CONFLAGRATION by John A. Buehrens


How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice
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A detailed account of how the New England transcendentalists and their church allies promoted and supported the battles of abolitionism and women’s rights.

Buehrens (Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People's History, 2011, etc.), the former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and author, returns with an inspiring history of men and women devoted to various forms of liberation. Some of the author’s principals are well known—Emerson, Thoreau, Julia Ward Howe, and other notables of the era and movement—but numerous others step out from history’s shadows and reveal themselves to be quite deserving of the attention Buehrens awards them. Charles Follen, Frederic Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, Caroline Wells Healy Dall, Lydia Maria Francis Child—these and numerous others played key roles in abolitionism and/or women’s rights, and the author gives them their due. Some other celebrated names appear, as well: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Darwin (many transcendentalists embraced On the Origin of Species), Frederick Douglass, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson, and, especially, John Brown. Buehrens follows him from Ohio to Kansas to Boston (two visits there, including one to the bedside of Charles Sumner, who was recovering from his assault in the Senate by Preston Brooks) to Harpers Ferry and to his death. The transcendentalists, though troubled by Brown’s violence, supported his goals, and both Emerson and Thoreau paid tribute to him after his death. “Brown was no religious liberal,” writes the author, “but rather a staunch Calvinist, with the feel of an Old Testament patriarch and the fervor of a prophet.” The tone of the text is somewhat academic, occasionally dry, but the stories themselves, as Buehrens points out, tell us as much about ourselves as about those long gone. These people remain, he writes, “quite near,” and we can take inspiration from “their prophetic insight, courage, and example.”

A clear, sometimes-vibrant picture of the varieties of heroism that appear in battles for human rights.

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-8070-2404-1
Page count: 324pp
Publisher: Beacon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2019