One of the greatest problems that readers of Emerson have is grasping his religious beliefs. We know that religion is important to him because every essay seems saturated with references to attaining a more perfect relationship with God. His emphasis on a universal soul flowing through individual souls can strike us as mystical and abstract, and, therefore, hard to grasp. The key to understanding his religious views lies in Unitarianism, a religious association that, to an outsider, might appear to be oddly non-religious. Not surprisingly, given Emerson's belief in the sanctity of individualism and his accepting Unitarian principles, this denomination is based fundamentally on an individual's private relationship with God — the God within each of us — and on the individual's personal judgment in matters of morals and ethics.
Unitarianism denies that the God of Christianity can be identified as the three-person Trinity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Unitarians consider Christ to be of great importance, but not divine. Rather, they believe that he had a divine mission to make human beings more aware of God's goodness and of our obligation to care for each other. Hence, they are not Trinitarian, but Unitarian — God is one being, the Supreme Being. The emphasis of this movement lies not so much with a discussion of God's existence, but with the religiousness of human beings, and especially with our ethical natures.
The Unitarian doctrine had wide-ranging implications for students and religious seekers in Emerson's time. The movement became more than a curiosity in late eighteenth-century England, and in the New England of the young American republic. Suddenly, the basic Calvinist idea still lingering in 1836 New England of humanity's helpless dependence on God's grace was superseded by the transcendentalist doctrine of the God within each individual. The followers of this belief prospered strongly enough in New England that Unitarianism became an independent denomination.
The stern orthodoxy of Calvinism, named after its founder, John Calvin, asserts the doctrine of predestination: God has chosen some people — but only a few — whose souls will be saved upon their physical death, but the mass of humankind is destined for eternal damnation because their souls are lost already when they are born. Unitarians, by contrast, picture a God who extends salvation to everyone: They insist that the distinction between those who are saved — "born again" — and the rest of humanity is hypocritical because it creates a false dichotomy between the chosen and the unchosen.
Unitarians stress a universality of Christianity's message that is not limited to those who profess a belief in Christ's redemptive death. This position puts Unitarians at odds with their more orthodox Protestant contemporaries because they emphasize the perfectibility of humankind. Traditional Calvinism stresses the utter depravity of human nature and the incapacity to do any good whatsoever without God's grace. For Calvinists, the proper posture is one of submission and repentance. Unitarians, by contrast, posit a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: They look to a brighter future that will come about through sound education. However, this optimism should not be mistaken for religious triviality: American transcendentalism, as expressed by New England men educated in the conservative religious institutions of Harvard, Yale, and other eastern colleges, placed a heavy emphasis on morality and upright behavior derived from Puritanism. Thus, even when transcendentalists like Emerson or Amos Bronson Alcott were most rebellious against organized religion, they relied on a sense of spiritual direction instilled by strict and long-lasting religious education.
The perfectibility of humankind that so outraged Calvinists is evident throughout Emerson's writings. For example, the idea of a spiritual ascent toward a more perfect union with God is well illustrated in "The Poet," in which Emerson asserts that "within the form of every creature is a force compelling it to ascend into a higher form." Also in this same essay, Emerson states, "But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms." Salvation depends on our intuiting our souls' connections to what Emerson terms the World-Soul, or Over-Soul. The more we perceive this all-encompassing Over-Soul, the more perfect we become.
Emerson's position on the accessibility of God to all people without the established Church acting as an intermediary caused considerable discomfort for Calvinists, but Emerson used the Church's rigidity to his own advantage. In "The Over-Soul," he questions not only the authority of the Church, but its faith: "The faith that stands on authority is not faith. The reliance on authority measures the decline of religion, the withdrawal of the soul." The more the Calvinists claimed sole authority for religious instruction, the more Emerson and his contemporaries thought them selfish and interested only in their own — rather than their congregations'well-being.
Emerson wished for salvation, but not within a church that still held Calvinist beliefs. After he resigned his pastorate at the Second Unitarian Church of Boston, he wrote in his journal, "The highest revelation is that God is in every man." There is not only a unity of souls in the Over-Soul, but also only one source, God. Emerson discovered a religious power within himself, a direct intuition of a spiritual God potent in the soul of every person. We do not need to seek the source of authentic religious experience outside ourselves; we can discover salvation by the revelation of the God within.
Because one of the principal tenets of Unitarianism is the equality of all, nineteenth-century Unitarians took a keen interest in affairs far beyond the walls of their churches. Politically, Unitarians were among the most liberal groups in the nation. Highly articulate, they voiced their resistance to any inequality in any part of society, which meant that they were often involved in the country's principal social and political issues, including antiwar and antislavery movements. Emerson, a product of this spiritual American democracy, discovered the voice of God in every individual — not just in the elect — and realized that salvation was available to everyone.