Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ralph Waldo Emerson in Chicago -- January 24, 1867

On this date, January 24, back in 1867 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a talk at the Unity Church just off Washington Square Park, the structure that gave way after the fire of 1871 to the Scottish Rite Cathedral that stands at the corner of Walton and North Dearborn today.  Dr. Robert Collyer, the pastor of Unity Church, introduced the eminent man of letters. 

Dr. Robert Collyer
Collyer must have been an avid listener to Emerson’s message that night; he was no stranger to persecution and hardship.  Born in England, he had, before he was 26-years-old, served as a blacksmith’s apprentice, become a minister in the Methodist church, and lost his wife and infant daughter.  Coming to the United States in 1850 he worked as a hammer maker in Pennsylvania during the week, preaching on Sundays.  His anti-slavery messages, though, meant the end of his Methodist pastoral duties and the church stripped him of his license.  He joined the Unitarian Church and in 1860 came to Chicago as a missionary.  By 1865 he had served the dead and the dying in the Civil War and had overseen the construction of the Unity Church, one of the grandest churches in the city.

In describing Emerson’s address that evening, The Chicago Tribune wrote, “The peculiarly concise and metaphysical style of this eminent man, and the abstruse ideas which he conveys in a close chain make it impossible to do justice to the lecture in a brief and disjointed report . . . But some of the pearls of thought that were scattered though the house may be set in type so as to afford ample food for the reflective mind.  Each of them constitutes a sermon in itself.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1867]

Emerson entitled his lecture “The Man of the World.”  Toward the end of his address that evening, just two years after the end of the great war that saw an estimated 620,000 men die in the line of duty, he said,

Would that we could feel that this country is the last great charity of the war, the end of all struggles to establish morality as the object of government.  Intellect and not property should be represented, or at least not property without intellect.  The work of America is to make the advance of ideas possible – to prove the principle that everything that is immoral is inhuman.  In the condition of America at this hour, prayer has become right.  It is relieved of its moral curse, it has no foreign complications; it proposes to do right to all classes of people, and to make it possible that the American citizen shall be a true man of the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
One wonders how this address went over in a wide-open town, choking in coal smoke and manure, running at maximum boiler pressure toward the acquisition of wealth.  Four years later Unity Church would burn to the ground in the Great Fire.  A dozen years later Robert Collyer, a national figure by that time, would leave for the Community Church of New York City, where he would become Pastor Emeritus in the same year that Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Emerson spoke for over an hour that evening.  A hundred years later I would read his essay on self-reliance and decide that I would spend my life in the high school English classroom.  I find it very cool to consider the fact that this great thinker, an intellect that helped to shape American thought in the mid-nineteenth century, spoke these words just a little more than two miles from where Jill and I live today

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