American Religious Liberalismby Leigh E. Schmidt
Religious liberalism in America has often been equated with an ecumenical Protestant establishment. By contrast, American Religious Liberalism draws attention to the broad diversity of liberal cultures that shapes America’s religious movements. The essays gathered here push beyond familiar tropes and boundaries to interrogate religious liberalism’s
Religious liberalism in America has often been equated with an ecumenical Protestant establishment. By contrast, American Religious Liberalism draws attention to the broad diversity of liberal cultures that shapes America’s religious movements. The essays gathered here push beyond familiar tropes and boundaries to interrogate religious liberalism’s dense cultural leanings by looking at spirituality in the arts, the politics and piety of religious cosmopolitanism, and the interaction between liberal religion and liberal secularism. Readers will find a kaleidoscopic view of many of the progressive strands of America’s religious past and present in this richly provocative volume.
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American Religious Liberalism
By Leigh E. Schmidt, Sally M. Promey
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Reading Poetry Religiously
The Walt Whitman Fellowship and Seeker Spirituality
In his introduction to this volume, Leigh Schmidt notes that when the freethinking feminist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote about progressive currents in American religion of the 1890s, she highlighted three exemplary movements: Unitarianism, Theosophy, and Whitmanism. There is no shortage of scholarly examinations of the first two of these, but Whitmanism, remarkably, has gone largely unstudied. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James remarked with thinly disguised dismay on the religious appreciation of the recently deceased Walt Whitman. "Societies are actually formed for his cult," James wrote; "a periodical organ exists for its propagation, in which the lines of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are already beginning to be drawn; ... and he is even explicitly compared with the founder of the Christian religion, not altogether to the advantage of the latter." In the century since de Cleyre and James noted the existence of Whitmanism, a number of critics have published literary and phenomenological analyses of the religious dimensions of Leaves of Grass; however, we lack studies of Whitmanism as a lived religion, of the ways in which spiritual seekers at the turn into the twentieth century used Whitman's poetry in constructing a liberal spirituality.
Whitmanism was, even at its height, a loosely organized religious movement, known largely through the writings of a small group of fervent adherents who had known the poet personally and were highly attuned to the prophetic dimensions of his poetry. Moreover, many of the members of this core group were actively hostile to any attempt to gather like-minded Whitmanites into an organization. As Catherine Albanese observes of the many metaphysical religious doctrines promulgated in the United States over the years, "Metaphysicians do not institutionalize well." Whitmanites belong among the adherents of what Lawrence Buell has wittily called "wildcat freelance post-Protestantism."
Yet even among wildcat freelancers there are many who share the common human urge to seek out like-minded believers. As William James noted, societies were formed for the cult of Whitman, along with a periodical organ for its propagation. The societies were branches of the Walt Whitman Fellowship; the organ was the Conservator (1890–1919). In what follows, I want briefly to explore the spiritual messages of Whitman's poetry before sketching an institutional history of the precariously organized Whitman Fellowship. Despite its weaknesses, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Whitman Fellowship offered a significant number of North American cultural radicals and spiritual seekers a means of integrating diverse realms of experience—including poetry, socialism, feminism, and sexuality—with an individualistic, cosmopolitan, and mystical spirituality.
LEAVES OF GRASS, THE ROMANTIC POET-PROPHET, AND LIBERAL SPIRITUALITY
Preparing an expanded edition of Leaves of Grass in 1857, Walt Whitman confided to his notebook his plans for the volume: "The Great Construction of the New Bible. Not to be diverted from the principal object—the main life work—the Three Hundred & Sixty Five—(it ought to be read[y] in 1859." In another notebook entry he wrote, "'Leaves of Grass'—Bible of the New Religion." However grandiose Whitman's ambition now seems, in the context of the antebellum United States his plans were not uncommon. This was the era of what Lawrence Buell has dubbed "literary scripturism," when numerous writers believed that their work could serve as scripture for a new religion appropriate to American democracy.
A variety of factors prepared the way for literary scripturism during the early nineteenth century. One of the most important was the rise of the Romantic poet-prophet. William Blake was only the first in a series of major English-language writers who offered a belief system to supplement—or replace—a conventional Christianity that was coming to be seen among artists and intellectuals as outmoded and inappropriate for the modern age. T. E. Hulme's famous dismissal of Romanticism as nothing more than "spilt religion" gets at an important truth that can be stated in more positive terms: the Romantic movement initiated a century-long cultural receptiveness to the religious functions of literature. In Great Britain, Blake's highly personalized mythology, which valorized human creativity as the divine force, was succeeded by other forms of prophetic poetry: Shelley's fervent, humanistic atheism challenged all forms of political and religious authority; Wordsworth's early verse offered an ecstatic nature mysticism. By 1840 Thomas Carlyle could assert confidently that the poet and the prophet are "fundamentally ... the same; in this most important respect especially, that they have penetrated both of them into the sacred mystery of the universe."
