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"Liquid Fire Within Me": Language, Self and Society in Transcendentalism and Early Evangelicalism, 1820-1860

Finseth, Ian Frederick
Thesis/Dissertation; Online
Finseth, Ian Frederick
Howard, Alan
Historians and literary scholars have tended to view New England Transcendentalism and early Evangelical Protestantism in isolation from one another. In the classroom and in the scholarly literature, these two most significant religious movements of the antebellum period rarely appear in the same discussion. The Transcendentalists and their literary brethren occupy a kind of ex officio position on the syllabi of college courses in the "American Renaissance," and the evangelical Protestants receive ample attention in courses on nineteenth-century American religious history, but seldom do the twain meet. The respective fiefdoms of Religious Studies and English have found scant common ground on which to explore the variety of revealing intersections between literature and spirituality in American culture -- a phenomenon we may attribute to a long-standing divergence in the vocabularies, theoretical interests and pedagogical aims of each field. Still, the traditional division of Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism involves more than professional speciation. The simplest explanation involves the frankly striking demographic and stylistic differences between the two movements. In the Transcendentalist camp we find a highly educated coterie of the young Boston elite, many of them nurtured at Harvard and its Divinity School, many from well-to-do families. Among the early Evangelical leadership we find a motley collection of homespun, occasionally coarse preachers exhorting their assembled audiences to emotional outbursts of religious ecstasy -- often in a tent, or under the trees. A feeling of incongruity would result not only from the meeting of a Transcendentalist and an Evangelical in the same room, but from their meeting on the same page. The aristocratic figure of Emerson, which he himself described as "apart and critical," would seem as out of place in a discussion of a revivalist camp-meeting as the manic presence of Lorenzo Dow would in a discussion of the genteel conversations of the Transcendentalist Club.  Beyond these stylistic and demographic dissimilarities, other, more significant reasons help to explain the scholarly segregation of Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism. The religious and aesthetic vocabularies they employed differed sharply, and they scarcely ever found occasion to refer to one another. This "self-segregation" derived in part from the fact that the two movements expressed a number of theological beliefs which, strictly speaking, were incompatible (this problem is examined in more detail in the next section). And the social milieu and historical legacy of each movement suggest more differences than they do similarities. The immediate circles in which the Transcendentalists moved all existed in eastern Massachusetts; hence their tangible impact on American society amounted to comparatively little, although they did achieve respectable fame in Europe. The Transcendentalists' true legacy lay in the influence they would exert on American literature and in their articulation of a philosophy that has descended, in one form or another, through some seven generations of American life. By contrast, the Evangelicals cannot really be said to have moved in "circles" at all; rather, they made their mark on American society by bringing religion to anyone and everyone, from the uncouth settlers of Kentucky to the slaves of Mississippi to the homemakers of upper New York state. Their social impact was immediate and widespread, their successes tangible; out to convert as many people as possible, Evangelicals transformed Protestantism and left an indelible imprint on American society.  While the habitual separation of Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism is, in these terms, understandable, one important consequence is to obscure the genuine affinities the two movements shared. The philosophical and religious ripples of Transcendentalism and early Evangelical Protestantism have grown so remote over time that it is easy for descendants of each movement to overlook commonalities in their histories. With the dramatic pluralization of American religion since the middle of the nineteenth century, ideological fissures have developed among the country's various religious or philosophical groups. Transcendentalism and Evangelical Protestantism may be aligned with distinct trends within this religious evolution. The Transcendentalists, through their questioning of Christian hegemony and their affirmation of individual spirituality, helped to blaze the trail for both secular humanism, which has made steady progress during the twentieth century, and for a more recent strain of "new age" mysticism. The Evangelicals, for their part, were instrumental in making the United States a "Protestant nation" and did not relinquish their belief in the importance of Christian churches as loci of moral and social authority. In the centrifuge of history, however, both the religious foundation of Transcendentalism and the radical origins of Evangelical Protestantism have too often been forgotten. Put simply, we expect to see Henry David Thoreau in the classroom or on the coffee table, and a Methodist preacher in the church, leading a congregation in Sunday worship.  