Individuals and Communities


The process of conversion entailed the spiritual transformation of the individual -- yet, as observed above, the actual moment of conversion was temporary. The initiate into evangelical Protestantism, after the required period for achieving abject humility, felt touched and spiritually transfigured by the presence of the divine spirit in Christ, but then the moment was gone. Likewise, the Transcendentalist could, during a spiritual epiphany, thrill at the seeming dissolution of identity in the cosmic order or oversoul, but the moment then passed. In each case, the significance of conversion lay primarily in the psychological aftereffects of the temporary experience, in an elevation of the individual's consciousness above the plane of worldly things and specious pleasures; the converted Evangelical felt the assurance of salvation, and the Transcendent individual felt the truth of the immediate presence of divinity. For both movements, however, a difficult issue remained unresolved: the relationship of the converted individual to the larger community. The individual continued living as flesh and blood, as a human being with social instincts, but his life had changed in a fundamental way with far-ranging implications. The problem encompassed both philosophical and practical issues. Philosophically, the postulates of individual transcendence raised difficult theoretical questions regarding community: Should the individual withdraw from a wicked world, assuming that was even possible? Should he form associations with other converted individuals? Should he work to bring other people, the uninitiated, into the fold? And the problem had practical significance because members of each movement were in the process of forming very real communities at specific times and places in American culture.

The philosophical solution for both movements lay in an understanding of community which reconciled the individualism of their religious philosophies with the social requirements of human life. Personal spiritual transformation could help to regenerate the individual's immediate community; it would provide the moral and religious underpinning that both movements thought a healthy society required. In turn, a regenerated community would provide both the sustaining environment for the continued practice of righteous behavior and the catalytic environment for future conversions. Individualism was thus asserted not for its own sake, but as a necessary stage on the road to forging a more holy society. Orestes Brownson captured the pith of the idea in his essay "Progress of Society" (1835), declaring that "mankind collectively has a growth precisely analogous to that of the individual."64

The common structural pattern in both movements' philosophy of community begins with a period of isolation, during which the individual can develop spiritually without social interference. Often, this stage entails a self-imposed separation from those people, including family and friends, who have not yet made the transition from worldiness to godliness. Subseqent to personal spiritual transformation, the individual is reintegrated with society, but the relationship is established on grounds fundamentally different from those that previously existed. This new relationship ordinarily derives from the individual's identification with and participation in a "subgroup" composed of other people with a compatible religious outlook (generally those people who had gone through the same conversion experience). The stage of "recongregation" takes place in a pure form only in heaven; on earth, the creation of a better community necessarily faces the obstacles that society and human nature inevitably present. Finally, this new community is seen, by its members at least, as representing the holiness to which the larger society should aspire; ideally the larger society adopts the values and practices of the smaller religious community.65 This process, which we may term a "morphology of social conversion," stemmed naturally from the idealism of the religious philosophies of both movements, and had a distinctly millenial cast for the Transcendentalists and an overtly millenial significance for the Evangelicals. The millenium, Christ's thousand-year reign on earth, during which time all the injustice and wickedness of the world would be set aright, represented the most perfect community that could exist on earth. Despite their best efforts, however, the Transcendentalists and Evangelicals fell somewhat short of this ideal.

The most concise Transcendentalist statement of these issues is Emerson's "Self-Reliance" (1840). Here, transcendence is achieved through cleaving to one's own truth and voluntarily withdrawing from society at the same time that the world "whips you with its displeasure." He declares that "I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me," while insisting that this isolation "must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation." Significantly, the final resting point of Emerson's self-reliant indivudal is not a solipsistic detachment from all humanity, but a reunion with a more transcendent society. Individualism coexists with a longing for an intensity of personal contact and with a prophetic belief that society will eventually "come around" to the spiritual truth that the individual has witnessed. "If I see a trait," Emerson predicts, "my children will see it after me, and in course of time all mankind -- although it may chance that no one has seen it before me." The assumption behind Emerson's confidence here is that the expression of the soul, or oversoul, in human life will be recognized by others as fundamental truth: "You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and if we follow the truth it will bring us out safe at last."66

