Harvard Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson


It’s not unusual for politicians to use a small stage to address a larger audience. For instance, the occasion could be the grade school assembly of a small town, but, knowing the press would cover every word, the President might make statements that will be headline news with global implications.

That is what Emerson did at Harvard.

When we think of major commencement addresses today, we think of stadiums, but when Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838, he was addressing six students.

Of course, he knew their families, friends and faculty would hear as well, but aiming much higher, he was launching a broadside attack on theologian Andrews Norton, a central figure at Harvard and on the school itself.

He was not invited back for thirty years.

The speech directs his anger toward religious observance of the day, which Emerson considered lifeless and misguided. He was not content to have his say on that day and despite his friends’ urging to the contrary, he printed and published the speech broadly. Norton himself declared war of sorts and fired off his own published reply entitled “The Last Form of Infidelity”.

By all measures it marked a seminal moment for Emerson and here he ended his preaching career to began his true vocation as a lecturer.

That is both ironic and sad.

In the speech he said “I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct.” It’s clear that this was his conviction, but unclear whether he purposefully realized he was abandoning the very forum he lamented. Optimistically I want to think he saw more opportunity away from the church but it still makes me sad. Truthfully, he was far too unconventional in his theology to have worked in professional nineteenth century clergy anyway.

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