March 11, 2010

Emerson enters and leaves the ministry

After Ralph Waldo Emerson's graduation from Harvard Divinity School, he preached in various churches throughout New England until Boston's Second (Unitarian) Church invited him to serve as its junior pastor. Emerson accepted and was ordained on March 11, 1829. Only a few months into the job, however, senior pastor Henry Ware resigned to teach at Harvard. Emerson took over and his salary jumped to a substantial $1800.* He was 26 years old.

The timing was good for the young minister, who had been courting the ill Ellen Tucker. After his appointment, he married the 18-year old woman; their marriage would last only two years before her death.

Her death may be what inspired Emerson to return to the radical theology he considered as a student. "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry," he confided in his journal. "The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers." Emerson questioned parts of the Bible that many interpreted literally and struggled with traditions and rites which seemed to have no basis. His biggest concern was the Holy Communion, which he believed Christ never intended to be a ritual. He did not see the importance or value in it. He concluded: "This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it."

The irony was that Emerson's predecessor, Henry Ware, had drawn large crowds for his monthly lectures on the Lord's Supper. This may be why the church's governing board was reluctant to accept Emerson's proposals to alter the ceremony, including the removal of the Eucharist and wine. His "indifference & dislike" to the tradition culminated in a sermon on the subject in which he explained why he believed Jesus had not intended a permanent religious institution when he celebrated Passover with his disciples.

Emerson was very well-liked by his parishioners but he no longer felt he could carry on there. The proprietors who had a say in the matter voted 30 to 24 to accept his resignation. He decided to break away for a time and traveled to Europe, setting sail on Christmas Day in 1832.

*This translates to roughly $22,000 today. Not much by our standards but, consider, that the average magazine editor was making $800-$1000 annually.


  1. August 2, 1840 / Quincy, Massachusetts

    John Quincy Adams writes:

    "The sentiment of religion is at this time, perhaps, more potent and prevailing in New England than in any other portion of the Christian world. For many years since the establishment of the theological school at Andover, the Calvinists and Unitarians have been battling with each other upon the atonement, the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. This has now very much subsided; but other wandering of mind takes the place of that and lets the wolf into the fold.
    A young man, Ralph Waldo Emerson, after failing in the everyday avocation of a Unitarian preacher and schoolmaster, starts a new doctrine of transcendentalism. Mr. Emerson declares all the old revelations are worn out; he announces the approach of new revelations and prophecies! Garrison and the non-resistant abolitionists, Brownson and the Marat democrats, phrenology and animal magnetism, all come in, furnishing some plausible rascality as an ingredient for our bubbling caldron of religion and politics."

    From: John Quincy Adams: A Spirit Unconquerable!

    1. As it was considered at the time? Thanks for sharing that!

  2. Actually, $1800 in 1829 translates to $48,000.

    1. Thanks for your comment! You're correct in that there are multiple ways to calculate that number. Another source and method put me somewhere between yours and mine at just over $30,000.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.