Born in Boston, of a long line of ministers, he graduated from Harvard in 1821 and became pastor of the Second Church (Unitarian) in Boston (1829), but his controversial views resulted in his resignation.
In 1833 he went to Europe and visited Thomas Carlyle, beginning their 38-year correspondence the next year. He moved to Concord, Massachusetts (1834), and in 1836 published a prose rhapsody entitled Nature, which was followed by 'The American Scholar', an oration delivered at Harvard. His address before the Divinity Class, Cambridge, 1838, produced a great sensation, especially among the Unitarians. In 1849 he revisited England to lecture on 'Representative Men' (published in 1850). He also published English Traits (1856), The Conduct of Life (1860), Society and Solitude (1870) and Letters and Social Aims (1876). He was an idealist or transcendentalist in philosophy, a rationalist in religion, and a firm advocate of individualism and spiritual independence.