First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Tonic of Wildness: Thoreau Turns 200 - A Sermon in 3 Parts

August 20, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

Part 1: Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau is probably best known as a nature philosopher. That is how I first encountered him in high school and in college too. His experiment in simple living in the woods at Walden Pond is an exploration of “the tonic of wildness.” But Thoreau’s hunger for the wild was not limited to nature. It extended to the startling foreignness in all things. As Thoreau said, “all good things are wild, and free.” Among those good things are unbridled conscience and moral imagination.

So I want to begin there with this sermon, which is in three parts this morning. I want to begin there because events in Charlottesville are still so fresh on our minds. Images of swastikas and torches, white nationalists, the violence, the repugnant rhetoric, and in its aftermath a government that is increasingly a disgrace. A government that is a disgrace to be associated with as well as being outright dangerous for its racism, hate-mongering, and moral failure.

The other morning, the headline of Jason Wilson’s article in The Guardian struck me powerfully. He asked, “Why is the US still fighting the civil war?” It is a question a lot of us are asking ourselves and each other. Why? The legacy of slavery is persistent and pernicious. Our nation is plagued with racism and bigotry to this day. It is now visible at the highest levels of our government. We are also asking what to do? This weekend, Boston provided a model of what to do.

So too does Thoreau. This summer marked the 200th anniversary of his birth. Thoreau reaches across the centuries with his refusal to be docile in the face of unjust regimes. He wasn’t grappling with abstract ideas or distant governments. He was talking about the American government. In his ground-breaking essay on “Civil Disobedience,” he took to task the government. The year was 1849. He was 32 years old. Thoreau asked, “How does it become a [person] to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that [the individual] cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”

His social critique had far-reaching implications in his own day and reaches across the years to offer a contemporary critique as well.

To give his words a bit of context, it is helpful to know that in 1848 the US was at war with Mexico. Thoreau refused to pay his taxes as a way of making a public statement in opposition to the Mexican-American War. That war had among its targets the expansion of slavery. Thoreau spent one night in jail. It was in response to that experience that he wrote the essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” which is now known as "Civil Disobedience." Some 60 years later, Gandhi was arrested for nonviolent protest against unjust laws. While he was in jail, he read Thoreau’s essay. He then adopted the term “civil disobedience” to describe his own nonviolent protests. Gandhi and King both said they learned from Thoreau about the moral underpinnings of resistance.

Thoreau remained an outspoken critic of American slavery. In 1859 he delivered several speeches before and following the arrest and execution of the radical abolitionist John Brown. Brown led the raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. That raid helped to precipitate the American Civil War. Thoreau defied popular public opinion by portraying Brown as moral and his cause as just. He described Brown as

a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles - that was what distinguished him. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature…. In that sense he was the most American of us all.  (Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown”)

Intellectual rigor, social non-conformity, and independent judgment were foundational to Thoreau’s moral resistance. I don’t want to portray him as a saint. He had his flaws. He was not ahead of his time in all ways. His attitudes toward women fell short of the awareness he brought to other social issues.

Despite his limitations, he was an avid non-conformist. He was famously known for hearing and stepping to a different drummer. May we each strive to live such wild and disobedient lives of conscience and resistance. What a tonic that would be.

Part 2: Environmentalism

It has been over 20 years since I visited Walden Pond with a small group of Unitarian Universalists. Thoreau lived there for just over two years. Richard Higgins, who authored a recent book about Thoreau (Thoreau and the Language of Trees) and an article in UU World magazine describes Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond this way:

His calls from the barnyard roof to live more simply, use nature’s resources more wisely, and preserve wildness are today carried on by the flourishing and ever more mainstream simplicity, sustainability, and environmental movements.

Thoreau inspired a national park system and the underpinnings of the modern conservation movement. Just listen to what he writes in the essay, “Huckleberries”:

Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.

