Emerson: Reformer or Doer of Nothing?

by the Rev David E. Grimm

One hundred years ago, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Unitarian colleagues, the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had this to say about Emerson as a reformer.

With regard to Emerson's abilities, Higginson said, "we may well recall [the words of] Father Taylor, the famous preacher to sailors in Boston, who, when criticised by some [of his] fellow Methodists for being a friend of Emerson, inasmuch as [Emerson] was a man who, they thought, must surely go to hell, [Father Taylor] replied, 'It does look so; but I am sure of one thing; if Emerson goes to hell it will change the climate there and emigration will set that way.'"

Now, that's pretty high praise. Not only from Father Taylor but also from the social activist who retold that story about Emerson. The Rev. Higginson,

Now, if you're like me, this news probably surprises you. The conventional wisdom of the 20th century has been that Emerson was a bit of an armchair philosopher-a great thinker, yes, a Transcendentalist, an idealist and a poet, but not a reformer…

Well, truth be told, not everybody in Emerson's day thought of him as a reformer either. In one of Emerson's journals, we find out about Mrs. Brackett of Boston, Massachusetts, who had a decidedly different opinion about Emerson's activism. Mrs. Brackett once said to Emerson regarding reform work that she would just as soon "hear that her friends were dead" than "that they [had become] Transcendentalists." Because, you see, Transcendentalists, she said, "are paralysed & never DO anything for humanity." They just 'sit down and do nothing' once they take up Transcendentalism. (MBV, JMN 8:119-120, emphasis mine)

So what IS the truth about Emerson, as a reformer and activist? Was he a 'doer of nothing?' or 'one whose power could transform hell itself?'

Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we say that we treasure, as one of our major sources of inspiration, "the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil [in our society] with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love." I believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of these prophetic persons, and that, in the example of his life, we can find many words and deeds to challenge and uplift us today, as we go about our work of social justice making, that sacred business that all Americans are called to be about: the business of shaping our society's character into ever-greater approximations of a 'just and compassionate society,' ever-working toward the establishment of the common good.

Emerson gave some serious thought about this business very early on. In one of his sermons, he concluded that, "we constitute the state,"

In Emerson's own day, as in ours, there was so much social justice work that needed to be done. One Sunday, as Emerson reviewed for his congregation all of the social justice work that had only just been recently undertaken in the America of his day, he made the observation that these evils that we are working on now have always been with us. They're nothing new. Indeed. "These are evils that have been felt from the foundation of the world." But we, as a society, never did anything about them before, because "never was it suspected that they had remedy or alleviation until now." In other words, we just didn't see the particular problem well enough before to know what to do about it even though the problem was always there and remedies available. The focus of our attention was elsewhere. Says Emerson:

"It is only [now] that eyes of love and understandings of discernment have scrutinized things which other [generations] passed by without inquiry."

That's what makes the difference: somebody looked at a problem and studied it. And that's what every generation needs to do: keep looking, keep studying their society, in order

Very often the catalyst that gets the whole process of reform going is some prophet who calls our attention to a crying need whose time has finally come. Later in life, Emerson would say that this is the very reason that the soul exists in this world: to be a prophetic voice in the face of social injustice, to be, as he puts it, "the counterbalance of all falsehood and all wrong." (AW83)

During Emerson's years in the ministry, for him, one such prophetic voice was Jesus of Nazareth. For Emerson, Jesus was an example of how the ideas of a prophet

"Bible societies, Temperance societies, Sunday Schools, Peace Societies… Associations for the correction of Prison Discipline, for the Diffusion of useful knowledge, for the abolition of slavery, and every other benevolent enterprize…" All the result of somebody's

During his years in the Unitarian ministry, Emerson began to find his social justice voice as many ministers do: through the sermon-writing process itself. Thinking through some issue, figuring out-not just what to say or how to say it-but first figuring out just what is it, exactly, that you really think. Clarifying it for yourself. What is it that you see? And how is your vision on this issue connected with everything else you believe?

In his sermons, Emerson worked out his understandings of many of the things that would form the foundation for all the social justice work he would be about during his lifetime:

In the process of thinking through all of these things and then sharing them in his sermons with various Unitarian congregations, Emerson's prophetic voice began to sound here and there from New England pulpits:

the cause

That's how it started for Emerson in the 1830s. From his writing desk at home, to the pulpit, with words like those. Then he began to

Many events triggered a public response from Emerson,

All of these prompted public responses from Emerson, in one form or another.

