The Social Context of Emerson's Address

Below is chronology of Emerson's life, plus sources for understanding the social context of Emerson's memorable Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, 15 July, 1838.

Chronology of Emerson's life

  • 1803: Ralph Waldo Emerson born on May 25
  • 1811: Father, William Emerson, minister of the First Church in Boston, dies on May 12.
  • 1812: Emerson begins studies at Boston Latin School
  • 1817: Enters Harvard College and graduates in the Class of 1821
  • 1821: Begins teaching at various schools
  • 1825: Enters the Divinity School in February and leaves in April because of trouble with his eyes; spends time in Newton regaining his health; takes charge of a school in Chelmsford in September
  • 1826: Takes charge of his brother Edward’s school in Roxbury in January; in April returns to his mother’s quarters in Cambridge (first in the Mellen House and later to Dr. Levi Hedge’s house), where he teaches school through the summer and attends lectures at the Divinity School; licensed to preach Oct. 10; sails to Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 26 because of his tuberculoses
  • 1827: Spends the winter in St. Augustine, Fla., and returns to Massachusetts by June; during the summer he returns to Divinity Hall to continue his theological studies
  • 1828: Continues to reside in Divinity Hall through the end of the year while preaching in various places in Mass. and N.H.; becomes engaged to Ellen Louisa Tucker in Dec.
  • 1829: Ordained junior pastor of the Second Church in Boston on Mar. 11; marries Ellen on Sept. 30
  • 1830: Becomes the sole pastor after Henry Ware, Jr., begins teaching at the Divinity School
  • 1831: Ellen dies on Feb. 8
  • 1832: Emerson resigns his pastorate because of disagreements with over the administration of the Lord’s Supper; on Christmas Day, he sails from Boston to Europe
  • 1833: Arrives in Malta on Feb. 2 and travels throughout Italy, France (arriving in Paris on June 20), England (arriving in London on July 21), where he visited Coleridge and Wordsworth, and then to Scotland, where he met Thomas Carlyle, beginning a friendship that would include his becoming Carlyle’s agent for books published in the U.S.; returns to New York on Oct. 9 and joins his mother in Newton Upper Falls
  • 1834: Moves to Concord
  • 1835: Marries Lydia Jackson and begins his career as a lecturer
  • 1836: Helps to form what will be called “The Transcendental Club” (see letter from Hedge, below) and publishes his first book Nature
  • 1837: Delivers address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard (“The American Scholar”), which calls for an American literary independence

"Transcendental Club"

Letter from Frederic H. Hedge, 14th June 1836 where Hedge proposes a regular meeting of "certain likeminded persons ... for the free discussion of theological & moral subjects".

Transcription by Barbara C. Spalding.

Meetings of the "Transcendental Club" in 1838

Source: Myerson, Joel. "A Calendar of Transcendental Club Meetings." American Literature 44, no. 2 (May 1972): 197-207 [Harvard Login]

The "Transcendental Club," so named by non-members, began when Frederic Henry Hedge (it was also known as "Hedge's club) invited Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, and George Putnam to discuss establishing a "symposium" to discuss the current state of theology. The organizational meeting was in Willard's hotel in Harvard Square, following Harvard's bicentennial celebration on September 8, 1836. In addition to those attending the meetings in 1838 listed below, "members" included William Henry Channing (HDS 1833), Christopher Pearse Cranach (HDS 1835), Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Hoar, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Sarah Alden Ripley, Chandler Robbins (HDS 1833), and several then current HDS students.It is interesting to note that "Pantheism" (one of the charges against these thinkers) was one of the topics after Emerson's address. The last meeting of the Club (subject: "The Organization of a New Church") was aroud September 20. 1840.

May 20, 1838: At the home of Caleb Stetson in Medford. Topic: Is Mysticism an Element of Christianity? Attending: A. Bronson Alcott; Cyrus Bartol; George Ware Briggs; John Sullivan Dwight; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Convers Francis; Frederic Henry Hedge; Theodore Parker; George Ripley; Jones Very.

Ca. May 27, 1838: Attending: A. Bronson Alcott; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Convers Francis; Frederic Henry Hedge; Theodore Parker; George Ripley; Caleb Stetson.

June 1838: At the home of Cyrus Bartol in Boston. Topics: The Character and Genius of Goethe; Miscellaneous. Attending: A. Bronson Alcott; Cyrus Bartol; John Sullivan Dwight; Frederic Henry Hedge; Samuel Osgood; Theodore Parker; George Ripley; Caleb Stetson; Jones Very.

