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Horace Bushnell among the Metaphysicians

  • Catherine L. Albanese


On December 15, 1851, Andrew Jackson Davis—self-styled Harmonial philosopher and noted scion of the spiritualist world—sent a public letter. Addressed through the Hartford Times to the controversial Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell, the message concerned the first of a series of lectures Bushnell was delivering at his North Church. Davis, who at the time claimed Hartford, Connecticut, as his base, was clearly excited. The announced topic—“On the Naturalistic Theories of Religion as Opposed to Supernatural Revelation”—already gave Davis “much pleasure,” suggesting a position “entirely unlike any other ever assumed by the clergy of Christendom.” More than that, Bushnell's way of approaching the subject and defining his position was “considerably unlike the method pursued by most clergymen,” since Bushnell relied on his own “reason or judgment” to address “the corresponding faculty in the mind of the hearer.” Davis went on to propose that, with so important an issue, better to move the lectures from Bushnell's North Church pulpit to a different location and to invite “all parties interested” to “analyze and examine before the same audience the various positions.”



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1 According to Barnes, Howard A., Horace Bushnell and the Virtuous Republic (Metuchen, N.J.: American Theological Library Association and Scarecrow Press, 1991), 139, Andrew Jackson Davis first published this material in 1852 as The Approaching Crisis: Being a Review of Dr. Bushnell's Recent Lectures on Supernaturalism (New York: Published by the Author, 1852). All references in what follows, however, are to the 1868 edition. See A. J. Davis, “A Letter to Rev. Dr. Bushnell” (Hartford, December 15, 1851), in Davis, Andrew Jackson, The Approaching Crisis: Being A Review of Dr. Bushnell's Course of Lectures, on the Bible, Nature, Religion, Skepticism, and the Supernatural (Boston: Colby & Rich, 1868), 78.

2 Ibid., 5, 261.

3 For a brief introduction to Davis, see Albanese, Catherine L., A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007), 206–20.

4 For biographies of Horace Bushnell, see Cheney, Mary Bushnell, Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880); Munger, Theodore T., Horace Bushnell: Preacher and Theologian (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899); Cross, Barbara M., Horace Bushnell: Minister to a Changing America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); Edwards, Robert L., Of Singular Genius, Of Singular Grace: A Biography of Horace Bushnell (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1992); Mullin, Robert Bruce, The Puritan as Yankee: A Life of Horace Bushnell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

5 Letter of Horace Bushnell to Cyrus Bartol, March 22, 1852, in Cheney, Life and Letters, 257. The letter also provides evidence for a publication in 1852 by Davis on the Bushnell lectures, although the “pamphlet” does not appear in the WorldCat database (see note 1 above). On Bartol's connections with the New England Transcendentalists, see Hutchison, William R., The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance (Boston: Beacon, 1959), esp. 31–32, 121, 189, 192, 197–98. Bartol had been part of the Transcendental Club begun in 1836 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Frederick Henry Hedge, and others.

6 Emerson was introduced to Swedenborg largely through Reed's, SampsonObservations on the Growth of the Mind (Boston: Cummings, Hilliard, 1826). For his decidedly negative views of spiritualism, see Wilson, John B., “Emerson and the ‘Rochester Rappings,’” New England Quarterly 41, no. 2 (June 1968): 248–58. Warren Felt Evans's odyssey from twenty-five years as a Methodist minister to a Swedenborgian and spiritualist conversion is recounted in the two volumes of his Journals, available in manuscript at the Dartmouth College Library. For an account of Mary Baker Eddy's strong rejection of mesmerism and spiritualism, see Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, 290–94.

