Emerson delivered "The Divinity School Address" at Harvard on July 15, 1838, by invitation. The address was first published in August 1838, by James Munroe, in an edition of 1,000 copies, which sold quickly. It first appeared in England as part of the collection Orations, Lectures, and Addresses (London: H.G. Clarke) in 1844, and was included in Nature; Addresses, and Lectures (later titled Miscellanies; Embracing Nature, Addresses, and Lectures), published in Boston by Munroe in 1849. It was included in 1876 in the first volume (Miscellanies) of the Little Classic Edition of Emerson's writings; in 1883 in the first volume (Nature, Addresses, and Lectures) of the Riverside Edition; in 1903 in the first volume (Nature, Addresses, and Lectures) of the Centenary Edition; and in 1971 in the first volume (Nature, Addresses, and Lectures) of the Harvard-published Collected Works. A Danish edition of the address appeared in 1856, the first separate English edition in 1903. The Unity Publishing Company issued it in 1884, and reprinted it many times. The American Unitarian Association published editions of it in 1907 and 1938. "The Divinity School Address" has been printed in numerous popular collections of Emerson's writings, among them the 1940 Modern Library The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited by Brooks Atkinson), the 1946 The Portable Emerson (edited by Mark Van Doren), the 1965 Signet Classic Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited by William H. Gilman), and the 1983 Library of America Essays & Lectures (selected and annotated by Joel Porte).
Emerson draws upon the physical reality of the present moment in opening "The Divinity School Address." He describes the lushness of nature in high summer (the address was delivered in the middle of July) and acknowledges the perfect loveliness of the physical world. Man under the summer stars is like a young child, and the world is his toy. But Emerson quickly turns away from the material and takes up universal laws, which dwarf the significance of nature's beauty and prompt questions about the world and its order. He proceeds to answer these questions in the first part of the address by reiterating ideas developed at length in Nature, thus laying the groundwork for what he will say about the state of religion at the current time."
A beauty more "secret, sweet, and overpowering" than that of nature is apparent when man opens himself to "the sentiment of virtue." Man then sees the divine and universal that encompass his existence, and knows that his place in the larger picture assures him a limitless capacity for goodness. When man strives to apprehend the absolutes of right, truth, and virtue, he is in harmony with God's creation of the universe for that very purpose, and he pleases God. The "sentiment of virtue" is identified as "reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws," which are revealed through experience of the world and through life. Universal laws cannot be fully envisioned or articulated, but are evident in our character and actions. The "sentiment of virtue" is at the heart of religion.
Emerson holds up intuition as the means of perceiving the laws of the soul, which are timeless and absolute, not subject to current values and circumstances. Goodness and evil are instantly rewarded or punished in the enlargement or diminishment of the man who practices them — external reward and punishment are beside the point. Man is God to the degree that he is inwardly virtuous. In subordinating himself to the expression of the divine virtue that speaks through him, he knows himself and realizes his capabilities. As he does so, he acts in accordance with the workings of the universe, and his efforts to understand and exercise virtue are reinforced. Emerson asserts that the human soul, in its ability to elevate itself, has the power to determine whether it will go to heaven or hell — that is, there is nothing predetermined about the ultimate fate of the soul. All of this is true because of the unity of man and nature in the divine mind (the , although here, as in Nature, Emerson does not so refer to it). Because the divine is intrinsically perfect, Emerson suggests, goodness is real, while evil — the absence of goodness — is not an absolute quality in and of itself. Goodness is identified with life; evil, with death. In straying from goodness, a man progressively loses his connection with the divine, is diminished, and — from a universal point of view, if not physically — ceases to exist.
The religious sentiment brings joy and makes sense of the world for us, empowers and deifies us. Through the religious sentiment, a man understands that goodness is within him, that he and every other man enjoys a direct relationship with God through intuitive Reason, and that virtue cannot be attained by emulating other men. All of society's forms of worship — Oriental as well as western — were founded on an original direct understanding of God by man. Emerson emphasizes the importance of intuition to the individual in achieving the religious sentiment, stating that it cannot be received "at second hand," and stresses that the process takes place through inspiration or revelation rather than learning. If religion is not based on this intuitive individual connection with the divine, the church is meaningless, man's importance is reduced, and the inner drive to achieve the true religious sentiment is perverted into rejection of a direct relationship with God. "Miracles, prophecy, poetry, the ideal life, the holy life" then are present through religion only historically, in its ancient intuitive origin, but not as it currently exists. Emerson points to the established Christian church as an illustration of this decline of religion from what it was and should be."
Jesus, Emerson declares, "belonged to the true race of prophets." He saw and lived the inherent relationship between God and man, perceived the human soul as the outlet of the universal soul, and consequently accorded man his proper greatness. In his life, he demonstrated the agency of God through men. But the example of Jesus has been misused by the church, which quickly came to deny his humanity and to focus upon "the idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric" instead. The church has offered false miracles in place of the miracles of human life that Jesus himself recognized, and it has replaced inner perception of truth and goodness with externally imposed commandments.
