SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES
In the late summer of 1812, Harvard students and professors, local clergy, scholars, bibliophiles, and curious onlookers gathered in Boston “at the Mansion-House of the late Rev. Mr. Buckminster” for the sale of the minister’s library, one of the largest in New England. Although he was only thirty-eight when he died, for the previous eighteen years Joseph Stevens Buckminster had presided over Boston’s prestigious Brattle Street Church. A civic, intellectual, and religious leader, he was widely regarded as one of New England’s most influential ministers, a bold and moving pulpit orator as well as a scholar of the first rank; his premature death was much lamented.1 Over two days the auctioneers Whitwell & Bond sold more than eleven hundred volumes from his collection, some titles individually, others in lots grouped by topic, many published in London or on the Continent. Given the recent embargo of European goods attendant on the War of 1812, these volumes were particularly enticing. The auctioneers requested payment in “Cash, Boston-money,” and the quality of the library guaranteed good prices: during the two days the sale brought close to six thousand dollars.2
The bidding was spirited, at no point more so than when the Reverend Moses Stuart, professor of sacred literature at the recently founded Andover Theological Seminary north of Boston, went head-to-head over one set of books with eighteen-year-old Edward Everett, a recent Harvard graduate with clerical aspirations who two years later would be installed over Buckminster’s Brattle Street Church.3 Making this competition seemingly incongruous were the very different religious affiliations of the two bidders. The thirtytwo-year-old Stuart, a Yale graduate, was charged at Andover with defending the strictest form of Calvinist theology, based in the works of Jonathan Edwards and his followers Samuel Hopkins and Joseph Bellamy. Everett, on the other hand, had been raised among Boston’s liberal Christians, in Buckminster’s church, where parishioners were suspicious of overtly emotional religion and were tutored in a rational view of the Bible that revealed a unitary rather than triune God. What in Buckminster’s library could have attracted the interest of two such different men?
It was a four-volume work in German, J. G. Eichhorn’s Introduction to the Old Testament, published between 1780 and 1783, the first comprehensive modern treatment of the Old Testament’s books. Years later Stuart still remembered, “with lively and pleasant emotion,” how Everett and he had jousted for it. Stuart had gone to the auction thinking Eichhorn’s work “unknown to our literary community.” Moreover, the set was not even beautifully made or bound—“moderate octavo on coarse hemp paper,” he recalled. Thus, he was surprised at Everett’s aggressive bidding, up to the extraordinary price of six dollars per volume. But the young man stopped when Stuart subsequently bid a quarter more per book. Stuart had to have it, he explained, and he believed it worth the price. The acquisition of that book, he recalled in 1841, spread its influence over his whole life.4
Other attendees were similarly enthralled by the offerings and surprised at the prices fetched, particularly for European theology. The Salem minister William Bentley, for example, was chagrined to be outbid on another of Eichhorn’s works, an edition of his multivolume Universal Library of Biblical Literature (1787-1801). Why were the works of this scholar, a faculty member at the universities in Jena and Göttingen, so prized? Why were so many of the other volumes in the Buckminster sale similarly in German and devoted to scriptural criticism? What was the fascination of such abstruse works, in a language few New Englanders read? And why among bidders at the sale did bitter interdenominational rivalries seem forgotten? As a result of their meeting at the Buckminster auction, for example, Stuart tutored his new friend about other German works and even encouraged Everett to undertake the translation of some. Why was it that during this period, as the Unitarian clergyman Ezra Stiles Gannett recalled, “he who could buy nothing else bought a [J. J.] Griesbach,” that is, the work of another German biblical scholar?5 The answers lie in the crucible in which New England Transcendentalism was formed, a widely prevalent interest in scriptural language and its meaning.
The intellectual genealogy of Transcendentalism began in early-nineteenth-century New England among clergymen caught up in unresolved theological battles initiated more than half a century earlier, specifically between “New Light” supporters of the wide-spread religious revivals known as the Great Awakening and their “Old Light” opponents. The pro-revivalists, epitomized by the great theologian Jonathan Edwards, stressed the necessity of an emotional conversion experience, a change of heart that realigned one’s priorities from selfishness to selflessness. The anti-revivalists, led by Boston clergyman Charles Chauncy, argued for the primacy of reason in religion and found the New Lights’ emphasis on an emotional religious experience—a “New Birth”—an insult to human intelligence. To Chauncy and his supporters, religion was a matter of the head and not of the heart.6
Over the remainder of the eighteenth century, the Old Lights continued to stress reason in religion, a point of view that eventually led some of them—Buckminster, for example—to become what first were termed “liberal Christians” and then, early in the next century, “Unitarians.” That is, they rejected the notion that the Bible described a Trinitarian deity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and argued instead for a unitary God. In this reading, Jesus Christ, rather than being a part of the Godhead, was simply the supreme model for humanity, God’s gift to show that to which all good Christians should aspire.7
Before 1820, those who traveled the full distance to Unitarianism remained few and were vociferously opposed by significant numbers of Trinitarians who controlled the majority of New England’s—indeed, of America’s—pulpits. The warring camps jousted with scholarly—primarily historical and philological—weapons on the fields of scriptural exegesis.8 These clergy fought over language, over what precisely the Bible said with regard to the personality of the deity. They sought to know whether scripture was the direct, unmediated word of God or merely the words of men who interpreted the divine Logos in their own languages and through their own cultural predispositions. To spar in this arena required knowledge of the language and culture of the Bible, information at that time best provided by contemporary German scholars. Thus, Eichhorn, Griesbach, and others had become significant for New England intellectuals.
