Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803–1882

[Mentioned in Retrospection and Introspection, p. 37; Unity of Good, p. 17; and Miscellany, pp. 305, 306]

Emerson earned his title "the Sage of Concord" by his lectures, philosophy, essays, and poems. He first thought that he would, like many of his Puritan forebears, become a minister. But before he could enter Harvard Divinity School, he had to teach in order to help support his mother and brothers. Illness interrupted his course at the Divinity School, but finally he was "approbated to preach" in 1826. Two years later he became pastor of the Second Church of Boston. His independence of thought was already asserting itself, and when he failed to persuade his parishioners to his gradually won conviction that the observance of the Lord's Supper was not a necessary rite, he resigned.

This break provided the opportunity for a trip abroad, on which he met Lafayette, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. Emerson kept a journal during his Harvard undergraduate days, and the continuing of it gave him constant practice in writing. Now the subject matter of his first book was taking shape, although it was not published until three years after his return home. In the meantime he lectured, preached, and settled a home in Concord. His appreciation of this home is glimpsed in these words: "When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, bobolinks, and thrushes.... As little did I guess what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying."

Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard on "The American Scholar" was hailed as "our intellectual Declaration of Independence." In it Emerson said, "Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind." After his address at the Divinity School, he was not asked to speak at Harvard for thirty years. But his lectures and the publishing of them in essay form profoundly influenced his countrymen. Lectures in England spread his fame. His philosophy emphasized self-reliance and individual responsibility. Emerson denied being a Transcendentalist, although his thought, "The highest revelation is that God is in every man," was the theme of that movement. Emerson, beloved by his community and his country, may have given in these words the key to why he was so beloved: "Perhaps there should not be the word 'stranger' in any language."

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Signs of the Times
December 22, 1956

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