Transcendentalism is a philosophical, literary, and spiritual movement begun in 19th century America whose founders centered being guided by your own inner voice, the immanence of divinity in all beings, the sacredness of nature, and the importance of social reform, among other aspects. Its influence is still felt today in the environmental movement, civil rights, literature, spirituality celebrating nature, and more. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and others are often considered to be its originators, but before them all was Mary Moody Emerson.
Mary Moody Emerson was born in 1774 in Concord, Massachusetts into a family of ministers and philosophers, including her nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her literary legacy includes a few published pieces, but is primarily the mountain of letters and journals which she called her “Almanacks.” She circulated these among friends and family, including many transcendentalists, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. They featured many revolutionary ideas that made their way into his books and lectures, in particular, especially foreshadowing his book Nature, which launched transcendentalism. She also held influential conversations with Henry David Thoreau as he was writing Walden and with many other prominent thinkers over decades. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised her “Genius always new, subtle, frolicsome, musical, unpredictable” (Cole, 262). Almost entirely self-educated through books given or lent by family, friends, and local libraries, her sagacity was the well-spring of a movement that has been instrumental in making her world and ours.
Besides being notable for her influence on American thought, literature, and culture, I believe her to be an “Unsung Heroine” because of the sweet resonance between her life and ideas and important aspects of contemporary feminist spirituality. First, she proudly and independently “danced to the music of her own “imajanation*.” She rejected marriage for “blessed singleness” (Cole, 98) and spent much of her life choosing to travel New England with her few possessions living in family homes, including one she bought with a small inheritence but only lived in periodically, or boarding houses. “I had rather a wandering life and die a beggar,…than drag down to active littleness” (Cole, 165). Everywhere she went she was known for her wit, outspoken honesty, quick and accurate perception, and commitment to counseling young people. A close friend said she was “as sharp as a razor in her satire, and sees you through and through in a moment” (Cole, 266).
She also never blindly followed established religious doctrine, though she was a lifelong church member. Rather, like many practitioners of feminist spirituality, she found her divine inspiration in solitude and wilderness. “Nature from the solitary heart…Alive with God is enough,—tis rapture.” (Cole, 98). She found her deepest sense of her own wholeness in nature. “This morning the woods were inchanting, the crescent was brilliant—near it was the morning star, the east was reddened, the air was mild. I was rapt, I prostrated myself, I promised my truth, my charity and love should resemble those benign planets.” (Cole, 109). She understood humanity to be an essential part of the web of being. “If the hyssop, which springs from the bosom of the barren rock, is related to every element of our Earth, and the light of distant orbs, how infinitely extensive may be the relations of a being like man!” (Cole, 115). She perceived her own spirit’s limitlessness (”I keep going round and round like the squirrel on a wheel, but I revolve about the center of infinity”) as well as that of nature (“… the sanctum santorum of nature — where there is perpetual millennium”) (Cole, 190).
Finally, she acted on her belief that spiritual authenticity required working for active reform in the world, just as many feminists following a spiritual path do now. She found her moral compass in her own intuition. “We are as conscious of certain moral truths, and an intuitive belief in the Supreme, as we are of our own existence.” (Cole, 112). Mary was an active abolitionist at a time when that was controversial and sometimes dangerous. She wrote that “the faith” above all “shelters the wretched — unbinds the slave and converts the bloody persecutor.” Biographer Phyllis Cole states “unbinding slaves was for her religion, politics, and personal rage” (Cole, 221). She used her considerable energy and influence to galvanize her friends and family into anti-slavery writing and lecturing, even sending a manuscript of her own to various ministers for them to use from the pulpit.
Mary’s significant contribution to the emerging women’s rights movement was to model independence; to encourage women to be scholars and thinkers; and to promote the dissemination and publication of women’s writing by sending it to her network, especially publishers. In later life Mary gathered around her a network of women, some renowned, others not, who exchanged ideas and opinions and inspired one another. She was also, despite her poverty, a contributor to organizations serving indigent women and those with mental illness.
