The Role of Friendship and Community among Romantics

By June 3, 2008

Just in case you didnt get enough on Emerson back in February (see here and here), this is an encore performance.

In my ever-expanding quest to try and place Joseph Smith within the larger nineteenth century Romantic movement, I have come upon some very important diverging views among those who can be termed “Romantics”. One of these ideas is a topic which I find as one of Joseph’s most cherished idea’s (at least to me): the role of family, friendship, and community. What follows is a brief excerpt from a larger comparative analysis between who I see as examples of two diverging expressions of American Romantic thought, Joseph Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson, focusing on their views of community.

Both Smith and Emerson held a deep appreciation for friendship. Emerson once wrote in his journal that he “awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. Shall I not call God the Beautiful, who daily showeth himself to me in his gifts?”[1] On a similar strain, Joseph once recorded, “How good, and glorious, it has seemed unto me, to find pure and holy friends, who are faithful, just and true…”[2] But beyond the acknowledgement of the general benifits of friendship, Smith and Emerson disagreed on why it was important.

For Smith, it was not to be understood as mere pleasantry. As one writer has put it, friendship “was central, rather than peripheral, to his personal life, his public philosophy, and his deepest theological reflections.”[3] In his mind, frienship was one of the most important elements of the restored gospel, and he once claimed that it was his endeavor “to so organize the Church, that the brethren might eventually be independent of every imcumbrance beneath the celestial kingdom, by bonds and covenants of mutual friendship and mutual love.”[4] Elsewhere he stated that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism,” and that it was destined to revolutionize and civilize the world.[5] When Joseph visioned heaven, he pictured it as a continuation of the friendships and relationships already present today. He taught that “that same sociality which exists amongst us here will exist among us there only it will be coupled with eternal glory which we do not enjoy now.”[6] To Smith, friendship was not just meant for comfort; it was an eternal principle which was to last through the eternities.

Emerson, however, was not as willing to enter strong relationships with others. While he relished his aquaintances, and was always expanding his circle of influences, his ever-present principle of self-reliance restricted him from relying on others and allowing others to rely on him. He wrote “the condition which high friendship demands is the ability to do without it,” [7] meaning that friendship is at its best when both sides can still get along without the other. He believed that “all association must be a compromise, and, what is worst, the very flower and aroma of the flower of each of the beautiful natures disappears as they approach each other.”[8] As one author put it, “Emerson believed that friends were fine as long as one did not depend on them.”[9] When laying out what he believed to be the common beliefs of transcendentalists, he wrote that they believed “it is better to be alone than in bad company.”[10] His idea of self-reliance was perhaps the main reason he never took part in the communitarian attempts of his transcendental associates, as well as the reason Hemmingway noted transcendentalists were more likely to go to strangers for help rather than their friends.

Smith, on the other hand, loved to rely on his friends as well as have his friends rely on him. A journal entry from Smith’s last year gives a good counter-example to Emerson.

Took dinner in the North room. I was remarking to Bro[ther] Phelps what a kind, provident wife I had. That when I wanted a little bread and milk she would load the table with so many good things it would destroy my appetite. At this moment Emma came in and Bro[ther] Phelps in continuation of the conversation said, “You must do as [Napoleon] Bonaparte did [and] have a little table, just large enough for yourself and your order thereon.” Mrs Smith replied, “Mr. Smith is a bigger man than Bonaparte. He can never eat without his friends.” I remarked, “That is the wisest thing I ever heard you say.”[11]

Connected to JS’s view on friendship was his belief in the eternal duration of families. For him, friendship, family, and society were not just help to joy in this life, but they were crucial to exaltation in the next.

Emerson, however, saw no reason for friendship beyond a temporary elevation of the individual. He defined proper friendship as “inspiring each party to become his or her best self–a higher goal than friendship itself, finally to be pursued on one’s own.”[12] He hoped that friendships would help him grow as an individual, but he did not feel growth within a friendship necessary. He desired distance, and backed away from the idea of a tight, personal bond. Perhaps a passage from his essay “Friendship,” explains his views best.

Why insist on rash personal relations with your friend? Why go to his house, or know his mother and brother and sisters? Why be visited by him at your own? Are these material to our covenant? Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit. A message, a thought, a sincerity, a glance from him I want, but not news, not pottage. I can get politics and chat and neighborly conveniences from cheaper companions…To my friend I write a letter and from him I receive a letter. That seems to you a little. It suffices me.[13]

He would later say that “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”[14]

Emerson feared that by spending too much time with others, it would take away from his own personal growth and development. He compared relationships and conversations to mixing water, explaining that whenever you mix water you end up losing your own individuality.[15] Joseph, in contrast, felt it crucial to mingle and share ideas. He was quoted as saying, “It is my meditation all the day & more than my meat & drink to know how I shall make the saints of God to comprehend the visions that roll like and overflowing surge, before my mind.”[16] To him, it was something to strive over and find a way to connect his intellect with others’. To Emerson, this came at a cost of your own ideas: “I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions, lest I lost my own.”[17]

While this is not a major point in itself, it gives a glimps to the different ideological frameworks Joseph Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson exemplified.


[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essential Writings, 203.

[2] Joseph Smith, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 560.

