Henry Thoreau lived through a time in which the Church was fracturing. When Puritans first settled New England, they adhered to the Church’s strict rules, such as fully confessing sins. However, the Unitarian Church had become more liberal by the time Thoreau was a kid and the requirements for membership were more relaxed. Many people in Massachusetts protested against this liberal reform and called for a return to a more conservative church. In May of 1826, nine members of Ezra Ripley’s Unitarian Church left the parish and formed the more conservative Trinitarian Church.
Jane, Betsy, and Maria Thoreau were three of the nine to form this new Trinitarian Church. Thoreau’s mother, Cynthia Dunbar also joined soon after. In the spring of 1827, the Trinitarian Minister, Reverend Daniel Southmayd, and his wife Joanna came to Concord and Cynthia invited them to stay with the Thoreau family. During their stay, Henry witnessed numerous debates pertaining to the topic of religion. Soon, Cynthia began to question her loyalty to the Church. Although Joanna Southmayd tried to convince her of the Trinitarian nature of God, the Trinitarians refused to accept somebody who so openly questioned the beliefs of their Church. As such, Cynthia was forced to leave and found herself back at Rev. Ezra Ripley First Parish. During this time, Henry Thoreau learned that institutionalized religion was no longer a search for divinity and purity. Rather, the churches of the day battled with each other for status and power in the community.
The Trinitarian Church still grew though. Members of the organization began to push for legislation separating the Unitarian First Parish Church from the state of Massachusetts. In 1833, Thoreau lived through this vote and watched as the state’s churches became private, no longer would they serve to unite the community. Nonetheless, the Thoreaus remained a very religious household and Henry spent many of his younger days attending church services. The backdrop of both a deep connection to faith and so much turmoil in the Church gave young Thoreau an acute awareness of religion’s role in his life. As he grew up, he decided that one should not alter their religious beliefs for anyone else, be it friends, family, or another church.
Thoreau became deeply opposed to the concept of institutionalized religion. In particular, he grew to strongly dislike the Church. He felt that the Church was artificially insurrected and did not fulfill its original purpose of providing people with a place for spiritual guidance. In order to be a good Christian, one had to frequently attend church and adhere to its strict rules. Thoreau was against the Church’s mandating certain rules for people to follow, for he did not believe that that was how religion should work. Thoreau saw religion as something that could not be denied from anyone; the Church should not be able to take a person’s faith away if they do not adhere to societal expectations. He writes, “What is called the religious world very generally deny virtue to all who have not received the Gospel” (Written December 4, 1860, in his Journal, vol XIV, p. 294). Thoreau notes the irony that the Church, an organization created for spiritual guidance, will quickly disregard anyone who was not a proper Christian by the Church’s standards. Instead, Thoreau believed that religion could be observed in whatever capacity the observer chose. As such, he was very critical of institutionalized religion.
Priests serve as one example of Thoreau’s criticism of the Church’s stringent ideas. The Church deemed priests to be the voice of God. Thoreau, however, constantly questioned the function of priests. He believed that priests were no different than regular people and that they do not have any sort of holy quality to them. He asks, “If a man do not revive with nature in the spring, how shall he revive when a white-collared priest prays for him?” (Written March 20, 1858, in his Journal, vol. X, p.315). To Thoreau, a priest is no more divine than an average person. There is nothing about the priest that should give him the ability to heal the sick. As such, Thoreau asks why priests are highly esteemed. He believed that priests, an integral part of institutionalized religion, have very little spiritual value or importance to one’s faith.
However, despite disliking organized religion, Thoreau himself was a deeply religious person. He believed that God was all around people. Nobody needed to look to a church to find divinity. He notes, “There is more of God, and divine help, in my little finger, than in idle prayer and trust” (Written January 29, 1841, in his Journal, vol. I, p. 236). Moreover, Thoreau believed that God was within him. He did not need to look to a priest to speak to God. Thoreau thought that there is more God within any person than there is in these artificial ideas created by the Church.
Thoreau saw God as an ever present and constant force in life. He believed “God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages” (Walden, p.97). Thoreau believed in the idea of an everlasting God. Additionally, similar to standard religion, he believed that God was an agent of good. Thoreau said, “As a mother loves to see her child imbibe nourishment and expand, so God loves to see his children thrive on the nutriment he has furnished them” (Written January 22, 1859, in his Journal, vol. XI, p.424).
Ultimately, the way Thoreau perceived religion was different from conventional religion. He did not think the Church was the most holy place. He notes, “Our religion is where our love is” (To Isaiah T. Williams, September 8, 1841, in The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, p.52). He says that people do not have to seek out what society has deemed to be the most religious place and follow the ideas that society mandates. Religion can be found in whatever one wants to find religion in. For Thoreau, that was the outdoors. He writes, “I suppose that what in other men is religion is in me love of nature.” (Written October 30, 1842, in his Journal, vol. I, p. 19). For him, nature is a form of religion. He can seek God out in nature, what he loves, and does not feel the need to adhere to the norms of the Church.