Transcendentalists and Evangelicals

The theological dispute raging at Harvard would also place the Transcendentalists beyond the Christian pale in the eyes of many Evangelicals. This distinction between the two movements has, as suggested earlier, contributed to the customary scholarly segregation of Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism, and merits explicit delineation. Evangelicals retained a fundamental Protestant belief in a dualistic universe: God formed the universe, but remains above it, separate from it. The creator is not one with the creation. The spiritual world is absolutely discrete from the material world, and an unbridgeable gulf divides the two; a human being can only "reach" the spiritual world through death. The one "contact point" between the material and spiritual spheres was the figure of Jesus Christ, who existed as both human being and divine envoy; people could therefore not experience God directly, but could receive an influx of the divine spirit through the mediation of Christ. Corresponding to this gulf between the spiritual and material worlds was the Protestant belief in supernaturalism. Certain mysterious or awe-evoking events of the material world, such as miracles and "wonders," could only be explained by reference to the spiritual world and the action of God or Christ.

Transcendentalists, in contrast, believed in a monistic universe, or one in which God is immanent in nature. The creation is an emanation of the creator; although a distinct entity, God is permanently and directly present in all things. Spirit and matter are perfectly fused, or "interpenetrate," and differ not in essence but in degree. In such a pantheistic world, the objects of nature, including people, are all equally divine (hence Transcendentalism's preoccupation with the details of nature, which seemed to encapsulate divine glory in microcosmic form). In a pantheistic and mystical world, one can experience direct contact with the divinity, then, during a walk in the woods, for instance, or through introspective contemplation. Similarly, one does not need to attribute the events of the natural world to "removed" spiritual causes because there is no such separation; all events are both material and spiritual; a miracle is indeed "one with the blowing clover and the falling rain."

The theological distinctions between Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism, however, are not as definitively important as they might appear. As stated at the outset, the criteria by which this essay attempts to judge the affinities between the two depend less on abstract theological issues than on the ways in which the preaching of both movements affected individuals psychologically and brought about moral and social reform. Issues of theology should not, in my opinion, assume a greater significance for the historian than for the historical actors themselves, and should not obscure that the whole point of religion was conceived of as giving meaning to human existence. A semi-literate farmer in Kentucky likely had little interest in or practical use for a recondite debate in ontological dualism; he would be more concerned with how the words of the preacher who came to town changed his life for the better. The question of vocabulary also forms a significant part of the problem, and should be addressed carefully. We shall see that, just as the movements had different conceptual referents for the same word -- "God" -- in many cases they expressed in dissimilar terms ideas that were in fact very much alike, such as the notion of a "sinner" or "unconverted" person. What must be kept in mind is that Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism paralleled each other as social and philosophical forces in their unstinting affirmation of the ability of the common man or woman of any race to take their spirituality into their own hands -- at a time when the institutions and social patterns of American life seemed increasingly alienating.

The remainder of this study is devoted to an investigation of these issues, and consists of four sections: conversion, language, community, and reform. The first explores the Transcendentalist and Evangelical conceptions and methods of personal spiritual transformation. This section provides a framework for the remaining three in that internal conversion generally entailed a reorientation of the conceptual approach of the individual, or the group, toward language, community and reform. In each case, Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism fused philosophical and religious ideas with practical techniques and outcomes. By addressing these areas of overlap we may begin to reorient our own conceptual approach toward antebellum American religion.

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