Most of us know Harvard University as one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world. A degree from Harvard opens doors like those from few other schools. And while this has long been true, early in its history Harvard was much more limited than it is today – focusing primarily on preparing young men for careers in the ministry of the Unitarian Church. On July 15, 1838, one of their most successful alumni returned to deliver a speech to the new graduates. This man was the up-and-coming literary figure, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had been a Unitarian minister, like most of his classmates, but unlike many of them, he resigned from his position because he could not carry out Holy Communion in “good faith.” He went on to become a renowned writer in the newly emergent Transcendentalist movement.
Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” proved to be not at all what the conservative Harvard faculty had expected and, thus, caused immense controversy. In his speech, Emerson railed against dogma and instead argued for the importance of “religious sentiment,” or what we would call spirituality today. His speech questioned the emphasis placed on Jesus Christ’s authority as a religious figure and called for a stress to be placed on moral virtue and reverence for nature. Needless to say, the powers-that-be at Harvard were not pleased by what their alumnus had said. In fact, Emerson would not set foot on the campus of his alma mater for another 30 years.
Emerson’s speech, however, would have lasting impact both on its author and its audience. For Emerson, the speech launched him to a leadership role within the New England Transcendentalist movement much to the dismay of generations of American high school students who have had to read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” or Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” For Harvard, Emerson’s speech started a slow-moving push towards secularizing parts of the University and led to the founding of numerous schools that focused on educating men and women for the many careers, not just the Unitarian ministry.