ONE } Transcendentalism and the Secular Turn
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} 11 In 1950, Perry Miller observed that, at root, American transcen‑ dentalism was a “religious demonstration,” an expression of “religious radical‑ ism in revolt against a rational conservatism” and “a protest of the human spirit against emotional starvation.” Transcendentalism, he wrote, is best understood as having an “inherently religious character,” rather than being seen as primar‑ ily a literary movement. What was being demonstrated was a protest against the Unitarian marriage of liberal Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism, a restless radicalism that Miller connected to other generational revolts “by the youth of America against American Philistinism.”1 To the thousands of Americans caught up in the revivals of evangelical Prot‑ estantism that periodically swept the nation in the decades between the early 1800s and the late 1850s, Miller’s claim that transcendentalism had anything to do with religion as they understood it would have been met with skepticism, if not derision. Abandoning the orthodox Calvinist emphasis on predestination, revivalist preachers were confronting listeners with the enormity of their sin and with the opportunity to seize the gift of salvation. Believers were encour‑ aged to exercise a spiritual freedom of choice, one that echoed the expanding white male enfranchisement in those decades, but also found a parallel between politics and salvation that would at the same time be employed by advocates of women’s rights. In contrast to this deeply emotional yet also highly engineered mass movement, marrying earthly democratic values with a new commitment to the supernatural divine, transcendental radicalism could well appear to be a frail alternative. I embrace Perry Miller’s claim that transcendentalism was a “demonstra‑ tion”—a collective undertaking about which some general claims can be made, despite the movement’s own whimsical sense, even then, that the only thing that bound its adherents together was their penchant for disagreement. But I also engage and complicate Miller’s claim that what was being demonstrated could be called “religious,” at least as the term was understood in the nineteenth century. Certainly, the religious debates that pitted orthodox Calvinists against liberals and then Unitarian liberals against some transcendentalists involved arguments about authority, miracles, the status of scripture, the nature of the trinity, the personhood of Jesus and the supposedly unique revelation of the di‑ One } Transcendentalism and the Secular Turn 12 { Chapter One vine in his ministry, and, most of all, the relationship between the divine and the human. All these subjects were substantial and hugely significant for the dispu‑ tants. So, in one sense, most readers would find Miller’s claim to be common‑ sensical: transcendentalists, especially those at work in the mid to late 1830s and into the 1840s, many of them Unitarian clergy, were steeped in religion. They talked religion, they wrote about it, they were consumed by it, even if their evan‑ gelical and orthodox neighbors would and did scorn their claims and insights. At the same time, transcendentalists were taking initial but decisive steps that led them away from the religious landscape of most of their fellow Ameri‑ cans, toward a secular, human, and this-­ worldly identity, though not with‑ out struggle, regret, and nostalgia. Transcendentalists in the nineteenth cen‑ tury were taking their first steps toward secularity along with others in North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Some critics and theorists, particu‑ larly in Germany, had already advanced toward atheism, while others, including many American transcendentalists, clung to historical language and biblical ref‑ erences. Still, in one form or another, transcendentalism’s embrace of secularity, while halting, was a collective, forward-­ looking enterprise that emphasized ex‑ perimentation and innovation in individual behavior, social reform, and creative expression. Transcendentalists were not, nor were most of their descendants, secular materialists, wedded to a mechanistic and deterministic view of the uni‑ verse. They were convinced of the distinctive nature of intensely felt experiences that exceeded ordinary life’s routines and interactions. For the transcendentalists and their legitimate heirs, meaningful lives were lived and grounded in the human sphere. In their formulations, everything about the divine was relocated in the human; all the questions of authority were referred to human confirmations. All the social reforms that transcendentalists championed (however imperfectly and belatedly), including educational reform, abolition of slavery, communitarianism, labor, the fuller involvement of women in public life, and the encouragement of women’s sense of self-­ worth, had as their final goal what they understood to be the kingdom of God on earth: the re‑ demption of society from all sin and limitation, the ultimate...


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