Conclusion


In the decades following the emergence of Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism, American culture absorbed their respective contributions in markedly different ways. The Transcendentalists, who never claimed enough members to become a significant religious movement, bequeathed an invaluable legacy to American literature and philosophy. As a distinct movement, Transcendentalism had disintegrated by the dawn of civil war; twenty years later its shining lights had all faded: George Ripley and Jones Very died in 1880, Emerson in 1882, Orestes Brownson in 1876, Bronson Alcott in 1888. The torch passed to those writers and thinkers who wrestled with the philosophy of their Transcendentalist forebears, keeping it alive in the mind more than in the church. At his one-hundredth lecture before the Concord Lyceum in 1880, Emerson looked back at the heyday of Transcendentalism and described it thus:

It seemed a war between intellect and affection; a crack in Nature, which split every church in Christendom into Papal and Protestant; Calvinism into Old and New schools; Quakerism into Old and New; brought new divisions in politics; as the new conscience touching temperance and slavery. The key to the period appeared to be that the mind had become aware of itself. Men grew reflective and intellectual. There was a new consciousness .... The modern mind believed that the nation existed for the individual, for the guardianship and education of every man. This idea, roughly written in revolutions and national movements, in the mind of the philosopher had far more precision; the individual is the world.93

The Transcendentalists had stood at the vanguard of the "new consciousness" Emerson recalled so fondly, and it is for their intellectual and moral fervor that we remember them now as much as for their religious philosophy; the light of Transcendentalism today burns strongest on the page and in the classroom, rather than from the pulpit.

The reverberations of Evangelicalism have moved in other directions. Because the Evangelicals were, from the outset, intent on expanding church membership, they managed to define the daily religious life of the United States in a way that no other movement had done before, or has done since. Ever since the Second Great Awakening, the power of Evangelicalism has derived from its practical character -- its ability to disseminate its message, to help guide the religious lives of its adherents, to organize its members into cohesive groups. In the process of maturation and nationalization, evangelical Protestantism has lost something of its original rebellious flair, but continues as an omnipresent force. Churches of the major Evangelical denominations are common sights for the traveler. Modern Evangelical preachers follow in their predecessors' footsteps by continuing to spread the word of God -- although now they have moved beyond rural camp meetings to take advantage of the power of television.

One can understand, therefore, the gulf that separates Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism in the public consciousness. Memories of their provenance have grown hazy and imprecise, and it is easy to lose sight of their common heritage. By placing the two movements side by side, however, we gain a better understanding of how they both reacted to and helped to define a particular cultural moment in similar ways. At a time when political, economic and social transformations often exceeded the psychological ability of many Americans to keep pace, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals affirmed the dignity and moral capacity of the individual, while retaining the promise of the individual's reconnection with a higher form of community. In a time of disorienting change and exhilirating potential, they sought to attain a higher plane of consciousness, from which the diverse elements of American society could be successfully integrated into a meaningful whole. Having closed the gap between humanity and divinity, they strove -- with varying degrees of success -- to bridge divisions between individuals, between the possessed and dispossessed, men and women, blacks and whites. Transcendentalists and Evangelicals articulated religious ideas that both rebelled against and grew out of their culture, and in the process the two movements came closer together philosophically than either would have liked to admit.


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