“The Transcendentalists: An Original Relation to the Universe” by John Halstead

This essay was originally published at Neo-Paganism.com.

“In my Pantheon, Pan still reigns in his pristine glory, with his ruddy face, his flowing beard, and his shaggy body, his pipe and his crook, his nymph Echo, and his chosen daughter Iambe; for the great god Pan is not dead, as was rumored. No god ever dies. Perhaps of all the gods of New England and of ancient Greece, I am most constant at his shrine.”

— Henry David Thoreau


Thoreau’s famous quotation, near his cabin site at Walden Pond

Nature Religion in the United States begins with the Transcendentalists in mid-19th century New England, most notably with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both Emerson and Thoreau were early conservationists, promoting the preservation of threatened forests.

Emerson is best known as a champion of individualism and a critic of the religious traditionalism of his day. Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” marks the beginning of the Transcendentalist movement:

“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also.”

Emerson’s call for “an original relation to the universe” found its way into Neo-Paganism with its distrust of tradition and emphasis on the authority of individual experience, as well as the focus on reconnecting with nature.

Thoreau is best remembered for his two years spent living in a small cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, which he described in his 1854 book, Walden. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” wrote Thoreau, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau had a passion and a talent for careful observation of natural phenomena which is reflected in his writing. His experiment in simple living would later help inspire the back-to-the-land movement which was part of the broader Counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s.


“The Arcadian or Pastoral State” by Thomas Cole, from his “The Course of Empire” series

The Transcendentalists borrowed from the European Romantics the notion that regular contact with nature was essential for recovering a human innocence that had been corrupted by civilization. Emerson wrote:

“Few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food.”

The Transcendentalists believed that studying nature was a way to comprehend the divine, another idea which found its way into contemporary Neo-Paganism. In response to the religious traditionalism of their day, the Transcendentalists argued that the human mind and the natural world were all that was needed for genuine spiritual experience. Nature was seen as a source of revelation available to all.

The Transcendentalists believed that divinity was found within nature and humanity. While not quite pantheists, they adopted the Neo-Platonic understanding of the world as an emanation of a monistic Oneness. The spirit of this divine One animated both nature and the human soul. “Within man is he soul of the whole … to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE,” wrote Emerson. “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.”

Both Emerson and Thoreau wrote about healing the alienation of human beings from nature:

A more subtle and severe criticism might suggest that some dislocation has befallen the race; that men are off their centre; that multitudes of men do not live with Nature, but behold it as exiles. People go out to look at sunrises and sunsets who do not recognize their own quietly and happily, but know that it is foreign to them. As they do by books, so they quote the sunset and the star, and do not make them theirs.

— Emerson

“As if our birth had at first sundered things, and we had been thrust up through into nature like a wedge, and not till the wound heals and the scar disappears, do we begin to discover where we are, and that nature is one and continuous everywhere.”

— Thoreau

In some ways, the “Nature” of the Transcendentalists was more abstract or symbolic than contemporary Neo-Pagans might like to think. In fact, it could be argued that the Transcendentalist movement was more self-centered, than earth-centered; Nature was seen by Transcendentalists as merely the context for self-exploration or a resource for human growth, a means to spiritual enlightenment rather than the end itself. Neo-Paganism still struggles with this issue in some ways, in its effort to reconcile its exoteric earth-centered principles with the esoteric Self-centered practices which it inherited from Wicca.

In any case, the Transcendentalists played an important role in drawing attention of the wider American culture toward a concern for nature, inspiring generations of conservationists and environmentalists to come, and heralding the rise of Neo-Paganism as a nature religion.

The Author: John Halstead

John H. Halstead

John Halstead (aka “Johnny Humanist”) is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis).  He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.org.

John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

4 Comments on ““The Transcendentalists: An Original Relation to the Universe” by John Halstead

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. You have hit all the major points I have written on the topic of transcendentalism and it contribution to neo-paganism, including criticism of their self-centric approach to nature as a symbol which is often reflected in forms of neo-paganism, new-age thought, and spiritual environmentalism today. For me, their largest contribution to my own spirituality is through a practice of mindful walking contemplation.

    • Thanks. Can you point me to a source for the Leaves of Grass churches that you were talking about. I think I would find that really fascinating.

    • This is all very enlightening. Not to beleaguer you with requests, but can you say where I might find instruction on the “mindful walking” practice?

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