Brownson, Orestes Augustus

views updated Jun 11 2018


Preacher, journalist, editor, philosopher; b. Stockbridge, Vt., Sept. 16, 1803; d. Detroit, Mich., April 17, 1876. His spiritual and intellectual odyssey, which found him successively a Presbyterian, a Universalist preacher, a Unitarian minister, and an evangelist for his own "Church of the Future," brought him finally, at the age of 41, into the Catholic Church. During his Catholic years he became, chiefly through his editorship of Brownson's Quarterly Review, one of the most influential Catholic laymen of the 19th century. Yet his significance is by no means solely historical. As a protestant, Brownson was a leader in various movements for social reform. He developed an incisive and cogent criticism of the Transcendentalist movement and discussed with profundity both the foundations of authority in democratic government and the problems of an emerging industrial society. As a Catholic, he wrote essays on church and state, on civil and religious freedom, on Catholic education, on the philosophy of science, and on the conflict between conservative and progressive forces in the Church. These observations not only retain their relevance but were often prophetic in their vision.

Brownson and his twin sister were the youngest of Sylvester and Relief Metcalf Brownson's six children. His father died when Orestes was a child, and poverty forced his mother to send him to live for several years with guardians in nearby Royalton. The family was reunited in 1817 and moved to Ballston Spa in northern New York, where Orestes attended the local academy and worked as a printer's apprentice. At the age of 19, he joined the Presbyterian Church. Two years later he became a Universalist and taught school in Elbridge, N.Y.; there he met Sally Healy, whom he married in June of 1827.

Early writing. From 1826 until 1831 Brownson preached in New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, and for a time edited the Gospel Advocate, the chief publication of the Universalists. He soon turned to Unitarianism, and from 1832 to 1834 was a Unitarian minister in Walpole, N.H. He gave Lyceum lectures in Boston and in 1834 became the Unitarian minister at Canton, Mass. In 1836 he organized in Boston "The Society for Christian Union and Progress" to promote his "Church of the Future" and brought out his first essay, New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church. In the same year he joined Alcott, Emerson, Hedge, Ripley, and others in the discussion group later referred to as the Transcendental Club.

In 1838 Brownson founded the Boston Quarterly Review, and for five years he personally wrote the greater part of each issue. His long, two-part essay, The Laboring Classes, reviewing Carlyle's Chartism but going far beyond Carlyle's views, condemned in the strongest terms the injustices of industrialism. The essay created a sensation; in the presidential campaign of 1840, Whig politicians used it as evidence of the socialistic leanings of the Democratic party, since Brownson had come out for Van Buren, the Democratic candidate.

The outcry against his essay led Brownson to reexamine his entire intellectual position. His Unitarian and transcendentalist assumptions gradually gave way. His study of Pierre Leroux gave him a sense of hierarchy and the doctrine of life through communion. By April of 1844 he had decided that "either there is already existing the divine institution, the church of God, or there are no means of reform" (Works 4:511). Terminating the Boston Quarterly Review in 1842, Brownson wrote chiefly for J. L. O'Sullivan's Democratic Review until he revived his own review as Brownson's Quarterly in January of 1844.

The Catholic journalist. Brownson began taking instruction in the Catholic faith from Bp. John B. Fitzpatrick of Boston in May of 1844 and entered the Catholic Church on October 20. Although Brownson at first considered abandoning his Review to study law, Bishop Fitzpatrick urged him to continue as a Catholic journalist to bring Catholic principles to bear on the great questions of the day. Agreeing, Brownson studied St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and manuals of scholasticism, and renounced entirely the eclectic modes of thought that had led him to the door of the Church. Having been in the mainstream of American Protestantism, and a leading figure in "the movement party" of New England, he entertained hopes of winning many of his former associates and readers to a sympathetic consideration of Catholicism. Unlike his friend and fellow convert, Isaac hecker, he adopted a militant tone and strategy of which he was later critical. A letter of general approbation and encouragement from the American bishops appeared in his Review from 1849 to 1855, and Pope Pius IX favorably recognized his work in 1854. Late in 1853 Newman invited him to join the faculty of the new Catholic University at Dublin but withdrew the invitation because of the feeling aroused in Ireland by Brownson's views on the issue of americanism.