Until the second decade of the nineteenth century, most participants in these battles over scriptural interpretation began from similar premises about the relation of language to meaning, derived from John Locke’s famous discussion of the subject in Book III of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Specifically, they seized upon his declaration of the arbitrariness of language. To Locke, words were merely external stimuli, and the “truth” of language consisted in its utility. The source of meaning, Locke wrote, was simply “rational usage derived from sensory perception.” Words were contrivances designed for human convenience. If they came to be used by men as the “signs of their ideas,” it was not through any “natural connection, that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain ideas,” but only through “a voluntary imposition, whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of an idea.” The world’s languages thus had no underlying unity, and words in their primary or immediate signification stood only for ideas “in the mind of him that uses them.” Concomitantly, if men employed terms for which they had not experienced sensory analogues, they did not truly know the meaning of what they said. Words could not be universal symbols, for each man to whom the word-idea was expressed had to learn the truth of the idea empirically. 9
Language was thus an artificial construct that rested upon a contract voluntarily entered, or, more precisely, upon a contextual arrangement. As with laws in the political state, neither vocabulary nor syntax had inherent rationale but were created to serve particular needs—in this case, human communication. Words were not gifts from God that stood as ciphers to reality, but only noises with no direct correspondence to what they named. Words had “meanings” that were narrowly cultural, and acts of human communication were only approximations of experience, not magical invocations of it. Language thus had to be interpreted by the intellectual tools that men, as rational creatures, possessed.
The stakes in these debates were high when one applied such ideas to the language of the Bible. Was the word of God merely contextual, for example, or did it possess transcendent significance? According to Locke’s logic, if the Bible was the word of God, it was in a vocabulary set down by men in a particular place and at a particular time, and so had been affected by the vagaries of human circumstance. In this light, scripture did not consist of divinely inspired words but rather of a vocabulary that was the result of the time and chance above which no human being, Trinitarian or Unitarian, could rise.
Settling the matter of what precisely the Bible said—and what it meant for subsequent generations of Christians—became the work of scriptural exegetes like Eichhorn, Griesbach, and a host of other European and American scholars who pioneered the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, a term that Eichhorn coined.10 Higher Critics enlisted the rational, critical tools of modern inquiry to discover the deeper truths of Christianity. In general terms, they focused on historical documents and tried to establish their authorship, date, and place of composition, as opposed to the Lower Critics, who worked primarily on the language and grammar of biblical texts. In particular, Higher Critics challenged the idea that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, positing several different sources for the book of Genesis alone, and they urged the study of the Bible as a literary artifact rather than as divinely inspired text. To them, it was a book like any other, to be interpreted through immersion in the cultures and languages of its various authors. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, advanced scholars in this discipline transformed the debates about biblical and, by implication, figurative language.
American scholars’ interest in the Higher Criticism also coincided with their discovery of Germany’s rich religious and artistic culture. At first they got their information secondhand, particularly from the widely circulated Germany (1810), by Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, the baroness of Staël-Holstein (better known as Madame de Staël), which was available in French and, after 1813, in English translation. In addition to providing a road map to the “manners,” literature, and arts of the nation, de Staël devoted many pages to a discussion of the country’s philosophical and religious thinkers, particularly Kant, and demonstrated the richly symbiotic relationship between their thought and national culture. Here American readers encountered for the first time a lengthy discussion of philosophical Idealism. For those who chafed under the rationalism and materialism to which Locke’s empiricism led, an introduction to German Idealism and its ethical implications was both liberating and exhilarating.
De Staël also touted the superiority of the German educational system; and with the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the reopening of safe travel to Europe, Americans began to visit the Continent and to study at German universities. Among the most prominent of these pioneers were George Ticknor, Edward Everett, George Bancroft, and Frederic Henry Hedge, all of whom eventually carved out positions of intellectual leadership in New England and led efforts to disseminate German language and thought.
By the time Ticknor was nineteen, and a Dartmouth graduate, for example, he had read in de Staël of the great university at Göttingen and was determined to sample its educational resources. He knew little German, however, and turned to his friend Edward Everett for guidance. Everett provided him with a German-French dictionary, with which he began his tutorial. Eventually, in 1815 he, Everett, and two others sailed for Europe and made their way to Germany’s cultural centers. At Göttingen, Ticknor took classes with, among others, Eichhorn himself, whom he found “lively, gay, full of vigour, though not young, and interested in everything.” The young Bostonian luxuriated in this intellectual hothouse.
During his European sojourn Ticknor met other prominent intellectuals, including at Weimar the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and in Paris the philosophers A. W. von Schlegel and Alexander von Humboldt. He continued his introductions in London, where he greeted the American author Washington Irving and the English writers William Hazlitt, William Godwin, and Charles Lamb, among others. Upon his return to the United States in 1819 Ticknor assumed the position of Smith Professor of French and Spanish Languages and Literature at Harvard, which had been held for him while he studied abroad. Although he was not responsible for teaching the German language per se, his experience abroad made him attentive to students’ needs, and in 1825 he convinced Harvard to hire Karl Follen (1796–1840), a German expatriate whom he had met in Switzerland, to teach the language.
