We as Latter-day Saints love to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson. His critique of a fallen Christianity, the need for new revelation, and a lack of preaching to the soul seem to strike a cord with us. In fact, the newest Joseph Smith movie begins by quoting Emerson’s famous words proclaiming the there was never a time in more need for new revelation than the early nineteenth century. That quote, as well as several other popular statements, come from Emerson’s address delivered before the senior class in the Cambridge Divinity College in 1838. Since this is one of my favorite texts of Emerson, it deserves a little clarification.
Unfortunately, what we construe Emerson’s words to mean are not very close to his original intent. While we use them to show the need for new prophets and apostles, Emerson was calling for teachers to preach more to the soul. He explained that “the remedy to [religion’s] deformity is first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.” In fact, he specifically spoke out against organizing a new religion.
The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question returns, What shall we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason, – to-day, pasteboard and filigree, and ending tomorrow in madness and murder.
It is easy to see that Emerson would not have thought too fondly of the new religious organization Joseph started (in fact, he didn’t much care for it at all). While both acknowledged the emptyness of modern-day Christianity, Emerson felt that pure religion could still be salvaged by getting rid of the unnecessary institutional structure, while Joseph felt it necessary to restore a primitive pure religion found in ages past. This hints to a deeper divergence between these two contemporary thinkers: the role of historical Christianity in religion. To Joseph, there needed to be a welding link between the two, and that the modern Church needed to mirror the ancient one in organization, doctrine, and practices. He claimed that the structure he was implementing was indeed the very same structure used in the past, that the doctrines he was teaching were known and taught by former prophets, and that the ordinances he was offering have been necessary through all ages of time. To Emerson, however, the ancient Church was relevent to those who lived during the time, but that it was unnecessary to the present beyond mere inspiration. He claimed that “historical Christianity destroys the power of preaching, by withdrawing from the exploration of the moral nature of man; where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power.” In other words, becoming devoted to the past is dangerous because it takes your mind off of the present. While he was grateful for the prophets and reformers that had gone before him, he did not want to emulate them because an “imitation cannot go above its model.” He took this idea even farther in another lecture by questioning whether scripture was even relevent for our day: “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.” The past was helpful in teaching some lessons, but it pales in significance to personal experience.
To me, this unique distinction brings an added understanding to Joseph. While he felt that personal experience was crucial to religion, he also taught that awareness of the past was not only helpful, but essential. To Emerson, historical Christianity could be a hinderance to the present; to Joseph, historical Christianity needed to be blended with the present.
 Emerson, “An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, July 15, 1838,” in Edward Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord: Concord, 1903: 150.
 “An Address,” 149-150.
 “An Address,” 141.
 “An Address,” 145.
 Emerson, “American Scholar,” in The Complete Works, 88.