Ralph Waldo Emerson

Born: 1803

Birthplace: Massachusetts

Died: 1882

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American author and poet who was heavily influenced by his family’s history in the clergy of the Unitarian Church.

His ancestors reached back to the days of the Puritans, and his education led him to be a humanitarian and understand the downfalls and limitations of people. His philosophies helped to put the ideas of Transcendentalism into the front of the public.

  • When Emerson’s father died, he was left to the care of his aunt, who made sure that he received an education. Emerson attended Harvard College, and it was during this time that he began to keep journals. After graduating, he was a teacher and was studying to enter the Harvard Divinity School. Emerson began to be known as a preacher in 1829.
  • When Emerson married and then lost his wife to tuberculosis, he started to question his faith. This added to his previous condition of questioning the doctrines of Christianity. When his brother informed him of a newer religious attitude that was happening in Europe, he started to change his already different sermons so that they included less traditional and more on the universal moral law.  His desire to move away from the church was finalized in 1832 when he gave up his ministry.
  • Emerson took a trip to Europe and was exposed to some of the more open-minded thinkers and writers of the day. His search for his personal ideas of God led him to try to find things such as miracles as proof.
  • Once he returned to the United States, he wrote “Nature” in 1833. This publication made him popular, and he became a well-known lecturer. He met and married Lydian Jackson in 1834 and started writing in his new home.
  • Emerson found other like-minded intellectuals, and they formed a group of Transcendentalists. He continued to seek answers to his spiritual search. He was researching Newton’s laws of physics and was bothered by the idea of a universe. He disagreed with many of the philosophers of his day and buried himself into ideas that weren’t accepted by the mainstream. His belief that one could find God by simply looking into one’s own soul became one of his own personal philosophies.
  • In 1837 Emerson gave a lecture called “The American Scholar,” where he expresses the ideas of the liberated intellectual. He challenged all of the ideas of the current traditions of philosophy and Unitarianism. Those that followed him began to join the Transcendental Club, and many agreed with him about dismissing the sentiments of the standard religions.
  • His ideas didn’t make him popular, but Emerson kept writing. He launched the magazine “The Dial” in 1840 that was also edited by Margaret Fuller. It included many of the philosophies that the Transcendentalist movement was trying to get across. The magazine didn’t last long but attracted younger new members.
  • Emerson took a collection of his lectures and put them together in two volumes called “Essays.” These brought him international fame, and he continued to talk about his idealistic concepts of life. By 1849 Emerson wrote “Representative Men,” which were biographies of Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe.
  • He continued by writing “English Traits,” and in 1860, “The Conduct of Life.” When he published his poems in May-Day in 1867, his reputation as one of America’s poets was secure.
  • As Emerson grew older, he became less revolutionary in his thinking and began adopting society in ways that he previously rejected. He died in 1882, and his writings were those that helped many during the crisis of the Civil War.


What church did Emerson’s family belong to as clergymen?
Unitarian Church

What caused Emerson to question his faith and leave the church?
The death of his wife

What was the name of the philosophical belief system that Emerson helped to found?

What was the name of the book that launched Emerson into being a lecturer?

What was the name of the group that he founded for those that shared his beliefs?
Transcendental Club

What was the name of his book that covered biographies?
Representative Men.