Upon his arrival at Göttingen, Ticknor’s traveling companion Everett, similarly promised a chair (in Greek) at Harvard upon his return, took private classes with Eichhorn in Hebrew and Arabic and engaged him as well for a tutorial in German literature. In addition, Everett pursued advanced studies in Greek to fulfill his obligation to Harvard, and in 1817 he received a doctorate in philosophy, the first such awarded an American from a German university. After his and Ticknor’s audience with Goethe in 1816, Everett prepared an essay on him, published in 1817 in the North American Review, the first important notice of this writer to appear in the United States.11 The following winter Everett continued his travels. In Paris he met the German naturalist and explorer Wilhelm von Humboldt, the philosopher Benjamin Constant, and de Staël herself. He returned to the United States the same year as Ticknor to assume his duties at Harvard. From that position he influenced countless students, many of whom sought him out to learn more of German language and thought. Years later Emerson testified to this professor’s large influence, observing that “the genius of Everett” was “almost comparable to that of Pericles in Athens,” as even “the rudest undergraduate found a new morning open to him” in Everett’s lecture hall.12
In the summer of 1818 eighteen-year-old George Bancroft, later a prominent Democratic politician and one of the country’s most distinguished historians, followed in Ticknor’s and Everett’s footsteps for study at Göttingen, with Frederic Henry Hedge, the twelve-year-old son of Harvard professor of logic Levi Hedge (with whom Bancroft had boarded), in tow. Everett had convinced Harvard’s president Kirkland to provide Bancroft a stipend to study philology and biblical criticism, and shortly after his arrival in Göttingen he enrolled in two of Eichhorn’s courses, in the New Testament and Syriac. In a letter written in 1819 to Harvard’s own biblical exegete, Andrews Norton, Bancroft provided a good description of how he spent his day at the great German university. “5 a.m., Hebrew and Syriac,” he reported;
7–8, [Arnold Hermann Ludwig] Heeren in Ethnography; 8–9, Church history by the elder [Gottleib Jakob] Planck; 9–10, Exegesis of the New Testament by old Eichhorn; 10–11, Exegesis of the Old Testament by old Eichhorn; 11–12, Syriac by old Eichhorn; 12–1 p.m., Dinner and Walk; 1–2 Library; 2–4, Latin or French; 4–5, Philological Encyclopedia by [Ludolph] Dissen; 5–7, Greek; 7–8, Syriac; 8–9, Tea and Walk; 9–11, Repetition of the old lectures and preparation for the new.13
It was a rigorous schedule, but Bancroft made remarkable scholarly progress and received his doctorate from the university in 1820.
In the interim he also visited Berlin, where for five months he took courses from that university’s distinguished faculty. He attended lectures under the renowned philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and as well enrolled in the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s offering on the philosophy of education, a memorable experience that prompted him to report to Kirkland that Schleiermacher brought to his subject “a mind sharpened by philosophical meditation and enriched with the learning of all ages and countries.” Although much in Bancroft’s education prepared him for a career as a biblical scholar, early on he decided against it, believing it destructive of true spirituality. As a case in point, he noted that exegetes like Eichhorn seemed little interested in religion per se. In their courses, Bancroft complained, “the bible is treated with very little respect, and the narratives are laughed at as an old wife’s tale, fit to be believed in the nursery.”14 After his return to the United States in 1823, Bancroft took Kirkland’s advice to start a secondary school on the model of the German “gymnasium.” At his Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, he put into practice many of the progressive educational ideas to which he had been exposed abroad, particularly in Schleiermacher’s course.
While Bancroft studied at Göttingen, he installed his young traveling companion Frederic Hedge in a gymnasium in the city and later at one in Ilfeld. The precocious teenager flourished in the German educational system and immersed himself in German language and philosophy. Upon his return to the United States five years later Hedge was placed in Harvard’s junior class and eventually graduated from its infant Divinity School. By the early 1830s he was hands down the Unitarian most at home in German language and culture. He later told Caroline Dall that when he published his essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another exponent of German thought, in The Christian Examiner in 1833, no one else in the United States had ever studied German metaphysics “in the original.” She saw no reason to doubt his claim.15
Others, too, made the pilgrimage to Germany. By 1824, for example, Emerson’s older brother William, influenced by fellow Bostonians Everett and Ticknor, also had found his way to Göttingen. He wrote Waldo to “learn German as fast as you can” and urged a visit. “Read Eichhorn’s critical, but not his historical works,” he added, signaling his own exposure to biblical criticism.16 He repeated the advice to his college classmate John Fessenden and added, “My mind seems to have undergone a revolution” through “the books and lectures of Eichhorn.” 17
Such enthusiastic reports to New England of German culture and scholarship prompted a great interest in the German language. Before long Harvard began to cast about for native instructors and found them among recent émigrés who not only provided basic instruction in the language but also firsthand knowledge of some of Germany’s most prominent biblical scholars and philosophers. The most important of these teachers was Karl Follen, well known for his German nationalist sentiments.18 He had been a leader in the influential student movement that arose after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and resisted the subsequent formation of the German Confederation. This group, which began at the University of Jena but then spread to other campuses, had as its goal the creation of a German state based in democratic and constitutional principles, including freedom of expression. For years Follen taught law at Jena, another great center of learning, but he went into exile following his implication in the assassination of the reactionary playwright August von Kotzebue, who supported the Confederation and ridiculed the insurgent student movement.
