Friday, June 11, 2010

the Emerson Cult...

Before diving into Brooke Herford's sermons, this bit of background on Boston Unitarianism upon his arrival at Arlington Street Church in 1882. Regular readers will know that I love, yet constantly wrestle with Emerson.  This is why I wrestle...(from a memoir of Rev. Herford by John Cuckson...)

"The religious atmosphere of Boston Unitarianism was eminently prudent and conservative, and charged with pride of the days of Channing and Parker and Gannett, but beginning to show the first symptoms of spiritual numbness and torpid inactivity, from which it has hardly yet recovered...

...Inside the Unitarian churches, the Emersonian gospel of individuality, so lofty and inspiring and helpful in every direction, except in that of organized life in the church, was winning its way, and the zeal of Drs. Bellows and James Freeman Clarke was unable to withstand its somewhat disintegrating tendencies. It was giving new strength to individual faith, but no strength to the organization of that faith, for ecclesiastical purposes. Men felt themselves lifted into a diviner air by the Concord seer, but the expansion was toward higher altitudes, rather than towards close and active fellowship for practical ends, such as those which create churches, and strengthen them. Emerson was deeply religious, but it was the religion of solitude and seclusion, and not of the church and of the congregation, the religion that worships beneath the stars and pines, and not the faith that communes with itself, only that it may the more effectively stand in close and helpful relations with men and women steeped in sin and wretchedness. And so the spirit of Emerson made more transcendentalists than missionaries, more solillaquists, and prophets on their own account, than Christian workers. Under its spell the liberal ministers placed such emphasis on self-development and self-reliance, that they turned a noble truth into a hurtful exaggeration. In his Divinity School Address, which had so powerful an influence upon the religious thought of the time, Emerson broke away from traditions and history, and did scant justice to the instinct of hero-worship, which lies at the root of all religion, and especially of the religion of Jesus. In condemning what he called the noxious exaggeration of the person of Jesus, he unconsciously fell into the opposite exaggeration of asserting that "the soul knows no persons." No better example could surely be found of the falsehood of extremes. It would have been much nearer the truth to have said, the soul knows nothing but persons. Religion in all its aspects and phases is a personal relationship. It is the worship of a person, the federation of persons, and the love and service of persons. The religion that revolves around self, as a centre, even though it be the higher self, is a glorious illusion.

Be this as it may, at the time Mr. Herford settled at Arlington Street Church, what was called the Emerson cult was at its height. It did not openly discourage organized religious fellowship, but made it difficult, if not impossible. The churchly habit and congregational worship were slack, and in some instances every characteristic of well-defined Christian conviction was "disemboweled," and religion was lost in a "cadaverous abstraction." The older churches suffered less than others from this tendency to universalize everything. They still clung to liberal Christianity, and retained the few rites of the primitive faith, such as baptism and the Lord's Supper. The field in which Channing and Gannett had laboured so long and to such purpose was, therefore, eminently congenial to Mr. Herford. He found an atmosphere in which he could gladly preach and labour."

(iluustration is "View from the steeple of Arlington Street Church)


Bill Baar said...

We Chicagoan's wore Heford out.

slt said...

Hey Bill,
You did your best though I think he saved a little something for us Bostonians! Thanks for writing and
Blessings, BU