Ca. November 15, 1838: At the home of Cyrus Bartol in Boston. Topic: Pantheism. Attending: A. Bronson Alcott; Cyrus Bartil; James Freeman Clarke; John Sullivan Dwight; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Charles Follen; Convers Francis; Theodore Parker; "Russell;" Caleb Stetson.

December 5, 1838: At the home of Cyrus Bartol in Boston. Topic: Pantheism. Attending: William Adam; A. Bronson Alcott; Cyrus Bartol;; Henry Whitney Bellows; George Partridge Bradford; James Freeman Clarke; John Sullivan Dwight; Theodore Parker; George Ripley; "Russell;" Caleb Stetson; Jones Very.

December 12, 1838: At the home of A. Bronson Alcott. Topics: Miracles, Mysticism, Conditions of Apprehending the Views of Another. Attending: A. Bronson Alcott; John Sullivan Dwight; George Ripley; "Russell;" Caleb Stetson.

William Adam (1796-1881). Born in Scotland, he was sent to India as a member of the (British) Baptist Missionary Society in 1817. Influenced by Rammohun Roy, he was one of the founders of the Calcutta Unitarian Society. Emigrating to New England in 1838, he became Professor of  Oriental Languages at Harvard (1839-40; resigning after one year) and attended one meeting of the Club.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888). Mostly self-taught, he became a teacher in Bristol and later Cheshire, Connecticut, where he began to innovate the process of education. He taught in Boston (1828-30), in Philadelphia (1830-34), and back in Boston where he started his most famous experimental Temple School, which closed in June 1838. His family moved to Concord in 1840, and in 1843 he founded the short-lived experimental community, Fruitlands.

Cyrus Augustus Bartol (1813-1900). Bowdoin College 1832. HDS 1835. Ordained by the West Church in Boston on March 4, 1837, where he served until 1889.

George Partridge Bradford (1807-90). Harvard College 1825. HDS 1828. Taught school in Boston, Plymouth, Concord, Lowell, Jamaica Plain, and Newport, Rhode Island. He was the designated teacher of older children (1841-42) at Brook Farm. He also introduced Alcott to Emerson in October 1835.

George Ware Briggs (1810-95). Brown University 1825. HDS 1834. Ordained by the Unitarian Society in Fall River on September 24, 1834, where he served until 1837, He also served congregations in Plymouth (1838-52), Salem (First; 1853-67), and Cambridge (Third; 1867-95).

James Freeman Clarke (1810-88). Harvard College 1829. HDS 1833. Ordained in Boston on July 21, 1833. He served the congregation in Louisville, Kentucky (1833-40) and the Church of the Disciples in Boston (1841-88). At Harvard he was the non-resident Professor of Natural Religions and Christian Doctrine (1867-71) and Lecturer on Ethnic Religions (1876-77).

John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893). Harvard College 1832. HDS 1836. Ordained by the congregation in Northampton on May 20, 1840, where he he served until 1841. He joined Brook Farm in November 1841 (staying until its end in 1847), where he taught music and began his career as a lecturer and writer on music. He was the editor of Dwight's Journal of Music (1852-81) and the president and librarian (1873-93) of the Harvard Music Association.

Charles Theodore Christian Follen (1796-1840). University of Giessen 1817. A Professor of Civil and Ecclesiastical Law (1821-24) at the University of Basel. Instructor in German (1825-30), Instructor of History and Ethics (1828-30), Professor of the German Language and Literature (1830-35) at Harvard. Ordained in Boston on October 30, 1836. He supplied in New York City (First; 1837-38) and was called to the congregation in East Lexington (which is now named for him), where he served from 1839 to his death.

Convers Francis (1795-1863). Harvard College 1815. HDS 1818. Ordained by the congregation in Watertown on June 23, 1819, where he served until 1842. At Harvard he was the Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care from 1842 to his death. As the oldest member, Francis was given the position of moderator.

Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-90). Harvard College 1825. HDS 1828. Ordained by the congregation in West Cambridge (now Arlington) on May 20, 1839, where he served until 1835. He also served congregations in Bangor, Maine (1835-50); Providence, Rhode Island (Westminster, 1850-56); and Brookline (1856-72). At Harvard he was the non-resident Professor of Ecclesiastical History (1857-76); Professor of German (1872-81); and Instructor of Ecclesiastical History (1877-78).

Samuel Osgood (1812-80). Harvard College 1832. HDS 1835. Editor of the Western Messenger, 1836-37. Ordained by the congregation in Nashua, New Hampshire, on December 30, 1838, where he served until 1841. He also served Congregations in Providence, Rhode Island (Westminster, 1841-49) and New York City (Messiah, 1849-69). He was ordained an Episcopal deacon August 5, 1870, and a priest on October 30, 1870.

