The name of Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) was so well known in nineteenth–century America that when residents of Hartford, Connecticut, visited other cities they were often greeted with, “Do you know Horace Bushnell?” Bushnell, pastor of Hartford’s Congregational North Church from 1833 to 1859, was a towering figure in mainline Protestantism at a time when it played a central role in shaping American culture. Yet today, outside the field of American religious history, few Americans would recognize the name. This is not simply because Americans have lost track of their cultural heritage. Bushnell was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Orestes Brownson, who, like Bushnell, were central figures in American religion, and those names still register at least some response.
Why has Bushnell become so obscure? In reading Robert Bruce Mullin’s biography of Bushnell, The Puritan as Yankee, we find some clues to an answer, and, more importantly, get a panoramic glimpse of American Protestantism during a period of rapid transition. Mullin’s is the latest of many Bushnell biographies since the first, by his daughter, Mary Bushnell Cheney, in 1880. Robert L. Edwards’ 1992 biography is perhaps the most readable of them, but Mullin’s serviceable prose does a better job of helping us see the unifying themes in Bushnell’s life and work.
His title sums up Mullin’s characterization of Bushnell’s lifetime project: to preserve Puritan core beliefs while reworking them to make them more palatable to the liberal heirs of Puritanism, particularly the Unitarians. A recurring trope in the book is Bushnell as Yankee “tinkerer.” The label applies quite literally to Bushnell, who held two U.S. patents on home heating devices, entered into contemporary debates on the best means of ship propulsion, and inspired the creation of Hartford’s city park (now Bushnell Park).
But what most interests Mullin is the kind of doctrinal tinkering Bushnell did with the mainline Protestantism of his time and place. Orthodox Calvinists, who held to the central doctrines of Reformed Christianity—predestination, God’s inscrutability, man’s depravity—were battling the Unitarians, who rejected not only these hard and perhaps harsh inflections of Christian doctrine but also essential elements of orthodox Christian belief. Then there were evangelicals, Baptists and Methodists mainly, whose doctrines could be Calvinist or Arminian, but who were mainly distinguished by their emphasis on the “conversion experience,” the dramatic, emotional moment when the sinner becomes a Christian. Finally, there was a renewed interest in Anglicanism, renamed Episcopalianism, which was becoming fashionable among the upward–bound.
Bushnell had little use for Anglicanism, which he considered reactionary and un–American, but among other sects he hoped to find some common ground. Unfortunately for Bushnell, his way of seeking commonality was not appreciated by some prominent Congregationalists, who charged him with heresy. In 1849 he was tried before the Hartford Central Association of Ministers, and, though acquitted by an overwhelming majority, was all but shunned by other Congregationalist ministers in Connecticut, who wouldn’t let him preach at their churches. Only in his later years, when doctrinal differences no longer excited much passion among Congregationalists, was he readmitted to full fellowship.
What got him into trouble was a book he published at the beginning of 1849, God in Christ. In the book it was apparent that Bushnell’s method of bridging doctrinal differences was to denigrate all doctrine. Bushnell regarded “dogma” as the enemy of religion. It crept into Christianity by way of “Greek learning” (“Nothing met the Greek mind which was not doctrine”) and ossified it, turning it into a collection of sterile formulas and definitions. A person of true genius, Bushnell suggested, understands that definitions can never be hard and fast. Only an “uninspired, unfructifying logicker” insists on definitional precision and logical consistency.
Years earlier, Mullin notes, Bushnell had discovered the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and from that point, much of what he wrote paralleled the great Romantic poet’s dismissal of “reason” for a broader, faith–based “understanding.” By the end of God in Christ Bushnell was suggesting that religion can’t be presented “in the form of logic or in speculative propositions” because it is inherently “poetic, addressing itself to the imagination, in distinction from the understanding . . . a matter of feeling, addressing itself to the esthetic power in the soul.” Not that he wanted “to abolish all our platforms and articles, and embrace every person who pretends to be a disciple.” All he wanted was “to relax, in a gradual manner, the exact and literal interpretation of our standards; to lean more and more . . . towards the side of accommodation, or easy construction.”
To many of the orthodox, Bushnell’s “accommodation” and “easy construction” sounded very much like an anything–goes approach to theology, and despite his assurance that “‘unity of the Spirit’ will suffice, without any human formulas, to preserve the purity of the church,” his ecumenical project ended in failure. Mullin notes that “Unitarianism and orthodoxy were no closer now than they had been before, and the orthodox seemed even more divided than they had been.”
