The Transcendentalist’s “New Bible”, the Book of Mormon, and the Romantic Quest for Modern Scriptural Texts

By July 2, 2008

Literary scholar Lawrence Buell, in his excellent New England Literary Culture, explored one of the most important ideas related to the antebellum Romantic thinkers–an idea that he defines as “literary scripturism.”

During the Romantic period especially, the distinction between sacred and secular writing was not just blurred but sometimes even inverted by such claims as the argument that Scripture is only a form of poesis, hence dependent for its authority on inspired vision, which artists have in greatest measure. Consequently, a number of Anglo-American writers, starting with Blake in England and Emerson in America, took the position that the poet has the right, indeed the duty, to reconstruct mythology for himself and his era. [1]

While almost all of the Boston intellectuals invovled in the Transcendentalist movement were at one point or another a part of the Unitarian Christian Church, most of them eventually broke away from that organization based on ideas not wholly detached from their views of scripture. A combination of their growing acceptance of German higher criticism of the Bible and their individual skepticism of things like miracles and the divinity of Christ led them to not hold ancient scripture in as holy light as their Protestant contemporaries.

As a result, the Transcendentalists desired to scrap the biblical text and create a new one–a sacred text written by their generation for their generation. Led by Emerson, the quest to replace the Bible with sacred literature was one of the most radical conceptions of the Transcendental movement. Buell noted that “the Emersonian view that writing, literally as well as etymologically, should be Scripture, that the poet’s proper job is to write the ultimate Bible that has never yet been written.”[2] Emerson held high hopes for the potential of this project: “‘Tis high time we should have a bible that should be no provincial record, but should open the history of the planet, and bind all tendencies and dwarf all the Epics and philosophies we have.”[3] In his famed Divinity School Address, Emerson called for a “new Teacher” who could complete the “fragmentary…Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.” While they had “been bread of life to millions,” they had “no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect.”[4]

Others were liberated and inspired by this idea. Thoreau had this idea in mind while including all the biblical references in Walden. Whitman assumed a prophetic or demiurgical role as the speaker of Leaves of Grass, hoping that it would be accepted as the “New Bible.”[5] Carlyle summed up this dream when he wrote, “Every man that writes is writing a new Bible; or a new Apocrypha; to last for a week or a thousand years.”[6] This was a powerful idea for a group looking to change the world.

However, as hopeful they were to accomplish this daring feat, it never came to fruition. Because of the Romantics’ insistence to live in the present, any new writing was bound to become inadequate shortly after it was finished. Since Emerson believed that “foolish consistency” was a “hobgoblin of little minds,”[7] then any new scripture written, no matter how modern, was doomed to be cast aside when that moment ends. Emerson wrote that “the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze,”[8] so therefore any text written down is then frozen in that moment. As Buell notes, “Romantic Scripture is from the start an impossibility because its authority resides in the moment of utterance.[9]

Ironically, while discussing this topic, Buell says something that makes this discussion relevent for us: “The new Bible did not get written, unless one counts The Book of Mormon.”[10] Sadly, he does not elaborate on this point. Neither Joseph Smith or his new scripture get another word in any other part in his book. Which leaves potential interpretations to wanna-be pundits like me.

I feel the reason Joseph Smith’s new Bible was able to survive while Emerson and others’ didn’t gives a glimpse into a key divergence in their thought. The attempt to balance history and the present was an important intellectual struggle in the period (for 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 undercut their attempt to come up with anything authoritative for the future.

The Mormons, on the other hand, while yearning for new scripture for their day, still desired an attachment to antiquity. Indeed, Smith’s first “modern scripture” was an antiquitious text, just making its appearance in the present. While he would later produce his own modern revelations, he would still return to ancient scriptures while working on the Bible and later on the Book of Abraham.

More importantly, while Smith brought new scripture, he never desired to replace Bible in the scriptural cannon. Rather than disregarding the past in order to emphasize the present, Smith bridged the two in a way that allowed the balance needed to make them both authoritative.

Similar to their views on history, both the Transcendentalists and Joseph Smith exemplified the Romantic notion that new scripture was needed in order to instruct the present. They admired and appreciated the ancient Hebrew text, but still realized that many of its teachings were situated for another time and people. Emerson’s intentions to scrap the Bible entirely in favor of a new literary scripturism and Smith’s yearning to merely revise and expand the existing canon both demonstrate the intellectual shift of the period that pressed for more modern scriptural texts.

_______________________________

[1] Lawrence Buell, New England Literary Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 167.

[2] ibid, 182

[3] Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 8:438.

[4] Emerson, Essential Writings, 78

[5] Roger Asselineau, The Evolution of Walt Whitman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), 2:92-95.