Follen and his friend Karl Beck (1798–1866), the stepson of the renowned biblical scholar Wilhelm de Wette, had visited the family of Karl Sand, Kotzebue’s assassin, shortly before the murder and thus were, erroneously, linked to the plot, as was de Wette himself. 19 Although the prominent literary historian Wolfgang Menzel testified that Follen had nothing to do with Kotzebue’s death, Follen thought it prudent to emigrate to Paris, where he met the philosophers Benjamin Constant and Victor Cousin; and then to Basel, where, following his own interrogation by the German authorities, de Wette also had gone, resigning his post at the University of Berlin. There Follen and de Wette edited a literary magazine that promoted German patriotism, and they numbered among their friends and supporters none other than J. F. Fries, another eminent Idealist philosopher, as well as other German nationalists. Continually hounded by Prussian authorities because of the Sand affair, however, Follen and Beck began to consider leaving Europe altogether.
In 1824 they crossed the Atlantic to Philadelphia. Ticknor thereupon recommended Follen for a position at Harvard as instructor in German, the school’s first. A few years later he offered courses in ethics to the divinity students, among whom were George Ripley and James Freeman Clarke, both destined to be great students of German thought. In 1830 Follen became Harvard’s first professor of German, a position he held until 1835, when the administration did not renew his contract, purportedly because of his increasingly strident antislavery views.20 Having previously studied for the Unitarian ministry, he turned to the pulpit and was soon installed over a new church in East Lexington, Massachusetts, which he served until his untimely death in 1840 in a steamboat accident.
Follen’s comrade Beck had an equally illustrious career. From Philadelphia he found his way to George Bancroft’s Round Hill School in western Massachusetts, where he taught Latin and gymnastics. Then, in 1832, he too was called to Harvard, as professor of Latin, a position he held until late in his life. These two émigré scholars, personally acquainted with de Wette, one of the greatest living biblical exegetes, as well as with Cousin, Constant, and Fries, introduced a generation of Harvard students to German language and culture.
Follen threw himself into this work. Lacking German textbooks, he prepared a reader at his own expense. “Dr. Follen was the best of teachers,” Unitarian clergyman Andrew Preston Peabody recalled. “Under him we learned the grammar of the language, in great part in situ.” He worked through “forms and constructions” as the students met them in their reading lessons, explaining them “with a clearness and emphasis that made it hard to forget.”21 Keeping tabs on the young man whom he had recommended for the position, George Ticknor concurred. Follen “is a fine fellow,” he wrote to a friend in 1826, “an excellent scholar, and teaches German admirably … [He] will do good among us.”22 Writing after Follen’s death, Elizabeth Peabody paid him the highest compliment. “I never knew any foreigner,” she said, “who seemed to be so easily and widely understood by Americans.” “In fact,” she continued, Follen “was less of a German than a Christian cosmopolite.”23
By the end of the 1830s the study of German was all the rage. From his bastion at Andover, Moses Stuart observed that “our youth are every day resorting to Germany for education; and our colleges are filling up with Professors, who have been educated there.” The German language, he continued, is “becoming an object of classical study in our public seminaries of learning, and in a multitude of ways, through the medium of translations as well as by the knowledge of the German language,” its literature was transforming what constituted serious scholarship in a variety of fields.24 Divinity students and clergymen—Unitarian or Trinitarian—exposed to the language never were the same.
Joseph Buckminster was one of these, and he had assembled his library in great measure to help him examine the scriptural canon in terms of its history and language, a project well under way in Europe. Given his position as a leading Unitarian, he sought to decide to his satisfaction the degree of consistency among New Testament accounts of the life of Christ, a task in which he was particularly encouraged by the works of the German biblical scholar Johann David Michaelis, the Anglican bishop and scholar Robert Lowth, and Griesbach.
Michaelis taught at the Universities of Halle and Göttingen and specialized in the changes in the Hebrew language over time; his philological works were much studied. Lowth, in his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753) and commentary on Isaiah (1778), presented the Old Testament as a complex literary creation penned by various groups of religious people and thus not easily reducible to one clear story or doctrine. He argued as well that the Bible was a complex mixture of history and myth that had to be disentangled before one arrived at the core of Christian doctrine. His insights led Buckminster to observe that “to understand the unconnected writings of any person, written in a remote period, and in a foreign language,” one had to consider “the character of the writer, the opinions that prevailed in his time, his object in writing, and every circumstance peculiar to his situation.” Then one might be “sure of having reached the whole of his meaning.”25
Like many other Unitarians, Buckminster was frustrated by the metaphysical hairsplitting that preoccupied New England clergy, and he believed that enlightened attention to the history and language of the Bible might end such divisive and fruitless bickering. Griesbach was the biblical exegete whose work most immediately encouraged him. Griesbach’s two-volume edition of the Greek Testament and its elaborate critical apparatus encouraged Buckminster in his attempts to ascertain the veracity of the New Testament books. He was so taken with Griesbach’s scholarship that he even convinced Harvard to subsidize, for those who sought easier access to his criticism, a reprint of an abbreviated manual on the New Testament that this scholar had prepared. In print and from his pulpit Buckminster touted Griesbach’s conclusions, arguing that one should not regard the Bible as God’s word but only as its vehicle and, as such, a text one had to interpret through sophisticated philological and historical scholarship.
By 1811 Buckminster’s proselytizing for the Higher Criticism eventuated in his appointment at Harvard as the first Dexter Lecturer in Biblical Criticism, an indication of the institution’s growing commitment to the new European scholarship. Buckminster posthaste wrote European booksellers to acquire other key scholarly works that he needed, and he also began to learn the German language so that he could read them in the original.
