What is Transcendentalist Spirituality?

The view from Thoreau's cabin. Photograph by Barry M. Andrews

The view from Thoreau’s cabin

“The Art of life!” Henry Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Was there anything memorable written on it? By what disciplines to secure the most life, with what care to watch our thoughts.” Transcendentalism was and still is a way of living and not merely a 19th century literary movement. It is a form of wisdom applied to everyday life.

The Transcendentalists were writers, reformers and religious radicals committed to personal and social transformation. Their spiritual practice was aimed at cultivating awareness, transcending the ego, identifying with nature and quickening the conscience.

While there is much to be learned from the lives and writings of these remarkable men and women, there is even more to be gained, I believe, by engaging in their form of spiritual practice, which they termed self-culture, or the cultivation of the soul. In my view, this is their lasting legacy, and as valid today as it was in their time.


Reading, contemplation and walks in nature were important spiritual practices for the Transcendentalists. Equally important was conversation. In clubs, salons and discussion groups they shared their ideas and experiences. In my experience as a minister and teacher I have found that conversation is the best means of mining their wisdom for contemporary audiences.

Transcendentalist study circles have sprung up in many cities around the country. Some of these are book-reading groups meeting to discuss selected writings. Others gather in circles to read aloud from essays and other works, reflecting upon and sharing insights from chosen passages.

On one page of this website you will find additional suggestions for forming and leading such groups in your church or community. The Transcendentalists themselves offer helpful advice for conducting conversations, which may make for a more meaningful experience.

Transcendentalist Spirituality

In brief, Transcendentalist spirituality can be described as:

  • very much in this world,
  • characterized by a reverence for nature,
  • an organic world-view,
  • a sense of the miraculous in everyday life,
  • an optimism about human potential,
  • a search for what is universal in religion and human experience,
  • a strong moral conscience,
  • and an encouragement of the individual in her or his own religious quest.

The spiritual practices of the Transcendentalists included:

  • self-reliance
  • leisure
  • reading
  • contemplation
  • solitude
  • walks in nature
  • conversation
  • journal writing
  • religious cosmopolitanism
  • action from principle

This website is designed both to inform you about the lives and ideas of the New England Transcendentalists and to invite you to consider how your own life might be enriched by a deeper understanding of their spiritual message.

Pages on this site are devoted to several of the leading Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and others. Additional pages provide resources, both on-line and in print, that offer opportunities for further exploration.

I also invite you to read and subscribe to my blog and to delve into my own writings on the subject of Transcendentalist spirituality. I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions, and I would be glad to hear from those who share my passion.