A common motif of both movements which expressed the separation-recongregation structure is that of a journey of pilgrims. For the Evangelicals, the ultimate goal of the pilgrimage was heaven, where all would be reunited with God; until then, the pilgrims formed a self-contained band of people making their difficult way through the world. The following song chorus captures the principal themes: the tension between community and isolation, the sense of an ongoing journey, and the evangelical impulse to recruit the uninitiated:

O come and join our pilgrim band
Our toils and triumphs share.
We soon shall reach the promised land
And rest forever there.67

The same motif, although generally without the Evangelicals' constant invocation of heaven as the destination, appears in the writings of Transcendentalists. George Ripley, in "Jesus Christ, the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever" envisioned human existence as a journey toward some unnamed destination.

The friends with whom we pursue the journey of life remain with us but a little while and leave us alone. Many who set out with us at the beginning are not with us now; and many who are with us now, must be parted from our company before the journey is finished.68

The theme of life as an uncompleted journey which one pursues at times alone and at times with other kindred spirits, enabled both movements to assert rhetorically the primacy of the individual without abandoning in a revolutionary sense the principle of community. The individual's spiritual journey was not supposed to end futilely, in isolation, but in a reconnection with a more enriching and godly community.

This philosophical position derived in large measure from both movements' experience in the expanding young republic. As social fluidity and fragmentation seemed increasingly to characterize American life, both in the cities and on the frontier, community assumed a proportionately greater importance. What R. Jackson Wilson wrote in regard to the Transcendentalists helps to reveal the mindset of many Evangelicals as well:

The ideal of the transcendent individual was, in part, a compensatory value, a hope that by rejecting society as he had found it a man might enter an unchanging, innocent, and altogether uncompetitive realm of sublimity, a counter-reality to the unsteady flux of experience in America.69

This point of view is instructive in its linking of philosophy to concrete social conditions, but places too much emphasis on the idea of "rejecting" society. Rather than abandoning society altogether, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals were more concerned with forging new types of community within the parameters of American life -- indeed, they sought to create a better America. For both movements, the challenge consisted of translating philosophy into practical forms of living, of finding a viable way to bring a higher form of society into being.

For the Transcendentalists, the quest for a more spiritual community that would provide the most meaning for its members led them to experiment with alternative forms of social, and asocial, existence. These experiments -- notably Thoreau's sojourn at Walden pond, George Ripley's Brook Farm, and Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands -- all represented utopian undertakings in their efforts to follow through on the ideas to which a religious philosophy had committed them. As a general principle, they sought a form of community that would free them from the debasing materialism and spiritually bankrupt conventions and institutions of American society. What they found, however, was that this idealism had its practical limits in the form of economic necessity, interpersonal strife, and the demoralizing effects of attrition.

To escape the distractions of Concord, Thoreau removed himself to Emerson's land near Walden pond and lived there for two years in order to put into practice the principles that the Transcendentalists had long articulated: self-reliance, simplicity, spiritual contemplation, the love of nature. Inverting the ordinary notions of economy prevalent in antebellum America, Thoreau writes that he was motivated by a desire to disburden himself of the false "luxuries" of life to return to the real "necessities," from which return the spiritual riches of solitiude and asceticism would flow. He tells us that, even though he lives alone, he has ample recompense in the company of nature:

In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.70

But the pond neither remains Thoreau's permanent home, nor shields him entirely from the influence of his culture. All the while, his thoughts are as much in Concord as they are with the beans he hoes and the creatures he observes; and the train he hears far in the distance reflects the destiny of American society more accurately than does one man's sojourn in the woods, a fact of which he is well aware. His return to Concord and society is inevitable. Thoreau writes that he leaves the woods "for as good a reason as [he] went there," namely, to avoid falling into a rut of conformity.71 But his experience at the pond meant that he returned to Concord a changed man, wiser, more spiritually enlightened. His attitude toward his culture at the end of his narrative is one of bemused detachment:

I delight to come to my bearings, -- not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, -- not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.72

Thoreau did more, of course, than sit thoughtfully -- he penned Walden. The narrative structure of the book recapitulates the spiritual journey that Transcendentalists and Evangelicals conceived of as the highest form of living: a temporary sojourn away from society which results in the elevation of both individual and community upon their reunion. The book itself would serve this latter purpose by (re)presenting the experience of one man as an exemplar for others; Thoreau assumed the role not of an orator of the pulpit but of a preacher of the page.

