The most obvious place to start the story of Evolutionary Spirituality in America is with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, who has been called the father of American culture, was a Christian minister who split with the church only after it became clear to him that scientific estimates for the age of the Earth were incongruent with a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Emerson was obsessed with the spiritual development of human beings toward what he imagined as our perfected possibility. He was chagrined at the slow rate of change he saw in himself and those around him and the concept of evolution as well as the transmutation of souls (reincarnation) made the pieces fit together for him.
He envisioned a perfecting human soul that evolves through countless lifetimes toward its ultimate possibility. In his writing he described the Over-Soul as the soul of all of humankind that was expressed through each of us in our highest moments and evolved through our moral actions over the course of lifetimes.
In the mid 1800’s Emerson’s writing and lecturing made him a rock star of American letters spurring contemporary literary critic Harold Bloom to claim that the mind of Emerson is the mind of America.
Emerson planted the first seeds of evolutionary spirituality in the American psyche and his godson William James picked up his mantle and carried it into the first decade of the 20th century.
William James has been called the father of American psychology because of his early defining work in the field. He went on to become the chair of the philosophy department at Harvard and was one of the primary architects of the American Philosophy of Pragmatism. The foundational conceptions of Pragmatism were worked out initially in a small intellectual circle of Harvard thinkers who were attempting to apply Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection in all realms of human endeavor.
In James’ famous Varieties of Religious Experience he explains how spirituality evolves through the acts of great saints and sages. He describes the lives of these extraordinary individuals as luminous beacons that guide humanity forward in its spiritual development.
After James’ death Harvard was looking for another world class philosopher to chair the philosophy department. They recruited the English professor Alfred North Whitehead to come to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take on the job. For the last decade of his life Whitehead taught at Harvard and experienced an explosion of creativity in which he developed a comprehensive evolutionary philosophy called process philosophy.
His vision of a continuous evolving reality was read and discussed by avantegaard artists in New York city in the 1940’s and 50’s. These artists that included jazz musicians, writers, poets and painters set the stage for the counter culture revolution that erupted in the 1960’s.
The poets and writers of the 40’s and 50’s – William Carlos Williams, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, etc. – became the hippies of the 1960’s that included Timothy Leary and Ram Das on the east coast, and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in San Francisco.
The hippie movement gave way to the Human Potential movement, which in turn gave rise to the East/West spiritual movement and the Mind/Body/Health revolution. And among all these the seeds of evolution continued to sprout. Figures like Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the human potential movement, and Barbara Marx Hubbard taught directly within an evolutionary context.
Today there are many forms of Evolutionary Spirituality being practiced and explored by millions of people in America. All of them can trace their roots back to a small collection of houses in Concord Massachusetts where Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists contemplated the evolution of the human spirit.