It was today, July 15, 1838, that Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous Divinity School address.
It was immediately denounced as a “new infidelity”.
A generation earlier, New England Unitarians had rejected the Trinity and instead focused salvation on “character” by placing the place of salvation on the actions of individuals in his or her life rather than vicarious atonement provided by Jesus Death was reached.
Yet this first generation of Unitarians was deeply rooted in biblical Christianity. Their rejection of the Trinity was mainly due to the fact that, apart from a medieval interpolation, there was no explicit statement of any Trinitarian doctrine in the scriptures. In fact, they continued to claim that the evidence for the Bible was the miracles recorded in the text.
Emerson’s Divinity School Address, given to the senior class of the school, rejected the notion that the scriptural miraculous accounts were evidence of the truth of the teachings therein, thereby expressly denying the need for scripture as divine revelation.
Instead, he explained that the individual’s intuition is sufficient to find their way around. This led to a firestorm within Unitarianism. A fire that has not yet burned out by itself.
There would be a multitude of views among the transcendentalists. And personally, I am much more influenced by Henry Thoreau’s “Thing-In-Itself” than by Emerson’s Platonism. But one thing was certain. In this crowd of Unitarians in New England, something incredibly important was happening. And Mr. Emerson was the focus.
And this address was an important sign of something that would have a profound effect, for better or for worse. I’ll be happy to say much more for the better.
An amazing moment within the emerging spiritualities that shape the modern West.