Friday, June 22nd, 2012...9:30 am
You’ve Got Mail: “Of what athority E. esteems this mutalated gospel?”
Theological disagreements between family members are not a new phenomenon, as evidenced in this week’s letter. Few families, however, contain one of the most prominent religious and philosophical thinkers of the last two centuries, a student of the founder of “higher criticism” and a self-taught woman who defied rigid theological and societal definition.
Mary Moody Emerson, who helped raise Ralph Waldo Emerson and his siblings after their father’s death, continued to challenge them intellectually for the rest of her life. This 1826 letter to William, part of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association Deposit, was written in an exchange set into motion when William informed her he planned to study for the law rather than the ministry. At least in part, this decision seems to have sprung from William coming into contact with biblical historical criticism. While studying divinity in Germany, William met Johann Gottfried Eichhorn and was so impressed with his work he purchased a copy of Einleitung in das Neue Testament for Harvard’s library. He also summarized its arguments for Mary.
She was not as impressed, in particular with Eichhhorn’s belief that miracles could be explained by natural principles:
I…solicit you to answer the queries w’h press on my solitary mind at the rehearing of Eichhorn opinions. Does that original gos. give proof of any miracles? Of a divine mission to this “Moral teacher”? What does that gospel w’h he allows original (& true perhaps) what does it report of Jesus? Is it unconnected with judaism & prophecy? If it denies or does not report of miraculous birth or resurrection, does it give an ever living and active soul distinct from matter in the reported Saviour, and that it went to God? Or does he say with Paul, if no resurrection – no faith? It is not nessecary? Yet again I beseech you tell me of what athority E. esteems this mutalated gospel?
Such quotes helped to paint a picture of Mary as a conservative Puritan, but her religious beliefs are not so easily defined. She was an opponent of strict Calvinism, and her critique of Eichhorn stems in part from an experiential concern about the separation of the natural and the miraculous, a theme somewhat akin to her more famous nephew’s later philosophy – though anchored in a quite different and orthodox belief set. She worries about the existential cost of reducing the meaning of biblical narrative to simple naturalistic interpretation; unless it is “revealing something of an invisible Being and immortal state, what is the value of the story?” And “how shall we use and appropriate the name and attributes of this Being, if He is seen only in the cold and uniform laws of matter??”
The letter is indicative of the intellectual engagement Mary Moody Emerson kept up with her nephews. She closes her thoughts on the subject with an inquiry into what discourse he and his brother have had on the topic: “nothing should be more confined than our correspondence except to Waldo. Does he know your opinions? It is impossible he should not? Will you tell me however.”
This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.
[Thanks to Micah Hoggatt, Reference Assistant, for contributing this post.]