Theodore Parker (1810-60). HDS 1836. Ordained by the congregation in West Roxbury on June 21, 1837, where he served until 1846. He also served the Twenty-Eighth Congregatonal Society in Boston from 1846 until his death.

George Ripley (1802-80). Harvard College 1823. HDS 1826. Ordained by the Purchase Street Church in Boston on November 8, 1826, where served until 1841. In 1841 he founded the experimental community Brook Farm, which came to an end in 1847. The reform journal, The Harbinger, which started at Brook Farm in 1845 and lasted until 1849. Ripley's later career as a journalist and editor, most notably writing for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune and, with Charles A. Dana, editor of The New American Cyclopaedia (1857–63), reissued as The American Cyclopaedia (1873–76).

"Russell?" (1) William Russell, friend of Alcott. (2) LeBaron Russell, a friend of Emerson. (3) John Lewis Russell. (4) George Russell, friend of Parker.

Caleb Stetson (1793-1870). Harvard College 1822. HDS 1825. Ordained by the congregation in Medford on Feb. 28, 1837, where he served until 1848. He also served congregations in South Scituate (now Norwell, 1848-59) and East Lexington (1860-65).

Jones Very (1813-80). Harvard College 1836. At Harvard he was Tutor in Greek (1836-38) and Instructor in History (1838-39). As a tutor he was allowed to carry a "full load" of divinity courses as a non-matriculated student, but he apparently did not finish the second year of study. His appointment as an Instructor ended just as it started when he experienced a psychological/spiritual crisis in September and a one-month confinement in the McLean Asylum. He is best known for the nearly 900 poems he wrote.

Harvard Divinity School Class of 1838



Benjamin Fiske Barrett

Born Dresden, Me., June 24, 1808. A.B., Bowdoin, 1832 ; A.M., Bowdoin, 1835. While serving as a Unitarian preacher in East Bridgewater, Mass., Syracuse, N.Y., and other locations, he became convinced of the truth of New Church (Swedenborgian) doctrines and was ordained as a New Church minister (first degree, Philadelphia, Pa., June 7, 1840; second degree, New York, N.Y., Nov. 14, 1841; third de­gree, Boston, Mass., June 12, 1842). Served New Church societies in New York, N.Y., June 1840‑May 1848; Cincinnati, Ohio, Jan. 1848‑Oct. 7, 1850; and Philadelphia, Pa. .(First New Church Society), June 1864‑May 1, 1871. Founder of The American New-Church  Tract and Publication Society. Died Philadelphia, Pa., Aug. 6, 1892.



Harrison Gray Otis Blake.

Born Worcester, Mass., Apr. 10, 1816. A.B., Harvard, 1835. Teacher in Worcester, Mass. Died Worcester, Mass., Apr. 18, 1898



 Theodore Haskell Dorr

Born Boston, Mass., Aug. 13, 1815. A.B., Harvard, 1835. Ordained into the Unitarian ministry in Billerica, Mass., May 28, 1839 and served the First Parish there until May 1843; also served churches in East Lexington, Mass., May 1, 1845‑Aug. 1, 1849; Winchendon, Mass., June 2, 1852‑1853; and Sherborn, Mass., Dec. 3, 1854‑May 1863. Died Sherborn, Mass., Aug. 13, 1876.



Crawford Nightingale

Born Providence, R. I., Nov. 3, 1816. A.B., Brown, 1834; A.M., Brown, 1837. Ordained into the Unitarian ministry in Providence, R.I, Nov. 7; 1838. Served churches in Cabotville (now Chicopee), Mass., May 14, 1845‑June 1, 1851; Bridgeport, Conn., 1851‑1852; Groton, Mass., Jan. 26, 1853‑Aug. 18, 1866; Groton Junction (now Ayer), Mass., Apr. 8, 1868‑Apr. 1, 1878. Died Providence, R. I., Aug. 19, 1892.

George Frederick Simmons.

Born Boston, Mass., Mar. 24, 1814. A.B.. Harvard, 1832 ; A.M., Harvard, 1835. Ordained into the Unitarian ministry in Boston, Mass., Oct. 9, 1838. Served churches in Mobile, Ala., Oct. 1838‑Aug. 17, 1840; Waltham, Mass., Oct. 27, 1841‑Apr. 1, 1843; Springfield, Mass., Feb. 9, 1848‑Oct. 12, 1851 ; Albany, N.Y., Jan. 1, 1854‑Sept. 5, 1855. Died Concord, Mass., Sept. 5, 1855.





