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The Unitarian Heart of the Young Emerson


David E. Grimm

Albuquerque, New Mexico



The liberal religious streams that merged together in the twentieth century to form the Unitarian Universalist Association have always been more oriented to life in this world than to whatever life may await us on the other side of the grave. One example from the Unitarian side of that religious movement is Ralph Waldo Emerson who began preaching in Unitarian churches in 1826, one year after the founding of the American Unitarian Association in Boston. As Emerson understood it, “The great art which religion teaches is the art of conducting life well, not only in a view to future well-being, but in the very best manner, if there were no future state.” (LXXXVII) [1]

A survey of Emerson’s 178 extant sermons shows that he often preached about the importance of obeying the commandments, calling this “the sum and substance of religion.” (CXXXII) He not only believed that such obedience was essential to conducting life well, he also believed that in such obedience (even imperfect obedience) you could find: evidence of your soul’s immortality (LIII); improved spiritual insight (CXXI); development of your deeper potentials (IX); heightened understanding of your divine nature (CLXIII); and a path for entering and experiencing the timeless realm of heaven itself from this side of the grave (CI). All of these, Emerson believed to be by-products of commandment obedience. 

His listeners would have understood right away that the commandments involved were the Ten Commandments received on Mt. Sinai as well as the New Testament commandments of Jesus, like “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” and “Love your enemies.” While Emerson did indeed mean those commandments, he meant more than them too. For, as valuable as he understood the Bible’s commandments to be, he nevertheless believed that the Bible itself was a step removed from, an interpretation of (CXXXII), and a subordinate instrument to (II) something more immediately and directly available to every person: namely, the law of God “writ in flesh and blood, in the faculties and emotions of [the human] constitution.” (CLXIV)

Many people in Emerson’s time believed that a religion must involve something more than just a simple obedience to a set of moral commandments. They thought that a religion of simple goodness like the one Emerson was preaching was not enough and so they dismissed liberal religion as “mere morality.” Emerson had a response to this objection. He says the reason some people think this way is that they don’t understand just “how hard it is to keep the Commandments.” (CXXXII) If they knew, from first-hand experience, how hard the path of commandment obedience is, and how rich its rewards, they would never sneer at liberal religion.

Emerson saw that commandment obedience was hard for many reasons, including the challenge posed by the progressive recognition of ever-deeper levels of meaning in each of the commandments as one advanced along the path of moral development. In other words, the better one got at obeying the commandments, the more challenging it became to obey them, because one understood more and more of the demands involved in the keeping of any commandment. As Emerson put it, “the Commandment opens as you obey it. It means more every time you read it.”  (CXXXII)

But if Emerson recognized how hard the path was, he also saw clearly how many, how practical, and how profound were its benefits. Indeed, his sermons are filled with positive expressions of the blessings that transform the serious practitioners of liberal religion. In fact, you can think of Emerson’s sermons as a witness to early Unitarian spirituality: how human goodness is accomplished by grace (CIV); how the affections of the devoted heart can expand and the soul identify with its Maker (XL); how the virtuous act and the good deed are, like God, timeless and can never grow old (CI); how spiritual sight expands in the self-reliant soul (CXXXVII); and how much better off this world is with religious liberals walking this path…

And it all starts, says Emerson, with the heart. “A religion that dwells in the tongue or the brain or the custom is no religion. It must have the heart… The heart must become religious or religious hands or lips will profit nothing.” (CXXXIII)

Today, when so many people think that ‘moral values’ is synonymous with conservative Christian values, it can be enlightening to read Emerson’s old sermons with their Christian ‘moral values’ of the more liberal sort. If you’d like to read his sermons for yourself they are available today in three different formats: 1) Emerson’s original handwritten pulpit manuscripts can still be read by visiting The Houghton Library at Harvard University; 2) computerized genetic-text versions of these sermons are now available online as downloadable Word files at; and 3) cleaned up clear-text versions of the sermons are available from the University of Missouri Press in their recently published four-volume set: The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1989-1992.


[1] Emerson used roman numerals to identify his sermons.  

About the author: 

The Rev. David E. Grimm is Associate Minister at First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque and is the webmaster of


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference