Johann Gottfried von Herder, 1744 - 1803

Johann Gottfried von Herder was a brilliant German critic, theologian, and philosopher whose work anticipated the spiritual concepts inherent in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.  The New England Transcendentalists were stimulated by his spiritual outlook, which emphasized the perfection of nature, the interconnectedness of all phenomena, the illimitability of humankind, the power of reason, and the nobility of conscience.  For Herder, God was Noumenon in all phenomena, and Christianity was the awareness of the Supreme Reason (God) as the Father.  It is notable that, like Ralph Waldo Emerson (as well as other contemporary German philosophers and theologians), Herder rejected supernatural interpretations of Jesus and instead held that Jesus considered God the father of all men--not just himself--and that therefore all men were brothers.
Herder has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
One of the earliest students of the German language in Boston was Dr. N. L. Frothingham, Unitarian minister of the First Church.  Among the professional books that interested him was one by Herder, "Letters to a Young Theologian," chapters from which he translated for the "Christian Disciple," the precursor of the "Christian Examiner."  Of Herder, George Bancroft wrote an account in the "North American Review," and George Ripley in the "Christian Examiner."  The second number of "The Dial" contains a letter from Mr. Ripley to a theological student, in which this particular book of Herder is warmly commended, as being worth the trouble of learning German to read.  The volume was remarkable for earnest enlightenment, its discernment of the spirit beneath the letter, its generous interpretations, and its suggestions of a better future for the philosophy of religion.  Herder was one of the illuminated minds; though not professedly a disciple, he had felt the influence of Kant, and was cordially in sympathy with the men who were trying to break the spell of form and tradition.  With Lessing more especially, Herder's "Spirit of Hebrew Poetry," of which a translation by Dr. James Marsh was published in 1833, found its way to New England, and helped to confirm the disposition to seek the springs of inspiration in the human mind, whence all poetry proceeded.  The writer of the book, by applying to Hebrew poetry the rules of critical appreciation by which all poetic creations are judged, abolished so far the distinction between sacred and secular, and transferred to the credit of human genius the products commonly ascribed to divine.  In the persons of the great bards of Israel all bards were glorified; the soul's creative power was recognized, and with it the heart of the transcendental faith.