7 Barnes, Horace Bushnell and the Virtuous Republic, 139. See also Conrad Cherry, Nature and Religious Imagination: From Edwards to Bushnell (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), esp. 157–230; and Cherry, Conrad, “The Structure of Organic Thinking: Horace Bushnell's Approach to Language, Nature, and Nation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40, no. 1 (March 1972): 320. (Bushnell published two works on Christian nurture in 1847: Discourses on Christian Nurture, containing two discourses, was published in Boston by the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society; when the society suppressed it in the midst of controversy, Bushnell gathered its contents together with a response to the society and other materials as Views of Christian Nurture and of Subjects Adjacent Thereto [Hartford: Edwin Hunt, 1847].)

8 See Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, esp. 21–118 for a full discussion of this summary. And for a brief overview, see Albanese, Catherine L., America: Religions and Religion, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2007), 180–81.

9 See Judah, J. Stillson, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), esp. 21, 11; and Braden, Charles S., Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963), esp. 4. On contemporary scholarship on metaphysical religiosity, see Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit; Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), although Schmidt does not employ the term metaphysical; and the special issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75, no. 3 (September 2007): 582–677, with essays by Courtney Bender, John Lardas Modern, and Pamela E. Klassen, and an introduction by Albanese. For an early American version, see Butler, Jon, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

10 Hudson, Winthrop S., Religion in America (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965), 175–78.

11 Cheney, Life and Letters, 195; Munger, Horace Bushnell, 43; Cross, Horace Bushnell, 28; Edwards, Singular Genius, 295; Mullin, Puritan as Yankee, 6, 126.

12 Cheney, Life and Letters, 108; Letter of Ralph Waldo Emerson to George Partridge Bradford, August 28, 1854, in Rusk, Ralph L., ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1939; repr., New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 4:460 (and see Edwards, Singular Genius, 61, who reads the ambiguous reference this way).

13 Parker, Theodore, A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity: Preached at the Ordination of Mr. Charles C. Shackford, in the Hawes Place Church in Boston, May 19, 1841 (Boston: B. H. Greene and E. P. Peabody, 1841); Parker, Theodore, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1842); Bushnell, Horace, Nature and the Supernatural, As Together Constituting the One System of God (1858; repr., London: Alexander Strahan, 1864), 352 (and see the references to Parker on 94–96, 108–9, 228, 233, 237, 249–50, 280, and 355).

14 Ibid., 41 (see also 97–98, where Emerson is condemned along with Thomas Carlyle).

15 Ibid., 23–24. For Emerson's views, see Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, in Ferguson, Alfred R. et al., The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 1:8.

16 Bushnell, Horace, “Inspiration by the Holy Spirit,” in The Spirit in Man: Sermons and Selections [ed. Cheney, Mary Bushnell], centenary ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), 1516.

17 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Aids to Reflection, ed. Marsh, James (Burlington, Vt.: Chauncey Goodrich, 1829); Cheney, Life and Letters, 203. On Bushnell and Gibbs, see Crosby, Donald A., Horace Bushnell's Theory of Language: In the Context of Other Nineteenth-Century Philosophies of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), 5055; and Smith, David L., ed., Horace Bushnell: Selected Writings on Language, Religion, and American Culture (Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1984), 89.

18 Gura, Philip F., The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the New England Renaissance (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981), 53. Gura was following the usage of Wells, Ronald V. in Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry, Frederic Henry Hedge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943).

19 Crosby, Horace Bushnell's Theory of Language, 153.

20 Bushnell, Horace, God in Christ: Three Discourses Delivered at New Haven, Cambridge, and Andover, with a Preliminary Dissertation on Language (1849; repr., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1876), 2526; Emerson, Nature, 17.

21 Bushnell, God in Christ, 30, 78.

22 Ibid., 46–47, 80, 92–93.

23 Horace Bushnell, “Revelation,” in Smith, ed., Horace Bushnell, 29–30; Edwards, Singular Genius, 58–60. On the language of hieroglyphs in the American Renaissance (language employed by both Bushnell and Emerson), see Irwin, John T., American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980).

24 Bushnell, Horace, Christ in Theology: Being the Answer of the Author before the Hartford Central Association of Ministers, October, 1849, for the Doctrines of the Book Entitled “God in Christ” (Hartford, Conn.: Brown and Parsons, 1851), 15, 3738 (square brackets in original).

