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Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe

The American Schleiermacher

What should we make of Horace Bushnell?

What should we make of Horace Bushnell, that pivotal figure in 19th-century American religion? Brave pathfinder of fresh and relevant ways to express evangelical truth in a rapidly changing modern world? Misguided romantic whose subjectivism squeezed out biblical-theological authority and hence the gospel itself? Does he model for postmoderns creative faithfulness—or apostasy? Or is the quest to decode his (or any historical figure's) "message" for the 21st-century church itself an unfruitful, old-fashioned enterprise?

Bruce Mullin's deeply researched and well-written study of Horace Bushnell, published in Eerdmans' Library of Religious Biography series during the bicentennial of his birth, is a different sort of book than would have appeared in previous generations. Bushnell himself, one of the last great New England pastor-theologians, felt misunderstood by contemporaries and believed that only future generations would be able to appropriate his religious ideas. Most interpreters, accordingly, have presented him straightforwardly as a pioneer. Admirers have found it easy to describe what Bushnell meant for their own day. Mullin resists this temptation, aiming rather to understand Bushnell on his own terms and in his own time. If this seems a humbler approach, it is one that results in a more sophisticated piece of scholarship than that typically produced in the days of Protestant optimism.

When progressive Protestants observed the centennial of Horace Bushnell's birth in 1902 (26 years after his death), they could claim him confidently as the father of theological liberalism in America. If religious movements need a symbolic Luther or Wesley, then the pastor-theologian of Hartford, while no founder in the institutional sense, would do well enough. Washington Gladden, Theodore Munger, and similar-minded liberals looked to him as their inspiration and resonated with his call for "the softer standards of feeling and the broader compass of a more Catholic and genial spirit" to replace the dry rigidity of "exclusive and destructive dogmas." He was "the American Coleridge," ruminating on the symbolic nature of language, and "the American Schleiermacher," celebrating experience over doctrine.

True, his embarrassing antebellum views on slavery, belief in modern-day miracles, fascination with speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts, rejection of Darwinism, and denunciation (in 1869) of woman suffrage as "the reform against nature" would have to be overlooked. But his 1847 CLASSic Christian Nurture, in its expanded 1861 edition, provided a foundation for the psychologically based Christian education movement. His repeated attempts at expounding the atonement as God's expression of sacrificial love, while far from compelling as constructive doctrine, completed the purge of substitutionary theories begun by the older New England Theology—while respectfully retaining a place for Christ's work on the cross and for biblical "altar imagery."

Then there was his New England pedigree, his place in what was construed as sacred history. Not long after his death, historians began to describe Bushnell as simultaneously the end of the whole Puritan-Edwardsean line and the beginning of a new era in Protestant theology. Leaders in the older American Protestant traditions—including Bushnell's own by-then thoroughly progressive Congregational denomination—saw to the republication of his writings in the 1890s and early 1900s. They smugly assumed that theological liberalism or some version of "progressive orthodoxy" would win over not only the churches but the national culture in the new era about to unfold.

One of the many ironies surrounding American religion at the turn of the 20th century was that those who embraced "modern" religious, scientific, and social ideas—and sought to reconcile these areas of thought and life—did so for essentially conservative reasons. Like Bushnell, they longed, if not for a return to "the age of homespun," at least for the kind of social cohesion and integrated worldview exemplified by the New England town with its church on the green. Bushnell, and those who celebrated him a hundred years ago, assumed that American society would be shaped first and foremost by Yankees—liberated Puritans—the nation's God-ordained New England diaspora. It was a patrician vision which died hard over the course of the 20th century.

In his avoidance of speculation on contemporary relevance, Bruce Mullin differs from Bushnell's other recent biographer, Robert L. Edwards, a pastor who played out his career in the same towns and churches as his subject and whose appreciative portrayal concludes with an assessment of his ongoing relevance for the church.1 The closest Mullin comes to this may be his provocative suggestion that Bushnell was as much a proto-Pentecostal as he was a proto-liberal. His odd-couple friendship with evangelist-cum-professor Charles G. Finney (himself something of a proto-Pentecostal who preached "entire sanctification" and "Holy Ghost baptism") suggests the hopeful possibility of holding together religious impulses that almost always flew apart in the 20th century.

