Two Sundays Exploring Emerson's Divinity School Address: Part I

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
June 11, 2017


By David Herndon

Pride Sunday

11 June 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

At this time of the year, with so many high school and college graduation ceremonies, the music in the air is often the stately and inspiring “Pomp and Circumstance.”  Why is this music so beloved?  Why do we hear this music year after year in every graduation ceremony in every small town and suburb and city throughout the United States?  No doubt every person has their own personal response to this music.  For some, the music evokes a sense of accomplishment after much hard work.  For others, the music may point to dreams of great accomplishments in the future.  But perhaps we also feel that somehow this music links us to previous generations, and to the cultural values that we cherish, cultural values that we inherit from the great universities in England and elsewhere in Europe.  When we hear that music, might we imagine graduates of Oxford and Cambridge with their black robes and square hats marching to that same music a hundred years ago, or three hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago?

In fact, “Pomp and Circumstance” was composed in 1901, and in the United States it was first used as the processional in a graduation ceremony in 1905.  Yes, the music may evoke a timeless quality, but the tradition is of relatively recent origin.

As you may know, “Pomp and Circumstance” was written by Sir Edward Elgar, an English composer who lived from 1857 to 1934.  Elgar wrote in a traditional English style, with memorable melodies and intriguing harmonies.  His music was widely appreciated in his home country and elsewhere.  Nevertheless, in the years after 1900, younger composers began pushing the boundaries of musical harmony and form, dispensing with melody and stepping away from traditional harmonies.  Elgar did not fit into this new trend in composition.

Late one night this past week, as I was driving home from a meeting at church, I happened to be listening to the classical music station here in Pittsburgh.  The program was “Exploring Music with Bill McGloughlin,” and the subject was the music of Edward Elgar.  Bill McGloughlin was explaining what I just shared with you, that after 1900, younger composers were pioneering new trends in music, while more traditional composers struggled to find their place.  And then Bill McGloughlin offered a deeply perceptive and redemptive comment.  He said:  “At the time, critics called Elgar’s music old-fashioned.  Now we simply call it beautiful.”

Let’s explore that contrast for a moment.  On the one hand, Bill McGloughlin was pointing to the frothy enthusiasm that people often have for the newest, the latest, the most innovative, the most fashionable.  And thank goodness we have people who are willing to try new things, to innovate, to go beyond what has been.  Otherwise, we would be stuck with the same thing forever.  But on the other hand, Bill McGloughlin was pointing to another virtue.  No, he was not pointing to the value of tradition and the importance of curating achievements of the past.  Rather, he was pointing to the integrity of enjoying the beauty you enjoy not because it is the newest and the most fashionable, and not because it is traditional and classic, but simply because you find it beautiful.  Bill McGloughlin was saying, “Be your own judge.  Do not like something simply because it is new, and do not like something simply because it is traditional.  Do not like something because others have said you should like it.  Do not dislike something because others have said you should dislike it.  Instead, set aside the opinions of others and enjoy it because it speaks to you.  Enjoy it because you find it beautiful.  Honor the integrity of your own relationship to beauty.”

On July 15, 1838, the senior class at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, assembled for their final academic gathering.  It was a graduation ceremony, but you would not have heard “Pomp and Circumstance,” for Edward Elgar had not yet even been born.  However, you would have heard a message something like what Bill McGloughin offered in reference to Elgar’s music.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the speaker for this graduation ceremony.  His sermon, known as the Divinity School Address, stands as a major landmark in the history of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.  Born in 1803 and raised in a Unitarian family, Emerson had followed his father into the Unitarian ministry as his profession and had been called to serve as minister with the Second Church of Boston in 1829.  But Emerson submitted his resignation three years later in 1832.  Although he continued as the “stated supply” preacher at the Unitarian Church of East Lexington, intellectually he was rapidly moving outside the mainstream of Unitarian thought.  This change became tumultuously apparent in 1838 when delivered the Divinity School Address.

Emerson’s primary message was that commitment to a faith tradition needs to be renewed in each successive generation.  But Emerson’s message was controversial in two major ways.  First, he painted a discouraging picture of the preachers and pastors of the contemporary Church, and he did this in the presence of the Divinity School professors who had done their best to prepare those preachers and pastors for their professional work.  And second, Emerson denied the miracles of the New Testament as the basis for acceptance of the message and mission of Jesus, instead claiming that we comprehend religious truths on the basis of inward personal intuition.

The Divinity School Address generated significant controversy over the following weeks and months.  Andrew Norton, one of the most vociferous of the Old School Unitarian ministers, attacked Emerson’s presentation as “The Latest Form of Infidelity.”  And even Emerson’s friend Henry Ware, Jr., wrote in a letter to Emerson that “I look with anxiety and no little sorrow to the course which your mind has been taking.”  On the other hand, Emerson’s sentiments were greeted with tremendous admiration and approval by Theodore Parker and other leaders of the Transcendentalist movement.  Parker said that “it was the noblest, the most inspiring strain I ever listened to.”

The eminent Unitarian scholar Conrad Wright offered this appraisal of the Divinity School Address:  “In time, the Unitarians abandoned the traditional theory of miracles, as well as much of the theological structure built upon it.  Emerson . . . doubtless contributed to this outcome.  But even more important was the spread of a scientific and critical attitude which was, in a somewhat different way, as destructive of the older theology as was Transcendentalism.  The Divinity School Address remains, therefore, a perennially fresh solvent of dogmatic orthodoxies, especially Unitarian orthodoxies, rather than an indication of the permanent philosophic bent of Unitarianism in this country.”

This morning, we are celebrating Pride Sunday here at First Unitarian Church, and no doubt you are wondering what in the world Emerson has to do with Pride.  So here we go.

As Unitarian Universalists, we often think that our support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is rooted in our first principle, where we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

But there is another path, a more personal path, a more heart-centered path, toward that same expression of support, a path identified by Ralph Waldo Emerson one hundred and seventy-nine years ago.

Our first Unitarian Universalist principle calls us to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  But the first of our Unitarian Universalist sources speaks of “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”

Emerson was pointing to direct experience.  Emerson was affirming direct experience.  Emerson was all about direct experience.Listen again to Emerson’s message:

Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every [person], 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 [someone else] announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on [their] word, or as [their] second, [whoever they may be], I can accept nothing.

It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that [God] speaketh, not spake.

Let me admonish you to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of [humanity], and dare to love God without mediator or veil. . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, -- cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint [humankind] at first hand with Deity.

If I had a child who was gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, what might I tell that child – that I support their inherent worth and dignity?  Well, yes.  Of course.  But perhaps that is a little abstract.  Perhaps that affirms only from the outside.  If I had a child who was gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, the more heart-centered message I would want to offer would be to say, with Emerson, “Look into yourself, forge and honor your own direct experience of God, your own direct experience of the Universe, and most important, your own direct experience of yourself, and affirm who you are and how you love without reference to social conventions, or tradition, or custom, or what your parents think, or what your friends think, or the opinions of critics, or what you see on television.  And whatever you discover about yourself, simply call it beautiful.”

And I will simply call it beautiful, too.

I will close with these words from that wonderful song by Cyndi Lauper, which may be helpful to many of us as we struggle to affirm who we are:

I see your true colors
Shining through
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful
Like a rainbow

© 2017 by David Herndon

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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