Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"A Religion by Revelation": Emerson as Radical Restorationist

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"A Religion by Revelation": Emerson as Radical Restorationist

Article excerpt

In his essay, "Reading Transcendental Texts Religiously," Kevin Van Anglen divides students of Emerson (and of Transcendentalism in general) into two "currents" or camps. At Van Anglen's left hand are those who "give a largely secular account" of Emerson's thought, casting him as a freethinker who, in moving away from orthodox religion, served as a "forerunner of later, explicitly nonreligious, intellectual developments" such as postmodernism (152). These critics, Van Anglen alleges, lack "sensitivity" to the "religious dimensions" of Transcendentalism; indeed, they "rob Transcendentalist poetry and prose of their complexity" (166). At Van Anglen's right hand are those critics who "avoid imposing the secularization model upon American cultural history" (166). These critics confess an Emerson who retained an abiding interest in religious questions, whose antinomianism was not a rejection of religious tradition, but rather a kind of "radical puritan[ism]" (163). According to this interpretation, Emerson was not a primarily secular thinker (though he may have had secular tendencies), but was on many counts, at least, the ultimate Protestant.

While I have reservations about what I suspect is the ideology motivating this separation of the sheep from the goats (I will discuss those reservations later), it is not hard to see the trends Van Anglen describes. It is true that some critics represent Emerson's thought as a rupture with Christianity, while others prefer to see the two as continuous. Historians in the first vein tend to recount Emerson's withdrawal from the ministry as a crisis of faith. Historians in the second vein maintain that he exchanged the pulpit for the lectern merely in order to reach a broader--i.e., non-denominational--audience. Where some readings set Emerson alongside Coleridge, Hume, Kant, or Goethe, other criticism reads him in light of Anne Hutchinson, Jonathan Edwards, or William Ellery Channing. John Michael speaks for the critics at Van Anglen's left hand when he calls Emerson a preacher "for the secular religion of self-reliance" (xi); Donald Gelpi speaks for those at the right hand when he asserts that even "the post-Transcendentalist Emerson still proclaimed the Unitarian Christ" (83).

Why are critics able to produce such divergent readings of Emerson? And where does Emerson actually stand in relation to his Protestant heritage? There are, I think, two reasons these questions have proven difficult to answer. First, as David Smith has illustrated, Emerson has been appropriated over the years by various camps eager to remake him in their own image, with the result that a search for the "historical Emerson" becomes a walk through an ideological minefield, something akin to the search for the "historical Jesus." Second, the ways in which critics are accustomed to reading Emerson do not equip them to identify what I consider the primary impulse in Emerson's thought, because that impulse does not inform the texts Emerson is usually read against: other Transcendentalists, the Romantics, the German philosophers, the Puritans, the Unitarians, contemporary postmoderns, etc. While there are important connections between Emerson and these other groups, Emerson is ultimately engaged in a very different project; but to see that, we need to read him against the right texts.

Focusing on the "Divinity School Address," I argue that Emerson engages in a mode of religious discourse called "radical restorationism." As a form of radical restorationism, Emerson's thought is best conceived of neither as breaking with Christianity, nor as continuous with it. Rather, Emerson's thought erupts out of Christianity, in a direction very different from that of the mainstream. Radical restorationism is usually associated with fringe religious movements; Mormonism is the most well-known American example and provides the texts against which I will be reading the "Address." I am arguing, therefore, that Emerson has the same kind of relationship to Christianity that Mormonism has--indeed, that Emerson's thought represents a Transcendentalist take on the same basic tenets on which Mormonism is founded. …

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