2020 Got You Down? Cue the Transcendentalists.
It’s enough to overwhelm even the eternal optimist.
Impeachment. 2020 election. Australian wildfires, the climate crisis. Creeping authoritarianism at home and abroad. Historic polarization.
What’s an aspiring modern mystic-citizen to do?
The Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century gives insight into America’s DNA as a way in… and out. Along with the “expats” of the 1920’s and the Beat generation of the 1950’s, the Transcendentalists remain one of the nation’s most influential intellectual coteries in our history. They are the source of many ideas that we have come to define as “American.”
Another American Revolution
Facing the polarizing specter of slavery and the Civil War, the Transcendentalists were motivated by the former and catalyzed the latter. While the names Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May-Alcott and Harriet Beecher-Stowe may roll off the tongues of Americans, others such as Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, Margaret Fuller, Emily Cady Stanton, George Ripley and Bronson Alcott are less well-known. But no less important. Here was a cadre of individuals — most of whom joined Emerson’s “Transcendental Club” in 1836 — who would demonstrate the noblest aspects of the American Soul. Simply put, theirs was another American Revolution, spiritual in nature and practical in its activism.
Inspired by the Founders and the metaphysical influences of the first American generation — that of deism, freemasonry, Unitarianism and Quakerism — the Transcendentalists’ first calling was the “inner light.” Writing of her colleagues in the Transcendentalist publication The Dial in 1840, Margaret Fuller stated “these brave souls tried to quicken the soul, that they may work from within outwards” and thus “help their fellow men and women find more meaning in their lives.”
At the forefront of such bravery was Emerson himself. Stepping upon the stage in July 1838 at his alma mater, the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson likened divinity to nature, underscored intuition as the direct connection to the divine and declared Jesus Christ “belonged to the true race of prophets because he saw with an open eye the mystery of the soul.” Though the speech was delivered to a small gathering, its impact would be immense. Emerson’s “Harvard Divinity School Address,” as it became known, would challenge traditional religious perspectives, shift the spiritual landscape and create a distinctly American cultural identity. Because of it, Emerson would be condemned by many religious thinkers of his day. As for Harvard, he would not be invited back to speak for thirty years.
As a former Unitarian minister, Emerson came to represent something even beyond the type of liberal Christianity that Unitarianism had become. In a way, the Harvard address was a prophecy, a symbol of spiritual evolution that transcended western religious traditions. His message heralded the leveling of all religions, inferred the divinity of Nature as proof of God’s Providence and long before the lives of Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, he suggested Jesus represented the Everyman on his “Hero’s Journey.” This address underscored the Emersonian philosophy that each person’s unique spiritual voyage transcends bodies, lifetimes, births and deaths — the journey of the soul that evolves both within and outside time and space. Emerson was the first serious American writer to carefully consider spiritual topics as broad as the Persian prophet Zoroaster, the Greek sage Pythagoras, Confucius, Buddha, Hindu mythology, the Vedas and reincarnation.
Delivering on What the Founders Could Not
But for all their mystical leanings and focus on inner awakening, the Transcendentalists represented a new generation of American activists. J.A. Saxton wrote in The Dial that “the very existence of the United States is transcendental for its right to be a nation… unequivocally legitimated the instinctive truth of the principle of equality and brotherhood of universal man.”  If the Revolution of 1776 had fallen short in implementing its essential vision that all are born equal, of protecting the inherent rights of every man and woman, then the Transcendentalists were dedicated to deliver on what the Founders themselves could not. They attempted to redirect and re-energize what they increasingly saw as the country’s faltering, misguided democratic experiment. Putting fear and condemnation of their movement aside, they took on the existential crisis of their day, playing lead in destroying the wall of slavery.
As early as 1848, in his Letter to the People of the United States… Touching the Matter of Slavery, Theodore Parker wrote “American slavery is the greatest, foulest wrong which man ever did to man; the most hideous and detested sin a nation has ever committed before the just, all-bounteous God.” Harriet Beecher Stowe — though the daughter of famed evangelist Lyman Beecher who looked askance at “religious pluralism” and the “excessive radical stance of abolition” — lit the fuse for African-American emancipation. As a young woman, she witnessed riots against free blacks in Cincinnati. Years later she visited the South and observed the workings of the slave system. Moved to write based on her experiences, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) epitomized the plight of the southern Negro. It sold in the hundreds of thousands in its first year. Arguably her book was to the Civil War what Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was to the Revolution. It would raise the consciousness of the nation and the world, inspiring if not inciting monumental change. Sharing stories of the cruel lives experienced by slaves, Stowe’s tome was banned in the South.
Yet, even in the face of this growing, almost universal awareness, southerners and moderate northern Democrats doubled down on black bondage. When an angry southern slaveholding Senator caned abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of Congress, the die was cast. Two weeks after the attack, Emerson suggested the incident represented the nation’s divide: “I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.” 
The Most Practical of Mystics
From thence forward, Transcendentalists spoke loudly of the evils of slavery and supported policies and actions that railed against the “peculiar institution.” They even eulogized John Brown, the fallen abolitionist who failed to mount a slavery revolt at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. While not lauding Brown’s violence, many wholeheartedly supported his character and dedication to abolishing slavery. After Brown’s execution, Emerson, Thoreau and Bronson Alcott spoke at a memorial for him. Thoreau, an avid abolitionist for years, said “no man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature.” In that way he was “the most American of us all.” 
As we stand before what may be our greatest political and cultural divide since the Civil War, it is vital to keep the Transcendentalists in mind. Though they were men and women of peace who reveled in nature’s divinity and believed in the Oversoul — they acted. Extolling self-reliance, they let their voices be heard, even when it resulted in civil disobedience. Channelers of America’s mystical core, worthy inheritors of America’s enlightenment, they were, in a sense, the most practical of mystics. Spiritually led but pragmatically driven, the Transcendentalists remind us of honoring the balance between inner seeking and taking passionate, expressive action in pursuit of principle. Aside from being frontline agitators for the abolition of slavery, as one of the nation’s first coherent activist groups they were at the forefront of educational reform, proselytizers for the rights of women, laborers, prisoners, the indigent and the infirm, and initiates of environmental awareness. 
Although no outcome is certain, we are still a far cry from where the nation found itself in 1861. But the times we are approaching will bring each of us to the core of our conscience. And the imperative to act upon it. The crises of climate, autocracy, mass migration, gun violence and international authoritarianism will not simply evaporate. If any of us believe we can sit on the sidelines and “let others do it” in the stand for justice, civility, decency and preserving a democratic republic that guarantees “freedom and justice for all,” I think we are sadly mistaken. As Paine said at the time of the Revolution “the times have found us.” How we show up will be the barometer of our character. While living in a polarized age is both personally and collectively daunting, let us remember that such passages have also been the precursors of great leaps forward in humanity’s collective evolution.
1 American Transcendentalism: A History, Philip F. Gura, Hill & Wang, New York (2007), p.i.
2 Ibid., p. 5.
3 Ibid., p. 17.
4 When Religion Turned Inward, Colleen Walsh, The Harvard Gazette, (February 16, 2012) https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/02/when-religion-turned-inward/.
5 Occult America, The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, Mitch Horowitz, Tarcher/Penguin, New York (2008) p. 5.
6 Gura, op. cit., p. i.
7 Ibid., p. i.
8 Ibid., p.. 249.
9 The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War. Stephen Puleo, Westholme Publishing, Yardley, PA. (2013), pp. 36–37.
10 Gura, op. cit., p. 261.
11 Ibid., p. i.