here’s Waldo? is a wonderful game to play with children. And yes, many adults like it too. The lanky and goofy Waldo is hiding in plain sight amidst some busy scene. Once you locate Waldo, you are amazed it took so long to spot the cheery cartoon character. In the same way, Ralph Waldo Emerson hides in plain sight. His far-reaching influence on us Americans is undeniable, but many of us are unaware of him.
For many years, I have taught on various challenges posed to the Christian faith in nineteenth-century America. In one section for the course, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers receive special attention.
Nineteenth-century America was littered with gifted writers. F.O. Matthiessen dubbed it the “American Renaissance,” which was also the title of his important work.
A Giant among Giants
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a giant among giants during this period. In 1837 Emerson gave a Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard called “The American Scholar.” Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., called it America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
When Emerson gave the lecture, he was already troubled by institutionalized religion. He had previously parted ways from his pastoral ministry among Boston’s Unitarians. Emerson would help launch a movement of sorts called transcendentalism. Emerson’s views can come across as fragmentary and partial. One reviewer said Emerson’s style in his essay Nature was “injured by occasional vagueness of expression.”1 A Unitarian minister added that Emerson’s writings had “beautiful thoughts, beautiful passages, but no well-rounded, comprehensive philosophy of religion or life.”2
Without getting into all the various ways transcendentalism was understood, we can safely say that the individual supplanted religious traditions and institutions. The “divine self” was given permission to assess and access truth on its own. Religious institutions, especially those promoting the importance of doctrine, had to be sloughed off. Calvinists living in Boston would be exhibit A for what was wrong with religion. For Emerson and many others, Unitarian belief was not much better. Emerson agreed with Orestes Brownson’s assessment of Unitarianism as “negative, cold, lifeless…and all advanced minds among [them] are dissatisfied with it, and are craving something higher, better, more living and life-giving.”3 Anything that stifles the self from discovering its own truth is not worthy of having followers.
Emerson’s influence on America’s self-identity is huge. I’ve heard historians say that Emerson and Twain are indispensable for understanding the uniqueness of the American spirit. Emerson is everywhere. Not his name per se, though it does crop up from time to time even in popular culture. Reebok, the maker of running shoes, used to feature quotes from Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance in one of its commercials.
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