Transcendentalism for the New Age

Over the past twenty years, Unitarian Universalism has undergone a shift in consciousness. Many UU churches over much of the twentieth century have served as havens for the religiously displaced, those who emerged from the rigid dogmatism of mostly Christian churches that preached uncomfortable messages of sin and damnation. These religious fugitives sought a more rational and intellectual religious environment and our churches and its ministers have complied. But many of the people who have found a home in our churches over the past two decades have grown up in churches that did not offer the opportunity for expanded religious inquiry or they grew up in no church at all. Many UUs over these past two decades have craved greater spirituality in their churches and the opportunity to develop individual spiritual practices.

In our own contemporary search for spiritual renewal, Unitarian Universalists have explored a variety of religious paths - Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Wicca and other earth-based spiritualities - but not our own religious heritage. In 1989, UU and Emerson scholar David Robinson observed, "Like a pauper who searches for the next meal, never knowing of the relatives whose will would make him rich, American Unitarians lament their vague religious identity, standing upon the richest theological legacy of any American denomination. Possessed of a deep and sustaining history of spiritual achievement and philosophical speculation, religious liberals have been, ironically, dispossessed of that heritage."

The heritage to which Robinson refers is that left to us by that group we call the American Transcendentalists - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and dozens of others, mostly young Unitarian ministers. Most UUs know vaguely of the Transcendentalists, their alleged pantheism, their love of Nature, their intellectual and literary power. But what is the "spiritual achievement" the Transcendentalists have bequeathed to us?

American Transcendentalism curiously found itself in a similar situation to our own. Theodore Parker described the Transcendentalists' desire for spiritual growth when he wrote in his journal, "I felt early that the liberal ministers did not do justice to simple religious feeling: "all their preaching seemed to relate too much to outward things, not enough to the inward pious life". Most powerfully preaching to the Understanding, the Conscience, and the Will, the cry was ever, 'Duty, Duty!' 'Work, Work!' They failed to address with equal power the Soul, and did not also shout, 'Joy, Joy!' 'Delight, Delight!'"

As a result, the Transcendentalists developed what we might identify as a set of behaviors that I believe offer us a unique opportunity to share - across the religious paths we follow as individuals - a uniquely Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice. That spiritual practice begins with what Robinson calls a "theology of self-culture." Self-culture is a term the Transcendentalists used to convey an overarching philosophy of the spirit. The word "self" was a religious word that meant "soul." When Emerson coined the term "self-reliance," for example, he did not mean it as we do today to refer to rugged individualism, but as an inner reliance on our own divinity as opposed to what the literary critic Harold Bloom calls "God-reliance."

The word "culture," in addition, did not carry the anthropological or social associations of today, but grew out of the horticultural associations of germination and development, associations that connected nature with spirit. In his journal, Emerson writes, "I behold with awe &)delight many illustrations of the One Universal Mind. I see my being imbedded in it. As a plant in the earth so I grow in God."

Self-culture, then, referred to the cultivation of the soul in individuals. In his address on self-culture, William Ellery Channing defined it by writing, "To cultivate any thing, be it a plant, an animal, a mind, is to make it grow. Growth, expansion is the end. He, therefore, who does what he can to unfold all his powers of capacities, especially his nobler ones, so as to become a well-proportioned, vigorous, excellent, happy being, practices self-culture."

The Transcendentalists believed in a process of lifelong spiritual growth. In her Memoirs, Margaret Fuller acknowledged this process when she wrote, "Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow. I was often false to this knowledge, in idolatries of particular objects, or impatient longings for happiness, but I have never lost sight of it, have always been controlled by it, and this first gift of love has never been superceded by a later love."

How can this Transcendentalist theology of self-culture serve as the foundation for a contemporary Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice? The practices I will outline will not be new to many of you. My interest in bringing these practices to you is to encourage you to see them as a unified approach to spirituality that is part of our UU heritage. In addition, individual UUs follow many religious paths; this Transcendentalist approach to spirituality is a method that can be practiced by Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Witches, and Religious Humanists alike, so it unifies us a Unitarian Universalists, even as we travel our own religious paths.