[6] Carlyle, Two Note Books, ed. Charles Eliot Norton (New York: Grolier, 1898), 264.

[7] Emerson, Essential Writings, 138.

[8] Emerson, Essential Writings, 302.

[9] Buell, New England Literary Culture, 184.

[10] ibid, 183.

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


Comments

  1. I blame Blake.

    Comment by William Morris — July 2, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  2. As do I. But at least he gave us a fun ride, didn’t he?

    Comment by Ben — July 2, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  3. While I tend to think Emerson/Joseph parallels get played up too much and often just plain exaggerated one place I find the parallels interesting is in how they viewed scripture. Joseph treated scripture in a very fluid and dynamic fashion. Everyone should be a prophet and every utterance coming from the Holy Ghost through anyone is, in a sense, scripture.

    Of course that kind of spirit which was very much a part of the transcendentalists (and perhaps neoPlatonists in general) ran up quickly against practical problems: how to adjudicate disagreements. Thus the revelations establishing hierarchy which continued to extend until today. Yet there still is that sense, very much like the transcendentalists, today in our Church.

    Consider the idea of a father giving blessings in their home where the ideal is literally divine pronouncements as the blessing is offered.

    I should also note that Hugh Nibley in a series of writing about the Mantic and Sophic with a fairly over neoPlatonic thrust adopts this same transcendentalist approach. I’d written about that at my blog a few years back. I don’t think it ultimately works precisely because of the temporal problem you point out. There’s always that focus on the saying and never the said. It is as if what counts is the ecstatic moment of writing but not communication. It becomes a focus on words without focus on where they lead. Just an excitement of the coming forth of the words.

    One could argue though that in the early Church this was often exactly how revelation was viewed. Consider the Book of Mormon and how it was viewed but so rarely used as a text.

    Comment by Clark — July 3, 2008 @ 12:49 am

  4. BTW – I loved Orson Scott Card’s alternative history of Joseph Smith (nee Alvin). There we have a Gandalf figure who is part William Blake and part Emerson. That was one of the things in the first two volumes that was just so perfect. It’s too bad the rest of the series fell off from those initial highs.

    Comment by Clark — July 3, 2008 @ 12:51 am

  5. Very insightful and fresh observations.

    Back in the 1970s, one of the men in our University of Utah singles branch told a story about how his stiudy of the Romantics led him to conclude that God was up to something in that period, and that led him to look at Joseph Smith.

    I’ve long wished that Blake could have lived long enough to read the Book of Mormon. The marginalia that he came up with would be fascinating.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — July 3, 2008 @ 9:34 am

  6. So maybe the subtitle added to the BoM title should be: A bridge between ancients and moderns.

    Comment by Dave — July 3, 2008 @ 10:28 am

  7. […] Juvenile Instructor » The Transcendentalist’s “New Bible”, the Book of Mormon, and the Romant… […]

    Pingback by The Transcendentalist’s “New Bible”, the Book of Mormon, and the Romantic Quest for Modern Scriptural Texts « Confederator — September 18, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  8. while Smith brought new scripture, he never desired to replace Bible in the scriptural cannon. Rather than disregarding the past in order to emphasize the present, Smith bridged the two in a way that allowed the balance needed to make them both authoritative.

    I think that you might be underplaying Joseph Smith’s subversion of the Bible and its role in Protestant thought, especially in the aftermath of the 2nd Great Awakening. An outsider might argue that Smith was literally re-writing the Bible in the idiom of his particular religious vision, rather than simply building a bridge. In other words, he built a bridge to the bible, but it was clearly crafted to suit his particular re-working of the Bible.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 18, 2008 @ 10:07 am

  9. SC: Great point, and well taken.

    I would still argue that JS’s thought exhibited the tension of wanting to hold on to the Bible as an authoritative text. However, as you note, he was only willing to hold on to the parts he felt were still relevant, and the other parts he still felt willing to revise. Obviously his desire to retain the Bible as authoritative tends to be on the more liberal side of the protestant antebellum spectrum.

    Also, commenting on one of my little-commented post from several months back is the epitome, I think, of a slow “news” day. 😉

    Comment by Ben — September 18, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  10. I totally agree with you about his desire to retain the (a?) Bible. Somehow I missed this post when it originally came up and I saw it on the sidebar because of the recent pingback. I thought it was really thoughtful and well crafted, so I decided to find the one thing in it that I thought could be a little more nuanced 🙂

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 18, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  11. […] Juvenile Instructor » The Transcendentalist’s “New Bible”, the Book of Mormon, and the Romant… […]

    Pingback by The Transcendentalist’s “New Bible”, the Book of Mormon, and the Romantic Quest for Modern Scriptural Texts | samchase.tv — February 18, 2010 @ 2:48 pm


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