Unitarianism emerged from Congregationalism in the early nineteenth
century. A religion of reason, it sought to subject the Bible and
Christianity to the bar of reason. Atonement does not require God to execute
an innocent being, they insisted. Man can turn to the God of love on his own
ability. They distilled the Christian faith to "The Fatherhood of God,
The Brotherhood of Man and the Leadership of Christ."
(1) both accented divine benevolence,
(2) both attacked traditional trinitarianism
(3) both affirmed the essential divinity of man, and
(4) both rejected classical theories of the atonement.
On other hand, Transcendentalists went far beyond the Unitarians in four ways. They believed in:
(1) divine immanence
(2) intuitive perception
(3) rejection of external authority and
(4) a radical social ethic.
Ralph Waldo Emerson entered Harvard Divinity School in 1825. At the time, it was dominated by two liberals: Henry Ware and Andrews Norton. The faculty was well satisfied with the traditional tenets of rational Christianity, but not Emerson. He never finished his degree. He refused to be a spiritual pensioner on his ancestors. Instead, he choose to strike out on his own in an effort to find a more vital faith. The church as he knew it was dead. Emerson was looking for a vital, lively faith.
In 1826, Emerson applied for a license to preach at the
Middlesex Association of Ministers. The trial sermon he submitted was on the
text in I Thessalonians 5:17 "Pray without ceasing." In this
introduction to this sermon, Emerson laid out two basic philosophical ideas
that would come to characterize his mature religious thought: (1) the primacy
of spirit over matter; and (2) the immediacy of God to the human soul.
Brook Farm was an effort by the Transcendentalists to
frame a new society. This effort was also part of a broader movement toward French
utopian socialism in the intellectual circles of the 19th century. The
principles for this new community were simple: each person was to contribute
what one could; all work had its own dignity; and each person was to be as
self-reliant as possible. As Emerson had put it, in relying on the true self,
one relies on God. (Or to put it another way, if one peels the onion of the
self, one finally gets to Ultimate Reality.)