Self Reliance and Other Essays

Self Reliance and Other Essays Summary and Analysis of The Divinity School Address


Emerson delivered the “Divinity School Address” to the senior class of Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838. In his address, Emerson describes the moral or religious sentiment, and how the formalism of organized (or, “historical” in his terminology) Christianity has obscured the sentiment. A rebuke of Unitarianism, his controversial speech garnered both vehement protest and acclaim, and resulted in his banishment from the University for more than a generation.

The Moral/Virtue/Religious Sentiment

Emerson opens his address with an observation of the summer season.

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, and the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no bloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy.

In such observations, he does not casually allude to the weather, nor does he present pretty imagery to soften his upcoming controversial message. Rather, Emerson offers the central theological point of his talk: divinity surrounds us everyday.

We realize this truth when we open our heart and mind to the sentiment of virtue and allow ourselves to delight in the presence of divine laws. Such laws of the soul exist independent of time, space, and circumstance, and deliver their justice instantaneously. “He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled.” They also enable the soul to ascend to heaven or descend to hell of their own volition. The existence of such laws has always suggested in turn the existence of a unifying force that pervades the world, “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.”

When we perceive this truth, we awaken our religious sentiment, which “lies at the foundation of society, and successively creates all forms of worship.” As we must awaken our religious sentiment, Emerson argues our insights into the divine cannot be “received at second hand,” but rather only through personal experience. What we learn from others – whoever they may be – about religion then, we must find true in ourselves, or else reject it.

The Errors of Historical Christianity

While the capacity for divine insight is present in all though, historical Christianity has obscured this capacity through two major errors.

The first major error is the misunderstanding and mythologizing of the person of Jesus. The life of Jesus illustrates the manifestation of the divine in the human. He is a true prophet, for “he saw with open eye the mystery of the soul.” However, when Christian churches elevate him above other humans and treat him as a god, they remove the possibility of divinity in all of us. Emerson satirizes those who would say, “This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.” To say as much demeans humans, when in fact, Jesus was “a true man… the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of man.” In effect, historical Christianity no longer teaches us about the doctrine of the soul, and how we may become receptive to the moral/virtue/religious sentiment as Jesus did.

The second major error is the fetishistic worship of the Bible, which treats “revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.” Historical Christianity in effect denies us the possibility of personal revelation and access to the divinity that surrounds us everyday, as alluded to in the opening paragraph.

The True Preacher

Emerson turns to address the aspiring preachers in his audience. He warns the students to avoid becoming a formalist whose prayers do not uplift, and whose sermons are merely recited from memory. Such a preacher cannot express the application of the moral sentiment in everyday life to his flock.

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… This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history.

A true preacher must show “God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.” Such a person would preach the true Christianity, the faith in the soul of humans and their potential to receive the divine. Emerson asks, “In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind that he is drinking forever the soul of God?” Such a question rings with urgency when “in the country, neighborhoods, half parishes are signing off, to use the local term… I have heard a devout person, who prized the Sabbath, say in bitterness of heart, ‘On Sundays, it seems wicked to go to church.’”

To become such a preacher, Emerson advises the students to reject the models of preaching of others – even of the likes of St. Paul, George Fox, or Swedenborg – and instead find their own sentiment and revelation. They must go alone and “dare to love God without mediator or veil.” He asks the students to become true preachers: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”