Bushnell, Horace

views updated Jun 08 2018


BUSHNELL, HORACE (18021876), Congregational minister and theologian. Born in Bantam, Connecticut, and reared in nearby New Preston, Bushnell attended Yale College and the Law School in New Haven. Stirred by a revival that swept the college in 1831, he decided to enter Yale Divinity School. In 1833 he was ordained pastor of the North Church of Hartford. He experienced an extraordinary spiritual illumination in 1848, a year in which he was also invited to lecture at Harvard, Andover, and Yale. The books resulting from these lectures and from Bushnell's attempts to clarify and refine their content in the face of criticism (God in Christ, 1849, and Christ in Theology, 1851) stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy and brought charges of heresy from conservative churchmen. In 1858 Bushnell's Nature and the Supernatural was published, and Christian Nurture, probably his best-known work, appeared in 1861 (an earlier version had been published in 1847). Persistent health problems forced him to resign his North Church pastorate in April 1861, but he continued to be active during the last fifteen years of his life, preaching, lecturing, and producing such additional books as Work and Play (1864), Christ and His Salvation (1864), The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866), Moral Uses of Dark Things (1868), Forgiveness and Law (1874), and Building Eras in Religion (published posthumously in 1881).

Four traits of Bushnell's theological thought suggest something of the distinctive contribution he made to his times. The first is its high degree of originality. Bushnell did not prize originality for its own sake; he saw it as necessary for penetrating to the enduring heart of Christian teaching and rediscovering its relevance to the needs and concerns of human beings in a time of rapid change. Second, his theology was intended to be a mediating theology, one seeking grounds of consensus that could allay the spirit of divisiveness and contumely that marked so much of the theological debate of his day. Third, Bushnell held that religious doctrines are not meant to satisfy speculative curiosity. The decisive test of any doctrine is an experiential one, that is, the contributions it can make to the transformation of life and character. He insisted that divine revelation itself has this "instrumental" function (as he termed it), and that its import can be grasped only when it is approached with its practical end clearly in mind. Fourth, Bushnell tried to put theological discourse and method on a new footing by arguing that the language of religion, including that of the Bible, is the language of analogy, metaphor, and symbol, and that its function is to suggest and evoke truths and modes of awareness that cannot be literally expressed. Hence, its proper use and interpretation requires the imaginative skill of the poet or orator, not that of the abstract speculative reasoner. These ideas about theological language and method went much against the grain of the prevailing concept of theology in Bushnell's time, which was that theology should be an exact rational science, with precise definitions, finely drawn distinctions, and strict logical deductions.

Bushnell was one of the two most creative Protestant theologians in America prior to the twentieth century; the other was Jonathan Edwards (17031758). Bushnell's book on Christian nurture has exerted more influence on theories of Christian education among Protestants than any other work of recent times. His ideas on religious language anticipated much that is now being said about the crucial role of myth, symbol, story, and paradox in the discourse of the religions of the world. His fresh approaches sounded the death knell of the Edwardian Calvinism that was dominant in his day and had been so since the time of Jonathan Edwards, and they provided the point of departure for what came to be called the "new theology" of American Protestant liberalism. His critique of biblical literalism helped to pave the way for theological acceptance of the results of biblical criticism and for easier rapprochement between religion and science.


Cherry, Conrad. Nature and Religious Imagination: From Edwards to Bushnell. Philadelphia, 1980. Explores Jonathan Edwards's symbolic vision of nature and its religious meanings, shows how this vision suffered sharp decline among religious thinkers in New England after Edwards's death, and then exhibits the resurgence of a similar vision in the thought of Bushnell.

Crosby, Donald A. Horace Bushnell's Theory of Language. The Hague, 1975. Investigates Bushnell's theory of language and religious language in the context of other philosophies of language in nineteenth-century America, discussing its implications for theological content and method. Examines and evaluates reactions to Bushnell's language theory from his theological peers.

Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Tribal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 18051900. Louisville, Ky., 2001. Makes a detailed case for the singular historical importance of Bushnell's contributions to the emergence of American Protestant liberalism and argues that he should be recognized as America's greatest nineteenth-century theologian.

Edwards, Robert L. Of Singular Genius, of Singular Grace: A Biography of Horace Bushnell. Cleveland, Ohio, 1992. Engagingly written, thoroughly researched account of Bushnell's controversial life.

Smith, David L. Symbolism and Growth: The Religious Thought of Horace Bushnell. Chico, Calif., 1981. Argues that the principal focus of Bushnell's thought is his theory of how human beings influence each other through their social and linguistic interactions. Seeks to show how Bushnell used this theory to explain God's communications of himself for the purpose of nurturing and redeeming human character.

Smith, H. Shelton, ed. Horace Bushnell. New York, 1965. Valuable collection of some of Bushnell's most important writings, with informative general introduction and introductions to each selection. Includes an extensive bibliography of works by and about Bushnell.

Donald A. Crosby (1987 and 2005)

Bushnell, Horace (1802-1876)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Horace Bushnell (1802-1876)


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.


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).

Horace Bushnell

views updated May 17 2018

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. □

Bushnell, Horace

views updated May 21 2018


Congregationalist minister and theologian; b. Bantam, Conn., April 14, 1802; d. Hartford, Conn., February 17, 1876. After attempts at teaching and journalism he turned to the study of law, but a conversion experience in 1831 led him to the ministry. In 1833 he began a long career as Congregationalist pastor of the North Church in Hartford. In this position he developed a religious outlook that led to the preaching of the social gospel, and shaped the development of American Protestant theology during the second half of the 19th century. Bushnell adapted a contextual view of reality from German philosophic idealists, especially Friedrich schleiermacher. This led him in his best known work, Christian Nurture (1847), to argue that the church is not a collection of adult individuals converted by revivals, but a community of the faithful, including children who should be educated as Christians from the time of their baptism. Bushnell believed also that men exist only in the context of social interaction, that all men are involved in the guilt of the human community, that the supernatural is consubstantial with but distinguishable from the natural, and that fallen man could not be regenerated without the moral influence of Christ's atonement. Among his writings are God in Christ (1849), Christ in Theology (1851), Nature and the Supernatural (1858), The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866), and Sermons on Living Subjects (1872).

Bibliography: m. b. cheney, comp., Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell (New York 1880). b. m. cross, Horace Bushnell: Minister to a Changing America (Chicago 1958).

[r. matzerath]