by Robin McNallie
April 12, 2015
The title of my presentation this morning, The Lengthened Shadow, is taken from Emerson’s most-quoted essay, “Self-Reliance,” in which he states that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Not given to understatement, Emerson here was simply stressing that every institution owes a boundless debt to the individuals both male and female who have contributed significantly to that institution over time. Ralph Waldo Emerson certainly has not been under-sung as one of our prophets, remembered particularly for two rebellions against the Unitarian orthodoxy of his day.
The first occurred on Sept. 9, 1832, when he delivered from his pulpit at Boston’s Second Church a sermon, “The Lord’s Supper,” expressing his opposition to administering communion to his congregants. Two days later, on Sept. 11, he offered his resignation. It was accepted, although on a divided vote. The second, more ripple-creating challenge to his Unitarian elders was his Harvard Divinity School address delivered on July 15, 1838 (99 years to the day before my birthday), to its graduating class at their personal invitation. In it he inveighed against the continuing adoration of Jesus as a man/god/wonder-worker. This time, no divided vote from the establishment figures at Harvard. He was disinvited from Harvard Yard in any official capacity for the next 30 years.