Transcendentalism is closely related to Unitarianism, the dominant religious movement of Boston at the turn of the 19th century, although I would call Transcendentalism more of a philosophy than a religion, especially today. It was an American movement, originally centered around Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Between 1836-1860, the Transcendental Club was associated with colorful members like literary figures Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. Poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier and his literary friends visited, and he gave Green Acre its name. The Farmers, the owners of Green Acre, were also Transcendentalists, and in those days Sarah Farmer hosted many guest speakers at Green Acre on all kinds of intellectual and spiritual subjects. Sarah later became a Baha’i, and today Green Acre is a permanent Baha’i school.
But the most interesting character in the group was by far Henry David Thoreau, who tried to put transcendentalism into practice. A great admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a one-time leader of the group, Thoreau nevertheless was his own man—described variously as strange, gentle, fanatic, selfish, a dreamer, a stubborn individualist. For two years Thoreau carried out the most famous experiment in self-reliance when he went to Walden Pond, built a hut, and tried to live self-sufficiently without the trappings or interference of society. Later, when he wrote about the simplicity and unity of all things in nature, his faith in humanity, and his sturdy individualism, Thoreau reminded everyone that life is wasted pursuing wealth and following social customs. Nature, Thoreau believed, shows us that “all good things are wild and free.”
The Transcendental Club issued a regular newsletter/magazine of sorts called The Dial in which they published their thoughts, at one time even including translations of the Hindu Upanishads, the first in America. Transcendentalists had their detractors, such as Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote a parody of them in his story Never Bet the Devil Your Heart (1841), calling them Frogpondians.
As a group, the transcendentalists led the celebration of the American experiment of individualism and self-reliance, took progressive stands on women’s rights, abolition, reform, and education, criticized government, organized religion, laws, social institutions, and creeping industrialization, and created an American “state of mind” in which imagination was better than reason, creativity was better than theory, and action was better than contemplation. They had faith that all would be well because humans could transcend limits and reach astonishing heights.
Yet we now know that despite some of their aspirations being admirable, in many ways they were misguided, perhaps not entirely for the age in which they lived, but definitely for now in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is understandable that they would have eschewed organized religion, which the light of history has shown to be blinded by fanaticism on one hand, or corruption and grabs for leadership on the other. Certainly by their poor examples, as the Baha’i teachings say, “If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 130.
Today, individualism and self-reliance will not get us far in our globalized, interconnected, interdependent world. However, spiritually, the goals of finding God for ourselves and relying upon Him, are worthy of effort.
Like the Transcendentalists believed, the Baha’i Faith also believes that a fair, just and progressive society is the goal, and women’s rights, abolition of slavery and other ills, constructive reform and education require us to work unceasingly to bring them about. The guiding body of the Baha’is, the Universal House of Justice, has written:
The scriptures of all religions have always taught the believer to see in service to others not only a moral duty, but an avenue for the soul’s own approach to God. Today, the progressive restructuring of society gives this familiar teaching new dimensions of meaning. As the age-old promise of a world animated by principles of justice slowly takes on the character of a realistic goal, meeting the needs of the soul and those of society will increasingly be seen as reciprocal aspects of a mature spiritual life. – Letter To the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002, p. 5.
The ingenuity of the American “creative mind’ is legendary. American entrepreneurship has also led the world. But now is the time for working together in groups, teams and collective centers to achieve objectives and goals. We cannot do it alone. The Baha’i principle of consultation facilitates mutual problem-solving and goal achievement.
Finally, “faith that all will be well” is not enough either. Also, not all human action is good. The old saying applies, “If one rotten apple sits in the basket, they’ll all go bad.” Action is necessary to remove the bad apple before it harms others. In other words, knowledge requires will, will requires action. The world now, as it has in the past, has bad actors that need to be removed from society so that society will not be harmed. That also applies to bad policies, bad treaties, bad companies, and bad practices. First, raising our voices to expose these bad actors will prevent more damage. Second, consulting on and passing laws and regulations to aid and assist changes in human behavior will decrease them. Third, and above all, deeds singly and together, will ensure they do not return.
Deeds, returning to our transcendentalists, are contingent on faith, and faith in more than oneself. Abdu’l-Baha, when asked a question, replied:
… the foundation of success and salvation is the recognition of God, and that good deeds, which are the fruit of faith, derive from this recognition. – Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 274.