Transcendentalism: The New England Heresy

Emerson.Ralph

In 1855 Putnam’s Monthly carried an article by the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson describing an African village. The vil­lagers, according to Higginson, were “active, commercial geniuses,” who enjoyed “a remarkable language, and an even more remarkable recollection of proverbs.” In fact, they resembled New Englanders. They were mechanically inventive and commercially fruitful. Their advanced culture was described by Higginson in glowing terms. Unfortunately nobody—then or later—has ever been able to locate that village.

Sir Richard Burton did, however, locate Agboney, the capital of Dahomey in West Africa, in 1863. Burton described an execution shed where sacrificial victims were sedated on stools, tied to poles, and fed four times a day. They wore long white nightcaps, calico shirts and shorts. Burton watched as these individuals were placed in wicker baskets and hurled to their deaths off a high cliff. After that, various unpleasant mutilations were committed on their cadavers.

Gelele, the king of Dahomey, was a pious man. His religion man­dated that he keep his dead father informed of all developments in the kingdom on a regular, daily basis. Messengers carrying this information to the spirit world had, themselves, to be killed in order to enter that realm. There were times when the king would send a message, then recall some overlooked detail, and dispatch another man with the addition. Many, in this manner, were executed in the course of a continuing routine. Burton knew that Dahomey was not unique in conducting human sacrifices. His travels through the Orient had inured him to such practices. Religion in many regions look grotesque forms in the mid-19th century.

In the 1850s and ’60s the British struggled against the Hindu practice of suttee—in which widows were incinerated on the funeral pyres of their husbands. The Chinese also practiced suttee, but not, usually, by fire. Most of the widows cut their throats, or hanged themselves, or leaped from cliffs. Such acts of devotion on the part of widows were widespread throughout the Orient. So, for that matter, was headhunting. The Brookes, who ruled the Dyaks, were constant­ly besieged for permits to headhunt. The Dutch in Borneo had a very hard time ending the practice, which was “in full swing” in the 1860s.

Similar practices, including cannibalism, were practiced in New Guinea and Fiji, in Tahiti—that Pacific “Paradise,” and Hawaii— another idyllic region where retrospective romantics have blamed Christian missionaries for darkening the lives of innocent pagans by halting their amusements, and extirpating their religious cults.

These observations do not constitute condemnation. The civiliza­tion of India is universally acknowledged to have been of a high and ancient level for immense periods of time. The same is true of China and of many of the people of the Orient. Pacifica harbored much of value, and so—for that matter—did and does Africa.

The purpose in recalling to mind some of the more outlandish practices of various nations and people that continued into the 1860s is to remind the modern reader of what Christianity ended in many parts of the world. The 19th century was a period when much of this struggle took place, under the colonial system.

But even as this struggle was under way, there were some in the West, themselves descended from eminent Christians and including some clergymen, who seemed to believe that it was Christianity that was retrograde, and other religions that were advanced. One of these was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord. He steeped himself in the Bhagavad-Gita, the Song of the Lord. In this Vishnu is first seen as a benevolent creator—and later the destroyer of all life, beyond good and evil.

Nigel Davies, a British scholar who has studied human sacrifice, observed that in Oriental and many other religions, the Deity is held to be simultaneously good and evil. Such a belief places no bounds on behavior, for a God that accepts murder as equal in virtue with charity allows anything. That idea has been very difficult for Westerners to discern and to accept, for the West was founded on Christianity. Christianity teaches that God is good, and evil is the enemy. A Christian who does evil disobeys his religion. In terms of sacrifice, Christianity teaches that the need for sacrifice ended with the Crucifixion. But when Christianity began to lose some of its con­gregation (and this loss, constant on the peripheries, became torren­tial with the European discovery of other races and ways), the knowledge of these clear distinctions grew dim for many. Emerson was one of these.

It cannot be truthfully said that he was a pioneer in this respect. Emerson was the heir, in a direct line, of seven generations of minis­ters. It was his original intention to continue in this vocation, and it was his misfortune to study under the Reverend William Ellery Channing, who seemed determined to prove that a minister could be almost free of creeds. Channing, deeply influenced by his readings in Voltaire, Paine and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, was a literateur with pretensions. Hazlitt said his writings “cannot be called commonplace, but they may be fairly termed ambitious commonplace.” Channing was praised by English Unitarians, who had discarded virtually all the beliefs of Christianity and who worshipped an abstract God. Channing permanently influenced Emerson in these and similar directions. Emerson called Channing “our Bishop.”