Emerson then explores two errors in the administration of Christianity as an institution. Firstly, rather than promoting the doctrine of the soul as it applies to all, Christianity raises Jesus up above other men. The soul "knows no persons," Emerson writes, but indiscriminately invites each man "to expand to the full circle of the universe." Jesus has been made into a kind of eastern monarch, his name associated with official, formal titles that obscure his original position as "friend of man." If we accept this view of Jesus and subordinate our own importance to his, we do not recognize our ability also to enter into the divine. The approach that takes God out of man weakens man; that which reveals God within strengthens man. If God is not within, then there is no reason for man's existence, and he will "decease forever." Jesus and the prophets — the "divine bards" — only serve to remind us that our intuitions of the divine do not emanate from us, but from God. Ordinary men tend to exaggerate the importance of a "great and rich soul" like Jesus, and not to see that they themselves can elevate by "coming again to themselves, or to God in themselves." Emerson points out that the current "vulgar tone of preaching" denigrates Jesus as much as it does the rest of mankind. It isolates Jesus and discounts the warmth and vigor that characterized his life and words.
Secondly, Emerson examines the failure of traditional Christianity to acknowledge as its source "Moral Nature, that Law of laws, whose revelations introduce greatness, — yea, God himself, into the open soul." Consequently, men think that revelation happened long ago, once and for all, "as if God were dead," instead of being always possible for every individual. This belief makes it difficult for the minister to preach with meaning and to offer inspiration. Because he is obliged to preach a religion that has been formalized and codified, he cannot preach the primacy of the soul. Because "the seer is a sayer," the minister's words do not satisfy his own inner (although sometimes unrecognized) need to impart vision of the "beauty of the soul" to others; nor do they satisfy the innate craving of the members of his congregation to realize their own personal connection to God.
Emerson deplores the death of faith and the lifelessness of the church, and he urges his audience of new preachers embarking upon pastoral careers to restore truth, the soul, and intuitive revelation to the church. The barrenness of inherited religion must be acknowledged, and ministers must accept their true and exalted function. The preacher's particular office is to express the applicability of the moral sentiment to the duties of life, to help his parishioners relate the ideal to experience. Emerson laments how infrequently the preacher helps man to see "that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God," and points out that we ourselves, sitting in church on Sunday, come to a better understanding of God than the preacher offers. Religious formalism leaves us empty. The preacher who does not convey his own humanity and the truth that he has gleaned from life says nothing that we need to hear.
But people so want to enlarge their sense of the moral sentiment that they still go to church. The "good hearer" takes what he can from bad sermons by finding in them echoes of more inspiring words he has heard and thoughts he has had at other times. People put up with preaching that does not acknowledge the soul, because the stale doctrines preached were all once intuitively inspired and preserve some of the vigor imparted by their origins. The minister is on some level aware of the lack of truth and life in what he preaches, and he suspects that he falls short of fulfilling his duty. He cannot even invite men to the Lord's Supper in good conscience, because he is unable to bring warmth to this rite, the "hollow, dry, creaking formality" of which is "too plain."
Emerson states that there are ministers who bring life to public worship. The exceptions, he says, are found not so much in the examples of a few extraordinary preachers as in the rare sincere moments of all. But by and large, preaching is hindered by tradition, by lack of a sense of the essentials of true religion — the soul, and the absolutes toward which the soul strives. By ignoring man's moral nature, historical Christianity destroys the power of preaching, takes the joy out of religion, and invalidates the very reason for the ministry's existence. The results are devastating — "the soul of the community is sick and faithless," man despises himself, and fails to achieve the goodness of which he is capable. People are leaving the church in droves. The loss of worship is the worst of all possible calamities
Emerson then asks what can be done to redeem the church. He calls on the fledgling ministers in his audience to recognize and preach the importance of the soul, thereby restoring man to his place of importance, and to combat the notion that religion is static and must be accepted as received. He asks them not to fear the presentation of Jesus as a man, and he urges them to show what God is, not what God was to other men. Emerson says that true Christianity — a faith like Christ's in the boundless capabilities of man — has been lost through our tendency to trust in established schemes of religion rather than in the power of the individual soul. Only the soul can restore to man a sense of the divine within himself. He exhorts his hearers "to go alone; to refuse the good models, . . . and dare to love God without mediator or veil," and in so doing to inspire their congregations to break from conformity. If ministers "acquaint men at first hand with Deity," their flocks will respond with love and gratitude. Society does not encourage development of the "absolute ability and worth" of every person, but after we form a direct connection with God, "the all-knowing Spirit," we will not care about society's values, which preoccupy us only as much as we allow them to. We must be independent of the opinions of others and draw upon the resources within ourselves, regardless of consequences. Emerson does not recommend establishing new rites and forms, but rather breathing life back into those already in existence. If we are fully alive with soul, the forms of worship that we employ will become "plastic and new." Emerson pays homage to two traditions that Christianity has provided, the Sabbath and the institution of preaching. Both will become meaningful again if life and conscience are restored to religion.
Emerson closes "The Divinity School Address" by looking to the time when the spirit that inspired the prophets of old will move men in the present, and bring forth "the new Teacher" who can see the universe and its laws in totality, the world as "mirror of the soul," and who can show the correspondence of natural laws with spiritual laws and the ultimate oneness of all absolutes.