In the United States, Emerson served as the fountainhead of literary scripturism. "Make your own Bible," Emerson admonished himself in an 1836 journal entry. The same year he published "Nature," the first of a series of poetic and prophetic essays that many readers regarded as an American scripture. By the time that Walt Whitman wrote in 1871 that "the priest departs, the divine literatus comes," he was announcing a cultural commonplace; Alfred Kazin has identified the replacement of priest by poet as a central Romantic trope.
Whitman was touchy about his debts to Emerson—originality was as crucial as prophecy to his self-conception—but his poetry reveals the pervasive influence of Emersonian Transcendentalism. Large swaths of "Song of Myself," his longest and greatest poem, read like poetic restatements of Emerson, as in this passage that vividly enunciates the Transcendentalist belief in the divinity of nature and the material world:
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
Leigh Schmidt has argued that the origins of American seeker spirituality are to be found in the sort of Emersonian-Whitmanesque mysticism exemplified in this passage; Jeffrey Kripal suggests that Whitman's poetry, along with the work of Emerson and Thoreau, can be read as an "American Mystical Constitution," establishing a more perfect union based on a democratic mysticism.
If Emerson laid the foundation of the mystical, democratic spirituality to be found in Leaves of Grass, Whitman's poetry was also profoundly influenced by his family heritage, which connected him to two major strands of nineteenth-century religious liberalism. Whitman's father was a freethinker, an admirer of Thomas Paine who passed on to his children an anti-clerical wariness of religious institutions. His maternal grandmother was a Quaker and an acquaintance of Elias Hicks, the radical Quaker preacher who rejected biblical orthodoxy and emphasized individual experience of the divine—what Whitman called "the religion inside of man's very own nature."
During the early 1850s, in the years leading up to the initial publication of Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman worked out a new poetic aesthetic based on long unrhymed lines; shaped a personal religious philosophy that drew from Transcendentalism, deism, and Quakerism; and created the poetic persona of "Walt Whitman," a larger-than-life figure with grandiose ambitions to unite the American nation and to promulgate a new democratic spirituality. Within ten years after the publication of the first edition, he had gained his first disciples, readers who seized on his religious message and regarded him as a prophet equivalent to Jesus. By the end of his life, spiritually charged Whitmanite circles had formed in both England and the United States. The largest circle was centered in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman lived after 1873. Following Whitman's death in 1892, his volunteer secretary, a thirty-three-year-old bank clerk named Horace Traubel, assumed leadership of the Camden circle; two years later he established the Walt Whitman Fellowship. By 1894, Whitmanism had moved from an assemblage of disciples united only by their devotion to the living poet to a fledgling religious organization.
HORACE TRAUBEL AND THE WALT WHITMAN FELLOWSHIP
Horace Traubel, the prime mover of the Whitman Fellowship, was an ambitious and almost maniacally energetic spiritual seeker. In addition to his job as a bank clerk and his position as one of Whitman's literary executors, he was a founding member of the Philadelphia Ethical Society as well as editor and publisher of the monthly Conservator, which served in its early years as the unofficial organ of the national Ethical Culture movement. However, following a quarrel with Ethical Culture leaders in 1894, Traubel broke his ties to the movement and allied the Conservator with the newly formed Whitman Fellowship.
Initially, the organization flourished. Within its first year, the Fellowship held several meetings, gained more than one hundred twenty members, and established branches in Boston, Chicago, Knoxville, and New York. The mid-1890s were spiritually heady times for Traubel and the Whitman Fellowship. A poem by Laurens Maynard titled "The Walt Whitman Fellowship" and published in the December 1894 Conservator gives some sense of the atmosphere within the organization soon after its founding:
Not with desire to found or sect or school—
Too long the world hath fettered been by creeds;
Too long the standard hath been faith, not deeds,
And dogma ruined what it could not rule.
Therefore, O master, is our flag unfurled
To stand for Truth and Freedom's cause for aye,
While we together banded in thy name
In sacred comradeship, proclaim
Thy life of love, which in our latter day
Hath mirrored Christ to an apostate world.