But Bushnell didn't travel in holiness circles—not even the genteel version available in the New York City parlor of Phoebe Palmer, much less the variety encountered at rough and ready tent meetings where God might deliver the Acts chapter 2 spiritual gifts Bushnell believed were still operative in the modern world. In his fascination with beyond-the-ordinary ("supernatural") experiential religion—phenomena Ann Taves has discussed so impressively in Fits, Trances and Visions—Bushnell the scholarly Yankee anticipates William James more than he does Maria Woodworth-Etter, Charles Fox Parham, or William J. Seymour.2

Mullin effectively presents Bushnell as a figure of his time who, like others of his self-consciously transitional generation, was "far more in tune with the immediate past than … with the coming future." If Bushnell was "a bold innovator, reconceptualizing … almost everything that crossed his path," his style was more accurately that of "a great tinkerer, always interested in improving that which he found before him." Not so much a major theologian as an earnest preacher, the Bushnell discovered by Mullin is a Yankee who can't shake off his Puritanism, "profoundly conservative" in his "desire to preserve the values and confidences of the world of his youth."

Mullin argues convincingly that Bushnell's primary concern from the beginning of his ministry in 1832 was the reestablishment of cultural hegemony by "the children of the Puritans." The New England social covenant had been swept away by Irish Catholic immigration and the rise of a strong Episcopal Church (headed in Connecticut by Bishop Thomas Church Brownell who, with his ironically similar last name, engaged Bushnell directly in controversy). Bushnell's cutting-edge work on the metaphorical nature of religious language and doctrine represented his attempt to move beyond the theological disputes that had racked Congregationalism for the entire century since Jonathan Edwards—and to find a way of reuniting the whole body of Trinitarian and Unitarian New England churches which had been rent by schism in the first decades of the century.

The crucial year Bushnell spent in Europe, 1845-46, further reinforced his anti-Episcopal sentiments and his vision of church unity. Mullin can't decide whether Bushnell was a "middle-aged minister" with 15 years under his belt when he made the trip or "a young pastor coming into contact with an ever-enlarging world." Since Bushnell was 43 at the time, and since Mullin shows that upon his return he launched into the most productive and controversial period of his career, the trip obviously came at just the right time to re-energize the now-veteran pastor who was entering his prime. Perhaps most important, in Britain he made friends with John Daniel Morell, a young pastor who was developing in his own writings the thought of Schleiermacher and German Romanticism. Bushnell's lectures, sermons, and books from 1846 to 1849—Christian Nurture and God in Christ, followed in 1851 by Christ in Theology—built upon what he observed and learned during this European tour.

The heart of Mullin's book, contained in chapters 5 through 8, is his close reading of Bushnell's publications during the full decade between his return from the European tour in 1846 and 1857, when he published Nature and the Supernatural following his sojourn in California. Regarding the legacy of the New England tradition, Bushnell viewed the Puritans "in the opposite way from Lyman Beecher" who had sought "pan-evangelical unity in the face of Unitarianism and unbelief." For Bushnell "peoplehood took the place of ecclesia" and "the memory of the Puritans," with their social covenant, provided "a symbol of pan-New England unity in the face of both revivalism and episcopacy."

Mullin explores Bushnell's efforts at "reimagining theology in the name of religion" and the storm of controversy which ensued with deft precision. He is less adept at explaining why this pastor, who espoused the irenic ideal of Christian unity and criticized the divisiveness of theological wrangling, would reject the olive branches continually offered by colleagues who disagreed with his views but loved him still. But then, as the author tells us up front, this is a "public" life of Bushnell which does not delve much into his personal or family life. The fact that in Nature and the Supernatural—which Mullin considers "Bushnell's masterpiece"—personal knowledge and experience of God return almost shockingly to center stage suggests that much about the inner life of Horace Bushnell remains to be explored.

The Puritan As Yankee will become the standard modern biography of Horace Bushnell. The 25-page bibliographical essay, which the Eerdmans series includes in lieu of footnotes, is not only thorough but a fascinating chapter in itself. While Mullin wisely declines to give us a Bushnell for the 21st century, concluding that he left "a questionable legacy," we are spiritually and intellectually richer for this engaging portrait of the Bushnell of the 19th century.

Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe directs the D. Min. program and teaches at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His writings include Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of America Evangelicalism (Eerdmans.)

1. Robert L. Edwards, Of Singular Genius, Of Singular Grace (Pilgrim Press, 1992).

2. Ann Taves, Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton Univ. Press, 1999). See also Mullin's earlier book, Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination (Yale Univ. Press, 1996).

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