 Frederick Augustus Whitney

Born Quincy, Mass., Sept. 13, 1812. A.B., Harvard, 1833; A.M., Harvard, 1836. Ordained into the Unitarian ministry in Brighton, Mass., Feb. 21, 1844 and served the church there until June 1, 1858. Died Brighton, Mass., Oct. 21, 1880.



William Dexter Wilson.

Born Stoddard, N. H., Feb. 28, 1816. A.M., Norwich (Vt.), 1844; S.T.D., Hobart Coll., N.Y., 1849; LL.D., Bedford (Tenn.), 1868; L.H.D., Univ. of State of New York, 1872. After four years as a Unitarian preacher, he became converted to Trinitarian principles and was ordained a Protestant Episcopal deacon, in Lowell, Mass., Apr. 7, 1842 and a priest in Rutland, Vt., Sept. 21, 1842. Rector of the Episcopal Church in Sherburne, N.Y., Sept. 1846‑May 1850.  Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, Hobart College, 1850‑1868. Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, Cornell University, 1868 (emeritus after 1886)‑July 30, 1900. Dean, St. Andrew's Divinity School, Syracuse, N.Y., 1886‑Oct. 1, 1899. Died Syracuse, N.Y., July 30, 1900.





Harvard Divinity School Faculty in 1838

John Gorham Palfrey - Professor of Biblical Literature and Dean of the Divinity School, Nov. 11, 1830-1839.

Henry Ware - Hollis Professor of Divinity, 1805 (emeritus after 1840)-July 12, 1845.

Henry Ware, Jr. - Professor (after 1840 Parkman Professor) of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care, 1829-1842.


From Emerson’s Journals and Letters

A quotation from Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Ralph L. Rusk. New York : Columbia University Press, 1939. V. 2, p. 147. [Print Only]:

Rev. R. W. Emerson,

The Senior Class of Divinity College Cambridge, thro' us their committee, invite you to deliver before them, in the Divinity Chapel, on Sunday evening the 15th of July next, the customary discourse, on occasion of their entering upon the active Christian ministry.

Geo: F. Simmons
H. G, O. Blake
W. D. Wilson

March 21st 1838.

A quotation from: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. Vol 5. Edited by Merton M. Sealts. Cambridge : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965, p. 471. [Print Only]:

1 April [1838]. Cool or cold windy clear day. The Divinity School youths wished to talk with me concerning theism. I went rather heavy­hearted for I always find that my views chill or shock people at .the first opening. But the conversation went well & I came away cheered. I told them that the preacher should be a poet smit with the love of the harmonies of moral nature: and yet look at the Unitarian Asso­ciation & see if its aspect is poetic. They all smiled No. A minister nowadays is plainest prose, the prose of prose. He is a Warming‑pan, a Night‑chair at sick beds & rheumatic souls; and the fire of the min­strel's eye & the vivacity of his word is exchanged for intense grum­bling enunciation of the Cambridge sort, & for scripture phraseology.

A quotation from: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. Vol 5. Edited by Merton M. Sealts. Cambridge : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965, p. 500-501 [Print Only]:

May 18 [1838]. The theological schools public necessarily pick out for the emulation of the young men the Oberlins, the Wesleys, Dr Lowell & Dr Ware. But with worst effect. All this excellence kills beforehand their own. They ought to come out to their work ignorant that ever another had wrought. Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him & so in him it has a charm. In the imitator something else is natural, & so he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's. The young preacher comes to his parish & learns there are 300 families which he must visit each once in a year. In stead of groping to get exactly the old threads of relation to bind him to the people that bound his venerable predecessor, let him quit all leather & twine[,] let him so highly & gladly entertain his most poetic & exhilarating office as to cast all this nonsense of false expectation & drivelling Chinese secondariness behind him, & acquaint them at first hand with Deity. When he Let him be a man. Let him see to it first & only that he is a man, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, & money, are nothing to him, are not bandages over his eyes that he cannot see, but that he seeth as Adam saw, & liveth on with the privilege of God[,] with a hope as broad as the expanding walls of the unbounded Universe[.]


An Address Delivered before the Senior Class

A quotation from History of Harvard Divinity School, 1827-1913  [Print Only]:

July 15, 1838: This evening Rev. R. W. Emerson preached a sermon to the Senior Class. The Chapel was very much crowded, and the discourse listened to with profound attention ....

