Well now, Ben beat me to it. But, since I might have some interesting things to say in addition (and I have an admin logon this week bwahaha) I’m just going to make it a new post.
I actually gave a paper at MHA on the exact subject of Mormonism’s use of Emerson, particularly the Divinity School Address, in its media. Specifically, I broke down the quote used at the beginning of the new Joseph Smith movie which essentially presents Emerson’s word as the thesis for the film. The final selection that appears on the screen reads,”The need for new revelation was never greater than now. Ralph Waldo Emerson July 15, 1838. ” Clearly, the intended audience reaction was to make Emerson look like a type of John the Baptist figure , heralding in the Restoration in the hallowed walls of Harvard.
As we’ve touched on in Ben’s post, Emerson was clearly not a John the Baptist figure for Joseph Smith and it is problematic that he has been commandeered for the job since there are significant differences between both men’s idealogies of revelation. Below is a selection from my own analysis of both Emerson and Joseph Smith’s theologies of revelation, God, and the interaction between humanity and the divine. I know it’s pretty substantial, but if you choose to peruse it might give a little bit more information on the topic (and at the very least some great quotes from Emerson’s journals). I should also note that for the sake of comparison, I decided to set the dichotomy up between ideas mostly presented in The Divinity School Address and the currently canonized First Vision account. I chose this particular account because it is the one used today in LDS media.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, as Henry James, Sr. labeled him, is a man “without a handle.”[i] Similarly, Richard Bushman expressed the impossibility of pinning any particular doctrine down to Joseph Smith as “his teaching[s]…are epigrammatic and oracular. He never presented his ideas systematically in clear, logical order; they came in flashes and bursts.”[ii] Both Emerson’s and Smith’s ideas are liable to contradictions or vagaries and, as many scholars have noted, defy definition. However, some concrete ideas can be gleaned from revisiting select essays, journals, autobiographies, and sermons.
Emerson’s revelation has a variety of names within his works. In the “Divinity School Address,” he describes the “oracles of truth” as “intuition.”[iii] Intuition, by definition, implies a type of distilling knowledge, emerging from an untapped source within, granting truth. Intuition, or revelation, for Emerson was not a flash of light from an impersonal source but an “announcement of the soul… [a] manifestation of its own nature.”[iv] It was a fusion of the self with the Universal Mind and a metaphysical understanding that came with the rejection of “all mean egotism” to become “part or parcel of God.”[v] This intuition from within, becoming part of everything without, describes Emerson’s need for “new revelation.”[vi] Revelation, or intuition, is thus a passive experience, devoid of any particular desire or question.
Emerson’s revelation is also distinctly non-verbal, neither written nor spoken. As he writes in the “Divinity School Address,” “In the game of life…man and God interact. These laws . . . will not be written out on paper, or spoken by the tongue.”[vii] Thus, we receive revelation as a feeling or a sentiment, but never verbally. Spiritual communication, to Emerson, exists on a higher form of understanding above the human constructs of language and prayer, as Emerson writes in his journals, “does not at all consist in words but wholly is a state of mind.”[viii] The dismissal of language as a medium for revelation and Emerson’s ideal of inner intuition mark two clear theological boundaries between Emerson in the “Divinity School Address” and Smith’s First Vision.
Whereas Emerson’s ideal of revelation was intrinsic yet cosmologically universal, Smith’s concept was a diametric opposite. Emerson encourages acting as an open receiver of any intuition that reveals itself to your mind. Smith, however, went into the grove of trees with a direct and specific inquiry-which church should he join? In recounting his vision, Smith also outlines what is essentially a biblical vision as revelatory experience; wholly external, wholly conversational, and wholly oppositional to Emerson’s non-verbal, internal aesthetic. Joseph Smith, as he recounts in his autobiography of 1838, “came to the determination to “ask of God'” and when he “asked the Personages who stood above him in the light… [he] was answered.“[ix]
By claiming to have seen and heard God, Smith presents another extreme opposition to Emerson’s Divinity School theology. As stated above, saw and spoke to two separate personages, human in form and corporeal in material. In his 1844 “King Follett Address,” Smith would specify, “if you were to see [God] today, you would see Him like a man in form-like [ourselves] in all the person, image, and very form as a man.”[x] The contrast could not be clearer by juxtaposing Smith’s King Follett sermon to Emerson’s cynical journal entry from May 1836. “When cultivated men speak of God they demand a biography of him . . . Absolute goodness, absolute truth must leave their infinity & take form for us. We want fingers & sides & hair.”[xi] Instead, Emerson believed God was the immaterial Oversoul, an abstract Unity. In his essay “Nature” he separates the physical world, or the “me,” from the spiritual and omnipresent “not me.”[xii] God, in Emerson, is the immaterial “not me” of “Nature.” Finally, Emerson articulates his theology most plainly in the “Divinity School Address.” “The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe.”[xiii] Drawing a connection from this concept of an immaterial God to Smith’s First Vision, as the film and conference addresses imply, is obviously contradictory. Emerson implicitly denied the personage of God, while Smith “could not deny” an individual, personal, and material deity.[xiv]