25 Bushnell, Horace, “Our Gospel a Gift to the Imagination,” in Horace Bushnell: Sermons, ed. Cherry, Conrad (New York: Paulist, 1985), 97, 99, 105, 98, 101. The essay may be found in its entirety in Bushnell, Horace, Building Eras in Religion (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1881), 249–85.

26 Cherry, Conrad, Nature and Religious Imagination: From Edwards to Bushnell (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 179.

27 Upham, Thomas C., Life and Religious Opinions and Experience of Madame de La Mothe Guyon: Together with Some Account of the Personal History and Religious Opinions of Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambray, 2 vols. (New York: Harper, 1846). On Mary Bushnell's written recollections, see Cheney, Life and Letters, 191–92; and see the short and useful accounts in Edwards, Singular Genius, 96–97, and Mullin, Puritan as Yankee, 128–30. For a discussion of Bushnell's attraction to quietism in a larger nineteenth-century context, see Ward, Patricia A., Experimental Theology in America: Madame Guyon, Fénelon, and Their Readers (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2009), 178–82.

28 Cheney, Life and Letters, 64, 46. See also the account in Mullin, Puritan as Yankee, 41.

29 Cheney, Life and Letters, 76, 276–77, 516, 192.

30 Bushnell, Horace, Christian Nurture (1860; repr., New York: Charles Scribner, 1867), 197 (this is an expanded version of the Discourses on Christian Nurture of 1847 and is an ultimate version containing a series of earlier ones); Bushnell, God in Christ, 147; Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 127; Bushnell, “Our Gospel a Gift to the Imagination,” 102.

31 Horace Bushnell, “Christ the Form of the Soul,” in Spirit in Man, 39–40; Bushnell, Horace, “The Immediate Knowledge of God,” in Sermons on Living Subjects (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, 1872), 115, 122; Horace Bushnell, “Our Advantage in Being Finite,” in Sermons on Living Subjects, 340.

32 Horace Bushnell, “God Preparing the State of Glory,” in Spirit in Man, 226–27.

33 Bushnell, “Revelation,” 30; Letter of Horace Bushnell to Cyrus Bartol, April 11, 1849, in Cheney, Life and Letters, 220.

34 Smith, David L., Symbolism and Growth: The Religious Thought of Horace Bushnell (Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1981), 52, 56.

35 Johnson, William Alexander, Nature and the Supernatural in the Theology of Horace Bushnell (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1963), 13, 231; Crosby, Horace Bushnell's Theory of Language, 161–63. The fear of being labeled a pantheist had apparently not troubled Bushnell until after he wrote God in Christ, since the term appears neither in that work nor in his earlier one on Christian nurture.

36 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “An Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, 15 July, 1838,” in Collected Works, 1:81; Emerson, Nature, in Collected Works, 43. On the miracles question, see Hutchison, Transcendentalist Ministers, 52–97.

37 Emerson, Nature, in Collected Works, 43; Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 23.

38 Ibid., 234, 325–26.

39 Ibid., 226–27.

40 Ibid., 333–34.

41 Ibid., 335, 337–39.

42 Ibid., 340–44; Cheney, Life and Letters, 466–67.

43 Miller, Perry, “From Edwards to Emerson” (1940), in Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper & Row, Harper Torchbooks, 1956), 202.

44 Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 320–21. On “Brama,” or “Brahma” and “Brahminism [sic],” see, for example, the references in Bushnell, God in Christ, 140, 173; Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 42, 51, 249–50; Horace Bushnell, “The War of Our Desires” (1848), in Spirit in Man, 369; and Horace Bushnell, “Death Abolished” (1849), in Spirit in Man, 286.

45 Munger, Horace Bushnell, 177; Horace Bushnell, “God Preparing the State of Glory,” in Spirit in Man, 220, 222; Horace Bushnell, “God's One Family,” in Spirit in Man, 341–43.