In terms of doctrine, Mullin’s characterization of Bushnell as a “Puritan” seems inappropriate. The original Puritans, the preachers and teachers of old New England, would never have dismissed doctrine as unimportant or “unfructifying.” The Puritans entered into very intense arguments over doctrine, convinced, as they were, that their very salvation depended on getting it right. Not one of them would ever characterize religion as primarily “a matter of feeling.” Jonathan Edwards, whom some consider to be an eighteenth–century Puritan, did have a place for “religious affections,” but Edwards argued his case systematically, combining Lockean epistemology and Pauline soteriology. We can agree or disagree with Edwards but at least we have an argument in front of us. With Bushnell we get what Mullin, after struggling at length to find some clarity in one of his treatises, ends up calling a “gospel of opaqueness.”
After his failed attempt at ecumenism, and in declining health, Bushnell embarked upon a series of restorative travels. He spent the winter of 1856–57 in California, where he enjoyed the climate but deplored the “barbarism” of the region. Whatever his doctrinal departures from orthodox Puritanism, there remained some psychological remnant of it in his temperament: he was horrified by lawlessness and disorder. Years earlier he had preached against “the law of the bowie knife” in the old Southwest; now, in his “Sermon for California,” he declared that Californians could either continue down the path of lawlessness or adopt a set of values that stressed community, education, law, and industry. “Like John Winthrop on the Arbella in Boston harbor 224 years earlier,” Mullin writes, “Bushnell offered a choice. Which would they follow?”
The California trip seemed to mark a turning point in Bushnell’s life. Over the next decade his passion for order and moral authority began moving him in an increasingly conservative direction. He hated slavery but was put off by the “indiscriminate raving” of abolitionists. He entertained dreams of gradual emancipation (prompting Mullin to sarcasm: “It required no revolution or sacrifice, just a bit of tinkering”). When the Civil War came, Bushnell became an ardent supporter of Lincoln, but on the basis of a rather different social philosophy. For Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence was America’s grand moral charter, but Bushnell regarded it as a dangerously abstract document whose logical outcome was John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification.
By the war’s end he had begun to envisage the nation in organic terms, emphasizing the importance of loyalty and “public devotion.” Bushnell’s accommodationist, “easy” brand of Christianity, which seemed so controversially liberal in his 1849 book, was now pretty tame stuff. The cultural changes that had swept over liberal Protestantism in the 1860s, which included the influences of Darwin and the German “historical” schools, recalibrated the scale of “right” to “left” among the heirs of Puritanism. The center had moved left, and the left, represented by Unitarianism, had moved to a point where it was no longer Christian in any particular sense.
Bushnell’s theology, which once pushed the envelope of liberal Protestantism, no longer created much controversy. In any case, what worried him most now was not “dogma” but the increasing egalitarianism of American society, or at least certain forms of it. One of his last books was entitled Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature. Bushnell favored women’s higher education and participation in professions such as medicine and law (though he insisted that a woman should not be a trial lawyer because “she is not wicked enough”). But only the abstract individualism of the Enlightenment—the same doctrine that he had earlier attributed to Jefferson and Calhoun—could have led anyone to think that a woman, born for nurturing and love, could belong in the vulgar world of politics.
At his death Bushnell was remembered not for these cranky social views but for his contribution to the liberalization of American Protestantism. His early attempt to tinker with orthodoxy just enough to get it in line with liberalism was now more or less irrelevant. The liberalism of 1849 had moved too far by 1876 to be reconciled with any kind of orthodoxy. So it was largely for his negative work of discrediting the latter for which he was hailed. Mullin regards Bushnell as something of a pioneer “who opened the wilderness, but left few lasting physical marks,” leaving it for later generations to “replace the rude cabins and mud trails . . . with fine buildings and great highways.”
It is an odd simile, and not very flattering. People who dedicate their lives to preaching and writing generally hope to leave behind more than “rude cabins and mud trails.” As for those later “fine buildings” of liberal Protestantism, where are they now? “Great highways,” indeed, there were, but people travel highways to arrive someplace. Where did liberal Protestantism go, and did it ever arrive?
Whether or not these questions can ever be answered, they do suggest an answer to the question I posed at the beginning: Why is it that we are more likely to recognize the names of Emerson, Parker, and Brownson than that of Bushnell? One of the reasons we remember Emerson and Parker is that they finally arrived: they converted from Christianity into a pantheistic religion of “nature.” So, in the opposite direction, did Brownson when he converted from Transcendentalism to Catholicism. But Bushnell rode the mainstream, even a little ahead of it at first, until, in the end, it moved too fast for him. The pioneer was left in the wilderness.
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and coeditor of Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Political Issues (2003).