Following his untimely death, his torch passed to Andrews Norton, who had read theology with both him and the equally well regarded Unitarian Henry Ware, whose appointment to the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard in 1805 had ignited a firestorm of criticism from conservative Trinitarians who viewed his elevation as Harvard’s capitulation to liberal Christianity.26 In 1813 Norton succeeded William Ellery Channing as Dexter Lecturer, a position Channing had held for only a year and which in 1819 (after much lobbying on Norton’s part) became the Dexter Professorship. Norton, now proficient enough in German to read Eichhorn’s Introduction to the New Testament in the original, began his lifelong project of proving the “genuineness” of the Gospels. With his seminal Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of the Trinitarians (1819), the locus classicus of the Unitarians’ understanding of scripture, Norton initiated a long-running battle with none other than Stuart, who, from his influential position at the Andover Theological Seminary—which was founded in the wake of Ware’s appointment to the Hollis Chair to provide a comparable seminary for Trinitarians—resorted to the same Higher Critics to defend a very different notion of scriptural language and meaning.
Andrews Norton was a small man with a “delicate physical organization,” one friend recalled, and had a “light and rather pallid complexion.” Feeble-voiced—he did not have “sufficient compass to fill a large house”—he was at his best in his study and was an assiduous scholar.27 His colleague James Walker, professor of moral philosophy, recalled that Norton never troubled himself “to comprehend the ignorance or errors of other people,” including his students. This led to a rather limited pedagogy, for “he saw things so clearly himself, and stated them so clearly, that if a pupil failed to be convinced, he soon gave him up.”28 The Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, who despised all that Norton stood for, was more pointed. “It is said,” he wrote in a review of one of Norton’s works, “that he usually sits in his room with the shutters drawn, which has the double effect of keeping the light out and the darkness in.” “This may be a calumny,” he continued archly, but his writings “afford no satisfactory refutation of it.”29 George Ripley, who also had put in time sparring with Norton, was more measured and yet verified the accuracy of both reports. Late in his life he observed that “the predominant qualities of [Norton’s] mind were clearness of perception, rigidity of judgment, accuracy of expression, and a chaste imagination.”30
Stuart directly attacked William Ellery Channing’s sermon Unitarian Christianity (1819), the most famous manifesto of liberal Christianity, and the bullheaded young Norton quickly jumped to its defense with his Statement of Reasons. Moses Stuart was then probably the best-read scholar in biblical criticism in New England, his immersion in German scholarship so profound that at one point the Andover trustees, who every five years required each professor’s sworn allegiance to a formal creed, feared for his orthodoxy. They realized, however, that if their faculty were to defend the Trinitarian reading of the Bible position against that of liberal Christians, they had to adopt similar methods of textual scholarship, so Stuart escaped with just a censure.31
The heated exchange between Stuart and Norton turned on the ultimate authority of biblical language. For Stuart the chief question was, what did the writers mean to convey in the biblical passages? His position, dictated by unwavering commitment to scriptural revelation, was that when the textual scholar had examined the Bible with the same philological, grammatical, and literary tools that he brought to any other ancient book—that is, when he had discerned the word’s meaning—the text, as the divinely ordained word of God, was authoritative. “It is orthodoxy in the highest sense of the word,” Stuart declared, and “everything which differs from it, which modifies it, which fritters it away, is heterodoxy, is heresy.” The biblical exegete’s only query should be, what thought did this or that passage convey? When this was answered philologically, a Christian was compelled “to believe what is thought, or else to reject the claim of divine authority.” One conducted scriptural studies by one’s philology, independent of one’s philosophy. But after such investigation, what he discerned was binding, because the Bible was inspired.32
Stuart depended for his analysis on a group of mid-eighteenth-century Higher Critics subsequently known as the Neologians, specifically Michaelis (1717-91), J. A. Ernesti (1707-81), and, most important, J. S. Semler (1725-91). These scholars and their disciples, many of whom were conservative, evangelical Pietists who took pains not to allow their beliefs to dictate the results of their biblical research, had undertaken a radical reevaluation of Christian revelation and dogma on philological and grammatical grounds. Their highly rationalist view of the exegete’s task provides a textbook example of how the Age of Reason affected the study of the Bible, and their influence lingered well into the nineteenth century. Stuart was attracted to them because of their continuing respect for Trinitarian orthodoxy, attendant on their Pietism, for they still believed in Christ’s miracles as a demonstration of his divinity.33 Despite its novelty, their research supported a conservative understanding of scripture such as Stuart had sworn to maintain at Andover.
Channing, however, took the same propositions in a different direction. He was influenced by the important distinction, popularized by Semler, that the Bible, rather than being literally the word of God, instead only contained it, a semantic distinction that opened the gates to linguistic and historical research that eventually undermined orthodox readings of scripture. Channing contended, following Semler, that before any text could be considered authoritative, it had to agree with the general spirit of the Bible, part of the universal truth Christ and his disciples revealed in the New Testament. The question Channing posed addressed not only what the original writer meant to convey, but whether his text was valid for all ages or merely referred to local, temporal situations, a distinction an informed interpreter could make. Channing also maintained that in many places the Bible dealt with issues about which men had received ideas from sources other than scripture itself, that is, from the writer’s culture. The biblical exegete thus had to restrain and modify scriptural language by known truths furnished by observation and experience, in a textbook application of the Common Sense philosophy.