[3] Steven Epperson, “‘The Grand, Fundamental Principle’: Joseph Smith and the Virtue of Friendship,” Journal of Mormon History 23, no. 2, 80-81.

[4] History of the Church 1:269.

[5] Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 234.

[6] Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 169.

[7] Emerson, Essential Writings, 210.

[8] Emerson, Essential Writings, 205.

[9] Barry Hankins, The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists, 34.

[10] Emerson, Essential Writings, 90.

[11] Joseph Smith, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, 437-438.

[12] Lawrence Buell, Emerson, 90. Buell would later note that Emerson “convinced himself that the purpose of relationships was elevation of the respective parties to a plane of existence where live contanct became less necessary, became indeed a hindrance to pursuit of the idea” (168).

[13] Emerson, Essential Writings, 210-11.

[14] Emerson, Essential Writings, 213.

[15] Emerson, Essential Writings, 209.

[16] Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 196.

[17] Emerson, Essential Writings, 213.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History


  1. I’m an Emerson-Smith Friend.
    I don’t get close with many but I do believe in bouncing ideas off people to make mine better and I have grown personally because of this. I also am fine with dependence on me by friends sometimes and have had to learn to depend on others at times as well.
    Ben, were Emerson and Joseph always this opposite or did they ever come to the middle because of varying life experiences?

    Comment by Catherine — June 3, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  2. Ben: Looks like a good dissertation topic for you: A History of Friendship in America (or trans-Atlantic if you want to rope in the Romantics). This could be an interesting topic by which to look at those seemingly opposing strains of individualism and communalism that were both so prevelant in the developments of 19th century America.

    You bring up several good points about Emerson’s aversion toward communal experiments and Smith’s soteriological reasons for relying on friends. I think you have hit on another really good example of where Emerson and Smith part ways. What really seems interesting to me is how the two had such different views on so many things and yet are so often associated with each other as kindred spirits. Emerson and William James (though not contemporaries) are another example to two thinkers who are polar opposites in so many way yet at the same time somehow seem to both be singing in the same strain. There’s a similarity there I can sense but just can’t articulate. So there’s a challenge for you, Ben.

    Great post.

    Comment by stan — June 3, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  3. You’ll be wanting to read Don Bradley’s Sunstone essay on the Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism. He contextualizes the friendship theme somewhat differently than you have done here.

    Comment by Chris — June 3, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  4. Good point Chris. Bradley’s article is really interesting and quite provocative (in a very Emersonian way); particularly of interest here is the connection it makes between Masonic ideals of friendship and Smith’s own views, suggesting some significant influence of the former on the latter. (I read it awhile ago: hope I’m remembering correctly–feel free to correct me Don.)

    Brings up a side-note question in my mind: what were Emerson’s views on freemasonry? Did he ever flirt with it? or deride it?

    Comment by Stan — June 3, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  5. Catherine: Good question. I think that JS and Emerson, just like everyone else, were not always consistant with their ideals. JS was at times quick to anger and to break off friendships, but he was often just as quick to forgive and reconcile at any sign of repentance (though there are some notable exceptions).
    Emerson, on the other hand, seemed to try and live by his principle of self-reliance when it came to friendships. However, he at times would grow very attached to friends, and would then draw back feeling that he was becoming weak. Both Emerson’s wife Lydia and his good friend Margaret Fuller, among others, both lamented at what the saw as a lack of reciprocated love coming back from RWE.

    Chris: I have read through Bradley’s essay, and it is fairly intriguing. While he touches on much broader issues than just friendship, he does give it some context within JS’s overall thought. I don’t agree with him entirely, and I take him to task on a few points in my longer paper, but his essay is very insightful. The main problem I find in his essay is he does not take into account JS’s views on friendship that were present well before the 1840’s.

    Stan: I agree; the idea of friendship in this time period is very interesting. I’ll add it on to my list of potential thesis/dissertation topics…
    As for RWE’s involvement with freemasonry, you can imagine his views by understanding his overall ideology. He was involved a tad, even delivering a series of lectures in a Masonic hall (including his “The Transcendentalist,” where he layed out what he saw were the tenants of transcendentalism). He loved the idea of social gatherings to learn from other intellectuals. However, he was not big on a big brotherhood or fraternity which the Freemasons offered, so he kept his association at arms-length.

    Comment by Ben — June 3, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

  6. Ben, I’m with Stan … you should really consider a dissertation topic on the history of friendship in America/in transatlantic thought. That would allow you to include literature and religion in your analysis, and seems like it would be an important contribution.

    Has anything been written on Emerson’s attitude toward freemasonry? I’d be interested in reading anything available.

    Comment by Christopher — June 3, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  7. >>The main problem I find in his essay is he does not take into account JS?s views on friendship that were present well before the 1840?s.

    I believe he affirmed that when he was interviewed in sunstone podcast # 13.

    Comment by Chris — June 4, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  8. Ha, glad to know I read him correctly.

    Comment by Ben — June 4, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  9. To clarify, I mean that Don affirmed that JS was interested in the theme of friendship prior to the Nauvoo period. I didn’t mean to say he admitted to having omitted that fact in his written essay. I doubt that in the essay he meant to imply that the friendship theme was new to Joseph in the 40’s.

    Comment by Chris — June 5, 2008 @ 12:49 am


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