And he was not alone. His individual journey echoed other communal living experiments the Transcendentalists had undertaken. The most important of these was George Ripley's utopian project, Brook Farm. In an 1840 letter to Emerson, Ripley outlined what he had in mind for Brook Farm. The motivation for the experiment, as for Thoreau, seems to have arisen from Ripley's deep dissatisfaction with American economic practices and oppotunities. But his hopes for the project soar to such heights of idealism that disappointment appears inevitable:

Our objects as you know are to ensure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual, to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can now be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions.73

Between September 1841, when the ten charter members established Brook Farm, and the end of 1847, when the community disbanded, the Brook Farmers sought to make Ripley's ideals a reality by instituting a series of social and economic practices.74 They made agriculture their chief occupation, emphasized the voluntary and communal aspects of labor, and sought to reestablish gender and class relations on a more equitable basis.75 Over time, interpersonal reform began to give way to far-reaching social reform as members became involved in such national movements as Fourierism (a scientific approach to social reform that was generally hostile to capitalism and slavery). The tension could not long be sustained; Brook Farmers found that they could not split their time between a utopian project that defined itself in almost passive opposition to society and those movements which actively sought to change society. Their retirement to the spiritual solace of the country kept them from what they increasingly regarded as their duty, structural social change.

A more radical and less successful attempt at creating a holy community was Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands. This utopian experiment was to be, even more so than Brook Farm, a withdrawal from a world of commerce into one of pure spirituality. "The entrance to paradise," Alcott wrote, "is still through the strait and narrow gate of self-denial ... Eden's avenue is yet guarded by the fiery-sworded cherubim, and humility and charity are the credentials for admission."76 In conceiving of the project, Alcott had already arrived at the conclusion that private property of any sort was the root of evil in modern society. As he wrote in the Dial in 1841, "to property man has no moral claim whatsoever; use, not ownership of the planet and parts thereof, constitutes his sole inheritance..."77 The practical result of this absolutist position was an effort at Fruitlands to eliminate as far as possible any conventional economic activity in favor of strict asceticism and a subsistence livelihood. As with Brook Farm, however, Fruitlands could not long withstand the march of history. It was simply too small and economically weak a community to slow or alter significantly the accelerating industrialization, expansion and modernization of American society. Instead, the significance of both lay in their representative quality -- representative of the efforts of many other people to create a new kind of community that would not reject their culture but serve as an example to that culture.

The Evangelicals, on the other hand, by sheer virtue of their numbers, operated as a socially cohesive force in many areas of the country by bringing people together in orderly communities. The two fundamental units of community were the family and the church, both of which were supposedly to provide an environment conducive to the spiritual growth of the individual. The proliferation of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches in particular, from the far Southwest to the upper reaches of New England is testimony to the success of the Evangelicals in providing the focal points and social structures around which viable communities could form. Where the Transcendentalists experimented with fairly small-scale and theoretically-based experiments in righteous living, the Evangelicals were engaged in organizing hundreds of thousands of Americans under the common banner of Protestantism. Still, not every Evangelical Protestant would have considered those of another denomination to have found the one truly holy community; this sectarianism is what gave the Protestant Christianizing of the United States its peculiarly diverse character. Nonetheless, in terms of the adhesive nature of Evangelicalism in promoting communal existence among disperse groups of individuals, no other religious movement had such a wide-ranging and long-lasting impact on American society.


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