When we make our hospital visits, my wife I often hear people say they are not religious, but spiritual; they try to be good, help others, and make the world better. They don’t belong to church; they avoid doctrinaire teaching. There is no reason to doubt such people’s sincerity, but the sameness of these remarks gives us pause.
Transcendentalism expresses the laudable human longing for freedom, what makes Henry David Thoreau such an attractive figure, though for all his pretty writing, he wanted Emerson nearby with whiskey and groceries. Some spiritualists became utopians. They tried to found a social order based on their understanding of holiness; to remove themselves from gritty human realities that called their thinking into question. If only we get with the right sort of people we will not have strife. But wherever they went, they found themselves.
If America has any widely held religious belief, it is this spiritualism, which originates from transcendentalism. In his day, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) was its best known proponent. Educated at Harvard Divinity School and ordained in 1829, he soon resigned his pastorate at Second Church, Boston, in 1832. His successors in the movement included Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), George Ripley (1802–80), and about twenty others around Boston. Their intellectual cousins were Unitarian Universalists. William Ellery Channing (1780–1842) was their most famous spokesman. We needn’t their specific teachings here; a good account is found in The Transcendentalist Ministers, by William R. Hutchinson (Yale University Press, 1959).
We cannot all be ministers of the Gospel; somebody has to bake and brew, spin and weave, plow and slaughter, join rail to stile, and all the rest. They soon find themselves in need of coarser folk, whom they could prevent voting or renting pews, but whom they couldn’t control much beyond that.