Maynard's poem champions Whitman as an apostle of "Truth and Freedom" and, if not a new messiah, at least a "mirror" of Christ. As William James noted, comparisons of Whitman and Jesus were common among Fellowship members. British writer Richard LeGallienne, speaking to the New York branch of the Whitman Fellowship, began his address, "You have welcomed me to you in the name of one of the greatest men that ever lived, you have found me worthy to participate with you in an immediate discipleship—or, at all events, an apostolic succession—to the man to whom we owe the most vital, the most comprehensive, and certainly the most original message that has been sent from God to man in nineteen hundred years."
LeGallienne's address reveals the transatlantic dimensions of Whitmanism. Many of Whitman's most prominent early defenders were British, and a good number of these regarded him as a religious figure. In Bolton, England, a small group of disciples, who playfully called themselves the "Eagle Street College," regularly linked Whitman and Jesus. In an 1893 address to the college, their leader, J. W. Wallace, said that the poet had come to earth "that we might have life and have it more abundantly, he too has given us a gospel of glad tidings and comfort and hope and joy, he too has given us a message which is specially precious to the outcast and lowest classes, he too is a Prince of Peace."
Wallace was in close touch with Horace Traubel, whom he met in 1891, shortly before Whitman's death, when the Englishman made a pilgrimage to Camden. Following Whitman's death, Traubel wrote to Wallace daily, keeping him abreast of American Whitmanite activities. In early 1894, as his plans for a new Whitmanite organization took shape, Traubel imagined that the British disciples would be eager to join; his ambitions are evident in the institution's full name, the Walt Whitman Fellowship: International. "I look to see it become a big thing—extending the globe across," he burbled in a letter to Wallace.
Traubel, the indefatigable organizer, had played a founding role in Philadelphia's Ethical Society and was poised to become a national leader in the movement when he remade the Conservator as the voice of Ethical Culture. But he saw his influence in the Ethical movement evaporate entirely following his clashes with the institution's hierarchy. Now, within weeks of his resignation from the Ethical Society, he had emerged as the head of a liberal religious movement that was congruent with Ethical humanism; that was linked to a figure far greater, in the eyes of many, than Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler; and that already had an international following. "We shall look to you to work up the English branches," he breezily instructed Wallace in January 1894. A month later, absorbed in his plans for the global Whitman Fellowship, he wrote Wallace a curt note explaining that the organization's headquarters would be in Camden: "This must be held the center from which the spokes diverge."
To Traubel's surprise, the English branches refused to meekly accept their assigned place on the periphery of the Whitman Fellowship. A breach opened between Traubel and Wallace that would never be fully closed, and the "International" in the Whitman Fellowship's title was never significantly realized. Traubel's original vision for the Fellowship was grandiose and hierarchical; it was as if he imagined that his modest Camden home might become the Vatican of a vast liberal religious movement. However, within months of the organization's founding, it was clear that the Fellowship would not expand beyond the United States. The Traubel-Wallace clash exemplified a tension that lies at the heart of any new religious movement but that is particularly acute among liberal groups: the balance between individual freedom and organizational cohesion. Traubel initially imagined a role as leader of an international organization, but he quickly ran up against the powerful individualist tendencies of Whitman's admirers. He was well aware of this tension; he knew by heart the words of Whitman's poem "Myself and Mine":
I call to the world to distrust the accounts of my friends,
but listen to my enemies, as I myself do,
I charge you forever reject those who would expound me,
for I cannot expound myself,
I charge that there be no theory or school founded out of me,
I charge you to leave all free, as I have left all free.
Writing to Wallace immediately after Whitman's death, Traubel quoted from this passage. "We must always adopt Walt, leaving all free as he left all free," Traubel wrote, "but we must cohere and make the world see our brotherhood." Traubel's insistent underlinings emphasize the tension he felt between Whitmanesque individualism and organizational cohesion.
Excerpted from American Religious Liberalism by Leigh E. Schmidt, Sally M. Promey. Copyright © 2012 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Leigh E. Schmidt is Edward Mallinckrodt University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis and is affiliated with the Center on Religion and Politics. He is author of Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality.
Sally M. Promey is Professor of American Studies, Religion, and Visual Culture at Yale University, where she is also Deputy Director of the Institute of Sacred Music. She is author of Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent’s "Triumph of Religion" at the Boston Public Library.
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