Transcendentalist Hermeneutics: Institutional Authority and the Higher Criticism of the Bible

Transcendentalist Hermeneutics: Institutional Authority and the Higher Criticism of the Bible

by Richard A. Grusin

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American literary historians have viewed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s resignation from the Unitarian ministry in 1832 in favor of a literary career as emblematic of a main current in American literature. That current is directed toward the possession of a self that is independent and fundamentally opposed to the “accoutrements of society and civilization”


American literary historians have viewed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s resignation from the Unitarian ministry in 1832 in favor of a literary career as emblematic of a main current in American literature. That current is directed toward the possession of a self that is independent and fundamentally opposed to the “accoutrements of society and civilization” and expresses a Transcendentalist antipathy toward all institutionalized forms of religious observance.
In the ongoing revision of American literary history, this traditional reading of the supposed anti-institutionalism of the Transcendentalists has been duly detailed and continually supported. Richard A. Grusin challenges both traditional and revisionist interpretations with detailed contextual studies of the hermeneutics of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Theodore Parker. Informed by the past two decades of critical theory, Grusin examines the influence of the higher criticism of the Bible—which focuses on authorship, date, place of origin, circumstances of composition, and the historical credibility of biblical writings—on these writers. The author argues that the Transcendentalist appeal to the authority of the “self” is not an appeal to a source of authority independent of institutions, but to an authority fundamentally innate.

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Challenging both traditional and revisionist views that 19th-century American transcendentalist writers rejected all institutional authority, Grusin (English, Georgia Institute of Technology) argues that Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker, and others sought to identify the historical context of authoritarian institutions and adapt them to accommodate the self. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Transcendentalist Hermeneutics

Institutional Authority and the Higher Criticism of the Bible

By Richard A. Grusin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8282-9


Emerson's Resignation from the Ministry "The True Doctrine Respecting Forms"

* * *

"My Regeneration of Mind, Manners, Inward & Outward Estate"

In the opening sentence of Freedom and Fate Stephen Whicher maintains that "Emerson came late into his force" (3). Because this claim remains substantially unquestioned, passages such as the journal passage discussed in the introduction have often been dismissed as the residue of Emerson's early immaturity. Although Whicher considers Nature Emerson's first great work, he nonetheless contends that "Emerson came into his intellectual majority" in 1831 (23). Arguing that "the first two volumes of his journal—those before his resignation from the Second Church—show little distinction of style or thought," Whicher does not see Emerson's resignation as the first indication of his disenchantment with the ministry (3). Rather he traces this disenchantment to Emerson's professional dedication in the journal for 1824, a dedication that signifies a wholehearted acceptance not of the ministry's forms and institutions but of its literary nature (5).

Eric Cheyfitz has described the figure of Emerson that Whicher and others have bequeathed to American literary history as "resolutely disembodied"—a figure whose locus classicus is the transparent-eyeball passage in Nature ("Foreword" vii). In Whicher's influential account, Cheyfitz argues, "it is embodiment, the force of experience, that marks the decisive loss of power in Emerson.... Emerson's revolutionary or originary power resides in his disembodiment" ("Foreword" viii). Thus just as Emerson's embodiment of a professional character in the dedication to the ministry entails a "decisive loss of power," so the disembodiment enacted in Emerson's resignation from the ministry would constitute for Whicher an access of "revolutionary or originary power."

Emerson's reasons for resigning his ministry were complex and multi-layered. In this chapter I attempt to sort out those reasons, reading his resignation sermon in the context not only of the history of the Lord's Supper (from the Reformation to the liberal Unitarianism of his day), but also of his evolving conception of the ministry (from the 1824 dedication to the extended deliberations in both the journals and letters on the question of resignation). In so doing I argue that Emerson came to understand his resignation not as a wholesale rejection of the authority of religious institutions but as a continuation of the goals of his ministry set forth in his professional dedication. For Whicher the problem with this dedication is that it is not a genuine act of self-reliance; Emerson imposes "a professional character as a robe,'" a character whose "foreignness to his independent nature" is demonstrated by the "vigor of his recoil" from the ministry in 1832 (5). But if we turn to Emerson's dedication, we can see that it is Whicher himself who has imposed an interpretation of the dedication that is foreign to its professed intent. As the dedication unfolds it becomes clear not only that it is the embodiment of character that is at issue in his commitment to the ministry but that it is precisely the foreignness of the ministry's professional character that Emerson hopes to embody when he dedicates himself to a career in divinity.

