THOREAU'S RELIGION by Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Reviewed by Rebecca Kneale Gould

By Alda Balthrop-Lewis
(Cambridge, 2020) xxiii + 308 pp.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kneale Gould on 2021-05-25.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This book is a rich and elegant addition to the recent boomlet of new Thoreau scholarship. Like Laura Dassow Walls's Thoreau: A Life (2017) and the forthcoming Thoreau in an Age of Crisis, ed. Kristen Case at al. (2021), Balthrop-Lewis's book artfully demonstrates how Thoreau's religiosity and political life are deeply intertwined. Rather than reading his life and work in purely literary or eco-critical terms, Thoreau's Religion depicts Thoreau as I have always known him to be: a deeply ethical, politically-engaged writer who understood that the social world of nineteenth-century New England needed tremendous repair and who saw the natural world as the reliable "tonic" for the sick soul. In matters cultural, social, and proto-ecological, Thoreau's response to the world was indeed religious: iconoclastic to be sure, but neither areligious nor asocial, as mis-readers of Thoreau are apt to claim.

As Balthrop-Lewis duly notes, Thoreau's religious life has already drawn the attention of critics such as Alan Hodder, Lawrence Buell, and Stanley Cavell. Yet while Hodder has masterfully explored Thoreau's ecstatic experiences of nature in Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness (2001), Bathrop-Lewis is the first to show, at book length, how Thoreau's daily life (both at Walden and beyond) embodied a form of ascetic dissent that is as deeply political as his most explicitly political writings. In making this argument, Balthrop-Lewis achieves a reading of Walden that is compelling, convincing, and often beautifully rendered.

As the title of her book makes clear, Balthrop-Lewis aims to recover the "religious Thoreau" personally known by his earliest biographers (Ellery Channing and Frank Sanborn) and eloquently portrayed by his most recent one (Walls). Somewhere along the way between Channing and Walls, however, the religious aspect of Thoreau's identity-- beyond that of "nature religion" as such-- seems to have been largely forgotten, lost in the gap between the well-known "two Thoreaus": the proto-ecological author of Walden and the political author of "Resistance to Civil Government," "Slavery in Massachusetts" and the passionate defenses of John Brown.

In seeking to close the gap between these two Thoreaus, Balthrop-Lewis faults those scholars who have focused "on the resentments he carried toward the Christianity of his milieu . . . tend[ing] to interpret him as at least areligious" (122). To call him "post-Christian," as various scholars have done, is--she contends-- to overlook the extent to which he so often criticized the Christian tradition on theological grounds. While I fully agree with Balthrop-Lewis's argument here, my sense is that she may be overlooking the considerable range of meanings that "post-Christian" is apt to have. In my own view-- and I am not alone in this-- "post-Christian" does not signify a clean break from one's culturally Christian past, which is seldom possible, but points to a variety of places one might occupy (from "not Christian" to "not not Christian") on the liberal theological continuum. As I have argued in At Home in Nature (2005), this is a continuum on which Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, John Burroughs, and a wide-range of their intellectual heirs also found themselves, and rarely in a fixed position.

Studies such as William R. Hutchison's The Transcendentalist Ministers (1959) and Anne C. Rose's Transcendentalism as a Social Movement (1981) provide us with a rich portrait of nineteenth century liberal religious thought, as well as the significant social and political reforms that emerged from that milieu. Thoreau clearly drew upon this heritage not only to critique Christianity, but also to develop his own forms of religio-political resistance. On this point, then, Balthrop-Lewis has clearly been anticipated. Nevertheless, she sheds new light on Thoreau's religion by carefully demonstrating just how Thoreau's ethical life was simultaneously pluralistic, nature-oriented, critical of institutions, and still thoroughly theological. Most important, she makes this argument by offering a rich and attentive close reading of Walden, demonstrating how Thoreau's religiosity and political life mutually informed one another through daily practices of living and writing that persisted long after the two-year Walden experiment itself.

