The Spirituality of Henry David Thoreau

In September Harvard Divinity School hosted a program on Henry Thoreau’s religious views. I was on a panel with Laura Dassow Walls, author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life; Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and Terry Tempest Williams, author of The Hour of Land. What follows is a shortened version of my remarks that evening.

Barry M Andrews at the Harvard Divinity School on a Panel discussing Henry David Thoreau's Religion

Barry M Andrews at HDS

This bicentennial year at least a dozen books have been published about Henry David Thoreau. This scholarship is a boon to those of us who feel that Thoreau is worth the effort to understand him better and discover more about his interests and subsequent influence on American life and culture.

The danger we encounter amidst the welter of information produced in the wake of this recent scholarship, as Rebecca Solnit points out in her essay on the “Thoreau Problem,” is that we will end up compartmentalizing him, as in Thoreau the writer, Thoreau the abolitionist, Thoreau the naturalist, and so on. Or, worse yet, bifurcating his life between the recluse of Walden Pond on the one hand and the tax-resister in the Concord jail on the other; or between the dreamy Transcendentalist of his youth and the hard-headed scientist of his later years. Thus, we fail to see how the myriad parts of his life are of a piece and hang together.

From my perspective as a minister and a student of Transcendentalism, the thread on which all the beads of Thoreau’s many-faceted life are strung is his idiosyncratic and unconventional faith—a dimension largely unexplored in Thoreau scholarship. Richard Higgins is one of the few to venture into this area. It is a major thread of Laura Walls’ recent biography as well.

Thoreau’s earliest religious views were informed by his Unitarian upbringing. He was baptized and catechized in Concord’s First Parish Church. His mother and father were members there. But he signed off from the church when he was a young man. By the time he entered college in 1833, he was perhaps not a devout Unitarian, but his Harvard education was nevertheless steeped in Unitarian tradition, the school having been a training ground for over a generation of Unitarian ministers. Many of his professors were noted Unitarians. His textbooks expounded the virtues of Unitarian moral philosophy.

However, as a student he was drawn to counter-cultural ideas then in vogue, the so-called “new views” of religion, self and society that were being entertained by a younger generation of Unitarian intellectuals and divines. The Transcendentalists, with whom he came to identify, were generally of the opinion that the religious sentiment is natural and universal in human experience, whereas religious institutions are but parochial and limited forms which this sentiment takes. They also believed that religious truth is known by experience, intuitively, and thus does not depend on religious scriptures or church teachings. They conceived of a natural or absolute religion, shorn of sectarian elements.

Professor Walls has suggested that Thoreau’s purpose in going to live at Walden Pond was “profoundly religious,” and that in writing of his experience he was intending to produce a “scripture for the modern world.” To this, I would add that Walden is not only a religious treatise, it is also a manual of spiritual practice.

Self-culture played a central role in Transcendentalist spirituality. Sometimes termed “the art of life,” for them it meant the cultivation of the soul. “The art of life!” 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.” The disciplines he practiced and described in Walden include leisure, self-reliance, reading, contemplation, solitude, conversation, sauntering in nature, simple living and action from principle. By such practices we may, even today, attempt “to secure the most life.”

As for Thoreau’s religion we should perhaps heed his own admonition: “What is religion?” he queried in his journal. “That which is never spoken.” Part of the difficulty we have in describing Thoreau’s religion is that the word “religion” was only then in the process—one accelerated by the Transcendentalists themselves—of being thought of apart from its historical manifestations in the various faith traditions.

What we can say, I believe, is that his religious views were experiential, nature centered, and pluralistic. God, for him, was immanent rather than transcendent. He was, if anything a nature mystic and a pantheist. He was familiar with the Bible since he read it in Greek at Harvard and frequently drew from Biblical language and imagery in his own writings, but—in my view at least—he was not Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

Leigh Eric Schmidt argues in his book, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, that the Transcendentalists were responsible for introducing the distinction between religion and spirituality, a prominent feature of religious life today. Thoreau eschewed religious institutions, but was a deeply spiritual person. And this is one of the reasons that many people today find him so appealing. He may have been decried as a heretic and an atheist in his own time, but now he is viewed as the avatar of an alternative way of being religious in the world.

Read more about the event on Harvard Divinity School’s News & Events page.