Self-Reliance | Ralph Waldo Emerson




The original Hippie? Prophet of the 19th century counterculture?


John Quincy Adams: “wild and visionary phantasies” that undermined “the most important and solemn duties of the Christian faith.”


Ex-president John Quincy Adams wrote concerning him in 1840: "After failing in the everyday vocations of a Unitarian preacher and schoolmaster, he starts a new doctrine of transcendentalism, declares all the old revelations superannuated and worn out, and announces the approach of new revelations."  (


John Jay Chapman: he did more than any other man “to rescue the youth of the next generation and fit them for the fierce times to follow. It will not be denied that he sent ten thousand sons to the war.”



Not an exciting life; his real life was an inner one

Born in Boston in 1803 – 3rd of 6 sons – considered silliest and least promising of them all

Came from eight generations of American clergymen; father is a Unitarian.

Eccentric: eats pie for breakfast every morning

Father dies when Ralph was only eight, taking down the family’s financial standing

Early on, he has his own mind. Read Pensees during sermons at church and curled up with the Dialogues of Plato as he went under a wool blanket in his cold upper room. (Always associated Plato with smell of wool.)

Young Emerson is sickly – eyes and lungs

His aunt (father’s sister), Mary Moody Emerson, a staunch Puritan, inspires him to seek excellence and spirituality

Went to Boston Latin School

Despite limited resources, his mother put Ralph and three of her other sons through Harvard. Emerson goes at 14

At Harvard, he accepts higher criticism, which claims that the Bible is just another book

After graduating from Harvard at age 18, he teaches young women in a school in the family’s home

In 1825, four years later, he enters Harvard Divinity School.

Doesn’t embrace Unitarianism, but doesn’t embrace orthodox Christianity, either. He has more and more doubts in life. Some parallels to Darwin, who was a divinity student at Cambridge but struggled to make a happy marriage between Christian belief and the thought of the time. Emerson said that prayers and rituals of the church were not in line with way people live. (Enduring challenge for the church.)


He wanted to find God in nature: “the world is a temple, whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures, and commandments of the Deity…” Poets take the place of priests or pastors. Buys home at Walden Pond later in life to commune with nature.


In 1829 Thoreau marries neautiful and wealthy Ellen Tucker and at age 26, became pastor of Second Church in Boston (Unitarian), [Founded in 1649 - the Church of Mather Dynasty: Increase, Cotton, and Samuel Mather served Second Church from 1664 to 1741. Second Church played a major role in the American Revolution. "A nest of traitors" was their reputation among the British. There is some opinion that it was the Second Church from which the lanterns were hung on the night of Paul Revere's ride.]


Two years later, Ellen died of tuberculosis, a disease which half of the

citizens of Boston contracted in those years . Resigns the pastorate after only three years and travels to Europe.


Christianity is “a rule of life, not a rule of faith.” “Christianity is wrongly received by all such as take it for a system of doctrines.” Also, “every man’s reason is sufficient for his guidance.” “The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” Cult of the self sows seeds of modern theological liberalism, “the divine sufficiency of the individual.”


Came back to US. “He got acquainted with another wealthy young woman, Lydia Jackson, and they married and moved to a new home in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1835. A descendant of the Jackson family is still active in the Concord Unitarian Church today. Lydia and Ralph had four children: Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward, between 1836 and 1844. Emerson was close with his children, taking them on walks of his property, including Walden Pond, quoting poetry to them, and spending time in instruction and in play. His son, Waldo's death, was the second great blow to his optimism. Some time after both his first wife, Ellen's death, and some years after his son, Waldo's death, he opened the graves and looked at the bodies. This seemed to be psychologically necessary for him so that he could go on with his life.”


“Emerson gave some 1,500 public lectures. Most of the lectures were in Massachusetts,
but he traveled to California, and spoke often in the Midwest and in New York state. He spoke generally in lyceums, the YMCAs or community colleges of his day, rather than, primarily, the great universities. He spoke to ordinary people and not just the elite.” (


At Harvard Divinity School in 1838, he gives a lecture where he advocates the divinity of man and the humanity of Christ.


Becomes increasingly radical later in life. Advocates open marriage (practiced?). Abandons any hope of redemption. Dismisses any idea of human sinfulness. Idea he advocates is self-deification. He comes to embrace ideas such as transmigration of the soul. Monist if not a pantheist. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he claimed.

And decades before Nietzsche, he adopts the idea of the superman who transcends ignorance and custom by learning to trust the ‘god’ within themselves. He appealed to young people with a message of rejecting authority and ‘finding’ themselves.

He was terrified that the individual would be swallowed up by the beast of mechanization and progress.




Decline of Puritanism – becomes external only - gives way to doubt

America is moving beyond 17th and 18th thought patterns – need for a theology to explain industrialization.