Over the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) devoted himself to solving the most controversial social and political problems of his day: corruption in municipal politics, abuse of industrial workers, women’s second-class citizenship, nativism and racism, and global war. He considered his activities an effort to define “Americanism” and apply its principles toward humanity’s improvement. On the one hand, Wise joined a long tradition of American Christian liberals committed to seeing their fellow citizens as their equals and to grounding this egalitarianism in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, he was in the vanguard of the Jewish Reform, or what he referred to as the Liberal Judaism movement, with its commitment to apply Jewish moral teachings to improve the world. His life’s work demonstrated that the two—liberal democracy and Liberal Judaism—went hand in hand. And while concerned with equality and justice, Wise’s Americanism had a democratic elitist character. His advocacy to engage the public on the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state relied on his own Jewish, male, and economically privileged perspective as well as those of an elite circle of political and business leaders, intellectual trendsetters, social scientists, philanthropists, labor leaders, and university faculty. In doing so, Wise drew upon on Jewish liberal teachings, transformed America’s liberal tradition, and helped to remake American’s national understanding of itself.
David M. Robinson
New England transcendentalism is the first significant literary movement in American history, notable principally for the influential works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement emerged in the 1830s as a religious challenge to New England Unitarianism. Building on the writings of the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing, Emerson and others such as Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, James Freeman Clarke, and Theodore Parker developed a theology based on interior, intuitive experience rather than the historical truth of the Bible. By 1836 transcendentalist books from several important religious thinkers began to appear, including Emerson’s Nature, which employed idealist philosophy and Romantic symbolism to examine human interaction with the natural world. Emerson’s Harvard addresses, “The American Scholar” (1837) and the controversial “Divinity School Address” (1838), gave transcendental ideas a wider prominence, and also generated strong resistance that added an element of experiment and danger to the movement’s reputation. In 1840 the transcendentalists founded a journal for their work, and Fuller became the Dial’s first editor, a position that gave her an important role in the movement and a crucial outlet for her own work in literary criticism and women’s rights.
Though it had begun as a religious movement, by the middle 1840s transcendentalism could be better described as a literary movement with growing political engagements on several fronts. Emerson proclaimed it as an era of reform and aligned the transcendentalists with those who resisted the social and political status quo. In her feminist manifesto Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Fuller called for the removal of both legal and social barriers to women’s full potential. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau went to live in the woods by Walden Pond; his memoir of his experience, Walden (1854), became a founding text of modern environmental thinking. Antislavery also became a key concern for many of the transcendentalists, who condemned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and actively resisted the execution of the law after its passage. The transcendentalists, a nineteenth-century cultural avant-garde, continue to exert cultural influence through the durability of their writings, works that shaped many aspects of American national development.
Catherine A. Brekus
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.