In October of 1855, because of disagreements with Bishop Fitzpatrick, Brownson moved to New York with his Review. He defended the Union cause vigorously during the Civil War, but in the 1864 presidential race he would have preferred to support General John C. Frémont rather than Lincoln. The disappointment at Frémont's withdrawal from the campaign, together with his own failing eyesight and the death of his two sons, led Brownson to suspend his Review in 1864. He revived it from 1873 to 1875. He died April 17, 1876, and was buried in Detroit; ten years later his remains were moved to a crypt in the Sacred Heart Church on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

Brownson's achievement. As a journalist and controversialist, Brownson brought a penetrating intelligence to bear on temporal and spiritual issues. His style was vigorous and lucid, if rarely graceful. As a general critic, he wrote voluminously on religion, philosophy, society and politics, literature, and education. The central concern of his Catholic years was to clarify the relation between Christianity and civilization, and between Church and State, and to define the limits of freedom and authority. The American Republic is of central importance as a summation of his political philosophy. While he had rejected transcendentalism prior to his conversion to the Catholic Church, he did not abandon his reliance on intuition, and it is generally agreed that from 1842 to 1844 he was an ontologist in the sense rejected by the Catholic Church in 1861. Scholarly opinion remains divided whether he was an ontologist after his conversion.

Any just evaluation of the Catholic Brownson as a political and social thinker must recognize the fundamental changes of emphasis in various periods. From 1844 to 1854 Brownson's emphasis was conservative and traditional. In repudiating his earlier vision of an earthly Utopia, he seemed also to abandon any attempt at mediating between the Church and contemporary society. From 1855 to 1864, however, he increasingly sympathized with those European Catholic thinkers whose political and social views were liberal, as his essays on Lacordaire and Catholic Progress and Civil and Religious Freedom make abundantly clear. His return, from 1865 until his death, to a conservative position is largely accounted for by his belief that the Syllabus of Errors, published with the encyclical Quanta cura in December of 1864, was a condemnation of such views as he had expressed for the previous ten years. Weary and in failing health, Brownson accepted the interpretation given the Syllabus by his severest critics, and for the rest of his life did penance for his liberal period.

While Brownson at various periods of his life was denounced by liberals for his conservatism and by conservatives for his liberalism, the real task of criticism is to evaluate the dialectical relation between the conservative and liberal elements in his thought and to see both in historical context. As journalist and critic, Brownson tried to bring enduring principles into a dynamic relation with the great issues of his time. Yet he saw the Church as tied to no social or political forms merely because they were old; he stressed the Church's constant mission of renewal and the responsibilities of Catholics on the level of culture and civilization.

The Brownson papers are available to scholars in the library of the University of Notre Dame. The same university awarded its Laetare Medal to Brownson's son and first biographer, Henry F. Brownson, in 1892, and to his granddaughter, the author and catechist Josephine Van Dyke Brownson, in 1939.

Bibliography: The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, ed. h. f. brownson, 20 v. h. f. brownson, Orestes Augustus Brownson Life, 3 v. b. farrell, Orestes Brownson's Approach to the Problem of God. t. maynard, Oresres Brownson: Yankee, Radical, Catholic (New York 1943). p. miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. f. l. mott, History of American Magazines, 3 v. (New York 193038). s. a. raemers, America's Foremost Philosopher: O. A. Brownson. a. s. ryan, "Orestes A. Brownson: The Critique of Transcendentalism," American Classics Reconsidered, ed. h. c. gardiner (New York 1958); ed., The Brownson Reader. a. m. schlesinger, jr., Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress. t. r. ryan, Orestes A. Brownson: A Definitive Biography (Huntington, Ind. 1976).