In turn Emerson became the center of a New England cult that spent much of the 1830s and 1840s denigrating traditional Christianity, criticizing the industrial revolution, and talking—in generally ignorant terms— about the “philosophies” of the Orient and of ancient Greece.

The Reverend Emerson was not, however, alone in his fascination. Although he became a central figure in what was called the “New England religion” (which was distinctly apart and antagonistic to traditional Christianity), the Transcendentalists paralleled another Northern group that insisted it was Christian, but whose activities were equally untraditional.

This began in New York State when the Tappan brothers—philanthropists—and others began to try to apply the ideals described in I Hood of religious tracts. Their belief was that sin could be removed from the world, if enough people made nuisances enough of themselves. They launched “crusades” against liquor, smoking, breaking the Sabbath and other presumed social evils, and epitomized the kill-joys who have, since then, been incorrectly equated with Puritans. In time the New York zealots attracted and converted Charles Grandison Finney, an eloquent, handsome lawyer who argued against every tenet of Protestantism that had until then held most Americans together.

Where the Calvinists had stressed that salvation is through the grace of God alone, beyond the reach of any individual to command, Finney preached that repentance brought sinners into an automatic heaven. He also embraced the social efforts of the tractarians. One result was that he set upstate New York into religious turmoil, and twisted traditional Christianity into the peculiar shape it bears in the United States today.

One of Finney’s converts was Theodore Weld, who translated Finney’s theology into action. It is important to recognize that these sincere though overly ambitious groups gradually moved their followers away from traditional Christianity. Weld himself shifted from religious preachments directed at social problems to political lobbying. He moved to Washington and worked with various politicians. At the same time, the Transcendentalists turned not only from the churches, but also from purely literary pursuits to become involved in the Free Soil, third party movement. Emerson did not appear in the foreground in such efforts, but was always available as an advisor. He did, however, abandon the ministry, as did many of his clerical colleagues in the Transcendental movement. In 1850 both groups began to come together in the abolitionist movement.

William Lloyd Garrison and his followers constituted a third force. Garrison’s vitriol virtually destroyed the peaceful emancipation movement that had earlier existed in Virginia and other parts of the South. His publications worked as corrosive acid upon all fraternal bonds between the states. He mounted a campaign against the churches unbounded in its ferocity. He called the Methodists “a cage of unclean birds and a synagogue of Satan.” Irate over being informed by orthodox Presbyterians that neither the Old nor the New Testament contained any criticism of slavery, Garrison announced that slavery was a sin. That argument made antislavery a theological issue. If slavery was a sin and Christians had allowed it to persist for centuries, then Christianity in the United States was unworthy of support.

The South was incensed to be attacked on religious grounds over an issue formerly considered part of the political sphere. In England slavery had been ended, but not abruptly, by political compromise. A compromise was masterminded by Illinois Senator Douglas and smoothly pushed through the Senate by Henry Clay and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. It was probably the bravest and best act of Webster’s entire career—and he was ruined by it.

The Transcendentalists rose in wrath; Theodore Parker compared Webster to Benedict Arnold. Edmund Quincy called him a lion turned to a spaniel, and Emerson deplored his “profound selfishness.”

No single political step created more disorder in the North than the Fugitive Slave Act, which brought the abolitionists into open conflict with the law. Their defense was, essentially, religious. Their creed was that slavery was a sin, and that unbounded opposition was a sacred duty.

Had this argument remained intellectual it might have achieved a peaceful goal. But the abolitionists did not deign to persuade: they demanded. In any event, they were not peaceful. And because they were reflecting a religious position, they relied to a great extent upon the argument that a struggle against sin transcends the law. Emerson declared that an immoral law was automatically void. The Sage seemed serenely unaware that he placed his own judgment above that of the courts; he seemed to believe that he was being merely reasonable.