What are these spiritual practices? Barry M. Andrews, in his book Emerson as Spiritual Guide, outlines these practices and it is as a result of reading and using this book, which I used last summer when I taught "The Transcendentalist Celebration of Nature" at the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI), that I was first inspired to explore Transcendentalism as a spiritual practice for UUs. Andrews identifies six spiritual practices: writing, contemplation, the appreciation of nature, reading, observing the Sabbath, and conversation. I have reconfigured these practices as follows:

1. Nature
2. Contemplation/Prayer/Meditation
3. Reading/Sacred Texts
4. Writing/Journal-Keeping
5. Conversation
6. Sacred Space/Sacred Time
7. Creative Expression
The Transcendentalists believed that each of these practices involved the direct experience of God, the nurturing of the soul, and spiritual growth. By engaging in these spiritual practices, we may cultivate our own intuitive grasp of spiritual knowledge.


Nature served as the dominant trope in Transcendentalist discourse. In nature, the Transcendentalists saw the presence of the divine. In his journal, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "My profession is always to be on the alert to find God in nature, to know his lurking places, to attend all the oratories, the operas in nature". To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature." Margaret Fuller considered nature a temple erected to its god.

In his essay Nature, Emerson depicts nature in this way: "The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right."

For the Transcendentalists, the appreciation of nature meant being in and being with nature. As a spiritual practice, this relationship, this interactivity between human beings and nature may take many forms and it helps to be creative at a time in history when it is more difficult to enjoy nature the way the Transcendentalists did. It may mean spending time in natural environments, outside of and separate from our life at work, or appreciating the plants, animals, and all sentient beings that surround us, even in a bustling city. In his essay "Walking," Thoreau suggests the purpose of time spent walking in nature as this: "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit." As a spiritual practice, then, nature is something we experience.


Contemplation, for the Transcendentalists, was a vehicle for mindfully and thoughtfully experiencing our own divinity. I incorporate contemplation with a series of related activities -- prayer, meditation, and reflection. In his first sermon, based on I Thessalonians 5:17 ("Pray without ceasing."), Emerson preached on prayer: "It is not only when we audibly and in form, address our petitions to the Deity, that we pray. We pray without ceasing. Every secret wish is a prayer. Every desire of the human mind is a prayer uttered to God and registered in heaven." For Emerson, "true prayers are the daily, hourly, momentary desires, that come without impediment, without fear, into the soul."

For Emerson, prayer was something we felt in our core being, unfettered by the obstacles that often prevent from knowing ourselves. Many UUs already practice meditation in various forms, but I believe it is equally important to consider what it means to contemplate, to reflect, to consider ourselves and those around us thoughtfully and carefully and genuinely.

Reading/Sacred Texts

Books and reading were also very important for the Transcendentalists. Emerson believed books should be read, not for the information they contained, but for inspiration, or what he called "lustres." For Thoreau, books exist to "explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may fine somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life."

The Transcendentalists were especially interested in what they called "ethical scriptures" and they read widely among the world's religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufi poetry. Thoreau produced the first English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita and James Freeman Clarke wrote one of the earliest works in comparative religions, Ten Great Religions. Making time for reading religious and sacred texts is a challenge in our own time. We don't easily turn to sacred texts and their study, and when we do, we often find ourselves confused because these texts seem mysterious and from a different time. We can locate sacred texts from all of the world's religions, but also from contemporaries whose commentary on the sacred is often easier for us to access. In addition, the Transcendentalists were not limited in the books they chose to read, and neither should we be. Their reading was eclectic and included poetry, philosophy, mythology, history, science and biography.


Most of the Transcendentalists kept a journal and the journals produced by them are among their most important works. For Emerson, the importance of keeping a journal was this: "It is not for what is recorded, though that may be the agreeable entertainment of later years, and the pleasant remembrances of what we were, but for the habit of rendering account to yourself of yourself in some more rigorous manner and at more certain intervals than mere conversation or casual reverie of solitude require." For Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, his journals were a mirror to himself.

Journal keeping has re-emerged in recent years and local bookstores often provide a wide variety of books for the purpose of writing. How do we write in them? What do we write? What is the purpose of journal writing? It helps to think about journal keeping as a way of getting to know ourselves. As a college teacher, I often use journal-writing as a way to help students understand what they read or what they think because writing incorporates both motor and cognitive skills that cause ideas and emotions to surface that would have remained buried had they not been practiced together.


