When I was in Boston I picked up a copy of the Beacon Press book by John Buehrens – Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender and Social Justice. I highly recommend it! Buehrens is a former minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association who is currently experiencing a very active retirement. His book gives a clearer and more succinct understanding of Transcendentalism than many other treatments. I am especially grateful for his emphasis on the movement’s impact on our congregations and the Unitarian Universalist denomination and not just the spiritual lives of famous individuals like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller or the Peabody sisters.
Reading Buehrens’ book I am reminded that one lasting legacy of Transcendentalism might be found in our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes where it says, “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources” including “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Buehrens points out that one of the signatures of the movement was the desire for a spirituality that transcends differences, denominations and divisions leading not only to an openness to the wisdom of the world’s religions but also a desire to work for the abolition of slavery, the humane treatment of the mentally ill, women’s suffrage, anti-poverty initiatives, the peace movement, worker’s rights and many other good causes.
One could say that Transcendentalism took our faith beyond, “The Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston” toward a sense of unity and oneness that transcends gender identity, patriarchy or provincialism and connects us to people of all faiths, races, cultures, classes and creeds. Faith in transcendence also led to a willingness to practice civil disobedience in order to obey the “higher law” written in our hearts paving the way for the civil rights movement and other forms of nonviolent social change.
Over the years I have read countless books on Transcendentalism so I was particularly gratified to read this one and discover new personalities, new stories and new inspiration for our faith and work in the world. It has changed the way I think about our faith tradition. Read it. It may change you as well.
(This book review was written by Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)