In Chapter Three, "Thoreau's Theological Critique of Philanthropy," Balthrop-Lewis lays the foundations of her argument. According to her, Thoreau's apparently "anti-Christian" statements express his conviction that Christianity, even in its most liberal Unitarian forms, has lost its way. In a passage from his journal that he later used in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Thoreau writes: "Christianity only hopes . . . and cannot sing a song in a strange land." Eager to show how much Thoreau endorsed Christian reform, Balthrop-Lewis demonstrates that he based his call for the revitalization of Christianity on biblical and theological grounds. Echoing Transcendentalist ministers such as Theodore Parker, Thoreau playfully and stingingly applies biblical and theological medicine to the ailing forms of Christian liberalism that then dominated New England culture. By focusing on Thoreau's theological critique of philanthropy-- which Thoreau saw as a "band-aide" approach to the social-structural injustices of his time-- Bathrop-Lewis astutely reminds us of the Thoreau that many interpreters have forgotten.

Balthrop-Lewis's greatest contribution, however, comes in Chapter Four, where she examines Thoreau's daily practices at Walden as a form of "political asceticism," by which she means, more accurately, religio-political asceticism. Rather than building her case on Thoreau's "reform essays," she argues that Walden exemplifies a simulataneously religious and political response. Thoreau's vegetarian, minimalist, bean-hoeing life on borrowed land in Walden Woods, she writes, constitutes a form of praxis through which he articulates and embodies various forms of resistance: to slavery, to the early rise of industrialization in the North, to property ownership, to the farm as "commodity," to inattentiveness to non-human beings, and to the "hurry and waste of life" that dominated the rising consumerist culture within the town (and hence, the world) that he loves. In taking seriously Thoreau's daily practices, including the practice of writing itself, as a collective act of religiously informed social and political engagement, Balthrop-Lewis most effectively bridges the gap between the "two Thoreaus" that she names at the outset.

This book is carefully, convincingly and passionately argued. But in my view, it insufficiently contextualizes Thoreau's work of religio-political asceticism. For instance, with the aid of Anne C. Rose's Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850 (1981), we can trace Thoreau's concern for the welfare of the laboring classes to the influence of William Ellery Channing (the elder), his more radical nephew, William Henry Channing, and a host of Unitarian ministers, the most liberal of whom were denounced with the label "Transcendentalist." Like Thoreau, these ministers deplored slavery, the oppressive conditions of the newly industrializing North, and the ways in which each exploitative "institution" encouraged the growth of the other. Moving from the Unitarian and Unitarian/Transcendentalist ministers-- whose collective, if varied, theological stances were first thoroughly analyzed by Hutchison-- we can shift to the ex-ministers (Emerson), non-ministers (Alcott) and never-allowed-to-be ministers (Fuller), which is to say the realm of the "classic" Transcendentalists.

Of the three, Bronson Alcott stands out as particularly relevant for Bathrop-Lewis's analysis. Like Thoreau, he firmly believed that embodied ascetic practices (such as fasting and refusing flesh-eating) were not simply private acts of self-restraint and purification, but public demonstrations of (and advocacy for) a different way of living in the world, one that rejected private property ownership and resisted as much as possible engagement with trade (which was entangled with slavery and unjust labor conditions). Of Alcott's small, radical communal experiment at Fruitlands (in Harvard, Massachusetts), Rose raises the rhetorical question: "Was Fruitlands itself an evasion, not only of constructive reform, but of economic and social reality?" (Rose 130). Partly because so many have accused Thoreau of enacting an escape, this is essentially the same rhetorical question Bathrop-Lewis asks of his Walden experiment. Like Rose, she answers this question with a resounding "NO," which I heartily second. Nevertheless, in neglecting the religiously motivated reform efforts that surrounded Thoreau, particularly others' experiments in political asceticism, Balthrop-Lewis risks telling a somewhat skewed story.

My point here is not just to underscore the value of "attending to social context" in an abstract sense, but also to emphasize the value of probing the deep relationships that helped Thoreau to become Thoreau, including his personal and intellectual relationships with the Channings and the Alcotts, both the elders and the younger generation. The deepest of these relationships, of course, were those cultivated in Thoreau's own household. No doubt, its relentless "reform energy" is part of what drove Henry into the woods for a quiet place to write. I would hazard a guess, however, that Thoreau's remarkable (for his time) attentiveness to the black history of Walden Woods would never have made it into the text of Walden were it not for what Sandra Harbert Petrulionis beautifully examines and illuminates in To Set This World Right (2006): the fervent abolitionism of Thoreau's mother, Cynthia, his sisters Helen and Sophia, and the impressive cast of Concord female abolitionists with whom they worked.

