The Role of History in Religion: Two Diverging Views

By February 19, 2008

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] “An Address,” 149-150.

[3] “An Address,” 141.

[4] “An Address,” 145.

[5] Emerson, “American Scholar,” in The Complete Works, 88.

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


  1. trippy…this was totally going to be the same subject as my next guest post…would you like me to e-mail you my paper on it?

    Comment by Heidi — February 19, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

  2. Please do. You can even post it; i’m sure it is much better than mine.

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  3. The story is trickier than it first appears. Emerson was a strong proponent of a distinctive sort of primordialism (read his 1836 Nature closely), which antagonized tradition but affirmed a return to a state of purity, before human tradition. Not just anti-authoritarianism, but a strong primitivism.

    Smith, on the other hand, tended to pick his way through Christian history, recovering “fragments of Mormonism,” to borrow an editorialist’s description of Isaac Watts’s writings. He was much more interested in direct contact with the primordium, and often his argument in favor of revelation was that old scripture didn’t apply in new settings. mb and i argue in a paper i’m trying to finish revising that Smith strongly emphasized the avatars of history, resurrected patriarchs-cum-angels as his solution to the problem of Christian history.

    One important difference between Emerson and Smith is what they thought the fundamental connection to the primordium was. For Emerson, it was an intensely personal illumination situated within Natural purity, something like what most of us associate now with meditative Buddhism. For Smith it was genealogical, even personal, access to those who inhabited the primordium. Though Smith was also famously fascinated by hierarchy, so the story is not entirely straightforward, but I think the argument needs some more investigation.

    Comment by smb — February 19, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  4. Fundamentally Emerson adopting a neoPlatonic stance with a few variations. Fundamentally, despite some of the revisionist questioning of Joseph’s context, Joseph was a materialist and very pragmatic. What counted was the here and now in terms of things. Thoughts were useful only to bring about our changing things. This is the inverse of Emerson in many important ways.

    So in many ways they are similar and take similar stances until you realize that there is underneath it all this very polar opposite stance.

    Comment by Clark — February 19, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  5. I have always wondered about our use of Emerson. Very often, his 1838 speech is quoted as if it were given either before the restoration, or in some alternate universe where Mormonism didn’t exist. The fact is that Emerson knew about Mormonism and, presumably, rejected it as the pure religion he envisioned. Your reading of his speech, Ben, is quite good, and I hope that between you and Heidi we can be a little more circumspect in our use of Emerson in the future.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 19, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  6. Very good points,smb; I would agree with all of them. I think a great starting point to understand the context of Emerson’s progressing views on history is in “‘The Age of the First Person Singular’: Emerson and Individualism”, which does a good job pointing out how complex his view actually was.

    I find one of the most interesting comparisons is how they situate themselves within the historical context. It seems Smith saw himself filling the prophet-type, while Emerson came to denounce almost any “types” connected to him whatsoever.

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  7. Clark: Very interesting points. I agree with you on Joseph being a materialist, at least in Emerson’s definition of Materialist. In his January 1843 editorial in The Dial, he sets up the boundaries of being an “idealist” and a “materialist”, and it seems Joseph would fit several of the “materialist” charicteristics, although he also holds some “idealist” traits. I believe this could be fleshed out some more.

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  8. Interesting post and comments. I think you and David should collaborate on an analysis of Mormon memory of Emerson, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — February 19, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  9. SC: I think we have done a great job baptizing Emerson a Mormon. I even used some of his quotes on my mission, with my only exposure being when he was quoted in conference.

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

  10. Maybe we could start the R. W. Emerson/C.S. Lewis Chairs in involuntary posthumous conversion to Mormonism at BYU.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 19, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

  11. “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 I agree that Emerson wasn’t too keen on institutionalized religion with its creaky formalities and dry traditions, I think it’s difficult to really discern how he viewed Mormonism in particular. Other than a few brief journal entries (I found three) that mention Mormonism in passing, his much recited (secondhand) “afterclap of Puritanism” statement is all we know of, as far as I know, that Emerson had to say on the subject. (And that was in reference to Great Basin Mormonism, which he gathered from a curt interview with BY and a glance at a published sermon.) So, other than syllogistically infering that since (a)Emerson didn’t like organized religion and (b) Mormonism is an organized religion then (c) Emerson didn’t like Mormonism, it seems a bit hasty to me to assert that he “didn’t care much for it at all”–it appears rather that he didn’t really give it much notice, or at least didn’t write about it, and it’s difficult to know whether his “afterclap” comment was meant to be depracatory.