46 For Andrew Jackson Davis's account of the progressive nature of spirit travel through after-death spheres and of his entranced travel to other planets, see The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, 34th ed. (Boston: Colby and Rich, 1881), Part II. Swedenborg's, EmanuelConcerning the Earths in Our Solar System, Which Are Called Planets, and Concerning the Earths in the Starry Heaven. Together with an Account of Their Inhabitants, and Also of the Spirits and Angels There: From What Has Been Seen and Heard (Boston: Adonis Howard, 1828) was the first American edition of this work, which appeared in Latin in London in 1758 and then in English in London in 1787.

47 Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 9, 40.

48 Bushnell, Horace, “Unconscious Influence,” in Sermons for the New Life (New York: Charles Scribner, 1858), 197, 202, 188–89 (and see Smith, Symbolism and Growth, 49–57, for a useful discussion of this sermon); Munger, Horace Bushnell, 311; Bushnell, Horace, “Life, or the Lives,” in Work and Play: Or Literary Varieties (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864), 268; Davis, Approaching Crisis, 239. For magnetism, see Franz Anton Mesmer, Physical–Medical Treatise on the Influence of the Planets (1766), in Mesmer, F. A., Mesmerism: A Translation of the Original Medical and Scientific Writings, trans. Bloch, George J. and intro. Hilgard, Ernest R. (Los Altos, Calif.: William Kaufmann, 1980), 120.

49 Davis, Principles of Nature, 1:xxiii. On Fourier, see Beecher, Jonathan and Bienvenu, Richard, eds. and trans., The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attractions (Boston: Beacon, 1971).

50 Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 9, 97, 123–24.

51 Bushnell, Christian Nurture, 26, 118, 31.

52 Cherry, “Structure of Organic Thinking,” 3; Horace Bushnell, “The Age of Homespun,” in Work and Play, 380–81, 392–93 (and see Mullin, Puritan as Yankee, 10–11, on the oration).

53 Bushnell, God in Christ, 212; Bushnell, “Work and Play,” in Work and Play, 10, 13, 14–15.

54 Horace Bushnell, “Existence Consummated in a State of Praise” (1859), in Spirit in Man, 347 (see also Horace Bushnell, “Happiness and Joy,” in Sermons for the New Life, 225–42); Cross, Horace Bushnell, 27.

55 Horace Bushnell, “The Spirit in Man,” in Sermons for the New Life, 31; Horace Bushnell, “The War of Our Desires,” in Spirit in Man, 368–69; Horace Bushnell, “Christ Regenerates Even the Desires,” in Sermons on Living Subjects, 192–93.

56 Bushnell, “Christ Regenerates Even the Desires,” 193; Horace Bushnell, “Existence Consummated in a State of Praise,” in Spirit in Man, 347.

57 Bushnell, Christian Nurture, 211; Horace Bushnell, “Prosperity Our Duty,” in Spirit in Man, 135–58, 139.

58 Cheney, Life and Letters, 15, 524.

59 Edwards, Jonathan, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. Smith, John E., Stout, Harry S., and Minkema, Kenneth P. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995), 111, 121, 113. On Jonathan Edwards, see also his “Images or Shadows of Divine Things,” ed. Perry Miller (1948; repr., Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977); “Personal Narrative” (ca. 1739), in Jonathan Edwards Reader, 281–96, esp. 285; and “Beauty of the World” (1725), ibid. 14–15.

60 Bushnell, Christian Nurture, 393, 401; Bushnell, Christ in Theology, 249, 338; Bushnell, “Special Prayer” (1849), in Spirit in Man, 374.

61 For both treatises, see Rolt, C. E., Dionysius: The Areopagite, on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology (New York: Macmillan, 1920).