[a. s. ryan]

Orestes Augustus Brownson

views updated May 14 2018

Orestes Augustus Brownson

Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876) was an American clergyman, transcendentalist, and social activist. He passed through the whole range of American religion, from nebulous Unitarianism to firmly disciplined Catholicism.

Orestes A. Brownson was born in Stockbridge, Vt., on Sept. 16, 1803, to Sylvester Augustus and Relief Metcalf Brownson. He was entrusted to the care of neighbors after his father died and his mother could not support him. Brownson grew up on a small farm, educated only by his own reading; farm work toughened him and self-education trained his mind. From the start, his bent was toward the church. In 1822 he became a Presbyterian, but he was uncomfortable with the Presbyterian doctrines of election and reprobation. Universalism, on the other hand, preached that all men could be saved and that over the universe presided a loving rather than a just God. In 1826 he became a Universalist minister.

The following year Brownson married Sally Healy and embarked on a restless pastorate. He preached in Vermont, New Hampshire, and upstate New York, seeking not only the ideal pulpit but the ideal theology. In 1829 he became the editor of a church paper, the Gospel Advocate. But he gradually developed doubts about Universalism too, questioning Christ's divinity, the Bible's authenticity, and the idea of eternal life. The one denomination more open than Universalism was Unitarianism, so from 1832 he served as a Unitarian minister. In 1836 he shook off this last affiliation and formed his own congregation in Boston.

Significantly, the new congregation was made up of poor people. Brownson had shown increasing interest in social action, particularly in bettering the condition of New England's urban poor. Before forming his Boston church, he had been a socialist and had helped set up the Workingmen's party. Now he found that he could make his best contribution not through political activity but through the church. He expressed his ideas in New Views of Christianity, Society and the Church (1836).

Brownson founded the Boston Quarterly Review in 1838. It outraged many New England conservatives by attacking inherited wealth, harsh criminal codes, and organized religion and espousing the cause of the poor and the Democratic party. In 1842 he merged his magazine with the Democratic Review; the merger proved unsuccessful, and 2 years later he reestablished his own journal as Brownson's Quarterly Review.

Meanwhile, though he remained an individualist, he found friends and allies among members of the transcendentalist movement. Their rather vague philosophy had little appeal for him, but he admired their unconventional stance and joined in their occasional efforts at social reform. Among his friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, George Ripley, and William Ellery Channing. Brownson sent his son Orestes to the transcendentalist commune Brook Farm.

In 1844 Brownson's supporters experienced a shock. The man they had systematically identified with individualism and dissent suddenly joined the Roman Catholic Church. He embraced his new denomination with more ardor than he had shown for any other, becoming that classic figure, the convert with more zeal than any cradle Catholic. The steps in his conversion are described in The Convert; or Leaves from My Experience (1857).

Brownson's conversion dealt a blow to the Review, which lost many Protestant and agnostic readers but failed to add many Catholic ones. It endured as an essentially Catholic journal until January 1865, and he revived it again in 1872 for 3 years.

Brownson was extraordinarily active throughout his life. His pen was seldom still. He contributed to other magazines besides his own and published several books. In old age, still driven by abundant energy, Brownson moved from place to place restlessly, as in his early days. He died in Detroit on April 17, 1876.

Further Reading

The Works of Orestes A. Brownson (20 vols., 1882-1907) was edited by Brownson's son, Henry F. Brownson, who also wrote Orestes A. Brownson's Life (3 vols., 1898-1900). Two good biographies of Brownson exist: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress (1939), traces Brownson's life especially as it related to his religious and social ideas; Theodore Maynard, Orestes Brownson: Yankee, Radical, Catholic (1943), written by a Catholic, emphasizes the years after Brownson's conversion. See also Lawrence Roemer, Brownson on Democracy and the Trend toward Socialism (1953).

Additional Sources

Ryan, Thomas R. (Thomas Richard), Orestes A. Brownson: a definitive biography, Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1976.

McDonnell, James M. (James Michael), Orestes A. Brownson and nineteenth-century Catholic education, New York: Garland, 1988. □