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Excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson's

Harvard Divinity School Address
delivered Sunday evening, July 15, 1838,
before the graduating senior class in
the chapel, Divinity Hall

Excerpted by HDS student Thomas Riedlinger in 1995


Though this lecture is frequently praised by defenders of religious freedom, it is seldom read in its entirety these days, even at Harvard Divinity School. Modern readers tend to find it overwritten, as one might expect from a man who made his living giving lectures. To remedy this, I have made an attempt to condense the original text in a manner which extricates Emerson's powerful voice from the padding which has muffled it. For best effect I recommend that it be read out loud.



The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. The laws execute themselves....Thus in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted....If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being....As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.

These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise....Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself of power...

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness....By it is the universe made safe and habitable, not by science or power....This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another,--by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason....

Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or reject...[T]he absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation....Then falls the church, the state, art, letters, life. The doctrine of the divine nature being forgotten, a sickness infects and dwarfs the constitution....And because the indwelling Supreme Spirit cannot wholly be got rid of, the doctrine of it suffers this perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest...

These general views...find abundant illustration in the history of religion, and...especially in the history of the Christian church....The truth contained in that [particular religion], you, my young friends, are now setting forth to teach. As the Cultus, or established worship of the civilized world, it has great historical interest for us....I shall endeavor to discharge my duty to you on this occasion, by pointing out two errors in its administration...

[1.]Jesus Christ...saw with open eye the mystery of the soul....He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said,...'I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.' But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in...following ages!...Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion....[It does not emphasize] the doctrine of the soul, but...[rather dwells] with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe...But [as a consequence of formal]...Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with...official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking [for him]. All who...[agree] with me, feel that the language that describes Christ to Europe and America is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but [rather]...paints a demigod...

The injustice of the vulgar tone of preaching is not less flagrant to Jesus than to the souls which it profanes....[D]o not degrade the life and dialogues of Christ...Let them lie as they befell, alive and warm, part of human life and of the landscape and of the cheerful day.

[2.] The second defect of [the traditional Christian church]...is a consequence of the first;...that the [intuitive] Moral Nature...whose revelations introduce greatness...into the open soul, is not explored as the foundation of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith [resulting from this defect] throttles the preacher...

It is very certain that...the effect of conversation with the beauty of [one's own] soul, [is] to beget a desire and need to impart to others the same knowledge and love....Always the seer is a sayer. Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy: sometimes with pencil on canvas, sometimes with chisel on stone, sometimes in towers and aisles of granite, his soul's worship is...[built]; sometimes in anthems of...music; but clearest and most permanent in words...

The man enamored of this excellency [of the experienced soul] becomes its priest or poet....But observe the condition, the spiritual limitation of the office. [Only the] spirit...can teach [what it reveals]. Not any profane man, not any...liar, not any slave can teach [this revelation], but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is....But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as [personal ambition]...commands, babbles. Let him hush....

Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us....I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say I would go to church no more....A snow-storm was falling around us. The snow-storm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful...snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word of intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience had he yet imported into his doctrine....Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought....

My friends, in these two errors...I find the causes of a decaying church and a wasting unbelief. And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation than the loss of worship? Then all things go into decay. Genius leaves the temple to haunt the senate or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor....What in these desponding days can be done by us? The remedy is already declared in the ground of our complaint of the Church. We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul then let the redemption be sought....The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past; that the Bible is...[completed]; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man;--is lost....All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be blind in public. They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world.....

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediation or veil....Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity....Yourself a newborn bard of the Hold Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity....

And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh-quenched fire on the altar. The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question returns, What shall we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain....Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy of this deformity is first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul....

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