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Is Transcendentalism A Religion?

In the early 1800s, in New England, transcendentalism was born as a new way of thinking, a philosophy of intuition rather than reason.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to find "an original relation to the universe," and the transcendental thought centered around Emerson's work, among other 19th century intellectuals (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau) was born in the early 1800s in New England.

Transcendentalism is not a religion per se; it is more like a collection of philosophical and theological thought, an intellectual and a spiritual movement that emphasizes the goodness of nature and the independence of humanity. However, during the 1830s, they became an organized group.

What Is The Origin Of Transcendentalism?

In the early 1800s, in New England, transcendentalism was born as a new way of thinking, a philosophy of intuition rather than reason. It did not matter if you were a Christian, a Muslim, or an agnostic; you could also identify yourself as a transcendentalist. The term transcendentalism was first used by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who dedicated much of his writings on the processes of reasoning and understanding of reality.

Later on, through many literary works, transcendentalism expanded and shifted focus from reason towards intuition. Kant believed that our knowledge was limited because humans cannot understand what we are not able to perceive. This led to the conclusion that such a thing does not exist. However, Emerson was adamant about the existence of the soul, and even though he admits that he cannot define it, he can sense it with intuition and experience. 

What Are The Core Beliefs Of Transcendentalism?

The birth of Unitarianism played an important role in the movement of transcendentalism because it developed as a response to Unitarianism (simply put, they believed that Jesus Christ was a mortal and they did not like the idea of the holy trinity), harboring a more intense spiritual experience as opposed to the rationalism of Unitarianism. Transcendentalists organized themselves around the idea of nature, rejecting materialism, and believing in personal knowledge of God, the idea that every individual is sufficient for spiritual insight.

Transcendentalists believed that every person is inherently a good person due to a divinity that is present in all of nature and humanity. Personal experience was another important belief, especially the importance of the individuals to discover the truth for themselves as opposed to someone else's teachings. They were also against slavery, and they supported women's rights and better education. It seems like they were a decent bunch of intellectuals.

The Transcendental Club

One of the most important steps towards the organization of transcendentalism was the founding of "The Transcendental Club" back in 1836. Their first meeting was held in Boston, at George Ripley's (American social reformer) house. It was a place where many men and women occasionally met and discussed the state of American society, the state of intellectualism at universities, the shortcoming of Unitarianism, and such.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, Henry David Thoreau, William Henry Channing, Sophia Ripley, Margaret Fuller, were some of the more prominent members of the club. Many of them also participated in various experimental forms of self-sufficient living like farming communes or living in the woods, far from society.

About the Author

Antonia is a sociologist and an anglicist by education, but a writer and a behavior enthusiast by inclination. If she's not writing, editing or reading, you can usually find her snuggling with her huge dog or being obsessed with a new true-crime podcast. She also has a (questionably) healthy appreciation for avocados and Seinfeld.

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