A similar arrogance suffused abolitionism in general. The members of the movement assumed a Pharisaical attitude of being holier than all others, and seemed peculiarly insensitive to the wounds they inflicted upon others in the name of virtue.

One reason for this complacency may have been the sheer physical distance between New England and the South. But another reason was the rise of the Northern press. In the 1850s the high-speed newspaper press came into service, The New York Tribune under Horace Greeley, a fervent abolitionist, became the largest newspaper in the land. Abolitionist writers, lecturers, poets, authors and clergy produced a torrent of literature, expositions, publications and arguments throughout the North. That this output created an illusion was not easily discerned. The average householder might not, in reality, have shared abolitionist sentiments—but the Northern press seemed to speak with the voice of millions.

In the mid-1850s, with raging demonstrations against the Fugitive Slave Act under way in the North, troubles appeared in the Kansas Territory. This skein is too elaborate to be accurately unraveled in an article. Let it suffice to say that in Kansas rhetoric leaped into violence through the initial exertions of old John Brown.

Brown was considered, in the latter half of the 19th century, a hero second only to Lincoln. Even today his name continues to appear, favorably, long after his multiple crimes have been laid bare, and his terrible and shameful career acknowledged by even his admirers.

The reasons for this are essentially religious—but not Christian. They were made plain by Brown himself, in his various letters and especially in his speeches in court at Charlestown, Virginia, ,in 1859. He arrived there, as every schoolchild knows, by way of assaulting the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, in an effort to obtain and distribute guns to the slaves of Virginia, in the hope of inciting a servile insurrection.

He had worked toward that effort for over three years, and for the whole of that time had been financed, assisted, encouraged and promoted by a half dozen wealthy and influential New Englanders who called themselves the “Committee of Six.” Historians know them as “The Secret Six,” though they are no longer secret.

They consisted of the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Reverend Theodore Parker, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, George Luther Stearns and Gerrit Smith. There was once a time when none of these names needed any description: all the bearers were famous. The Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a frequent contributor to the largest magazines in the land and a well-known pastor and abolitionist. The Reverend Theodore Parker was the most famous preacher in all the United States; his sermons were telegraphed and reprinted in their entirety in England. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe had penetrated the dark and silent world of the blind, deaf and mute, and his methods came down to reach Helen Keller. Dr. Howe’s Perkins Institute in Boston was world famous; he had fought for Greek Independence at the same time as Lord Byron, he was a Chevalier, and married to the beautiful Julia Ward Howe. Franklin Benjamin Sanborn was not as widely known as the others, but he was the tutor of the Emerson children, a wealthy man, and in his long life became a famous and powerful social worker. George Luther Stearns was a prosperous manufacturer, and Gerrit Smith was so rich that he was known to virtually every American. Smith owned more land than any other individual in the state of New York; his father had been a partner of John Jacob Astor.

It was as though Billy Graham, David Rockefeller, Dr. Jonas Salk, Henry Ford II, Dr. Russell Kirk and the Reverend Jerry Falwell had all been discovered financing a communist revolution.

When Brown was first captured by Jeb Stuart and Robert E. Lee, the Six took alarm. For reasons that have never been explained, old Brown had lugged many of their letters to him around with him, and these were incriminating to an extent that seemed undeniable. Gerrit Smith ran to his office, rummaged through his files and burned his correspondence from Brown, Sanborn and Stearns. During the next few weeks he grew increasingly agitated, and a few days after Brown was sentenced, entered the Lunatic Asylum in Utica, New York. His doctors forbade visitors.

Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the hero of Greek Independence, fled to Canada with George Luther Stearns. Frank Sanborn, who had told Brown he would always treasure every note, destroyed them and ran to Quebec. The Reverend Higginson, alone among the Six, stood his ground and refused to run. The Reverend Theodore Parker, ill in Rome, wrote brave letters from afar—but neither admitted his complicity nor made any effort to return.

As the trial of “Captain” Brown progressed, however, most of the Six (with the exception of millionaire Gerrit Smith) recovered their nerve. Their courage returned as the newspapers of the North began to rebuild Brown’s image.