The dedication begins with a self-critical examination of Emerson's abilities in which he describes his character in terms similar to those used by Whicher. "I cannot dissemble that my abilities are below my ambition. And I find that I judged by a false criterion when I measured my powers by my ability to understand & to criticize the intellectual character of another. For men graduate their respect not by the secret wealth but by the outward use; not by the power to understand, but by the power to act." (JMN 2: 238). Unable to employ his private powers in public situations, Emerson possesses a youthful social awkwardness that prevents him from manifesting his genuine talents. Although Whicher blames the professional demands of the ministry for contributing to Emerson's "want of sufficient bottom," Emerson seems uncertain whether the fault is society's or his own (JMN 2: 240):

every comparison of myself with my mates that six or seven, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, years have made has convinced me that there exists a signal defect of character which neutralizes in great part the just influences my talent ought to have. Whether that defect be in the address, in the fault of good forms, which Queen Isabella said, were like perpetual letters commendatory, or deeper seated in an absence of common sympathies, or even in a levity of the understanding, I cannot tell. (JMN 2: 238)

No matter where the blame is placed, Emerson is convinced that his "defect of character" lies in the failure to convert his private wealth into a viable form of public currency. Because of this failure, Emerson finds himself unfit for medicine or law: "But in Divinity I hope to thrive" (JMN 2: 2 39).

Emerson's hopes for success in "Divinity" rest in part on his "strong imagination" and his "passionate love for the strains of eloquence," both of which promise him to be "the possessor of those powers which command the reason & passions of the multitude. The office of a clergyman is twofold; public preaching & private influence. Entire success in the first is the lot of few, but this I am encouraged to expect. If however the individual himself lack that moral worth which is to secure the last, his studies upon the first are idly spent" (JMN 2: 239–40). Emerson expresses his uncertainty over his prospective success in the ministry in terms of the same lack of "moral worth," the "want of that confidence of manner which springs from an erect mind which is without fear and without reproach," that renders him unfit for medicine or law (JMN 2: 240). But now his problem seems to have been reversed. He is confident of his powers of "public preaching" but unsure of his powers of "private influence." There is, however, an even more significant reversal involved in this account of his qualifications for the ministry. His "signal defect" is no longer purely social but is seen to have infected the "secret wealth" of his innermost character.

Emerson characterizes this inward lack of moral worth in terms of a failure to govern his body, reminding himself that "'Spare Fast oft with Gods doth diet,' that Justinian devoted but one out of twenty four hours to sleep," and that "this week (for instance) I will remember to curtail my dinner & supper sensibly & rise from table each day with an appetite; & so see if* it be fact that I can understand more clearly" (JMN 2: 240). Although the asterisk after "if" refers to a note that limits the duration of Emerson's diet ("N.B. Till Tuesday Evg next"), the entry goes on to emphasize that his character defects ("I have mentioned a defect of character; perhaps it is not one, but many") revolve around a failure to achieve what he calls "an entire conquest of himself" (JMN 2: 240).

We applaud as possessed of extraordinary good sense, one who never makes the slightest mistake in speech or action; one in whom not only every important step of life, but every passage of conversation, every duty of the day, even every movement of every muscle—hands, feet, & tongue, are measured & dictated by deliberate reason. I am not assuredly that excellent creature. A score of words & deeds issue from me daily, of which I am not the master. They are begotten of weakness & born of shame. (JMN 2: 240)

Cheyfitz suggests that the defect of character described in this passage (and throughout his ministerial dedication) is Emerson's "inability to converse," his "lack of conversational eloquence" (Trans-Parent 104, 106). Tellingly Emerson imagines this lack of eloquence in explicitly corporeal terms. Insofar as his lack of moral worth has infected his innermost character, its symptoms manifest themselves bodily, in "every movement of every muscle—hands, feet, & tongue."