After the address was delivered on July 15, the students were undecided what action to take. On July 16, B. F. Barrett, W. D. Wilson, H. G. O. Blake, F. A. Whitney, and R. C. Waterston signed a letter to Emerson asking for his manuscript and stating that they differed in opinion as to whether it should be published, or printed merely for discretionary circulation, but would follow his advice on this point. On July 19 Simmons, Blake, and Wilson, the original committee, wrote him that some of the class did not assent to his views but that all thanked him. On July 20 Wilson acknowledged a letter from Emerson and stated that it had been decided merely to print, not publish, three hundred copies of the address.

Theodore Parker’s Journal for July 15, 1838

Theodore Parker comments on Emerson's address in his journal for July 15, 1838:

Parker, Theodore, 1810-1860. Papers, 1836-1862. Journal, Volume One, July 15, 1838. bMS 101/1 (2), Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

Transcription of Theodore Parker's journal entry on Sunday, July 15, 1838:  

Sunday 15th          Emerson
After as usual preaching, Sunday-schooling, teachers-
meetinging [sic] &c wife & I went over to Brookline & took
Mary Anne & proceeded to Cambridge to hear the Vale-
dictory sermon by M. Emerson. In this he surpassed him-
self as much as he surpasses others in the general
way. I shall give no abstract, so beautiful, so just,
so true, & terribly sublime was his picture of the faults
of the church in its present position. My soul is roused,
& this week I shall write the long-meditated sermons, on
the state of the church & the duties of these times.

As reported in the Christian Examiner:


Christian Examiner 25 ( November 1838) reviewed Emerson's address:


Elizabeth Palmer Peabody Tells Emerson What Others Are Saying

Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, September 24th, 1838 in  Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: American Renaissance Woman. Edited, with an Introduction by Bruce A. Ronda. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984, p. 210-212. [Print Only]:

…  I have got a book of Jean Paul [Richter]’s — or rather it is Miss Burley’s — On Education —called “Levance” should you like to read it for you own sake & Waldinos [Emerson’s son, Waldo, born 1836]. It is too hard for my young German — & Miss B would gladly lend it to you. Wm Howes is now in the Law school — & sends a carpet bag home every week & we can send to you through the same — if you have a regular communication with the Cambridge bookstore — do you? — Miss B — has many curious & new books. — Wm. Silsbee did not go to Concord I suppose. On reading your Cambridge address he said he understood it all & liked it all — & so there was no excuse to go. — But sometime when it was natural he should like to talk with you on those subjects & should like to exchange with Mr. Frost He is gone to Bellows Falls to preach three months. I heard him preach here delightfully. He is a holy & just minded apostle — with the voice of wisdom itself — earnest & pure toned. I measure souls with my ear — some what as you do with the eye — & his tone is a true one I am sure. James Clarke also swallowed the whole address & felt it digest as strong food for men — but Judge Fay of Cambridge says in great wrath that you ought “to be indicted & forbidden to preach — a man who also holds the doctrine that felt self‑interest is the only efficient motive of human action. Mr. Bellows — a warm hearted & very successful young preacher — lately having collected a society in the West & done other efficient things — but still quite youthful in his mind — was at Newport when the address arrived. — A gentleman carried it down to horrify the Dr. with it. So he selected passage after passage of horrors as he thought them — & read them the Dr saying — “Well! that is pure Christianity” — “That is noble thought” — if that shocks I not know how they have borne me — “I am afraid I not said [?] what I meant to do — if that is [word illegible]” — & such things. I understand he rejoices that your serenity is not disturbed by such “outrageous illiberality” — ­as you have received. — The more I think & hear the more I am rejoiced that the address is fairly [word illegible] & could only wish the one word Teacher and teacher because in fact the latter is what you meant. But I forgot I had “said too much of the address” already —

What Ezra Ripley Wanted to Say on Nov. 11, 1838, about These New Ideas

This quotation comes from a manuscript sermon by Ezra Ripley [Print Only]:

Transcription: “Some may think that I ought here to notice the singular opinions recently published among us, which are now undergoing the ordeal of private & public scrutiny, of friendly & unfriendly criticism: — but I do not myself understand them, & feel unqualified to speak of them in public. The truth will eventually prevail. Obey that which is plain.”

A portion Erza Ripley's manuscript sermon.  In this portion, Ripley crosses out his comment on Emerson's ideas.

This passage is crossed out in Ripley's sermon notes and suggests he had second thoughts about speaking so frankly.  Thanks to Robert Gross, Forrest Murden Jr. Professor of History and American Studies at the College of William and Mary, for pointing this out.