The day just closed marked the anniversary of Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s invited address to a small collection of students, recent alumni (Theodore Parker), and community members (including Elizabeth Peabody) at what was then known as the Theological School at Cambridge. The Divinity School Address, (DSA) as it is now known, has been called the foundational document of Transcendentalism, not so much a shot across the bow as into the powder magazine of the nascent congregational Unitarianism struggling mightily to hang onto respectability, power, and cultural relevance in a fast-changing world.
Today on Facebook, one scholar chose to highlight a theme which comes up many places in Emerson, that is, the primacy of instinctive religion over received religion. I am currently reading Self Reliance, where, if anything, church history takes a much more sustained hit than anything Emerson says in the DSA. But when I put down my Emerson to take in several hours of MSNBC commentary on the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, church history jumped out from every word.
I agree with Emerson, this is no time for quarreling over whose congregation was established first and whether or not so-and-so was ordained by such-and-such a congregation or by some other. But this IS a time for remembering the very church history made by Emerson and his allies of many faiths in reacting to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. For I heard commentators tonight, speaking about New York City’s stop and frisk policy, as well as about the acquittal (not exonoration) of a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante. For me it all came together in this video, when Joy Reid and Rev. Al Sharpton explained that this says to African Americans that any white person, civilian or official, can challenge the presence and conduct of any black person — child, youth, adult, senior, anyone — for any reason.
These are the words of the Fugitive Slave Law, that is, to empower every white person to put every black person in the place that white person considers to be that black person’s place. The law’s intent was to institutionalize every African American in slavery, or scare them out of the country (it spurred a HUGE increase in flights to Canada via Underground Railroad). Today there is no slavery to send them back to, but perhaps our penal system has taken over that function.
And when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, states like mine (Vermont) moved immediately and officially to disqualify our officials from taking part in it. This little-remembered fact led the South to abandon — until now — its push for a strong central authority supporting slavery, moving back to states’ rights as the fallback. (This explains why liberal religion needs to focus is social justice not at national television cameras, but at state legislatures.) A Vermont lawyer in Missouri helped a family who had been living as free people despite official slave status to appeal this law. It was the Dred Scott Decision which took the question of citizenship out of the hands of states and federalized it, by declaring that Africans had no right to citizenship, no matter what state they inhabited and whether or not they were free.
And here is where church history — not omitting Rev. Emerson’s own works — becomes relevant. Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and other liberal religious stood up against this pervasive persecution to say we would not participate. Moreover, as Caucasian religious organizations, we would do everything in our power to protect African-heritage individuals from every form of second class citizenship, beginning with this omnipresent fear of persecution and endangerment.
I’ve been wrestling for over a year with the Transcendentalist conviction, which Emerson states in Self Reliance, that a person should not be distracted from the work to which they are called by anything, not even pleas from philanthropies, charities, and neighbors with whom we have no other exchanges. Does this mean we UUs ought to limit our commitment to social justice? By this definition, Emerson’s life contradicts his writings. But tonight what it means to me is that since I have brother and sister Americans who feel, in effect, that the Fugitive Slave Law is still in effect, then as an American, this is my genius, this is my locality, this is a neighbor with whom I have business. If we have to retool our focus to state-to-state emphasis, in order to counter the current strategies of oppression, that does not mean we are pulling back, but moving forward.