    I think that Emerson would have found much to be fascinated by in Joseph Smith, had he looked into it, but probably, as you suggest, would have lamented some of the effects institutionalization has had on the movement–sort of like how Harold Bloom (who may be Emerson reincarnate) views it.

    But all of this is quite beside the point: the sort of nit-picky detail squabbling we Mormon historians constantly fall into in consequence of that desire to know what every prominent historical thinker thought about Mormonism (surely everyone else in the universe thinks about it all the time too, eh?)

    So squabbling aside, a fine post that raises much to chew on.

    Heidi: I second Ben’s petition that you also post on the subject–I found your comparison of Emerson’s and JS’s views on God, from your MHA presentation, particularly interesting.

    Comment by stan — February 19, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

  12. Now surely Emerson’s statement at the end of the Divinity School Address regarding the “New Teacher” was a veiled reference to JS. I have that on authority because I’m sure some seminary teacher somewhere, somewhen said so.

    Comment by stan — February 19, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

  13. Good point Stan, about Emerson not paying much notice to Mormonism. It’s also worth mentioning that Mormonism was viewed by many as one of a crop of new religious movements that emerged in the period between 1790 and 1850 in the U.S. The fact that Mormonism survived longer, and fared better even in the early days, than the others sometimes obscures their existence from our view. In other words, Mormonism was’t standing there all on its lonesome for Emerson to gaze upon as he viewed the American religious frontier.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 19, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  14. #10, my wife thought I choked on my lunch I was laughing so hard when I read that. Good one.

    Comment by WVS — February 19, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  15. Stan, I think you’re on to something. I just checked my notes and references and it seems that most, if not all, of his ill-comments towards the Mormons come in the sixties or so, meaning that they were probably more directed at the Utah institution rather than Joseph Smith. However, I personally think that Emerson would have been more turned off by Joseph’s institutionalism than interested in his theology.

    And as to your assumption that Bloom is Emerson reincarnate: Amen.

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  16. Oh my goodness Stan! I about had a heart attack reading your last comment until my sarcasm-irony cells started functioning.

    Comment by Heidi — February 19, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

  17. Heidi: Sarcasm!? I use no sarcasm!!

    okay, I do; though I have heard that a religion prof used that quote as such, somehow. Not too much different than how Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, or others have been used (exploited?), whose isolated, decontextualized quotes seem to foretell the restoration…the difference of course being that it was right under RWE’s nose when he prophesied of it.

    Ben: What ill-comments do you have in your notes?

    Comment by stan — February 19, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  18. I had the same reaction Heidi, until I got to the part about the seminary teacher. What makes that comment so great is that it is so easy to imagine someone saying that without a whiff of irony or sarcasm.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 19, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  19. …and glad that those sarcasm-irony cells kicked in and saved you from cardiac arrest–we still need a few more of those fascinating posts out of you!

    Comment by stan — February 19, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  20. Just throwing it out there: How do you think Emerson would have reacted to the “natural man is an enemy to God” concept?

    Comment by Ray — February 19, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  21. Ray: Not well. 🙂

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  22. […] Only 92% MormonJuvenile Instructor » I’m Only 92% Mormon: Which Theologian are You?Ben: The Role of HistoryRay: The Role of […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Emerson–The Sequel! — February 19, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  23. Ben the very divide between materialist and idealist is, of course, someone problematic unless one is making specific ontological (and not physical) claims. Thus one could be a neoPlatonist but very open to nature and science. (I actually have around here some very interesting modern neo-neo-platonist philosophy of science articles)

    So, to give the example I always use to clarify idealism to non-philosophers, Berkeley believed all the material things we talk about were real. He was just making a particular metaphysical claim about their ultimate nature.

