist hermeneutics: institutional authority and the higher criticism of the Bible. North Carolina, NC: Duke University Press. 1991. Print.

Gura, Phillip. American Transcendentalism: A History. Foreign Affairs. March 2008. Web.

MacKinnon, Barbara. American Philosophy: A historical Anthology. New York, NY: SUNY Press, 1985. Print.

Ryder, John. Interpreting America: Russian and Soviet studies of the history of American thought. Tennessee, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. 1999. Print.

Sacvan, Bercovitch & Cyrus, Patell. The Cambridge History of American Literature: Nineteenth-century poetry, 1800-1910. London: Cambridge University Press. 2004. Print.

Schneider, Herbert. History of American Philosophy. New Delhi, ND: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1969. Print.

Smither, Howard. A History of the Oratorio: The oratorio in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. North Carolina, NC: UNC Press Books, 2000. Print.

Tarrant, William. Unitarianism. New York, NY: BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009. Print.

Wayne, Tiffany. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2006. Print.

Young, David. F. D. Maurice and Unitarianism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

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