Horace Bushnell

FEW men have been more thoroughly the product of the soil than Horace Bushnell. The fact that he was born and bred in New England, that he lived and thought upon a granite foundation, was apparent to every one who came in contact with him; and yet above and beyond this was the personality of the man himself, the unique way in which his vital force reached the world, and this was so marked that no one who had once met him in the free play of conversation, or had even heard him preach, could forget his speech or his presence. This personality cropped out as decidedly in his theological writings as in the less formal exhibition of his thought. It gave strength and power to his work. Not the head of a school of theology, not in any sense a leader, rather solitary among thinkers, his personality was comparatively stronger on account of this isolation, and what was peculiar to him in mind and character was thus always seen to advantage.

The biography of such an indigenous man ought to open the sources of his strength and exhibit his personal and mental growth, and this has been admirably done by his daughter in the Life and Letters 1 she has edited. What is inmost in such a man always goes into Ids books. The solitude of thought betrays him into confession to himself, and what fits him for this solitude can be traced through boyhood and youth until it takes on full proportions in ripening manhood. It is from this point of view that Dr. Bushnell’s biography derives its chief interest. The story is fascinating in itself. It shows how an exceptionally bright New England boy made elbowroom for himself in the wide world ; but its chief value is in revealing the steps by which he became a strong and independent thinker, the hardening of the muscle and the tempering of the mind for the growing thoughts. Horace Bushnell was born on the 14th of April, 1802, in Litchfield, Conn. His parents were religious and belonged, the father to the Methodist, the mother to the Episcopal, Church. “ If ever there was a child of Christian nurture,” says his younger brother, “ he was one ; nurtured, I will not say, in the formulas of theology as sternly as some ; . . . not nurtured in what might be called the emotional elements of religion as fervently as some, but nurtured in the facts and principles of the Christian faith in their bearing upon the life and character; and if ever a man was true to the fundamental principles and the customs which prevailed in his early home, even to his latest years, lie was.” His mother and his grandmother had a large part in the fashioning of his mind and heart. His love of conquest was first awakened at the district school, where, as a smaller boy, he was made the butt of the school bullies. Awakening suddenly to this fact, he chose the roughest and most intolerable of the number, and thrashed him thoroughly in the presence of the whole school. He got education out of everything. He knew how to “ put extortion upon common things,” and press the wine of life out of them. When only a boy he had belonged to a debating society, and thenceforth was always eager to be in the centre of every group of intelligent talkers. While preparing for college, he refused to be a monitor over his fellow-students, saying that he was at school not to watch other students, but to study ; and, while awaiting the beginning of his freshman year at Yale, he built a solid stone dam above his father’s mill, which stands firm to this day, though the mill itself has fallen to pieces. He was restlessly active all through the period of youth, and every day had its characteristic incident. In college he lived the life of a scholar, original, retired, peculiar, independent, who had an interior life, with which neither stranger nor friend could intermeddle, — never less alone than when alone with himself and his books. He was mature for his years, and even then had the peculiar style of writing which marked his riper work, and had put on record in a college essay his ambition to leave behind him a name that should be remembered. He was an excellent debater, a leader in all college sports, and went by the name of “ Bully Bush.” He spent a year in the editorial charge of the Journal of Commerce after leaving college, remarking that he would rather “ lay stone-wall any time ” than teach school, and after passing through a season of intense religious doubt, while a tutor in college, at length reached sure ground, and entered the New Haven theological school, of which Dr. N. W. Taylor was then the head. Here he found a bracing mental atmosphere in which he felt at home. It was to him a seed-time, and some of his essays at this period became the germs of his later thought. It was characteristic of him that he attempted to prove the existence of a moral Governor of the universe in a fresh way, and that he put fresh thinking into everything that was taught him.

His first and only parish was in Hartford, where he was ordained in May, 1833. Many of his earlier discourses were published in the volume entitled Sermons for the New Life. They were modeled essentially upon the old-school plan shorn of its Calvinistic severity, and discussed the ethical side of Christian experience from a broader and higher plane of thought than was then common ; but they were in those days and since sermons which the preacher could distinctly call his own, and which marched upon essentially the same lines as those which Newman was then preaching to wondering and delighted audiences in the pulpit of St. Mary’s, Oxford. They were always written out in full, and read, never extemporized, never committed to memory. He knew how to control the effect of his services so that prayers, hymns, lesson, text, and sermon converged to a central point, and heightened the impression of the leading thought of the hour.

The earlier period of his pastorate was a seething time. He published little and thought much. It was not until 1846 that he appeared as an author, and then it was chiefly in the rôle, of a theological reformer, opposing the intense individualism of the prevalent theology, and emphasizing the organic life of the family, the church, and society at large, wherein no soul lives or acts alone as a unit. The church in New England had recognized no gradual growth into Christianity, and his Christian Nurture was a rare and influential plea in behalf of the children of the flock. Heresy was snuffed in it, and Dr. Bushnell was soon surrounded by hostile brethren, who were destined to have plenty of work on their hands in trying to count up the heresies of an original thinker and confine him within the pale of orthodoxy. Two years later the commotion reached its height, when, in close succession at Cambridge, New Haven, and Andover, he quickly laid bare his opinions upon all the central issues of Christianity. The occasions came unsought, and his thought simply rose to the opportunity of utterance. For the next quarter of a century there was no peace for this theological athlete. lie never swerved from the positions which he had taken in the beginning, though he and his congregation found themselves almost ostracized from their brethren ; nor did he descend into the angry arena of debate. The body at length moved round to him, as it became leavened with his thought, not he to the body. He thought out by himself the methods by which the Calvinistic system could be supplemented with the truth which it had ignored, and was simply in the vanguard of the thinkers of his day, not founding a school, not departing from his individuality as a Christian thinker, not doing more than scattering seed-truths abroad in his books, and yet in this way doing as effectual work for his generation as Edwards or Channing did for theirs. The book in which Nature and the Supernatural, The Vicarious Sacrifice, and Forgiveness and Law were as latent thought was God in Christ, to which he prefixed an elaborate essay on language, embodying in it peculiar views of the relation of words to thoughts,— views which are in some sense the key to his opinions, though it cannot be said that they have been adopted by others. All words, in his view, are only incarnations or insensings of thought. They are more or less inaccurate as representations of thought, and hence truth is never so well expressed or rounded out as when it is presented paradoxically. Looking at theological disputes from this point of view, he reached the higher plane where spiritual truth is enfranchised, and sought to do his own work, as it were, in the still upper air where men substantially agree. If the word may be allowed, he created a theology of his own ; he lived in the atmosphere of speculative thought; his books were the outgrowth of his own spiritual experience ; and nothing is more valuable in his Life and Letters than the tracing of this spiritual growth by the hand of his daughter. He stood in New England in some sense where Thomas Erskine, of Linlathen, stood in Scottish religious thought, as the prophet of a new day, as the softener of old traditions, as the spiritual interpreter of the thought which men were feeling out for. He ventured out again and again upon the ragged edge of so-called orthodoxy, and was ready to recognize the truths presented by the liberal thought of the time; and, if he erred, it was the error of the head, not of the heart. “ My hope,” said he in a letter to Dr. Bartol, just before his God in Christ was published, alluding to that work, “ is not that it will convert anybody to me or my ways, but, what is dearer to me by far and more welcome, that it will start up inquiries of a different type, and lead to thoughts of a different character from those which have occupied the field of New England theology, and so to revisions, recastings, new affinities, more faith and less dogma, and, above all, to a more catholic and fraternal spirit. I expect to be set upon all round the circle ; and yet I have a confidence that a class of men who have heart enough to go into the aesthetic side of religion, and eyes to see something besides propositional wisdom, will admit that I have some truth in my representations.” The book did stir up men to take issue against him, but the author kept silent, never replying to his critics, simply dropping his thoughts into the world, and leaving them to take care of themselves and assert their power. All through the painful controversies of that generation, Dr, Bushnell behaved like a Christian and gentleman, and, much of the time, was too deeply absorbed in the development of his own thought to pay much heed to the contest which he had originated.

The year 1848 — the year in which he delivered the Discourses that gave the key to his theological position — was the central point in his life. It was a year of great experiences, great thoughts, great labors. At its beginning he had reached one of those headlands where new discoveries open to the sight, and his own heart had been subdued by the recent death of his son. He felt that God had taken his son, and revealed to him more distinctly than ever before his own eternal Son. It was this serene faith which guided him henceforth not more through the heat of controversy than through years of ill health, brought on by overwork and continued down to the end of his life.

Dr. Bushnell was a growing man to the close of his career. Book after book took shape in his busy brain, and occupied every hour in which he was fit for work. His speculative activity was ceaseless, but it was chiefly in the direction of theology. He threw into these speculations his energy, his imagination, his reason. He had all the furnishings for great work in this direction, and great work he did, work of its sort unequaled by any American, work veined through and through, with his peculiarities of style and thought, and yet work unique of its kind and not more venturesome than inspiring. It is said that it takes a man of strong imagination to make a great theologian. Edwards and Channing were men who curbed the imagination that it might obey the dictates of reason ; but it was this faculty which they used to hold up spiritual truth before the eyes of men, and in a manner it created the truth by which they lived. Dr. Bushnell, with all the hamperings of his creed, had a superb imagination. It enabled him, though largely a solitary student, to enter into the intellectual and spiritual life of his time, and gather into himself its lines of thought, without becoming a man of affairs, and it is this faculty which endows his writings with a certain amount of permanent vitality. Dr. Bushnell worked, singularly enough, along the lines of catholic truth as held in the great Christian creeds, without seeming to be aware that some of his work had been very ably done before him. He liked to be independent in his religion as in his politics, and could never bring himself to call any man master ; but if he sometimes worked out conclusions which were not new, it will be difficult to find any theological writer four time, save perhaps Maurice, and Stanley, and Jowett, who has done more to set men to thinking on the chief problems of the spiritual life. Opinions will vary as to the value of his theological ideas, but there can be but one thought in regard to the robust manliness and rich genius of the man himself. His biography reveals a man who was much alone, whose mind was mostly engaged upon religious themes, whose range of activity was within quite definite limits ; but take him for the work he did, it is the story of the inner life of one of the strongest and truest men who have ever sprung out of our New England soil.

  1. Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.