62 Cheney, Life and Letters, 56.

63 Bushnell, God in Christ, 106, 48, 50, 52, 55, 72, 73, 77.

64 Ibid., 93–95, 347, 95, 106.

65 Cross, Horace Bushnell, 102; Fred Kirschenmann, “Horace Bushnell: Orthodox or Sabellian?” Church History 33, no. 1 (March 1964): 50.

66 Ibid., 137–39; for an elaboration of Bushnell's views of his “instrumental trinity,” see Christ in Theology, 130–31. See also Kirschenmann, “Horace Bushnell: Orthodox or Sabellian?” 49–59, which concludes for Bushnell's orthodoxy. For Sabellianism in general, see Burkill, T. A., The Evolution of Christian Thought (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971), 8486; González, Justo L., A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 146–49, 238–40; Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Doctrines, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), esp. 119–23; McGiffert, Arthur Cushman, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, Early and Eastern: From Jesus to John of Damascus (1932; repr., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), 236–40; Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 176–82.

67 Bushnell, God in Christ, 140, 143–45.

68 Ibid., 137, 173. Bushnell had repeated this idea in “Our Gospel a Gift to the Imagination” (1869); see above.

69 Bushnell, Christ in Theology, 16–17, 39–40. Kirschenmann, who argues for Bushnell's orthodoxy, points to an article, “The Christian Trinity A Practical Truth,” which appeared in The New Englander in 1852 (12, no. 48: 485–509). There Bushnell went so far as to state that he could know God's interior state by the way God acted in the world. Bushnell saw “that in order for God to be God, He could not be other than He acted” (Kirschenmann, “Horace Bushnell: Orthodox or Sabellian?” 58). The article was published posthumously in Horace Bushnell, Building Eras in Religion: Literary Varieties III (New York: Scribner's, 1881). However, this short work seems obscure in the face of the body of elaborated work by Bushnell that would not go this far.

70 Ibid., 126.

71 For example, Emma Curtis Hopkins, the major teacher of New Thought teachers, had been Congregationalist when she began the odyssey from the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy (with her own Congregational roots) to what came to be called New Thought. Myrtle Fillmore, cofounder of Unity School of Christianity, had been Methodist. H. Emilie Cady, author of Unity's basic textbook, Lessons in Truth, was a homeopathic physician with a Presbyterian background, who for a time followed the New York City work of A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, with excitement. La Roy Sunderland, who began a journal on magnetism, combined magnetism with phrenology, incorporated spiritualism, and celebrated the laws of mind, had been a Methodist minister and charismatic preacher of revival before his transformation. Warren Felt Evans, major early New Thought theologian, served as a Methodist minister for twenty-five years and was drawn to proto-Holiness and Oberlin perfectionism before sending back his ordination credentials, becoming a Swedenborgian, a spiritualist, and then a “mind-cure” healer. Tithing practices in New Thought churches like Unity and Religious Science parallel those in conservative Protestant churches. The ethos of worship in New Thought churches is usually exuberant and enthusiastic, a style associated with much of American evangelicalism.

72 Ibid., 340, 131–32.

73 For a succinct and pithy overview, see The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, ed. Jerald C. Brauer (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), s.v. “Sin”; see also Schoonenberg, Piet, Man and Sin: A Theological View, trans. Donceel, Joseph (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965).

74 Volumes from the English translator of Plato Thomas Taylor were available from at least 1804, and Taylor continued to write in Neo-Platonizing vein. See, for example, Versluis, Arthur, The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 145; and McAleer, John, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), 160.

75 Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 21; Johnson, Nature and the Supernatural, 103; Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 58.

76 Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, 69–70.

77 Ibid., 92, 111, 125.

78 See Cherry, Nature and Religious Imagination.

Catherine L. Albanese is J. F. Rowny Professor Emerita in Comparative Religions and Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This essay is adapted from material to be published in my forthcoming book, The Delight Makers: Anglo-American Religious Thought and Metaphysical Religion, © 20** by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. I wish to thank the University of Chicago Press for permission to use this material here.

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