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Timothy Larsen

A Most Unclubbable Man

The curious and instructive pilgrimage of Orestes Augustus Brownson.

Not unlike devout Christians, secularized members of our intellectual élite love to give personal testimonies and rehearse the lives of their saints. Their hagiographies are no less calculated to edify, their testimonies no less stereotyped than the stock in trade of evangelical piety. Imprinted deep in our cultural imagination is a life story in which an exceptionally gifted person is raised in a stifling, obscurantist Christian subculture. Through sheer intellectual honesty, this paragon struggles heroically and eventually breaks through into a broad place in which it is possible to be at peace with a post-Christian mental world. The moral of such stories is not subtle: faith is the province of those who are unwilling or unable to keep up with their reading.

Stories that defy our cherished templates seldom get retold. It comes as no surprise, then, that those who chronicle American intellectual history have not known what to do with Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876). Brownson's journey sets the stereotype on its head. His very name, a tribute to Greek mythology rather than the Bible, announces that this is not going to be another narrative of a recovering Puritan. Brownson's parents did not even bother to have him baptized, and public worship was not part of the rhythm of his childhood. His father, a nominal Presbyterian who was not a churchgoer, died when Orestes was two. His mother was a Universalist. At adolescence, a very bumpy sojourn began. By the time Brownson became a Universalist pastor at the age of 23 he had already tried Presbyterianism and atheism. He soon became too much of a freethinker even for the Universalists and departed from organized religion altogether.

But the writings of William Ellery Channing reawakened his faith, and Brownson became a Unitarian pastor. This should have been an early clue that his story would not fit. Channing, canonized as a progressive intellectual, was supposed to guide orthodox Christians toward something less ...

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