The Transcendentalists organized "conversations" through the Transcendental Club and other means. Alcott had this to say about the importance of verbal communication: "My theory of Conversation as the natural organ of communicating, mind with mind, appears more and more beautiful to me. It is the method of human culture. By it I come nearer the hearts of those whom I shall address than by any other means."

Margaret Fuller held a series of Conversations for women at the bookshop owned by Elizabeth Peabody, which also carried homeopathic supplies and art supplies. Influenced by similar conversations established by Bronson Alcott, the purpose of these events was "designed to encourage women in self-expression and independent thinking," a radical practice for women in the mid-nineteenth century.

Emerson had this to say about the spiritual role of conversation:

And so in groups where debate is earnest, and especially on high Questions, the company become aware that the thought rises to an equal level in all bosoms, that all have a spiritual property in what was said, as well as the sayer. They all become wiser than they were. It arches over them like a temple, this unity of thought, in which every heart beats with a nobler sense of power and duty, and thinks and acts with unusual solemnity. All are conscious of attaining to a higher self-possession. It shines for all.
Today, book discussions, discussion groups, and community circles are familiar to most UUs. The reading, contemplation, and writing activities that make up the other spiritual practices embodied in self-culture can be easily enlisted as the substance of such conversations as the ones practiced by the Transcendentalists.

Sacred Time/Sacred Space

In his essay "Life without Principle," Thoreau wrote: "This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work." The Transcendentalists were not merely interested in observing the Sabbath as an obligation, but believed it was important to take time away from the regularity of our daily lives.

In addition, in his lecture on "Human Culture," Emerson encouraged his listeners to organize sacred space in their homes: "In your arrangements for your residence see that you have a chamber to yourself, though you sell your coat and wear a blanket." It was important for the Transcendentalists to consecrate time and space and it is important for UUs to do the same, because this practice preserves for us a place and day for the mindful practice of spirituality.

Creative Expression

Although not as well known, many of the Transcendentalists were music and art lovers. Sophia Peabody's bookshop carried art supplies. The Transcendentalists were also interested in aesthetics; according to Ellen Moore, the Transcendentalists "believed that function was just as important, if not more so, as form, and that art lies in the process, or the experience, and not so much in the product." For Emerson, art was "the spirit creative." In his article "Thoughts on Art" for The Dial in 1841, Emerson wrote, "Art is the spirit's voluntary use and combination of things to serve its end."

Christopher Pearse Cranch, considered by some to be the most eclectic in his interests, was interested in art, music, and theatre. He was a painter influenced by the Hudson River School, and an avid music lover, especially of the music of Beethoven. The Transcendentalist community at Brook Farm, moreover, engaged in music, dramatic readings, and plays. Performances of Shakespeare and signing were common, as were visitors such as Cranch who provided musical entertainment. Many UUs are involved in music, art and theatre, but the Transcendentalists remind us that this appreciation also serves the spirit.

All of the spiritual practices outlined here are best practiced together. Reading sacred texts, for example, may then be discussed through formal conversations or used as prompts for meditation. The Transcendentalists did not have television, the Internet, films and other pastimes to compete with reading, writing, and contemplation, so it is sometimes a challenge for us today to find the time to engage our spirit as the Transcendentalists did.

These spiritual practices are part of the interwoven fabric of self-culture. Think of this process as a series of concentric circles beginning with our own individual, spiritual awareness as the innermost circle. Out of that circle our spiritual growth is nurtured. Out of that circle we integrate our spiritual and material lives. Out of that circle we gain wisdom through experience and reflection. And finally, out of that circle we put these insights into practice in our communities and our world. In his article "The Roots of Unitarian Universalist Spirituality in New England Transcendentalist," Barry Andrews argues that "The Transcendentalists believed that spirituality required an outward manifestation of inward aspirations. In other words, the moral and the spiritual are necessarily interrelated. Accordingly, the Transcendentalists sought to achieve a congruence between spiritual insights and ethical actions in all areas of their lives."

I believe this theology of self-culture has the power to transform us and to transform our churches. It is a celebration of our religious heritage, and it reconnects us to our church community.

A Sermon delivered at Unitarian Universalist Community Church
Glen Allen, Virginia
February 6, 2005

Jane E. Rosecrans, Ph.D.
Ideas & thought: