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Bushnell, Horace (1802-1876)

Horace Bushnell (1802-1876)

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Liberal protestant theologian

Puritan Romantic. Horace Bushnell is considered the father of American religious liberalism, and he brought to his work a particular New England Puritan heritage. Born in Bantam, Connecticut, on 14 April 1802, he grew up in the nearby farm town of Preston. Wearing his familys homespun clothing, he entered Yale University in 1823. He graduated in 1827, taught, worked briefly in journalism, then returned to New Haven to study law. During an 1831 revival he changed his career and entered Yale Divinity School. He was ordained for service at the North Congregational Church in Hartford on 22 May 1833, and that September he married Mary Apthorp.

Philosopher. Bushnells beliefs were at variance with both his Puritan ancestors and Transcendentalist contemporaries. For Puritans, there was a kind of one-to-one correspondence between words and things. Everything, even an idea or a concept, had some precise word to describe it. Puritan sermons, which struck outsiders as long and involved, did indeed sound that way because in such exactitude and attention to detail lay the clear meaning of Scripture. Transcendentalists did not believe it was necessary to have a preacher to explain Scripture, or even to have Scripture explain God. Individuals could, through contemplation of nature, transcend creation to find the Creator. Bushnell disagreed and maintained that before people tried to reach God, he tried to reach them, using every means of communication at divine disposal. Since God is infinite and humans are finite, any symbols of communication human beings could understand would necessarily be imprecise, and thus the one-to-one correspondence the Puritans saw between a word and an idea just did not exist. However, every communication from God was rich, in the sense that people could return to it again and again to draw new meaning from it. Also, there were a great many examples of divine communication, so that if people did not pick up the divine message in one way, they might in another.

Theologian. This emphasis on communication altered the understanding of traditional Christian teaching. Bushnell drew no sharp distinction between the natural world and the world beyond. God communicated through nature, the way a schoolteacher brings in models to demonstrate abstract principles. Bushnell argued that communication was paramount and denied that the Trinity was God simultaneously as one being and three beings (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). For Bushnell the Trinity meant humans understood God under three different expressions of divine nature, but multiple experiences of God did not mean multiple gods. The Crucifixion could also be understood in the same manner. Puritans thought that in original sin humans committed a crime against God for which they, being limited, finite beings, could not atone. As a human being, Jesus Christ could offer to atone for human sinfulness, but, as God, Christs self-sacrifice actually had enough merit to outweigh the sin. Bushnell kept the idea of Christ as divine and added the idea of divine effort to communicate with humans. Gods love was most fully expressed in Christs humanity and self-sacrifice.

Teacher. Such theological formulations gave rise to a new understanding of how an individual came to be religious, and specifically, Christian. Predestination became illogical; rather than God selecting those to be saved and those to be damned, if all creation was one thing, then all souls had the same hopes for salvation or perdition. Conversion experiences became equally illogical. If all creation was of one piece, then each individual gradually grew into an awareness of God and of divine plans for ones life. Early family experiences and education replaced traumatic conversions. Bringing children up in the faith, rather than exposing them to religious teachings and expecting them to draw conclusions, made fundamental changes in church organization and family life. Such changes especially affected the position of women. With books such as Womens Suffrage: Tòe Reform Against Nature (1869), Bushnell opposed woman suffrage because he thought of politics as a kind of necessary evil. Women had the higher task of raising children, and Bushnell maintained that, if properly nurtured, children would never know a time when they were not Christian. Throughout their lives, then, they would act according to Christs teachings of love. That, he thought, would bring real reform to the world.

Illness. In 1855 Bushnell started to become seriously ill, and he went to Cuba that winter and California the next year, hoping the change in climate would improve his condition. (He suffered from a kind of tuberculosis that could not be diagnosed or treated at the time.) Unfortunately, his health deteriorated even more. He resigned from the pastorate of the North Church in 1859, and then entered upon what he called his ministry-at-large, the writing of books. Among his books were Christian Nurture (1847), God in Christ (1849), Christ in Theology (1851), Nature and the Supernatural (1858), and Vicarious Sacrifice (1866). Bushnell died at Hartford on 17 February 1876.

