John Beuhrens was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations from 1993 to 2001 and is the author of a number of books detailing various aspects of what Americans generally call the Unitarian church. The Unitarians were founded by members of what has become known as the religious/philosophical movement now known as transcendentalism. in Conflagration, Beuhrens focuses on how transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau (to name only two of many), influenced American society in general, but specifically on their role the American debate over slavery.
I am among the group who, as Beuhrens describes us, “. . .first [met] the transcendentalists in high school or college . . .We read some Emerson [essays] . . .Thoreau’s Walden . . . We . . .[came] to see Transcendentalists as centered in rural Concord [Massachusetts], asserting their individualism against the demands of society.” To focus, as Beuhrens does, on the transcendentalists’ lives and deeds instead of only on their writings, is to enrich one’s knowledge of who and what these people were and on their social significance, which carries us far beyond those meager schoolday impressions.
Indeed, many of these individuals were in the forefront of the social justice struggles not only of their day, but as it unfortunately has turned out, of our own time as well. As a group they formed an important part of the abolitionist movement. In that context, Julia Ward Howe, most famous for her “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, became a champion not only for Union victory and freedom of the slaves, but for civil rights in general. Many in the movement became involved with or about John Brown [whose wife, incidentally, was part of a wagon train that brought my forbears west in 1864] . Margaret Fuller, was a leader in the movement for women’s rights. Wendell Phillips was another fiery abolitionist as well as a battler for Native Americans. And the list, as the saying goes, is too long to repeat here, but you get the point. There were many such high-powered transcendentalist individuals, and as a group though they may be of (to paraphrase) “little note or long remembered, ” but they were a great force for good–a force far stronger than that for which they are generally given credit. I might put in a plug here for William Ellery Channing, a principal in the movement, for whom a major street in Berkeley, California, in and near which I have lived for a long time, is named. Didn’t know that.
Beuhrens doesn’t stop at these historical markers, though. He also delves into the personal feelings and relationships among this unique community. To my mind, the title Conflagration refers to two catastrophes. One, from a world view, was of no particular significance– the explosion and sinking of the steamboat, Lexington, in Long Island Sound in 1840. That accident took with it the abolitionist Unitarian minister Charles Follen [See illustration below.], who was so well regarded that his absence was felt long after among his followers and others devoted to his cause. The other was the Civil War itself, which caused more fatalities than all our other wars combined. The effects of that horror, of course, remain active and awful over a century and a half later. During all this, as these individuals worked to further their works, they also lived and loved like the human beings they were. They formed groups within and without what many of them didn’t call an organized religion exactly, though most practiced and argued about one form of Christianity or another.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the attractive design of the layout itself, an element I don’t remember ever including in another post. Each chapter is headed in the manner of a good 19th century novelist, with a bit of commentary about what is to follow. The technique nicely evokes the flavor of the time in which most of the book is set. To wit:
Conviction, in which a German-born scholar flees to America, carrying the torch of his native land’s idealism to Harvard, and comes to hold “incendiary” ideas on the subject of American slavery.
As well, the illustrations [I apologize for the look of this image–My tech skills fail me again. But I thought even a clumsy look was worth the effort to give a feel for the the tone they give to the book– are nicely done patterned after a technique for which I have no name, but, again, pays homage to the time an places in which the transcendentalists lived and loved and preached and wrote.