Like I said, what really got Emerson's goat was the passage of the Fugitive Slave law in 1850 because it superceded state law and required states, like Emerson's own Massachusetts, to use their legal and enforcement powers to capture runaway slaves who had found freedom in the North and return them to their Southern masters. Emerson asks in a speech (prompted by his outrage over this law that legally obligated everybody to be a slave-catcher):

The levity [i.e., the want of seriousness] of the public mind has been shown in the past year by the most extravagant actions. Who could have believed it, if foretold, that a hundred guns would be fired in Boston on the passage of the Fugitive Slave bill? Nothing proves the want of all thought, the absence of standard in [people's] minds more than the dominion of party.

Here are humane people who have tears for misery, an open purse for want, who should have been the defenders of the poor man, are found [to be] his embittered enemies, rejoicing in his rendition [his return to slavery]-merely from party ties.

I thought [no one except those] ready to go on all fours, would back this law. And yet here are upright men, compotes mentis, husbands, fathers, trustees, friends, open, generous, brave, who can see nothing in this claim for bare humanity and the health and honor of their native state, but canting fanaticism [and] sedition… Because of this preoccupied mind, the whole wealth and power of Boston-200,000 souls, and 180 millions of money-are thrown into the scale of crime; and the poor black boy, whom the fame of Boston had reached in the recesses of a rice-swamp, or in the alleys of Savannah, on arriving here, finds all this force employed to catch him. The famous town of Boston is his master's hound[!]

The learning of the Universities, the culture of elegant society, the acumen of lawyers, the majesty of the Bench, the eloquence of the Christian pulpit, the stoutness of Democracy, the respectability of the Whig party, are all combined to kidnap him. (AW 56)

"Laws do not MAKE right, but are simply declaratory of a right which already existed… An immoral law makes it [one's] duty to break it, at every hazard… This law must be made inoperative. It must be abrogated and wiped out of the statue book; but, whilst it stands there, it must be disobeyed." (AW 57, 71, emphasis mine)

So what is the truth about Emerson as reformer? Was he a doer of nothing?

Today we know more about what Emerson did in the 25 years after Mrs. Brackett made her comment in 1840 that he and his Transcendentalist friend "never DO anything for humanity." We know about the social justice work they did in the decades leading up to the Civil War and the emancipation of all slaves, and we also know about the Transcendentalists' work in the areas of women's rights, economic justice, and religious pluralism too.

Today, we also know that social justice is

We know that social justice work includes all of these things but we know as well that social justice work also involves the "work of words":

And so, today, within the Unitarian Universalist Association, we encourage people

Surely Emerson played to his own strengths. Rather than join an organization and become a spokesman for its platform, he operated as an individual social critic, sharing his own ideas and principles, making his arguments in speeches and in print, with both passion and eloquence. He did what suited him best, what he felt called to do, and he not only shaped public opinion, he inspired many people to act, to agitate for change, and to make it happen.

It is an interesting observation out of all of Emerson's transcendentalist friends, not one of them could square the principles of his philosophy with the existence of slavery. In fact, most of them took considerable risks in their efforts to bring about social change. (Albert Von Frank, adapted from TAB)

Maybe Father Taylor was stretching things a bit when he said that Emerson would transform hell itself if he ended up there. On the other hand, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine Emerson inspiring enough people there with his way of thinking and their completely transforming the place. He certainly could have been the prophetic voice that set the whole reform-of-hell process in motion… But, then again, that is probably something we'll never know for sure.

What we do know, however, is that in the middle of the 19th century, during troubled times in this land, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a player on the reform scene, providing insight, inspiration, encouragement, and challenge to many. And, today, for many of us, he's still doing the same.


von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. (TAB)

von Frank, Albert J. "Mrs. Brackett's Verdict: Magic and Means in Transcendental Antislavery Work," in Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Edited by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1999. (MBV)

Garvey, T. Gregory, editor. The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform. Athens, Georgia and London: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson's Antislavery Writings. Edited by Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. (AW)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Editors, Albert J. von Frank, Teresa Toulouse, Andrew Delbanco, Ronald A. Bosco, and Wesley T. Mott. 4 vols. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1989-1992. (CS) with sermon numbers given in Roman numerals.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by William H. Gilman, et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982. (JMN)

Gougeon, Len. Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press

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