Emerson elaborates the bodily nature of this infection when he introduces a hypothetical objection to his choice of career: that one who is so unworthy is not morally fit to be a minister.

And the good have a right to ask the Neophyte who wears this garment of scarlet sin, why he comes where all are apparelled in white? Dares he hope that some patches of pure & generous feeling, some bright fragment of lofty thought, it may be of divine poesy shall charm the eye away from all the particoloured shades of his Character? And when he is clothed in the vestments of the priest, & has inscribed on his forehead "Holiness to the Lord," & wears on his breast the breastplate of the tribes, then can the Ethiopian change his skin & the unclean be pure? (JMN 2: 241)

The logic of this objection duplicates the logic Emerson uses above to describe his character defects. Initially he describes these defects as social ones, like the spiritual faux pas of wearing a "garment of scarlet sin ... where all are apparelled in white." And just as his signal defect of character "is not one, but many," so his "garment of scarlet sin" multiplies into the "particoloured shades of his Character," from which his "oratorical eloquence" can at best hope to "charm the eye away" (Trans-Parent 106, JMN 2: 240). The process of sinful incorporation is completed when Emerson imagines himself "clothed in the vestments of the priest." The "particoloured shades of his Character" will have been absorbed into his body: "then can the Ethiopian change his skin & the unclean be pure?" Once the outward sign of an inward unworthiness, Emerson's "garment of scarlet sin" will have become unworthy of itself. "How shall I strenuously enforce on men the duties & habits to which I am a stranger? Physician, heal thyself" (JMN 2: 241).

In the course of his ministerial dedication, Emerson transforms his character defects, which initially seemed to be the fault of "good forms" (the failure to manifest publicly a private wealth), into an inward failing (the lack of moral worth). In the same way he hopes that the public forms of the ministry will work to transfer their virtues from "the vestments of the priest" to the privacy of his character.

I am young in my everlasting existence. I already discern the deep dye of elementary errors, which threaten to colour its infinity of duration. And I judge that if I devote my nights & days in form to the service of God & the War against Sin,—I shall soon be prepared to do the same in substance.... My trust is that my profession shall be my regeneration of mind, manners, inward & outward estate; or rather my starting point.

(JMN 2: 241–42)

Whicher argues that Emerson's professional robe worked to prevent the natural growth of his genuine, literary character. Emerson's dedication envisions the growth of character in precisely the opposite terms, imagining that the formal adherence to the duties of the ministry will begin his "regeneration of mind, manners, inward & outward estate." Whereas Whicher sees the professional demands of the ministry as stains on Emerson's "literary character," Emerson sees these demands as the solution that will bleach out "the deep dye of elementary errors" from his "particoloured" character.

Emerson's professional dedication depicts the development of character in such a way as to suggest that he can best develop genuine character by donning one or another suit of professional garments. The self on which he is to rely is itself reliant on professional virtues. Even Emerson's literary talent, which Whicher considers the truly genuine element of his character, does not originate from himself: "I inherit from my sire a formality of manner & speech, but I derive from him or his patriotic parent a passionate love for the strains of eloquence" (JMN 2: 239). Although it is true that Emerson's ministerial dedication represents his commitment to a career in which he can satisfy his "passionate love for the strains of eloquence," it does not do so at the expense of the ministry's professional demands. Emerson's dedication to the ministry in 1824 represents a genuine commitment both to the professional aspects of the Unitarian ministry and to a regimen of bodily regulation in which, he contends, "I oblige myself professionally to a life which all men freely & advisedly adopt" (JMN 2:240). Not only does Emerson hope to minister to others in the course of his professional career, but he hopes that the forms and institutions of his profession will minister to him as well.