In sum, Balthrop-Lewis's bridging of the gap between "the two Thoreaus" and her compelling articulation of Thoreau's political asceticism would have been strengthened by more attention to Unitarian and Transcendentalist precedents, not just to the ideas, but to the people who had them. Thoreau grew up within a network of particular friendships, in a neighborhood and region peopled with passionate, religiously motivated social reformers who, like him, saw philanthropy and "church-going" as an empty substitutes for social transformation. Paying more attention to Thoreau's wider social world would also mitigate any tendency toward hero-worshipping Thoreau, which Balthrop-Lewis herself names as a risk.

Perhaps because of her own admiration for her subject-- an admiration that I certainly share-- Balthrop-Lewis also sometimes understates Thoreau's ambivalence toward actively participating in public political life. In July 1854, for instance, just when Walden was first published, Thoreau publically denounced Massachusetts's complicity in the Fugitive Slave Law, delivering a fiery speech that later appeared in the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, as "Slavery in Massachusetts." Yet only a month later, he wrote as follows to his friend H. G. O. Blake: "Methinks I have spent a rather unprofitable summer thus far. I have been too much with the world, as the poet might say. . . . I find it, as ever, very unprofitable to have much to do with men." What Thoreau wanted most after the tumultuous July of 1854 was the silent company of nature. He found this once he rowed his boat into Fairhaven Bay (on the Concord River), which he thus describes to Blake in the same letter: "Vast hollow chambers of silence stretched away on every side . . . & my being expanded in proportion and filled them" (Robert N. Hudspeth, ed. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. 2 [2018] 222).

As Thoreau's letter to Blake makes clear, seeking and finding nature's balm quite often takes precedence over public political engagement. Despite some blazing moments of courageously public political work, Thoreau's religio-political activism was (as Balthrop-Lewis's argument itself makes clear) more often a private affair, albeit publicized and encouraged through the essentially political acts of writing and publishing. In my view, more attention to Thoreau's internal struggles concerning the nature and scope of his political activity would have enriched the texture of Balthrop-Lewis's discussion.

Every author, of course, must set boundaries to her work, and in fairness to Balthrop-Lewis, I must acknowledge that she writes primarily as an ethicist, not a historian. It might take another review altogether to do full justice to the more "constructive" aspects of her work as a creative and compassionate ethicist. Balthrop-Lewis's considerable capacities as an ethicist are most evident in her concluding chapter, where she worthily applies Thoreau's ethics to the climate crises and other social, political and environmental ills of our time.

More than fifty years ago, the historian Lynn White Jr. blamed the Christian tradition for the foundations of the (comparatively mild) ecological crises of the late sixties ("Historical Roots"). Having long studied White's argument, I concur with Balthrop-Lewis's appreciation of the reforming (and thus, "Thoreauvian") work that White was trying to do with respect to the Christian tradition. I also share Balthrop-Lewis's concern that scholars of religion have too narrowly defined religious practice. Her conclusion sometimes treats specialized arguments about religious studies that a broader audience may find less compelling. Nevertheless, it critically and attentively engages longstanding conversations in the fields of environmental ethics, religion, and ecology, and brings Thoreauvian perspectives to them in illuminating ways.

Finally, I must say that reading this book is a sheer delight. While pursuing her scholarly agenda, Balthrop-Lewis strengthens her portrait of Thoreau by weaving into it her own history, experience, and ethical struggles. Effectively striking this balance is a difficult task, and Balthrop-Lewis manages it deftly. Her writing is at once intellectually complex, thoroughly accessible, and refreshingly free of jargon. In essence, she invites us to join her as she walks through both Thoreau's world and our own, attending to the socio-political wounds of both and cogently articulating a compassionate, ethical response. Without question, this is a walk worth taking.

Rebecca Kneale Gould is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.

Leave a comment on Rebecca Kneale Gould's review.