Smith and Emerson both shared a fascination and determination in describing the nature of God. In the King Follett sermon, Smith directly states that it is the purpose of men to know the character of God, and Emerson echoes the same in his journals, writing, “I count it the great object of my life to study the nature of God.”[xv] However, though both men shared the same “theoptical” drive, as Emerson termed his God-seeking, Emerson’s theology on the relationship between God and man is significantly more abstract than that of Joseph Smith.[xvi] As he writes in the “Divinity School Address,” “God incarnates himself in man.”[xvii] God’s embedded presence in man implies that Man is God, part of the Oversoul. On September 29, 1830, early in his career, he expressed this belief clearly-“In certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God . . . and in my ultimate consciousness am He.”[xviii] Here, man both comes from and is God. Emerson goes one step further in the “Divinity School Address” to specify that not only is God an internal force, but anything that dictates otherwise demeans the soul. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being.”[xix] His opinions explicitly mark a chasm between the understanding of Joseph Smith and Emerson’s Theism. Smith’s insistence that he had seen God and his son Jesus Christ with human form, and they spoke to him, would essentially equate to Emerson’s horror of having “no reason for being.”
While Emerson’s revelation was a process to discovering that one is God, Joseph Smith taught that revelation’s purpose was to teach men how to be like God. The First Vision in Mormonism is considered the heralding event for a Restoration of doctrines which teach humanity how to progress toward exaltation, or become divine themselves. Joseph Smith presented his followers with a more human God and thus a more divine humanity. Emerson, in contrast, wrote in October 1836, “As long as the soul seeks an external God…it always must be uncertain what may be done & what may become of it.”[xx] To Emerson, making God an individual literally took the divine out of the soul of man. Emerson thus bluntly states that an external God stunts transcendence, while Smith insists that the existence of an anthropomorphic deity authenticates our ability to become divine.
The use of the “Divinity School Address” in the film Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration must now seem problematic in the extreme. Noting these vast differences in conceptions of revelation, the nature of God, and the God-man interface, the claim that Emerson’s call for “new revelation” directly parallels the revelations of Joseph Smith seems nearly impossible.
However, though the quotation is problematic in light of the significant differences between Emerson and Smith’s theology of revelation, it is important not to pass over profound similarities. Granted, Emerson’s call for “new revelation” was not meant to be a call for a rare biblical vision. Instead, Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” was a call for all to learn truth firsthand, a call that the fourteen year old Joseph Smith exercised in 1820. Therefore, the legitimate connection to Joseph Smith is not found in the visionary result of the First Vision, but rather in its catalyst. Though the outcomes of Joseph Smith’s revelations differentiate themselves clearly from Emerson through direct, external answers and an individualized, material God, the very reasons and methods of Smith’s first prayer are inescapably linked to the reasons and methods of Emerson’s own search for transcendence.
The first major similarity in seeking revelation can be summarized from the “Divinity School Address” itself. “[Revelation] cannot be received second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul.”[xxi] This declaration, given to newly graduating ministers from Harvard Divinity, challenged the institution of the clergy. It could no longer be an institution of intellectualized sermons based on logic and reiteration, but should instead provoke congregations to inquiry and then towards an Emersonian experience of intuition. Joseph Smith, paralleling Emerson’s description of the problems of American religion, experienced confusion through perhaps this same issue of biblical higher criticism and religious intellectualism within varied denominations. As he recorded in his 1838 autobiography, “If any person needed wisdom from God, I did; … for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible”[xxii] Unable to determine a second-hand truth through the logic of clergy, Smith sought revelation first-hand, just as Emerson encouraged eighteen years later in the “Divinity School Address.”
The privilege of first-hand revelation is available to all that will seek it, according to Emerson. Exhorting the graduating ministry once again, Emerson underscored their duty to provoke. He charged, “It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake….Acquaint men at first hand with deity.”[xxiii] Joseph Smith’s very identity as an unknown farmboy made him an American “everyman” who dedicated his life to showing that “God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake.” During his service as a religious leader he encouraged all to seek their own personal witnesses of truth and “acquaint men at first hand with deity.” Consequently, Smith exemplified a model of what Emerson was asking from the new graduates of Harvard Divinity.