Thoreau offers a rallying cry for care of the earth and for being in relationship with it. Unitarian Universalism’s appreciation for direct experience of the divine through nature was bequeathed to us by the 19th Century Transcendentalists, including Thoreau, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. They celebrated the circle of life and sought to live harmoniously with the rhythms of nature, exploring the woods, gazing at the stars, watching the ripples on water, or contemplating a meadow or pond. There they found a worshipful experience of the holy. Thoreau expressed something similar to the ideal of the interdependent web, describing humanity as “an inhabitant,” as “part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”

In the wildness of nature, Thoreau sought and encountered some of the deepest and most profound inspiration and healing. Here is Thoreau’s description from Walden:

We need the tonic of wildness. … At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

I find I can never have enough of nature either. At the beach this summer, I had the great joy of witnessing dolphins leaping up out of the ocean. I was in the water about 30 yards away from them. The ocean current was fierce and powerful, itself a thing of mystery and untamed passion. I watched mesmerized as three dolphins made their spectacular arcs and dove back into the blue. I had never seen dolphins at play at such close proximity.

What a beautiful, awe-inspiring sight. Thoreau would likely have called it sublime. These creatures so different from me so alive, so playful. To be called to justice, to conscience, to save each other, the world and its creatures, seems surely to be born out of and leading to moments such as that one, for the possibility of beauty and grace for all living beings.

May we, like Thoreau, ever aspire to hunger after that wild. We can never have enough of that mysterious and unfathomable spirit so evident in Thoreau and in dolphins and in ourselves.

Part 3: Eclectic Spirituality

In his UU World article, Richard Higgins describes Thoreau as the original none. That is spelled n-o-n-e, not n-u-n! Nones are those Americans who check off “none of the above” on surveys asking them for their religious affiliation. Today one in five Americans check off the “none of the above” option, joining the growing ranks of what we now commonly refer to as the “spiritual but not religious.” What makes it striking in Thoreau’s case is that he was baptized and raised a Unitarian. At 23 he quit First Parish Unitarian in Concord. He did not want to be affiliated with any religion – not even this one. Maybe, just maybe, he would have changed his mind had he heard the music we are being inspired by here this morning…..

Despite his lack of UU affiliation, his spirituality was profound and it has had a profound impact on Unitarianism. I have already spoken of his fierce adherence to conscience and anti-slavery commitments, as well as his legacy to the environmental movement and emphasis on direct experience of the holy through nature. His eclectic spirituality brought it all together, bringing together many sources and influences. It sounds an awful lot like contemporary Unitarian Universalists and spiritual seekers, doesn’t it? The search for truth and meaning, eastern spirituality, world religions, poetry as well as the Bible, intellectual pursuits, time in nature, acts of conscience – all these informed Thoreau.

There are certainly important ways in which our contemporary UU spirituality differs from his. The most significant is that, unlike Thoreau, UUs gather in churches at least in part for community. Community offers a place to learn, grow, worship, and take collective action. Thoreau was more sociable than he is often credited with but also quite the individualist. Being part of a religious community was not appealing to him.

As important as his thinking has been to this faith and to the world, I confess my own conflicted feelings about his rejection of this religion I love so dearly. Partly I struggle with it because the world seems desperately to need more people working together collaboratively and fewer people going it alone.

Still, Unitarian Universalism has reason to claim Thoreau among its prophets. His wildness of thought and action, independent and rigorous thinking, refusal to conform, rejection of the bland, and resistance to repressions of the spirit, mind and body are reasons enough to embrace his legacy.

Today, let’s wish Henry David Thoreau a Happy 200th Birthday. In another 200 years, his words will likely be as wild and prophetic a tonic as they are today. Amen. Blessed be.


Cocker, Mark. “How Henry David Thoreau still surprises, 200 years after his birth.”

Cotter, Holland. “Thoreau: American Resister (and Kitten Rescuer). The New York Times. June 2017.

Higgins, Richard. “Henry David Thoreau, the original none.” UU World magazine. Summer 2017 Issue. www.uuworld/org/articles/thoreau-original-none

Higgins, Richard. “The wellspring of American nature writing.” UU World magazine. July-August 2004 Issue.