The Rise Of Transcendentalism Essay Research Paper

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The Rise Of Transcendentalism Essay, Research Paper The Emergence of Transcendentalism The emergence of the Transcendentalists as an identifiable movement took place during the late 1820s and 1830s, but the roots of their religious philosophy extended much farther back into American religious history. Transcendentalism and evangelical Protestantism followed separate evolutionary branches from American Puritanism, taking as their common ancestor the Calvinism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In exploring their respective departures from Calvinism we can begin to map out the common ground the two movements shared. Transcendentalism cannot be properly understood outside the context of Unitarianism, the dominant religion in Boston during the early nineteenth century.

Unitarianism had developed during the late eighteenth century as a branch of the liberal wing of Christianity, which had separated from Orthodox Christianity during the First Great Awakening of the 1740s. That Awakening, along with its successor, revolved around the questions of divine election and original sin, and saw a brief period of revivalism. The Liberals tended to reject both the persisent Orthodox belief in inherent depravity and the emotionalism of the revivalists; on one side stood dogma, on the other stood pernicious “enthusiasm.” The Liberals, in a kind of amalgamation of Enlightenment principles with American Christianity, began to stress the value of intellectual reason as the path to divine wisdom. The Unitarians descended as the Boston contingent of this

tradition, while making their own unique theological contribution in rejecting the doctrine of divine trinity. Unitarians placed a premium on stability, harmony, rational thought, progressive morality, classical learning, and other hallmarks of Enlightenment Christianity. Instead of the dogma of Calvinism intended to compel obedience, the Unitarians offered a philosophy stressing the importance of voluntary ethical conduct and the ability of the intellect to discern what constituted ethical conduct. Theirs was a “natural theology” in which the individual could, through empirical investigation or the exercise of reason, discover the ordered and benevolent nature of the universe and of God’s laws. Divine “revelation,” which took its highest form in the Bible, was an

external event or process that would confirm the findings of reason. William Ellery Channing, in his landmark sermon “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) sounded the characteristic theme of optimistic rationality: Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books…. With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.22 The

intellectual marrow of Unitarianism had its counterbalance in a strain of sentimentalism: while the rational mind could light the way, the emotions provided the drive to translate ethical knowledge into ethical conduct. Still, the Unitarians deplored the kind of excessive emotionalism that took place at revivals, regarding it as a temporary burst of religious feeling that would soon dissipate. Since they conceived of revelation as an external favor granted by God to assure the mind of its spiritual progress, they doubted that inner “revelation” without prior conscious effort really represented a spiritual transformation. Nonetheless, even in New England Evangelical Protestants were making many converts through their revivalist activities, especially in the 1820s and 1830s.