Finally, Smith and Emerson both sought God in nature. Smith, in his boyhood confusion, could have prayed in a local chapel or by his own bedside, but instead he recognized a connection to deity in the natural world. It was a connection Emerson repeatedly made from his first published work, “Nature” until the end of his life. The “Divinity School Address” actually begins by recalling Nature like an inspirational muse.[xxiv] Just as Emerson begins his lecture on new revelation by noting the beauty of the New England spring, Joseph Smith sought his own revelation by walking into an untouched grove of trees.
These similarities restore legitimacy to the use of Emerson in the film Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, especially when considering its purpose as a missionary tool. If viewed as a method of spiritual dialogue with the audience, the film’s use of Emerson’s words underscores an individual spiritual responsibility. Before opening on any scene, the quote appears–“The need for new revelation was never greater than now.” It is visually bolded at the beginning and underscored after the final scene with an invitation by visitor’s center staff to ask questions. It is a missionary parentheses that encourages the audience to seek their own “new revelation…now.” Considering the actions of the young, unpretentious Joseph Smith, an audience member might be provoked to ask his same questions, “Who is right… and how shall I know it?”[xxv] The same audience member might then seek their own “first hand” acquaintance with deity. Though the outcome may neither be a Sacred Grove nor an infamous “transparent eyeball” experience, the impetus toward seeking revelation in the film is the same as it was for Emerson and as it was for Joseph Smith.
It is unnecessary to make every Mormon an Emerson scholar, but the reflection of analysis does imply certain responsibility in the LDS media, especially when dealing with a wide release. It does not take a deep reading of the “Divinity School Address” to recognize that if an LDS audience had been at Harvard Divinity in 1838 rather than a Unitarian, the response would have been just as harsh and backlash just as sharp. I do not wish to sound overly critical or accusatory. I acknowledge the notable and profound similarities indicated in increasingly more informed and historical connections between Emerson and Smith in Mormon media. Instead, I wish to sound fair and cautious. The possibility of misrepresentation, especially in more popular media genres, is ever-present. And so, speaking as a member of the LDS church, I am an advocate for better understanding within all media, Mormon or other. After all, we should not misquote Ralph Waldo Emerson to fit our biases any more than any other group should misinterpret Joseph Smith to fit theirs.
[i] Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 41. Packer, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” 726.[ii] Bushman, Joseph Smith, xxi.[iii] Emerson, Essential Writings, 66.[iv] Ibid, 243.[v] Ibid, 6.[vi] Ibid, 71; Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, film.
[vii] Ibid, 64.
[viii] Emerson, Journals, vol. III, 308; as quoted in Geldard, God in Concord, 48.
[ix] Smith, “Joseph Smith History,” 48-49.
[x] Joseph Smith Jr., Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Alma P. Burton, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977), Appendix A, 340.
[xi] Emerson, Journals, vol. V, 162. 22 May 1836.
[xii] Emerson, Essential Writings, 3-4.
[xiii] Emerson, Essential Writings, 68.
[xiv] Smith, “Joseph Smith-History,” 51.
[xv] Richard Higgins, “Remembering the Emerson who Sought God” Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Cambridge:
Harvard Divinity School, 2006), accessed 20 November 2006, www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin/articles/higgins.
[xvi] Emerson, Journals, vol. III, 263 n. The science of “God Knowing,” or theoptics, is further explained in Geldard, God in Concord, 61.
[xvii] Emerson, Essential Writings, 67.
[xviii] Rebecca Taylor, Emerson, Smith, and American religion : a comparison and contrast of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Smith Jr.’s religious ideas in relation to the historical setting in which they developed, A University Scholar Project, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1992), c.30.
[xix] Emerson, Essential Writings, 69.
[xx] Emerson, Journals, vol. V, 223. 19 October 1836.
[xxi] Emerson, Essential Writings, 66.
[xxii] Joseph Smith, “Joseph Smith-History” The Pearl of Great Price: A Selection from the Revelations, Translations, and Narrations of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1981), 48.
[xxiii] Emerson, Essential Writings, 75-76.
[xxiv] Emerson, Essential Writings, 63.
[xxv] Joseph Smith, “Joseph Smith-History” The Pearl of Great Price: A Selection from the Revelations, Translations, and Narrations of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1981), 48.
[xxvi] Jared Hickman, “‘No Creed to Circumscribe my Mind”: Joseph Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Romantic Theology” Archive of Restoration Culture: Summer Fellows’ Papers, 2000-2002, ed. Richard Bushman. (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Religion, 2003); Richard H. Broadhead, “Prophets in America, ca 1830: Emerson, Nat Turner, Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 29 (2003): 43-65.; Bloom, The American Religion, 112, 114-115, 122-123.