Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
Born in Boston on May 25, 1803, Emerson was the third of four children born to Ruth Haskins and the Reverend William Emerson. His father was a minister who believed that religion should be based in experience rather than dogma. He also believed that God is present in all things and that man’s highest duty is to realize his Godhood by striving to achieve perfection through self-knowledge and morality.
Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature”. Following this ground-breaking work, he gave a speech entitled “The American Scholar” in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. considered to be America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence”.
In addition, Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first, then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays “Nature (1836)” and “Essays: First Series (1841)” were published anonymously; only when he became better known did he begin signing them. In 1844 Emerson served as president of the Free & Green Unitarian Church on Lexington Street in Boston; he edited its magazine The Prophet until 1848.