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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). The Complete Works. 1904.
Vol. I. Nature, Addresses and Lectures

XXVII. Remarks at Organization of Free Religious Association

Boston, May 30, 1867

  • IN many forms we try
  • To utter God’s infinity,
  • But the Boundless hath no form,
  • And the Universal Friend
  • Doth as far transcend
  • An angel as a worm.
  • The great Idea baffles wit,
  • Language falters under it,
  • It leaves the learned in the lurch;
  • Nor art, nor power, nor toil can find
  • The measure of the eternal Mind,
  • Nor hymn nor prayer nor church.

  • MR. CHAIRMAN: I hardly felt, in finding this house this morning, that I had come into the right hall. I came, as I supposed myself summoned, to a little committee meeting, for some practical end, where I should happily and humbly learn my lesson; and I supposed myself no longer subject to your call when I saw this house. I have listened with great pleasure to the lessons which we have heard. To many, to those last spoken, I have found so much in accord with my own thought that I have little left to say. I think that it does great honor to the sensibility of the committee that they have felt the universal demand in the community for just the movement they have begun. I say again, in the phrase used by my friend, that we began many years ago,—yes, and many ages before that. But I think the necessity very great, and it has prompted an equal magnanimity, that thus invites all classes, all religious men, whatever their connections, whatever their specialties, in whatever relation they stand to the Christian Church, to unite in a movement of benefit to men, under the sanction of religion. We are all very sensible—it is forced on us every day—of the feeling that churches are outgrown; that the creeds are outgrown; that a technical theology no longer suits us. It is not the ill will of people—no, indeed, but the incapacity for confining themselves there. The church is not large enough for the man; it cannot inspire the enthusiasm which is the parent of everything good in history, which makes the romance of history. For that enthusiasm you must have something greater than yourselves, and not less.

    The child, the young student, finds scope in his mathematics and chemistry or natural history, because he finds a truth larger than he is; finds himself continually instructed. But, in churches, every healthy and thoughtful mind finds itself in something less; it is checked, cribbed, confined. And the statistics of the American, the English and the German cities, showing that the mass of the population is leaving off going to church, indicate the necessity, which should have been foreseen, that the Church should always be new and extemporized, because it is eternal and springs from the sentiment of men, or it does not exist. One wonders sometimes that the churches still retain so many votaries, when he reads the histories of the Church. There is an element of childish infatuation in them which does not exalt our respect for man. Read in Michelet, that in Europe, for twelve or fourteen centuries, God the Father had no temple and no altar. The Holy Ghost and the Son of Mary were worshipped, and in the thirteenth century the First Person began to appear at the side of his Son, in pictures and in sculpture, for worship, but only through favor of his Son. These mortifying puerilities abound in religious history. But as soon as every man is apprised of the Divine Presence within his own mind,—is apprised that the perfect law of duty corresponds with the laws of chemistry, of vegetation, of astronomy, as face to face in a glass; that the basis of duty, the order of society, the power of character, the wealth of culture, the perfection of taste, all draw their essence from this moral sentiment, then we have a religion that exalts, that commands all the social and all the private action.

    What strikes me in the sudden movement which brings together to-day so many separated friends,—separated but sympathetic,—and what I expected to find here, was some practical suggestions by which we were to reanimate and reorganize for ourselves the true Church, the pure worship. Pure doctrine always bears fruit in pure benefits. It is only by good works, it is only on the basis of active duty, that worship finds expression. What is best in the ancient religions was the sacred friendships between heroes, the Sacred Bands, and the relations of the Pythagorean disciples. Our Masonic institutions probably grew from the like origin. The close association which bound the first disciples of Jesus is another example; and it were easy to find more. The soul of our late war, which will always be remembered as dignifying it, was, first, the desire to abolish slavery in this country, and secondly, to abolish the mischief of the war itself, by healing and saving the sick and wounded soldiers,—and this by the sacred bands of the Sanitary Commission. I wish that the various beneficent institutions which are springing up, like joyful plants of wholesomeness, all over this country, should all be remembered as within the sphere of this committee,—almost all of them are represented here,—and that within this little band that has gathered here to-day, should grow friendship. The interests that grow out of a meeting like this should bind us with new strength to the old eternal duties.