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Ralph Waldo Emerson 19th Century American Philosopher, Lecturer, Writer, Poet and Why His Religious Views

Updated on December 14, 2014

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was many things, a minister, philosopher, lecturer, writer and poet.  He was central to the American transcendental movement. He set out its basic principles in a small book titled Nature in 1836.

He came to religious views that were radical at the time. All things are connected to God, he thought, so everything is divine. He also came to believe that Jesus was a great man but not God. Some of his beliefs were influenced by German philosophy and Biblical criticism. This formed much of the basis for Transcendentalism. Which was a very popular philosophy at the time, at least among the intellectual class. His father was a Unitarian minister.  Today’s Unitarianism, I think would be pretty similar to his religious views.

Emerson was considered a champion of individualism and critic of societal pressures. Later in life he became  anti slavery. He published dozens of essays and gave more than 1500 lectures.

In 1837 he gave a lecture entitled The American Scholar, which Oliver Wendell Holmes called the Intellectual Declaration of Independence. He had a great respect for his audiences, which earned him the reputation of being one of the great lecturers of his time. His important essays he wrote as lectures and revised later for print.


 He was not a formal philosopher but developed a number of subjects on ideas such as individuality, freedom, ability of man to realize almost anything and the relationship of the soul and the surrounding world. It appears to me that he might have been an early version of today’s motivational speakers. His writing style is not the easiest to read but his essays are still an important part of American thinking. Emerson has influenced nearly all-subsequent generations of writers poet and thinkers.

Emerson letter to Whitman



Born in Boston, Massachusetts he was the son of Ruth Haskins and Rev. William Emerson, a conservative Unitarian minister. He was second of five sons who survived to adulthood. His father died of cancer in 1811 just before Ralph’s eighth birthday. He was raised by his mother and other spiritual, intellectual women in the family. According to the American Transcendental Web “..The most powerful personal influence …for years was his intellectual, eccentric, and death obsessed Puritanical aunt, Moody Emerson.”

When he was nine in 1812 he started at the Boston Latin School. At 14, he went to Harvard. College.In his junior year he started a journal and kept a list of books he read. To cover expenses he worked at jobs such as waiter and occasionally teaching working with his uncle in Waltham, Massachusetts. As a senior he was class poet, however his college record was not outstanding and he was in the middle of a class of 59.

After leaving Harvard he made his living as a teacher by assisting his brother William’s school for young women in their mother’s house and took charge of the school when his brother went to Gottingen. After several years Emerson went to Harvard Divinity School.

Emerson was ordained on January 11, 1821, In 1829 he became junior pastor of Boston’s Second Church. He was also chaplain of the Massachusetts legislature and a member of the Boston School committee. His first wife died at age 20 on February 8, 1831.

It was after his wife’s death that he began to disagree with the churches methods. He felt that worship forms were outdated He felt he had to leave the ministry.


He toured Europe and wrote about it in English Traits in 1857.In Rome he met John Stuart Mill who gave him a letter of recommendation to Thomas Carlyle. In England he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was an especial influence and they kept a correspondence until Carlyle died in 1881.

In 1835 he married Lydia Jackson, bought a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He became a leading citizen and the house is now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House.

In 1836 just before publication of Nature he met with Henry Hedge, George Putnam and George Ripley to plan regular meetings with like-minded intellectuals. Thus began the Transcendental Club. In 1837 women attended for the first time when Margaret Fuller was invited as well as Elizabeth Hoar, and Sarah Ripley. Fuller became an important member.

Emerson’s friendship with Henry David Thoreau started in 1837. In 1838 he was invited to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School for the schools graduation address, which became his “Divinity School Address”. He discounted miracles in the Bible and said that while Jesus was a great man he was not God. These comments outraged establishedment and the Protestant community in general. He was called an atheist, a prisoner of young minds. He did not reply to critics. He wasn’t invited back for another thirty years.

In 1841 he published Essays in which “Self-Reliance” was included. His aunt found it to be a “strange medley of atheism and false independence”, according to Wikipedia. However, it did get favorable reviews and started his rise to international fame.


Anti slavery


He was anti-slavery but was not immediately active in abolition. He did vote for Lincoln and then was disappointed when Lincoln was more concerned about holding the Union together. He made it clear when the Civil War broke out that he thought slaves should be emancipated immediately. January 31, 1862 he gave a lecture in Washington D.C. calling for the end of slavery. Charles Sumner introduced him to Lincoln and his feelings toward Lincolns mellowed after that.

Emerson was an important figure in American Philosophical and Literary history. Like other religious figures I have written about, I do not endorse his Theological views, but I would not consider him an atheist. .

© 2010 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I am glad you found reading about Emerson to be interesting. Thank you for commenting.

    • Bk42author profile image

      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      I never knew much about Ralph Waldo Emerson. Very interesting hub!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the comment and rating. Emerson was an important figure at a time when Ameica was trying to form an identity.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I used to have a thick book of Emerson's poetry. I enjoyed reading it just as I did reading work from Thoreau. Great background information about Ralph Waldo Emerson! Rated up and useful.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I'm glad it was of some value to you. I appreciate your comments and rating.

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 6 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      I attended an event in this house in Rockford.

      Thanks to you I have a better understanding of the man.

      Important information you shared. Thank you! Rated it up and useful - thank yoU!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for your comment and support. Emerson was the center of the "Intellectual" world in America at the time.

    • twentyfive profile image

      twentyfive 6 years ago

      Great hub about Emerson. I'm a fan of this famous poet and philosopher. Rating this up ;)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I appreciate you comment. Agree with him or not, I think he is one of the leading thinkers, philosophers of America.I'm glad you found it informative.

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 6 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Great hub. I always heard a lot about Ralph Emerson but never took time to read about him until I read your hub. It was very informative.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for coming by and commenting. Emerson was a major figure in our cultural development.

    • Jeremey profile image

      Jeremey 6 years ago from Arizona

      Nice read, Emerson has a very unique history. I am a reader of his and somehow was unaware of "The American Scholar", I will add it to my list , thanks.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      I would imagine that the book would have been one of quotes. I like a lot of his common sense quotes such as "Be not the first to put on the new, not the last to put off the old." Thanks for commenting.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Yes, I think Emerson was wise in many ways and pretty much the intellectual leader of Concord. Thanks for contributing.

    • profile image

      Kinghorn 6 years ago

      The jockey "Red" Pollard who rode Seabiscuit always carried a little book of Emerson, and must have been very favorably influenced by it. I believe Pollard had little formal education.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Emerson was a remarkable man. He wasn't afraid to speak out on his view of religion and slavery. He had the courage of his convictions.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thanks for commenting. I don't think his religious views were exactly conservative, even by today's standards.But I think some of the things he said were more conservative tha his friend Thoreau.

    • Tom Whitworth profile image

      Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV


      Good Hub on Emerson. I find it unlikely that a conservative thinker like Emerson would survive in the Harvard environment of today as the Progressives who teach and study there would most likely shout him down.