"Hoc Est Corpus Meum"

In one of the few essays devoted exclusively to "The Lord's Supper," published in 1944, Mary C. Turpie argues that because Emerson borrowed extensively from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism for his objections to the Supper, his resignation sermon "is the least original of all his writings" (101). Despite Turpie's convincing demonstration that the exegetical section of Emerson's resignation sermon is taken almost point by point from Clarkson's history of the Quakers, most recent discussions of "The Lord's Supper" have failed to acknowledge Turpie's essay, insisting instead that the sermon demonstrates the influence of German higher criticism on Emerson's hermeneutics. Yet in contending that Emerson's resignation sermon is preoccupied with questions of interpretation, one does not need to rule out the possibility that the Supper was really at issue in his departure from the Second Church. As Ursula Brumm suggests, in the "religious culture" of New England Puritanism "it is the Lord's Supper that serves as a catalyst" for religious reform (104). By claiming "that Jesus did not command the rite of the Lord's Supper for all people and for all time," Brumm writes, "Emerson goes one step further toward removing religion from the institutionalized sphere" (104). For Brumm the real significance of Emerson's resignation sermon lies in the fact that "he went one step further than [Jonathan] Edwards in modifying Calvinist principles" of biblical interpretation (106). Although Brumm's account of Emerson's resignation effectively duplicates in another form the claim for Emerson's anti-institutionalism that this chapter sets out to complicate, her conjunction of Emerson's account of scriptural interpretation with his objections to the Unitarian celebration of the Lord's Supper reminds us that the association between scriptural interpretation and the sacrament of communion was by no means unique either to Emerson or to New England.

Because Reformation debate over the Lord's Supper was centered on the Church's interpretation of Jesus' words of institution, "Hoc est corpus meum," such debate inevitably came around to questions of embodiment—both how the elements could embody Jesus and how partaking of Jesus' spiritual body could provide a communicant with assurance of eternal life. In A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, for example, Martin Luther defends his literal interpretation of these words on exegetical grounds. In this interpretation, Luther insists, "no violence is to be done to the words of God," which "are to be retained in their simplest meaning wherever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense, unless the context plainly forbids" (139). The literal sense of Jesus' words is violated, however, by the Church's doctrine of transubstantiation—that the blessings of the administrant effect a miraculous change in the substance of the sacramental bread and wine, transforming them into the body and blood of Christ, even while their form and accidents (color, texture, taste, etc.) remain the same. The Church requires "an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand 'bread' to mean 'the form, or accidents of bread,' and 'wine' to mean 'the form, or accidents of wine'" (139). "Hoc," Luther argued, was a synecdoche, referring to the bread (the part) which already contains within it the body of Christ (the whole). In the same way, a mother would point to her newborn infant wrapped in its swaddling clothes and say, "This is my child." The body of Christ, like the young Child, would be no less present because it was unseen. Because Christ is already present with, in, and under the form of the sacramental bread and wine, Luther contends, the blessings of the priest effect no miraculous change in the elements. Christ is really present to believers and unbelievers alike, independent of any ritual invocation.

Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer who represents the furthest extreme from Luther among the major Reformation figures, insists that "Hoc est corpus meum" be understood symbolically. George Santayana's delineation of the "tragedies" of "the little word is" speaks directly to Zwingli's position: "it marries and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; and yet no two are ever identical, and if therein lies the charm of wedding them and calling them one, therein too lies the danger." Zwingli bases his interpretation on the little word est, which "marries and identifies" two things (bread and body) whose identity he denies. Interpreting est to mean significat, Zwingli describes the bread and wine of the Supper as "a representation and memorial of his body and blood, just as a faithful wife, whose husband has left her a ring as a keepsake, frequently refers to the ring as her husband, saying: This is my late husband, although what she means is that it recalls her husband" (qtd. Hollifield 10). Zwingli's example of the faithful wife, like Luther's example of the mother and child, is characteristic of the illustrative value of the feminine in exegetical debates over the Supper. Nonetheless the two examples work for very different ends. For Zwingli any account of Christ's bodily presence in the Supper is Romish superstition. The Supper is not a participation in the "real presence" of Christ, as Luther maintains, but a symbolic commemoration of the body and blood which he gave for mankind. Thus the Supper serves as a means of grace for only those who believe in the power of Christ's sacrifice to provide mankind with eternal life. Faith, not bodily eating, makes the Supper an efficacious rite.


Excerpted from Transcendentalist Hermeneutics by Richard A. Grusin. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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