Trinitarians like Stuart rejected this idea because it placed final authority in man’s reason rather than in revelation. No one could modify a scriptural proposition to make it agree with man’s flawed judgment, a result of his fallen state. To Stuart, the significance of God’s word never changed over time, and assertion to the contrary only displayed man’s innate depravity. Because he sought to establish the theological authority of scripture within the tradition of orthodox Calvinism, Stuart used German scholarship to reinforce beliefs he already held. In a crucial admission, he vowed that he and his fellow Trinitarians never would undertake to “describe affirmatively the distinctions of the Godhead,” because such terms as “proceeding from the Godhead” and “the Logos made Flesh” were merely “a language of approximation,” feeble attempts to describe the indescribable. While language expressed enough of the truth of such matters to “excite our highest interest and command our best obedience,” words were only suggestive.34
Although installed as Buckminster’s successor as Dexter Lecturer, Channing was not a profound textual scholar, and he never replied directly to Stuart’s attack on his sermon. Channing was much more important in his homiletic role and was widely regarded as America’s foremost Unitarian—Emerson even termed him, affectionately, “our Bishop”—who served as a model of the liberal Christian piety.35 The redoubtable Andrews Norton, however, needed little prompting to reply to Stuart, and in his inaugural discourse as Dexter Professor he clarified the role of the biblical scholar. In studying the Bible, he said, the responsible exegete had to acquaint himself “with all that collection of facts and rules, by the application of which the original text of the sacred writings is recovered as far as possible.” In addition, he had to master the languages in which they were written and thus be, “in the most comprehensive sense of the word, a philologist.” By studying the character of scriptural language, he continued, the philologist discovers “its intrinsic ambiguity and imperfection,” for “words taken alone” (that is, without exegesis) were “often inadequate to convey any one definite meaning.” Further, that meaning itself might be “loose and unsettled,” and thus could be fixed only by the exegete’s attention to “extrinsic considerations.”36
In defending Channing, Norton elaborated these ideas and invoked Locke’s principles of language to argue that biblical words, like any others, were only “human instruments for the expression of human ideas.” Words expressed nothing but an idea or an aggregate of ideas that men associated with certain sounds or letters. Language represented what “the human understanding is capable of conceiving.” Thus, all that had ever been recorded (in scripture or elsewhere) could be understood rationally by intelligent men, for so far as words have meaning, Norton magisterially declared, “they are intelligible.” He was humble enough to admit that some truths finally were incomprehensible, but these could not be expressed explicitly through verbal signs. He did not speculate on hypothetical matters: his research led him to grapple only with “the historical circumstances surrounding scriptural language, its peculiarities of idiom, and the prepossessions of writer and audience.”37 He did not condescend to consider how divine wisdom was transmitted to earthly creatures, especially when it contradicted common sense, and he had no time for or interest in language’s “intrinsic ambiguity.”
Intuition, then, the flights of imagination during an inspired state, had nothing to do with understanding scriptural truth. Cultural differences and lack of linguistic sophistication accounted for most misrepresentations of biblical language and misunderstanding of Christian doctrine (like those, for example, between Unitarians and Trinitarians) because “figures and turns of expression familiar in one language are strange in another.” Correct interpretation of passages that seemed to “bear a Trinitarian sense” but in fact, on closer study, supported a Unitarian reading, could be achieved only by considering the writer’s character, his “habits of thinking and feeling,” his “common state of expression,” his “settled opinions and beliefs,” the “general state of things during the time in which he lived,” and the “particular local and temporary circumstances present to his mind while writing.”38 A writer’s specific words, Saint Paul’s or Tertullian’s, were the result of social and historical context.
This seminal debate over the import of Higher Criticism on American Christianity involved figures from two distinct and opposed denominational camps, each drawing different conclusions from similar historical and linguistic exploration of the Bible. The influence of the Higher Criticism, however, also was felt within individual denominations, with equally divisive effects. The Unitarian clergyman Orville Dewey recalled, for example, how after attending Williams College, a bastion of orthodoxy, he entered Andover with the thought of using the new biblical criticism to buttress orthodoxy. “But the more I studied it,” he wrote, “the more I doubted.” Ironically, Stuart himself was the problem. In his “crucible,” Dewey continued, “many a solid text evaporated and left no residue of proof.” Dewey eventually found his way to Unitarianism and ministered to its largest New York congregation.39
James Marsh was another orthodox scholar challenged by the Higher Criticism. Born in Hartford, Vermont, in 1794, he was raised in a staunchly orthodox household. When in 1817 he decided to pursue a career in the ministry, his family assumed that he would attend Andover. He was not happy with that institution’s academic regimen, however, and late in 1820, as Channing’s sermon on Unitarian Christianity was making such a stir, he thought that the stimulation of Cambridge might cure his intellectual unrest. Two months there convinced him of the Unitarians’ moral and spiritual failings, and he soon reentered Andover, where Stuart won him over to the new exegetical studies. By February of 1821 Marsh reported that under Stuart’s guidance he felt as though he had “conquered” the German language. He plunged into biblical exegesis head-on by undertaking a critical reevaluation of both testaments .40
In 1824 Marsh was ordained to the Congregational ministry in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he served for two years, until the University of Vermont in Burlington, seeking new intellectual leadership, offered him its presidency. Throughout his association with that institution—in 1833 he stepped down to become professor of moral and intellectual philosophy—the influence of the new German thought on his writings was everywhere apparent. He believed that because of the Higher Criticism, Christians needed a new way to describe and discuss religious experience; that is, they had to rethink the power of language to capture and make accessible Christianity’s essence—the same problem that preoccupied Stuart and Norton.
