Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

  • The Lord's Supper (1832)
  • With this sermon, Emerson resigned as minister of Boston's Second Church, explaining that he could not in good conscience continue to perform the ritual ceremony of the Lord's Supper. Emerson offers a careful interpretation of the gospels to argue that Jesus did not intend his final meal with his disciples to become a mandatory church ritual. Basing his claims on his own reading of scripture, Emerson models what he means when he says that "freedom is the essence of Christianity." He would never return to full-time ministry.
  • Self-Reliance (1841)
  • Perhaps Emerson's most famous work, this essay explores what it means to think for oneself. Its claims about the relationship between the individual and society have been interpreted in a variety of ways. See what you think.
  • The Fugitive Slave Law(1854)
  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners – even those slaves who had escaped to free states and were living as free men. The Act therefore made it a crime not to help return runaway slaves to their former owners. Abolitionists and many Northerners were outraged by the law and protests ensued throughout the 1850s. To the relief of his wife, Lidian, and his Transcendentalist friends who thought that Emerson was slow to resist slavery, Emerson was horrified by the Fugitive Slave Law became a regular speaker against it. Just months after the passage of the Act, he delivered his first anti-slavery speech in Concord, MA. He spoke again in 1854 at the New York Anti-Slavery Society in New York City, and in 1855 throughout upstate New York. Many viewed Emerson's antislavery speeches as a turning point in his career, marking his willingness to speak directly to political problems. But he always based his political arguments against slavery on philosophical principles, in particular his commitment to "higher law."