Mary Moody Emerson is important to today’s feminist spirituality in another unique way. She was a bridge between New England’s Calvinism and Great Awakening of the 18th century, which dominated the society into which she was born, and the transcendentalism of the 19th century just as we here at FAR and elsewhere seek to bring into being new, balanced, and wholistic paradigms of religion and spirituality. She gives us guidance for transitioning effectively into a future era: take of old traditions, both very ancient and more recent, what is valuable but trust your intuition and life experience to create fresh models; spread ideas and attitudes through engaging with others in written and spoken dialogue, realizing that those that resonate with others will forge their own paths once liberated by being voiced; insist on being yourself and showing by example how to lead a life of authenticity and power.
On her gravestone in her hometown is the epitaph “She gave high counsels,” as true now as in 1863 when it was first committed to stone.
*Following biographer Phyllis Cole’s lead, I have retained Mary’s original spelling, as that was part of her expression of individuality.
Carolyn Lee Boyd writes essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry that have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. She explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com,where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.
Cole, Phyllis. Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Mary Moody Emerson in The Atlantic. December, 1883. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1883/12/mary-moody-emerson/539490/
Williams, David R. The Wilderness Rapture of Mary Moody Emerson: One Calvinist Link to Transcendentalism in Studies in the American Renaissance, 1986, pp. 1-16. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30227544
Letter from Mary Moody Emerson to Lidian Emerson: Emerson, Mary Moody, 1774-1863, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Old Manse: By Unknown author – Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University ()., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8096699
13 thoughts on “Unsung Heroines: Mary Moody Emerson, Foremother of Transcendentalism by Carolyn Lee Boyd”
What a wonderful post! It spoke to me in every line. I have been feeling these very things within myself since Covid began and enforced solitude brought them out of me.
I found life in everything you’ve written here, Carolyn – thank you so much. I’ve bookmarked it to come back to and ponder again as well as seek out the books you list at the end.
I’m so glad I read this today.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you so much, Sarah! Yes, when I read Phyllis Cole’s book I felt like I had found a kindred spirit in Mary Moody Emerson. I’m so glad you found the post helpful!
Thank-you for writing this essay Carolyn! What a beautiful gift to us all!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love the concept of Unsung Heroes. Thank you.
LikeLiked by 1 person
You’re welcome! I believe Mary Gelfand, one of our contributing writers, came up with the wonderful idea of Unsung Heroines as a theme for FAR.
You’re so welcome! I’m so happy you enjoyed it!
Naturally I knew nothing about this unsung woman… reminds me of Einsteins first wife without which his groundbreaking formula would never have been born… Thanks so much for educating us!
LikeLiked by 2 people
You’re welcome! Yes, there are so many brilliant women few people know about. I’ve been reading about the transcendentalists for decades and never heard of Mary Moody Emerson’s contribution till a few months ago. I hadn’t known about Einstein’s first wife – thanks for letting me know about her!
LikeLiked by 1 person
What a delightful human being she sounds like!! Thank you Carolyn! I am going to enter this article to the resource section of the divine feminine app. Thank you for singing of her!
LikeLiked by 1 person
You’re welcome! So glad you enjoyed reading about Mary!
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a huge influence on Emily Dickinson – I wonder if she knew about Mary Moody Emerson through him or directly, since they were so nearby. Such an interesting post – thank you for raising up this important part of our history.
LikeLiked by 1 person
What an interesting question! I looked up Emily Dickinson in Phyllis Cole’s book who says that there is no evidence that the two met or corresponded. However, Mary Moody Emerson did go through Amherst in 1854 and likely went to the same church services that Emily Dickinson did. If so, it may be, Cole says, that Emily noticed Mary Moody Emerson there and someone may have told her that she was RW Emerson’s aunt. At the time Mary Moody Emerson was kind of hard to miss because she had taken to wearing a burial shroud (more like a white nightgown rather than a wrapping cloth) to signal that she was ready to make transition to heaven. It’s too bad that they never met or exchanged poetry or other writing – I think they would have found each other to be kindred spirits!
I completely agree! Thank you for looking it up further. How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for those conversations (if they had met)!