The campaign rose as Brown orated in court. At first, the papers had announced a slave insurrection. The nature of the raid became clear, as letters from the Six were discovered and published. Then Brown began to talk. His argument was that he had fought against slavery in an honorable way, and should be treated as a prisoner of war. When sentenced, he quoted the Bible, protested he had struggled on behalf of the “despised poor,” and that he would “forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country….” Brown was fond of talk about blood, and the need to shed blood to remit sins.

His statement was repeated and beamed everywhere by the press of the North and floods of letters arrived in Virginia pleading for Brown’s life. A stream of highly placed visitors arrived to see him in the Charlestown prison and even the usually balanced Allan Nevins .aid Brown rose to “heights of moral grandeur.”

In reality Brown behaved much as did the victims of sacrifice in oilier climes. It was unheard of for those selected for holy execution to display anything but the utmost calm. Their deaths were held necessary in the Orient, Pacific, Africa, India and other parts, because the gods demanded sacrifices—for the good of the majority.

While Brown awaited execution, the Northern newspapers hailed the event as a final blow against slavery which would set all America tree. In Brooklyn the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher said, “Let no man pray that Brown be spared. Let Virginia make him a martyr. His soul was noble but his work miserable. But a cord and a gibbet will redeem all that….”

On execution day bells tolled throughout the North. Public meetings were held, and guns were fired. Buildings were draped in black. Newspapers appeared in special editions, with Brown’s picture black bordered. Emerson said, “He makes the gallows as glorious as the Cross and that Brown was “a new saint in the calendar.” Longfellow entered the day in history as “The date of a new revolution, quite as much needed as the old one.” Dr. Cheevers’ sermon treated Brown as “an incarnation of God’s protest against slavery.” William Dean Howells wrote, “Brown has become an idea.”

With this apotheosis, the United States moved into a new religion. Its first saint was a multiple murderer and thief whose only glory was in the goals he stated for himself, and whose sins were not considered evil. Ancient paganism had risen inside Christendom, within a nation that prided itself, in the 19th century, on it religiosity—but not its spirituality. This turn in the theological road, directly attributable to an ignorance of history and the nature of other cultures, was the heresy that led to the Civil War.

The South watched the Northern paroxysms with fear and horror. The whites of the South became convinced that Northerners wanted their massacre to the last mother and child, in the name of slaves. That winter, when Congress reconvened, Senators and Representatives appeared carrying guns and knives. The abolitionists, fired by the example of their new saint, were convinced that all Southerners were steeped in sin, and that only blood could wash away their guilt. That conviction resulted in a long, terrible war and punitive peace.

If that ended the issue, the United States and the rest of the world would have counted the cost high, but by now paid and forgotten. Unfortunately it was not the end, nor even the beginning of the end. A combination of unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances had created the legend of John Brown. Journalists had used the high-speed press and telegraph to spread a false image of events to the people; to shroud crime in the robe of virtue. Such deception conducted with the instruments of a new technology worked as effectively as had drums, incense and dancing in the past. They helped to create and disseminate the image of a hero simultaneously good and evil, whose actions were above all law.

This innovation was not lost upon watchful Europe, and especially not lost upon European revolutionaries. They saw the Western equivalent of Oriental religion rising; a religion in which there is good in evil—and no good without it. A religion where murder can be committed upon innocent persons without creating the stains of guilt upon the perpetrators—and where political issues can be infused with the fervor of religion. A religion which, as in the ancient days, combined excess with the powers of the state, and made all values earthbound and achievable in one’s own lifetime.

These new doctrines were the more effective for being largely unstated. Christianity, with its centuries of soaring intellectualism, was tipped aside and first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions poured away from its ancient structure.

Today the argument that the Civil War was inevitable reflects the retroactive determinism of those who excuse every stage they admire, no matter how achieved. The American textbooks, by imbedding Brown as a hero despite his murderous methods, and hailing our civil war as a triumph for ending slavery (though all other nations ended slavery peacefully), have created a permanent rationale for terrorism and “wars of liberation” everywhere in the world.

Consider the deeds of the new pagans: kneecapping in Italy, bombing in Ireland, torturing in the U.S.S.R., engaging in genocide in Cambodia and shooting in France. Yet terrorists everywhere share a common bond of deep-seated hatred for all white Americans. Seldom has the irony of history come boomeranging back more accurately upon heretics.

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