On Thanksgiving Day, 1831, 21-year-old Margaret Fuller experienced a moment Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson describes as having “some of the earmarks of a religious conversion and some elements of a mystical experience.” Fuller had attended morning church services with her father but had “a feeling of disunion with the hearers and dissent from the preacher.”
Spending the next few hours walking alone through nearby fields, she came upon a stream “shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered leaves.” She sat down by a pool. Nine years later she recreated what happened next in her journal:
I did not think; all was dark, and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover, which it will use when it has been unkind all a cold autumn day. And, even then, passed into my thought a beam from its true sun, from its native sphere, which has never since departed from me. I remembered how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I remembered all the times and ways in which the same thought had returned. I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it MUST do it,—that it must make all this false true,—and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God, before it could return again. I saw there was no self, that selfishness was all folly, and the results of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God. In that true ray most of the relations of earth seemed mere films, phenomena.
This momentary epiphany infused Fuller’s life. Her biographer Charles Capper finds that it did not so much change her religious opinions as add to her life “two things at once subtler, and, in the long run, much more important”:
One was a certain intuitive religiosity she had never known before. The other was a new degree of philosophical seriousness and urgency—a desire . . . not for self-renunciation but for some sort of self-transcendence. She was on her way to transforming herself from a bookish adolescent to an intellectual with a mission.