Marsh’s interest in this subject was evident as early as 1829 in a review of his mentor’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which Stuart sought to reconcile belief in an intuitive faith—one based in the heart rather than the head—with Trinitarian Calvinist dogma. Arguing that the fragmented state of New England’s churches resulted from misconceptions of the vocabulary deployed by differing factions, Marsh moved inexorably toward Stuart’s position, that language was best understood as figurative rather than literal. The concept of “redemption,” for example, was comprehensible only when one realized that rational analysis of scriptural language yielded only that which could be comprehended by one’s logical faculties. To have a true sense of what the ancients meant by “redemption,” one had to consider the term imaginatively or intuitively , coming to know, as Marsh put it, “the inward and subjective nature of it.” Unfortunately, most scholars neglected to do so. “Situated as we are in society,” Marsh wrote, “we unavoidably learn words before we can have much insight into the meaning of them.” Men acquired the habit “of using them without any definite and precise meaning.”41
The apostle’s description of the doctrine of redemption once had been vital, but it no longer made sense in analytic or rational terms. “For those who have the whole of the New Testament in their heads,” Marsh wrote, “and read it aright, and feel its powers, the language of the Apostles ought to mean more, than these metaphorical representations, literally interpreted, could express.” Head and heart thus had to be reconciled; and anyone, Unitarian or Trinitarian, who set out to explain the doctrines of faith through logical analysis alone evinced a failure of imagination.
Where did Marsh get such ideas? In good measure through his receptive reading of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782), whose first American edition he translated and shepherded through his brother-in-law’s press in Burlington the same year that he resigned his university presidency. Herder had long been of interest to American biblical scholars. As far back as 1812, for example, Stuart had tried to persuade his young friend Everett to translate Herder’s works and was willing to lend his own copies for that purpose. Everett made some progress but never published the result, and it was left to Stuart’s younger student Marsh to complete the task.42 In 1826 he published several installments of his translation in the Biblical Repertory, and seven years later he made the entire work widely available.43
Herder was a progenitor of the “mythical” school in biblical criticism. He argued that the Bible’s stories, like Greek or Roman mythology, were not factual but true only poetically, whetting mankind’s appetite for higher things by appeals to the imagination. The historical appurtenances of a biblical story were thus incidental to its main instructional and inspirational purposes, which the reader could grasp if he treated the text as he would any other example of complex literature. Further, Herder believed that such inspirational texts derived from a people’s culture, their “spirit,” a notion of literature that saw religious belief as formative of a people’s nationhood, an idea that resonated in Europe, caught as it was in the throes of nationalist aspirations. Inspired poetry thus was the fount of both national identity and spiritual inspiration.
When young George Ripley reviewed Herder’s eighteen-volume collected works in The Christian Examiner in 1835, he provided readers with a detailed intellectual pedigree of the German scholar. Herder, Ripley wrote, derived from Semler, Ernesti, and Michaelis, who had sought to make theology “a science resting on its own merits.” But their descendant was unique in having recognized that scripture had to be read as sacred poetry—“Oriental writings” that belonged “to the infancy of the world.” If any doubted the importance of this observation, Ripley continued, in Herder’s voluminous writings one “found the germ of most of the important thoughts, which have since produced such a mighty revolution in the prevalent conceptions of religion.”44 Ripley’s comment proved prescient, for Marsh’s role in the transfer of European culture to the United States was not restricted to the Higher Criticism. With the introduction of Herder, however, to a wider audience through his translation of On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, anyone interested in the topic could entertain a wholly new way of understanding the language and meaning of scripture.
One such person was Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–94), a Salem, Massachusetts, native then working as an assistant in Bronson Alcott’s Temple School in Boston. Peabody had strong Unitarian credentials and in 1834 was well enough known among Boston’s intelligentsia for The Christian Examiner, the Unitarian publication of record, to ask her to evaluate Marsh’s edition of Herder’s On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry. She admired Herder’s work enough to use it as a text for discussion in a series of “conversations” she held for women in Boston, and she welcomed the opportunity to weigh in on the work’s significance.45
Given her Unitarian upbringing, Peabody began her review predictably. She stressed that the words of the Old Testament were the product of men “limited in their power of taking in what was so freely poured upon them by their partaking in the spirit and character of the age in which they lived.” But she quickly recognized that the uniqueness of Old Testament texts resided in their poetry, what she described as the “expression of abstract and spiritual truths by sensible objects, by the forms, colors, sounds, changes, [and] combinations of external nature.” This poetic language, she wrote, existed because the human mind “in its original principles,” and natural creation “in its simplicity,” were but different images of the same creator, who had linked them “for the reciprocal development of their mutual treasures.”46
Primitive languages thus were “naturally poetic.” But as society “ramified” and people communicated more by imitation and custom than spontaneously, “a thousand arbitrary and accidental associations connected themselves with words” and deadened the impressions they naturally made. Language moved to a level of analytical or technical expression in which words were no longer pictures of the natural world but merely social conventions, as Locke had argued. This language she termed “prose,” which, although it provided a more precise expression of the differences among things, sacrificed, Peabody noted, the “force, impressiveness, and exciting power” of poetry. While the most poetic expression existed only in the earliest stages of the human civilization, it remained as a part of all subsequent language through metaphor. Herder had recognized this when he investigated the primitive poetical radicals of the Hebrew language, pointing out that the true genius of the Hebrew tongue was displayed in its “formation and derivation of words from the original roots, and of those original roots from external and internal nature.”47
Peabody coupled this with what she knew of Greek mythology, for she discerned congruence between the allegorical truths in the poetry and mythology of both the Greek and Hebrew cultures. She regarded primitive man as an original poet who named everything around him through the interaction of his instinctual speech and his environment. Originally, there was a reason why such a word meant such a thing, a position radically opposed to Locke’s notion of the arbitrariness of language. Peabody welcomed Herder’s suggestion that if one went back far enough in the study of a language, he not only located a tongue’s original roots but also could ascertain how these roots themselves were derived from nature. This suggested universality to the oldest forms of languages, which, if properly understood, revealed a universal grammar. In addition to providing a key to the more economic assimilation of the various modern languages, such insight, she believed, demonstrated the common origin of thought in nature.