By placing Transcendentalism and early Evangelicalism in direct juxtaposition in this essay, I hope to make explicit what is largely implicit in the scholarly literature and in the primary source material: namely, that the two movements shared a fundamentally compatible religious philosophy and derived their strength from kindred emotional and intellectual motives in their audiences. The study attempts not so much a revision of the existing scholarship, which is extensive and generally quite good (within the given parameters), as it does a re-envisioning of the antebellum era itself. By examining the areas of overlap and points of departure in the two belief systems, I try to provide a richer understanding of American society -- its religious aspects in particular -- during the 1830s and 1840 s. First, in what sense may we speak of Transcendentalism and early Evangelicalism as "movements," given the diversity of thought and personality that characterized each? One should be wary of painting either with too broad a brush, or of viewing them as pure and stable systems of belief abstracted from human activity and social change, but it is possible to identify certain consistent intellectual and spiritual themes that the Transcendentalists sounded and others that the Evangelicals sounded. The themes formed the core of their religious philosophies, and acted as ballast against the pressures of ideological and societal flux. Also, the term "movement" should be understood to denote the conscious activities of a group of people promoting a particular belief system or social agenda, and is therefore distinguished from established or inherited systems and agendas that persist out of inertia as much as deliberate endeavor. By "Transcendentalism," I refer to the sermons, journals and published writings of the major contributors to a new philosophical and literary sensibility which developed in Boston through the late 1820s and 1830s, and which continued to be an active, though waning, force through the 1840s. The major Transcendentalists on whose work I draw include Amos Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and Henry David Thoreau, all of whom knew each other and were instrumental in articulating the religious philosophy that received, early in its career, the pejorative epithet of "Transcendentalism."  By "early Evangelicalism," I refer to a more heterogeneous phenomenon: the spread of religious revivalism throughout the country as itinerant preachers brought their version of the gospel to people in less developed regions of the expanding country. This geographical spread accompanied, and hastened, a loosening of the traditional theologetical tenets and ecclesiastical structures of the major Protestant denominations, particularly Baptism, Methodism and Presbyterianism. The principal focus here is on these three denominations because they were the most successful in their efforts to win converts among the general population; by the time of the Civil War, "the South was 90 percent Protestant, and 90 percent of the Protestants were Baptists or Methodists."1 The figures that stand out on this side include Richard Allen, Lyman Beecher, Horace Bushnell, Alexander Campbell, Peter Cartwright, James Freeman Clarke, Lorenzo Dow, and Charles Finney, who, along with their lesser known colleagues, did more than anyone else to "Christianize" the American way of life during the nineteenth century.  A concise statement of the core affinities between Transcendentalism and early Evangelicalism might run as follows: Above all, the two movements affirmed the ability of the individual human being to experience an unmediated relation with or faith in "God." Their spirituality depended not on traditional ecclesiastical structures, nor on a closely reasoned exegesis of the Bible, nor on any external evidence of salvation (known as "works"), but solely on the subjective feeling of communion with the holy spirit. Although they held contrasting theological beliefs of what constituted God, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals rested their religious philosophies on the conviction that God is benevolent, merciful and accessible to every human being. In true antinomian fashion, they described the experience of becoming aware of God as one "of the heart" or as the sensing of an "inner light." Paradoxically, the social strength of both movements in large measure derived from this affirmation of the accessibility of the divine.  A number of striking resemblances follow from this shared fundamental belief. First, a clarion note of optimism sounds throughout their writings, sermons, and exhortations. Turning away from orthodox Calvinism's grim preoccupation with predestination and ineradicable sin, Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism expressed a deep-seated faith in the moral capacity of humankind. Concomitantly, they argued against any social conventions or institutions which seemed to interfere with the spiritual growth of the individual, including inherited ritual, unjust divisions of wealth, and obtuse expositions of scripture. Resistance to these various social realities varied over time and place and across individuals or groups, but tends to impart a distinct, occasionally strident, tone of anti-authoritarianism to both movement's teachings. They also devalued the Enlightenment's legacy of intellectual rationalism in favor of personal emotion as the window into spiritual "truth."  A central assumption of this study is that the most instructive and revealing approach to exploring these correspondences between Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism is not an analysis of the movements' various theological differences but an assessment of the psychological impact of their teachings on individuals and the ways in which this impact translated, or failed to translate, into personal and social reform. Consequent to this methodological commitment, there may be times when affinities between the two movements appear to receive disproportionate attention. While important distinctions are not ignored, certainly, they are generally raised only as they illuminate or complicate particular issues of convergence. My principal aim is to tell the story in a way that it has not been told before, through an investigation of the pragmatic methods and practical outcomes of Transcendentalism and early Evangelicalism.  Taking as its approximate time frame, then, the 1820s through the 1850s, this paper examines four areas where the religious philosophies of the two movements converged in significant ways: the experience of conversion, the use of written and spoken language, the relation of individuals to communities, and the question of social reform. Of course, convergence implies neither congruence nor permanence. What is striking, however, is the fact that for a brief yet dynamic period of religious ferment in the United States, two groups of people separated by region, culture, wealth, education and temperament aritculated ideas so similar in essence.    
University of Virginia, Department of English, MA (Master of Arts), 1995
Published Date
MA (Master of Arts)
Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.
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