When Did Transcendentalism Start and Why?

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Transcendentalism was an American movement in literature, philosophy and politics that emerged in the 1820s and 1830s. The movement first developed among New England Congregationalists, who rejected the notions of predestination and the Trinity of God. Transcendentalism was heavily influenced by the skepticism of Scottish philosopher David Hume as well as English and German Romanticism. The movement emphasized independence, self-reliance and an individual connection to nature and the universe.

Transcendentalists were influenced in particular by David Hume's notion that no proof of religion or God could be empirically verified. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading figure in the Transcendentalist movement, was deeply influenced by Hume's "Dialogues on Natural Religion" while studying at Harvard. Another significant text for the movement was the 1825 English translation of F. D. E. Schleiermacher's "Critical Essay Upon the Gospel of St. Luke," which proposed the notion that the Bible was a creation of human culture and history, rather than a divine document. Johann Gottfried van Herder's "Spirit of Hebrew Poetry," first published in German in 1782 but not translated into English until 1833, also complicated the distinction between human-produced poetry and the supposedly divine words of religious texts.

While van Herder's work called religious authority into question, it also asserted that equally relevant texts could still be produced. Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature," widely considered the catalyzing text of Transcendentalism, echoed many of van Herder's sentiments.