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Transcendentalism and the Power of Philology

Herder, Schleiermacher, and the Transformation of Biblical Scholarship in New England

Ulrike Wagner

Pages 419 - 445


A number of critical works have drawn attention to the fundamental impact of Johann Gottfried Herder’s and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theological thinking on the formation of the transcendentalist movement. The notion of religious renewal channeled through German biblical scholarship broke new ground, so the argument always goes, by relocating the source for finding divine evidence from the letter into the interior realms to the individual’s soul and consciousness. Drawing on rarely discussed and unexamined reviews, writings, and translations by transcendentalist critics such as George Ripley and James Marsh, among others, this article claims that such generalized assessments occlude essential characteristics and functions of the model of spiritual restoration that American critics work out with Herder and Schleiermacher. Through the lens of the German scholars’ historical and philological techniques, critics like Ripley, Marsh, and George Bancroft articulate notions of modern revelation premised on educational efforts. The subject they introduce hones its religious integrity through continual critical labor centered on strategies of self-abandonment, empathy, and poetic-philology. Through a number of close readings, I demonstrate how this connection between spiritual revival and learning processes modifies our perspective on the impact of German biblical criticism on the formation of transcendentalism and on the thinking of its major spokesman Ralph Waldo Emerson in the movement’s early years.


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