Historians of American religion and Transcendentalism have long known of James Marsh as a catalyst for the Concord Transcendentalist movement. The standard narrative suggests that the Congregationalist Marsh naively imported Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection
(Am. ed. 1829) hoping to revivify orthodoxy in America. By providing a “Preliminary Essay” to explain Coleridge’s abstruse theology, Marsh injected Coleridge’s hijacked Kantian epistemology—with its distinction between Reason and Understanding—into American discourse. This epistemology inspired Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, and it helped spark the Transcendentalists’ largely post-Christian religious convictions. This article provides a re-evaluation of Marsh’s philosophical theology by attending to the precise historical moment that Marsh chose to publish the Aids to Reflection
and his “Preliminary Essay.” By the late 1820s, the philosophical problem of free will lurked in American religious discourse—Unitarian as well as Trinitarian—and Marsh sought to exploit the problem as a way to explain how aspects of Trinitarian Christianity might be rational and yet unexplainable. Attending carefully to the numerous philosophical and religious discourses of the moment—including Unitarianism, Trinitarianism, Kant, Coleridge, and Scottish Common Sense—and providing close readings of the historical philosophers Marsh engaged, this article shows how James Marsh laid the epistemological groundwork for a new romanticized Christianity that was distinct from the Concord Transcendentalists, but nonetheless part of its historical lineage.
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