Her reading of Herder led her to search for an ur-language, the parts of which were intimately connected to the exterior world—what we might term a “language of nature” that others like Emerson soon enough elaborated with even more sophistication. Peabody’s interest in this subject eventually led her as well to sponsor and publish the work of language theorists who similarly argued a universal origin to speech. In the hands of readers like Peabody and an ever-expanding group of sympathetic readers, the Higher Criticism thus had the potential to alter radically their understanding of language and symbol.
The young Waldo Emerson’s struggle with the tenets of his Unitarian faith offers a final example of the potential for the Higher Criticism to challenge long-established tenets in organized religion as well as of its liberating effect on notions of representation. In the early 1830s, shortly after his wife’s death from tuberculosis, Emerson, a minister to Boston’s Second Church, gave a series of lectures to his congregation’s young people that display his growing allegiance to the Higher Criticism and indicate his increasing disenchantment with the Unitarian fellowship. Like Elizabeth Peabody, he believed that the Higher Critics had erred in trying to resolve hermeneutical questions through reason or logic alone. “My friends,” he addressed his youthful parishioners in 1831, “if we leave the letter and explore the spirit of the apostles & their master, we shall find that there is an evidence that will come from the heart to the head, an echo of every sentiment taught by Jesus, that will make the evidence to us as strong as that of the Primitive Church.”48 This is precisely what Peabody had discovered through her comparison of Herder’s work on Hebrew poetry with her knowledge of classical mythology.
Emerson came to similar conclusions. For example, he based his sermon “The Lord’s Supper”—delivered after he had decided that he could no longer in good conscience administer the sacrament of Holy Eucharist—on the same exegetical principles as those of the Unitarians whose judgment in matters of doctrine he had begun to question. His rejection of the sacrament came from rational examination of the scriptural evidence for administering it. After reviewing the relevant scriptural evidence, he concluded that “Jesus did not intend to establish an institution for perpetual observance when he ate the Passover with his disciples.” The ritual of the Supper was based in local, Hebraic custom, and Christ’s followers (particularly Saint Paul) had erred in their assumption that he wished his disciples to maintain the institution permanently after his death. Moreover, Emerson reminded his contemporaries that on such doctrinal matters they should seek a judgment more in accordance with the spirit of Christianity than had been “the practice of the early ages [that is, the early church fathers].”49 Sifting through historical and textual evidence, he turned the Unitarians’ exegetical principles against them and claimed that the commonly accepted practice of Communion was not in line with the deeper, more intuitive truth of the Christian religion.
Over the next few years, particularly in his book Nature (1836) and his address to the graduating students of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838, his reasoning on scriptural language evolved more radically, ending in his decisive break with Unitarianism. In particular, Emerson believed that the literal, contextual meaning of scriptural language was not as important as its more symbolic function, a view ironically congruent with that of the archconservative Stuart. Speaking of Christ’s parables, Emerson noted that over time, “the idioms of His language and the figures of His rhetoric” had “usurped” the place of his truth, resulting in churches being built on Christ’s “tropes” rather than on his principles. Mankind was left to derive Christ’s principles intuitively and subjectively, and not merely through study of the historical context of scriptural language. Emerson thus looked not for more biblical scholars but for “the new Teacher” who would “follow so far those shining laws” of nature that he could see the world as “the mirror of the soul.”50 Truth was not such because the Evangelists had so recorded it, but because they had witnessed it and spoken it in words that were themselves the expression of the laws of God and nature.
Scriptural exegesis lost none of its interest or force over the next two decades. Beginning in 1837, for example, Andrews Norton published the first of what became a three-volume magnum opus on the subject, Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels, and younger ministers like Ripley and William Henry Furness offered their own refinements of the scholarship. Thus, among those who soon enough were termed Transcendentalists, there was interest in a philosophy of language that took distinctive shape from debates that the Higher Criticism initiated. As these debates became more strident, and as their participants expanded their reading to other European thinkers whose work had fertilized influential biblical scholars, what began as an attempt to discredit erroneous interpretations of scriptural language opened the doors to a novel theory of literary symbolism that placed individual consciousness front and center.
Some theologians began to view human communication as more than man’s arbitrary imposition of meaning on sound. Having advanced the idea that scripture was a kind of primitive poetry of the soul, some biblical scholars advanced the concomitant notion that this poetry had been draped most effectively in the imagery of nature. Natural eloquence, they believed, stemmed from the poetic language nature provided men. If one also agreed that verbal signs originally stemmed from man’s observation of the natural world, one might posit a “natural” language analogous to the spiritual truths for which men for so long had sought adequate expression. But to arrive at such an understanding of the relations among the individual, nature, and God, dissatisfied Unitarians had to substitute for Common Sense epistemology another that took different account of man’s subjectivity. This was expedited by their discovery of philosophical and spiritual Idealism that flowed from the same European founts from which they had taken such deep draughts of the Higher Criticism.