Sources

Robert Lansing Edwards, Of Singular Genius, Of Singular Grace: A Biography ofHorace BushneL ((Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1991);

David Wayne Haddorff, Dependence and Freedom: The Moral Thought of Horace Bushnell (Lanham, Md.: University of America Press, 1994);

David Lester Smith, Symbolism and Growth: The Religious Thought of Horace Bushnell (Chico, Cal.: Scholars Press, 1981).

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Horace Bushnell

Horace Bushnell

The Congregational clergyman Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) was the pivotal American theologian who freed mainstream Protestant theology from its Puritan scholasticism and established the basis for religious liberalism.

Horace Bushnell was born April 14, 1802, at Bantam, Conn. He graduated from Yale College in 1827. For a time he taught school and served as an editor, but in 1829 he returned to Yale to study law. A spiritual revival in 1831 led him to transfer to the Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1833. He studied under Nathaniel W. Taylor, leader of the "New Haven theology" in vogue then, but he was unimpressed by the dry theological scholasticism. In 1833 Bushnell was ordained as pastor of North Church, Hartford, Conn., where he remained for 26 years until poor health forced him to retire.

It was as a theologian rather than as a pastor that Bushnell was most significant. Primarily, he provided the intellectual method and content to break the dogmatic system-building approach of Puritan theology. His first major work, Christian Nurture (1847, rev. 1861), refuted the prevalent focus on the necessity of conversion by arguing that a child of believing parents should grow up so that he never knows he is anything but a Christian. A profound mystical experience during 1848 led him to overlook the hostility his views had aroused.

In God in Christ (1848) Bushnell included a preliminary discourse on language which is the crucial explanation of his basic method. Maintaining that language consists of symbols agreed on by social groups, he insisted that the historical context of words is crucial for understanding and that changing situations require new definitions. Conservative clergymen immediately saw the threat this posed to their use of traditional doctrine, and charges of heresy were prepared. Only the withdrawal of Bushnell's congregation from the local consociation in 1852 enabled him to avoid trial.

Bushnell's Nature and the Supernatural (1858) was so sweeping in scope that it contained all creation in one divine system, which laid the basis of the Kingdom of God emphasis of liberalism. In The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866) and Forgiveness and Law (1874) he stressed the moral theory of the atonement, which liberalism embraced. At his death on Feb. 17, 1876, his views were still considered heretical by most contemporaries, but within a few decades his works became regarded as the basic literature for Christ-centered liberalism. Though later liberals altered his ideas, he may rightly be called the father of the liberal movement, which has been so important in Protestant theology in the past century.

Further Reading

Bushnell's life and theology have recently attracted renewed attention. Barbara M. Cross, Horace Bushnell: Minister to a Changing America (1958), provides a biographical reinterpretation. H. Shelton Smith, ed., Horace Bushnell: Twelve Selections (1965), contains selections from Bushnell's writings; introductory materials and bibliography make this work an important contribution. Sydney Ahlstrom's essay on Bushnell in Dean G. Peerman and Martin E. Marty, eds., A Handbook of Christian Theologians (1965), gives a brief but accurate appraisal.

Additional Sources

Barnes, Howard A., Horace Bushnell and the virtuous republic, Philadelphia: American Theological Library Association; Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Edwards, Robert Lansing, Of singular genius, of singular grace: a biography of Horace Bushnell, Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1992.

Haddorff, David W. (David Wayne), Dependence and freedom: the moral thought of Horace Bushnell, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994. □

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Bushnell, Horace

Horace Bushnell (bŏŏsh´nəl), 1802–76, American Congregational minister, b. Bantam, Conn. Bushnell became (1833) pastor of the North Church, Hartford, Conn. He wrote Christian Nurture (1847) and God in Christ (1849). Because of certain views of the Trinity allegedly expressed in the latter, unsuccessful attempts were made to bring him to trial for heresy. Bushnell's dignified reply was made in Christ in Theology (1851). His repudiation of the austerity of Calvinism and his stress on the presence of the divine in humanity and nature had profound influence in shaping liberal Protestant thought. Ill health obliged him to retire from the active ministry in 1859, but he continued to write. His works include The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866), in which he developed the well-known "moral influence theory" of the atonement; Sermons on Living Subjects (1872); and Forgiveness and Law (1874).

See the Life and Letters, ed. by his daughter, Mrs. M. B. Cheney (1880, 1903; repr. 1969); biographies by T. T. Munger (1899) and W. R. Adamson (1966); studies by A. J. W. Myers (1937), B. M. Cross (1938), and William A. Johnson (1963).

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