Known for: influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson and, through him, Transcendentalism
Dates: August 25, 1774 – May 1, 1863

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Phebe Bliss, daughter of a previous minister of First Parish Church, Concord, Massachusetts
  • Father: Rev. William Emerson, minister of First Parish Church, Concord, Massachusetts, and a chaplain in the Continental Army (he died of fever in service)
  • Siblings: Mary was the fourth of five children of Phebe Bliss and William Emerson
  • Brother: Rev. William Emerson, minister of First Church in Boston (became Unitarian), and father of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Unitarian)
  • Stepfather: Rev. Ezra Ripley, successor to William Emerson at First Paris Church
  • Religion:  Congregational

Mary Moody Emerson Biography:

Aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Moody Emerson’s ideas had a marked influence on her nephew’s philosophical development. A 1998 book, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (Phyllis Cole), uses the diaries and letters of Mary Moody Emerson to document her influence on her nephew.

Daughter of Rev. William Emerson, minister of First Parish Church (Concord, Massachusetts) and of Phebe Bliss Emerson, daughter of the previous minister of that same First Parish Church, Mary was taken at two to live with her grandparents when her father enlisted as a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army. He died soon after of a fever, and her grandmother died in 1779. Her mother remarried, but Mary stayed with her childless aunt, Ruth Emerson Sargeant.

She returned when she was nineteen to help her mother care for the children of her second marriage — to William Emerson’s successor at First Parish Church, Ezra Ripley. She moved to her own home in Maine which she bought with funds inherited from her aunt, but at age 37 she returned to Boston to live with the widow of her brother, William, minister of First Church in Boston.

“Scorn trifles, lift your aims; do what you are afraid to do,” she taught young Ralph Waldo, Edward and Charles, devoting herself to their education. Her own education and reading helped challenge the intellect and moral development, especially, of Waldo.

She broke with her nephew in later years, not over his leaving the ministry (which disappointed her) but over his radical Divinity School Address in 1838. She befriended Henry David Thoreau, as well, and their journals reflect their conversations.

While the Phyllis Cole book was hailed in the press as “revealing” supposed “plagiarism” of his aunt by the more famous nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Moody Emerson’s influence on Waldo has long been known and recognized, including by Waldo in his lifetime.

Books About Mary Moody Emerson

  • Phyllis Cole. Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History. 1999.