The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXII. Divines and Moralists, 1783–1860

§ 12. Horace Bushnell

The work of enfranchisement was carried on in their several modes by three notable contemporaries: Horace Bushnell (1802–76), Henry Ward Beecher (1813–87), and Mark Hopkins (1802–87), each in his way a liberator.

Superficially, Bushnell may seem to have been a reactionary. Born in Litchfield Township, Connecticut, he graduated at Yale in 1827, whither, after a short experience in journalism, he returned as tutor, student of law, and finally student of theology. In 1833 he was ordained pastor of the North Congregational Church in Hartford, where he remained until 1859. In 1856, while in California for his health, he was active in organizing at Oakland the “College of California,” which in 1869 was merged in the University of California, and the presidency of which he declined. He thus belongs by birth, by training, and by professional activity to that hinterland—consisting of the valleys of the Connecticut and the Housatonic, and of the Litchfield and Berkshire Hills—whose orthodoxy has stood out against the liberal movements of the coast line from Boston to Newport.

Bushnell disliked what to his richly mystical temperament seemed the baldness of Unitarianism, and he re-established on a new basis many of the institutes of orthodoxy, notably the Trinity and the Atonement. Yet he consistently opposed all dogma, not because it was bigoted on the one hand or lax on the other, but because of the inadequacy of language as such to convey the religious mysteries which his piety bade him hold fast despite their logical contradictions. Mere logic he distrusted so deeply that its contradictions, dilemmas, antinomies were to him no arguments against a belief. According to a well-known anecdote, Bushnell, finding a college-mate stropping his razor all in one direction, bade him oppose his strokes to each other, a procedure which has been accepted as typical of Bushnell’s dialectic, and which is not unlike Hegel’s. Contradictories merely led him to a higher resultant—a mystical synthesis and a sort of credo quia impossibile. He saved impossible dogmas by turning them into sacraments.

At the same time, the rationalist in him offered to weaker faiths a modus vivendi. The Trinity, whose essence was a mystery inexpressible in language, was reconcilable with the divine unity in that it was a mode and an instrument by which the Absolute revealed itself to and worked upon finite souls. This epistemological view, which is said to go back to Sabellius, was perhaps a novelty in American theology; its pragmatism and distrust of logic seem even to be anticipations. In much the same way Bushnell retained the doctrine of the Atonement by attributing to it a moral effect upon the human soul, instead of the old-fashioned governmental or legalistic function of paying a debt, expiating a crime, or mending a broken law. These positions he promulgated in his God in Christ (1849), with its introductory Dissertation on the Nature of Language as Related to Thought and Spirit, in Christ in Theology (1851), and in The Vicarious Sacrifice (1856). For the old revivals, with their sudden superemotional conversions, he also substituted the concept of a gradual education in Christianity; Christian Nurture (1847), like Jacob Abbott’s The Young Christian (1832), directs the attention of those who would be of the faith toward the possibility of growing in it by a process open to all mankind, the process of training. In his attitude toward the abolition of slavery, Bushnell was likewise detached from the extremists. Here, too, he believed less in drastic measures than in education and in the gradual workings of nature under Providence. In the same way he assumed toward the scientific movement of the mid-nineteenth century an attitude at once decisive and concessive. Whatever science might have to say about the rigour of causation and necessity within the physical world, man was always to be recognized as an essentially free supernatural being, placed literally above nature by his alliance with the divine. Yet the two realms, of necessity and of freedom, were held together by a Deity immanent in both (Nature and the Supernatural, 1858).

Without being a compromiser, Bushnell thus works rapprochements everywhere. His thought holds all subjects suspended in a sort of Platonic solvent, conciliating opposites—not without sometimes confusing them. Yet he continues with vigour the tradition of Plato, Hegel, and Coleridge, and is a genuine religious thinker, whose importance in the history of American thought has perhaps not been generally recognized. In many ways he suggests William James. Moreover, he has a style, nervous, clean, and racy. Kept fresh by its “antiseptic” virtue, his Literary Varieties—the volumes of essays entitled Work and Play (1864), and Moral Uses of Dark Things (1868) and Building Eras in Religion (1881)—will still richly reward a reader. Indeed, all of Bushnell’s prose, though manifestly influenced by Emerson, by Carlyle, and by Ruskin, yet possesses its own peculiar vitality, a pulsation that at its best may be likened, to use a metaphor of his own, to the beat of wings.