TWO } Transcendentalism in the Postwar Years
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38 { Two } Transcendentalism in the Postwar Years From its very beginning, transcendentalism has been a con‑ tested site. What was it, and what to call it? “Transcendentalism,” after Kant’s transcendental philosophy? “The Newness,” or “the Party of Hope,” as the tran‑ scendentalists themselves suggested? A new system, or the restatement of old ideas and aspirations? Its opponent Andrews Norton called transcendentalism a “new school” populated by “silly women . . . and silly young men,” and Orestes Brownson saw it as the logical consequence of Protestantism in upholding the right of private judgment.1 Even in 1861, when red-­ hot abolitionists and tran‑ scendentalists like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and scions of prominent Bos‑ ton families like the Shaws, all readers of Emerson’s essays and the Dial, took up their commissions, and when transcendentalist women like Louisa May Alcott rolled bandages, held fund-­raisers, and worked in hospitals, it was far from clear how much the Union’s goals in the conflict mirrored transcendentalist values or abolitionist purposes. In the postwar years, transcendentalism was similarly contested. Who could best interpret it? What legacy, if any, did it leave for the next generation? Did it have a place or use in the war-­ altered social and cultural landscape? The argument over the meaning and influence of transcendentalism, already raging before the Civil War, boiled up again before the war’s end. A week before the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, a national con‑ vention of Unitarian leaders meeting in New York City adopted a resolution iden‑ tifying Unitarianism as a Christian denomination under the rule of the “Lord Christ” and pledging devotion to the work of “building up the kingdom.” Samuel Johnson, transcendentalist, essayist, and pioneering anthropologist of religion, took to the pages of the Radical to denounce the silencing of all dissenting voices and the “aristocratic tone of some of the speakers.”2 This effort to transform Unitarian Christianity into its own denomination was spearheaded by New York clergyman Henry Bellows, aided by James Free‑ man Clarke, often considered a companion of the transcendentalists but now persuaded to join the cause of uniformity. Bellows and his allies had become increasingly alarmed both by the continued growth of evangelical and orthodox versions of Protestant Christianity and by the growing number of young men at Harvard Divinity School and elsewhere who were attracted to the post-­Christian Transcendentalism in the Postwar Years } 39 spirituality of transcendentalism. The head of the United States Sanitary Com‑ mission during the war, Bellows was repelled by what he took to be the anar‑ chic individualism of transcendentalism evident already in the 1840s and early 1850s, when Theodore Parker’s refusal to resign from his Unitarian affiliation had caused profound fissures in the liberal camp. In the wake of Parker’s attacks on the historicity of Christianity, many seminarians before and during the war years, including Higginson, Johnson, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, David At‑ wood Wasson, and Francis Ellingwood Abbot, who called themselves “radicals,” sought to liberate religion from its specific Christian tradition and vocabulary. Where to relocate it, whether in the experience of the individual or in the discov‑ erable patterns of law-­bound nature, would be subject to vigorous disagreement. Still, for orthodox Protestant leaders, this disaffiliation from historic Christian‑ ity was exactly what they had feared would be the result of the Unitarian revolt earlier in the century, and exactly what Bellows and Clarke wished to forestall in reshaping the Unitarian movement as a Protestant denomination. In a series of essays in the Radical starting in December 1865, Johnson identi‑ fied the key issue separating “denominational” Unitarians from the radicals as that of authority. As a natural and universal fact of human experience, religious consciousness must rely on the authority of the self, what Johnson thought of as a spiritual consciousness. “The representative of the Spiritual Nature in each person is the state of his religious consciousness, the condition of light or dark‑ ness, good or evil therein. It is always this, not Bible, Church, or Miracle that de‑ termines his belief. When he thinks he is judging by their authority, he is really judging by this, and its authority. It is idle to talk of infallible revelations, of supernatural proofs, when there stands behind all teachers, a judge within us, who decides for us what every doctrine shall mean. We rely on this authority, and cannot help it.”3 In contrast, historical Christianity stakes its claim on external authorities and...


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