James, Henry (1811–1882)

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Henry James, an American philosophical theologian in the Swedenborgian tradition, is perhaps best known as the father of the novelist Henry James and the philosopher-psychologist William James. Although the elder James was physically handicapped from his early teens, an inheritance from his father, a dominant figure in upper New York State real estate provided him with a lifelong income. Henry James graduated from Union College in 1830 and studied for the Presbyterian ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1835 to 1837. Dissatisfied with the ritual formality and absence of spirituality in what he called "professional religion," he left the seminary and traveled to England, where he came under the influence of the idiosyncratic theology of Robert Sandeman, author of Letters on Theron and Aspasio, which James edited for American publication in 1838. Soon afterward, through J. J. Garth Wilkinson, James discovered Emanuel Swedenborg. During the remainder of his life, he developed his own insights in the language of, and within the broad framework of, Swedenborgian ideas.

Central to James's view was the belief that selfhood (Swedenborg's proprium ) is the sin of sins. Since the movement of creation is a move away from God, it is during this phase that selfhood flourishes. Religion and morality form, as it were, a reflecting surface from which the individual is "bounced back" toward God, thus initiating the movement of redemption, in which selfhood is replaced by "sociality" as a dominant motivation. Thus, as one of James's titles indicates, society is the redeemed form of man. Selfhood is destructive of the Divine intention with regard to created nature, whereas sociality is reconstructive. The ideal of redemptive society that James envisioned was largely derived from the social theories of Charles Fourier and emphasized social solidarity and democracy.

Because of this double allegiance to Swedenborg and Fourier (an allegiance James shared with many of his contemporaries, including Parke Godwin, Horace Greeley, and Albert Brisbane), James was able to assert that the highest points of European life were reached in Protestantism and constitutional liberty, and that both of these had been raised to still higher levels in America. Beneath the sometimes crude externals of American democracy, he saw "the soul of fellowship that animates and redeems it." Thus, he conceived of democracy as the herald of moral perfection and the means of "preparing the way for the reign of infinite Love." In this way James linked his theology of redemptive society to American democratic practice and to its ideal theory.

See also Democracy; Fourier, François Marie Charles; James, William; Liberty; Swedenborg, Emanuel.


works by james

Selected Works of Henry James Sr. (1846). New York: AMS Press, 1983.

Moralism and Christianity. New York: Redfield, 1850.

Lectures and Miscellanies. New York: Redfield, 1852.

The Nature of Evil. New York: Appleton, 1855.

Christianity, the Logic of Creation. London and New York: Appleton, 1857.

Substance and Shadow. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863.

The Secret of Swedenborg. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1869.

Society the Redeemed Form of Man. Boston: Houghton, Osgood, 1879.

The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James. Edited by William James. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884. Contains a lengthy introductory essay.

works on james

Duban, James. The Nature of True Virtue: Theology, Psychology, and Politics in the Writings of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., and William James. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2001.

Habegger, Alfred. The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.

Hoover, Dwight W. Henry James, Sr., and the Religion of the Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. Boston: Little Brown, 1935. Contains discussions of the elder James.

Warren, Austin. The Elder Henry James. New York: Macmillan, 1934. Includes much biographical information.

Young, Frederic H. The Philosophy of Henry James Sr. New York: Bookman Associates, 1951.

J. L. Blau (1967)