Emerson was a manuscript preacher who saved his old sermons and reused many of them. He also kept a preaching record, giving each of his sermons a number (and, in only a few exceptional cases, a title) and recording where and when he preached each one of them. Some sermons he only used once, most he used a few times, some more than 15 times, and one sermon (no. X) he actually gave 27 times! Almost all of his sermon manuscripts survive and can be found at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. (See appendix materials for a complete listing of Emerson’s sermon manuscript numbers and the corresponding Houghton Library numbers.)
As of 1992, we now have, for the first time, all of Emerson’s extant sermons in print. They are available in the four volumes of The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Albert J. von Frank et al., and published by the University of Missouri Press. The editors produced two computerized versions of the sermons from Emerson’s handwritten originals: call one a work-in-progress version and the other a final-copy-for-the-pulpit version. The genetic text (work-in-progress) version reveals Emerson’s composition process by showing all of Emerson’s deletions, insertions and other revisions that he made as he was writing and revising his sermons in preparation for the next preaching event. (The editors used symbols like angle brackets, plus signs and asterisks to indicate where Emerson had made his revisions and what he revised.) The clear text (final-copy-for-the-pulpit) version is very much like what manuscript preachers do today when, after they have entered into their computer all of the changes they’ve made to their working draft, they print out a clean copy to take with them to use in the pulpit. The clear texts are like that: very clean, very readable texts and they are published that way in The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with textual notes about Emerson’s revisions provided in the back pages of each volume. The genetic text version of Emerson’s sermons, never published before, are published here, for the first time, on this website, with the assistance of Professor von Frank and the permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
The genetic texts on this website are not as readable as their previously published clear text counterparts are, and so, in no way, do they replace them. They do, however, afford us a previously unavailable glimpse of Emerson’s process as a sermon writer. And they also enable us to appreciate in a new way just how much we owe to the editors of The Collected Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. To compare a genetic text with a clear text is to begin to see just how much was actually involved in the journey from Emerson’s pulpit manuscripts to their final arrival in print. Indeed, the more I compare the two versions, the better able I am to appreciate the accomplishment that the clear texts represent. The other thing to note about the genetic texts on this site is that they are being offered here as searchable Word files, which should be of great benefit to anyone doing research on Emerson’s sermons.
For further discussion about textual matters involving the editing of Emerson’s sermons, including some of the basic guidelines and assumptions used by the editors in their work, see pages 33-39 in vol. 1 of The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. For another discussion of genetic and clear text issues, see Albert J. von Frank, Genetic Versus Clear Texts: Reading and Writing Emerson, Documentary Editing 9 (December 1987): 5-9.
Other useful information that can be found in each of the University of Missouri Press volumes of The Collected Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson include: a detailed chronology of Emerson’s ministry-related events; descriptions of each of Emerson’s handwritten pulpit manuscripts; footnotes identifying Biblical and other allusions in Emerson’s sermons; footnotes identifying when Emerson has used a substantial section of one of his journals or notebooks in a sermon; footnotes identifying sections of sermons which Emerson later used in subsequent lectures and essays; a complete index of Biblical references; an end of volume index in each volume; and, in volume four, a cumulative index covering all four volumes.
A word of caution about the titles you sometimes see given to Emerson’s sermons. Almost all of them are not Emerson’s titles, but are the titles that Arthur Cushman McGiffert Jr. gave to them in his 1938 collection of Emerson’s sermons, Young Emerson Speaks. As a rule, Emerson did not title his sermons, he numbered them. There are, however, nine sermons that Emerson apparently gave both a title and a number: