The most important movement in the first half of the nineteenth century that was both philosophical and theological, and dealt with social issues was Transcendentalism. Its foremost spokesperson was RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803–82), who, after Edwards and Franklin, was among the earliest US thinkers to have a contemporary influence outside the USA. In addition to Emerson, transcendentalist thinkers included Orestes Brownson (1803– 76),
who searched the religious spectrum and ended his life as a Roman Catholic; Margaret Fuller (1810–50), the most outspoken feminist among the Transcendentalists; George Ripley (1802–80), the founder of Brook Farm (1841–7), a communal experiment that briefly attracted Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) among others; and Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–94), educational theorists. But it was Emerson who was the central figure and primary theorist of Transcendentalism, in part because he directly challenged the then dominant Unitarian orthodoxy of the Boston intellectuals of his day. The leader of the Unitarians was William Ellery Channing (1780– 1842), who had challenged the earlier Puritan/Congregational orthodoxy by insisting that reason be applied to religion. This led to the ‘higher criticism’ that became the basis for serious Biblical scholarship, but it also led to a ‘cold’ religion that failed to attract the Transcendentalists, who also believed that there was a fundamental contradiction in Unitarianism’s insistence on the compatibility of reason and the belief in miracles. A movement that had similar objections to Unitarianism but later joined with it was Universalism. Led initially by Hosea Ballou (1771–1852), Universalism has often been called the rural version of Unitarianism and stressed the power of God’s love.
Emerson, who was an ordained minister, refused to give communion in his church, thus rejecting the miracle of transubstantiation, lost his pulpit and in 1838 gave a speech at Harvard Divinity School that was in many ways the founding moment of Transcendentalism. He was not invited back until after the end of the Civil War. Emerson’s new religion was based on ‘the infinitude of the private man’ and stressed self-reliance, but not a self-reliance that would be recognized by the proponents of the ‘self-made man’ of capitalism and the Social Darwinists. Emerson’s self-reliant person would be active in the world as a reformer.