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 on Horace Bushnell
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 Biography 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.
Horace Bushnell, (born April 14, 1802, Bantam, Connecticut, U.S.—died February 17, 1876, Hartford, Connecticut), Congregational minister and controversial theologian, sometimes called “the father of American religious liberalism.” He grew up in the rural surroundings of New Preston, Connecticut, joined the Congregational Church in 1821, and in 1823 entered Yale with plans to become a minister. After his graduation in 1827, however, he taught school briefly, served as associate editor of the New York Journal of Commerce, and studied law at Yale. Not until 1831, after he had qualified for the bar, did his religious doubts diminish sufficiently for him to begin his theological education. He entered Yale Divinity School and in 1833 was ordained minister of the North Congregational Church in Hartford, where he served for more than 20 years until ill health forced his resignation.
A major figure in American intellectual history, Bushnell stood between the orthodox tradition of Puritan New England and the new romantic impulses represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and especially Friedrich Schleiermacher. His first significant publication, Christian Nurture (1847), was a thorough critique of the prevailing emphasis placed on the conversion experience by revivalists. In God in Christ (1849), published in the year of his mystical experience that illumined the gospel for him, Bushnell challenged the traditional, substitutionary view of the atonement (i.e., that the death of Christ was the substitute for man’s punishment for sin) and considered problems of language, emphasizing the social, symbolic, and evocative nature of language as related to religious faith and the mysteries of God. Christ in Theology (1851) amplified and defended his attitude toward theological language, giving special attention to metaphoric language and to an instrumental view of the Trinity. In Nature and the Supernatural (1858) he viewed the twin elements of the title as constituting the one “system of God” and sought to defend from skeptical attack the Christian position on sin, miracles, incarnation, revelation, and Christ’s divinity.
Bushnell’s views were bitterly attacked, and in 1852 North Church withdrew from the local “consociation” in order to preclude an ecclesiasticalheresy trial. Despite such opposition, however, his ability to assemble and present coherent arguments guaranteed the impact and influence of his interpretation of Christianity. Among his numerous works are The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866), Forgiveness and Law (1874), and six volumes of essays and sermons. An essay on “Science and Religion” (1868) shows his resistance to Darwinian evolutionary theory. His moderate and cautious views on social issues are recorded in A Discourse on the Slavery Question (1839); The Census and Slavery (1860); and Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature (1869).