Origins and Influence

View of Boston

View of Boston in the early 19th century.

King's Chapel Boston

King's Chapel in Boston, location of the first official acceptance of Unitarianism in 1782.

In order to understand just how impactful Transcendentalism was in establishing a new national culture, it is crucial to examine the ideas that influenced and helped establish their whole belief system in its early days. The early 19th century was a time of substantial growth and change in American society. Industry was growing, political conflicts were constant, and westward expansion provided many opportunities for people across the nation. With such dramatic change in the social and economic spheres, ideas that had dominated the intellectual realm for decades were beginning to be questioned. Author Michael Moran describes the origins of the movement as “a passionate outcry on the part of a number of brilliant and highly articulate young Americans who had become so intoxicated with the spirit of European romanticism that they could no longer tolerate the narrow rationalism, pietism, and conservatism of their fathers” (1).

Transcendentalism was greatly influenced by the formal recognition of unitarian faith in Boston during the late 18th century. Unitarianism was a rejection to traditional Calvinist beliefs, and defined the God in Christianity as not the Trinity, but rather as one person. This belief system held that proof of religion was found in examples of miracles from the Bible, and this is where the founder of transcendental thought, Ralph Waldo Emerson, found great fault. He believed that the Unitarians had a mistaken view of religion, and his dissatisfaction with their ideas was the first step in establishing the Transcendentalists foundation. At this same time, German philosophy was actively questioning the authority of religious texts, and Emerson was inspired by writers like Johann Gottfried von Herder who contemplated the established superiority of the Bible to mortal poetry or writings of the time (2). Another great influence on Transcendentalism was European Romanticism. A rejection to the Age of Enlightenment and ideas of Rationalism, the Romanticists of Europe brought new importance to themes of individualism, emotion, and nature that became a large part of this new transcendental thought.

The beginning of the 19th century was a period marked with multitudes of new intellectual ideas spanning from topic to topic spread throughout the world. But Transcendentalism is unique as it was an accumulation of different ideas that seemed to have little relation into not just a philosophy, but a new way of life. The core beliefs the Transcendentalists held were essential in their everyday lives, and changed the way people approached the modern world.

Origins and Influence