    I know you know all that but I bring it out for other readers.

    The point being that Joseph wasn’t a philosopher so one has to tread carefully. His materialism wasn’t necessarily an ontological one (despite Orson Pratt’s attempts to make it so). And the passages that sound idealistic (such as D&C 88 & 93) have to be read with caution.

    So when applying an Emersonian critique to Joseph regarding materialism one has to be careful.

    I’m using materialist in a loser sense (as Emerson sometimes did as well) as more an interest in the regular world material items we have. But clearly Joseph also saw the importance of principles and ideas. I think it arguably that he also adopted a realism towards such things. (Although once again we have to be careful: Joseph wasn’t doing philosophy) So while I present Joseph as a materialist I don’t think he was an empiricist or a positivist. Probably something closer to a scholastic realism ala Scotus (minus the philosophical subtlety). i.e. not quite a strict materialist or a strict idealist.

    Comment by Clark — February 20, 2008 @ 1:19 am

  24. Regarding the natural man is an enemy bit. I’m not so sure how Emerson would react. In terms of rhetoric, of course he was all about nature. But nature as properly engaged with. Which entails the spiritual. So in a sense Emerson’s philosophy can be seen as making a very similar claim to many ways of reading Mosiah 3.

    I don’t have my Emerson handy, but in some of his more neoPlatonic passages you get very much an idea of folks who are enlightened and who have their minds in tune with Nature (with a capital N) versus those who are caught up in more transitory things. Check, for instance his essay “The OverSoul”. Yeah there are some passages one couldn’t help but disagree with. But there’s a lot there a Mormon would see in Mosiah. Consider the ending, for instance.

    More and more the surges of everlasting nature enter into me, and I become public and human in my regards and actions. So come I to live in thoughts, and act with energies, which are immortal. Thus revering the soul, and learning, as the ancient said, that “its beauty is immense,” man will come to see that the world is the perennial miracle which the soul worketh, and be less astonished at particular wonders; he will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places and with any service he can render. He will calmly front the morrow in the negligency of that trust which carries God with it, and so hath already the whole future in the bottom of the heart.

    Comment by Clark — February 20, 2008 @ 1:26 am

  25. I’d add that Brigham Young in particular tended to adopt the more Emersonian way of speaking rather than the way Benjamin (or Paul) tended to frame things. I think this is ultimately an issue of rhetoric as I said. But it is interesting.

    Comment by Clark — February 20, 2008 @ 1:27 am

  26. Emerson’s account of his visit to Salt Lake City while traveling on to visit naturalist John Muir), besides being hilarious (Young’s obliviousness regarding Emerson’s stature elsewhere, and the description of a melodrama they attended in SLC), includes his comment that listening to Brigham Young speak in the tabernacle quite mended his impressions of the man. He thought Young offered good sense and practical advice. It is after these comments that Emerson said that after this, Father Abraham could go no further, which I see as his prediction that Bible religion was on the way out.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — February 20, 2008 @ 10:20 am

  27. […] That probably should be read relative to the Juvenile Instructor’s posts on Emerson (Here and here) I made lots of comments at both sites. Some might find my post on mysticism from the old […]

    Pingback by Philosophy and Theology Posts From Around II : Mormon Metaphysics — March 7, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

  28. […] I also agree with Clark in believing that these similarities can be easily overstated (see here and here). While both hoped to collapse the distance between the sacred and the profane, I just […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Transformation of Joseph? — March 13, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  29. […] in case you didnt get enough on Emerson back in February (see here and here), this is an encore […]

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  30. […] a deeper comparative analysis of Emerson and Joseph Smith’s views of the role of history, see here). The Transcendentalists’ emphasis on the present to the point of de-emphasizing the past […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Transcendentalist’s “New Bible”, the Book of Mormon, and the Romantic Desire for Modern Scriptural Texts — July 2, 2008 @ 8:52 pm


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