Brownson, Orestes

Orestes BrownsonOrestes Augustus Brownson (Sept. 16, 1803-April 17, 1876) as a maverick Universalist and Unitarian minister, then an independently-minded journalist, essayist, and critic, was a wide-ranging commentator on politics, religion, society, and literature with connections to the Transcendentalist movement. Disillusioned with liberal religion and radical politics, in 1844 he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Catholic intellectual, a constitutional conservative, and a fierce critic of Protestantism.

Orestes was born in the frontier village of Stockbridge, Vermont. He and his twin sister were the youngest children of Sylvester Brownson and his wife Relief Metcalf. In 1805 Sylvester died, leaving a destitute 28-year-old widow with five children. Orestes lived with his mother until he was six, old enough to remember her Universalist teaching about the “gift of a Saviour’s love to sinners.” He was then sent to live with an older couple in Royalton, Vermont. They were Congregationalists but did not attend church because they disapproved of the evangelical preaching in their local church. They instructed Orestes in the rudiments of the Reformed faith and encouraged him to explore the religious options Royalton had to offer. He did not unite with any church but had a rich spiritual life centered on private reading of the Bible.

When Orestes was 14, his family was reunited and moved to Ballston, New York, near Saratoga. Orestes was apprenticed to James Comstock, the owner, editor and printer of the Independent American newspaper, in the fashionable resort of Ballston Spa. Accustomed to the relative equality of a Vermont farming village, Orestes was shocked by the extravagance of the resort’s guests and the servility of the slaves, servants, and staff who catered to them. “Wealth, more frequently the veriest shadow of wealth, no matter how got or how used, is the real god, the omnipotent Jove, of modern idolatry,” he wrote bitterly. Brownson’s work on the newspaper was the beginning of his political education. From Comstock, he absorbed the idea that democracy was threatened by money and privilege and that “nonproducers” such as lawyers, bankers, and the clergy were parasites living off the labor of the working class. These principles remained the basis of his politics throughout the 1820s and 1830s.

At the urging of his aunt, Asenath Delano, a leader of the small Universalist society in Ballston, Brownson read some basic Universalist literature. He was unimpressed by Elhanan Winchester, Charles Chauncy, and Joseph Huntington, and disturbed by Hosea Ballou‘s Treatise on Atonement. Ballou’s ridicule of orthodox belief, together with the worldly and irreligious atmosphere of Ballston Spa, caused Brownson to wonder if there was any truth to religion at all. In an 1834 letter, he wrote that he “was soon a Deist, and before I was seventeen an Atheist.” When he was 19, however, he made a desperate attempt to regain his faith by joining the Presbyterian church. The experience was an unhappy one, and he left the church after nine months.

By this time Brownson’s apprenticeship had ended. He studied for a few months at Ballston Academy, then became a schoolteacher in nearby Stillwater and in Camillus, in western New York. In 1824 he took a teaching position in Springwells, Michigan, near Detroit. Within a few months, he contracted malaria, and spent most of his time in Michigan ill or convalescing. In less than a year he was back in Camillus. His brief stay in Michigan may nevertheless have changed the course of his life. Detroit at that time was a largely French-speaking, Catholic community. At a time when most Americans thought of Catholicism as, at best, an obsolete religion superseded by a more advanced form of Christianity, Brownson was one of the few American Protestants to have experienced the Catholic church as a living and benign presence.

During his time in Springwells and Camillus, Brownson continued to consider the arguments for and against universal salvation. In 1825 he declared himself a Universalist. He consulted Dolphus Skinner, the Universalist minister in Saratoga Springs, New York, about entering the ministry. Skinner recommended that he study with his own mentor, Samuel Loveland. Brownson was soon after accepted into fellowship as a Universalist evangelist. During 1825-26 he prepared for the ministry under Loveland’s guidance. He was ordained in 1826.

Brownson spent the three and one-half years of his Universalist ministry at a succession of small churches in New York state. After his ordination, he obtained a temporary position supplying pulpits in Fort Ann and Whitehall, near the Vermont border. This was followed by a series of settlements in central New York: Litchfield, 1826-27; Ithaca and Genoa, 1827-28; and Auburn, 1829. In 1827 Brownson married Sally Healy, a daughter of the family with which he had boarded while teaching in Camillus. The couple eventually had eight children.

Shortly after arriving in New York, Brownson was caught up in a dispute about the advisability of organizing a New York State Convention of Universalists. He joined a group of ministers, led by Linus Smith Everett, who opposed the convention out of concern about its ill-defined and, in their opinion, arbitrary disciplinary powers. This drove a wedge between Brownson and Dolphus Skinner, who was one of the convention’s strongest supporters.

When Everett moved to Massachusetts in late 1828, he arranged for Brownson to succeed him as minister at Auburn and as editor of a Universalist newspaper, the Gospel Advocate. An inexperienced editor, Brownson soon became embroiled in a dispute with Theophilus Fisk, a former owner of the Gospel Advocate. In the course of the argument, Fisk charged that Brownson had renounced Christianity and become “a secret agent of infidelity.”

Though Brownson’s theology was less orthodox than Fisk’s, it was well within the range of opinions held by Universalists of his time. Many Universalists, however, were prepared to believe Fisk’s allegations – particularly after Brownson defended Abner Kneeland, then being dismissed from his church on the ground of infidelity, and wrote admiringly of the notorious freethinker Frances Wright. Even those who approved of Brownson’s theology criticized the Gospel Advocate for “splitting straws” with other Universalists instead of spreading the message of universal salvation. At a time when Universalists were worried by the rise of a confident and united evangelical party in American politics, they were particularly sensitive to anything that might bring the denomination into disrepute.

In October, 1829, Brownson returned from a six-week trip to New England to find that, in his absence, Dolphus Skinner had bought the Gospel Advocate. He merged it with his own Utica Magazine and eliminated Brownson’s editorial position. Unable to stay on as assistant editor or to find work on other Universalist publications, Brownson joined the staff of the Free Enquirer, the avowedly anti-religious paper co-edited by Frances Wright. This confirmed the mistaken idea that his enemies already had about him: that he was an “infidel,” and possibly mentally unbalanced as well. Brownson’s separation from the Universalist denomination was made formal in September 1830, when the Universalist General Convention voted “that there is full proof that said Kneeland and Brownson have renounced their faith in the Christian Religion, which renunciation is a dissolution of fellowship with this body.”

As the years went by, Brownson found it convenient to accept “infidelity” as the explanation for his departure from Universalism. As a Unitarian minister in the 1830s, he wore the “infidel” label with a certain degree of pride, using it to establish himself as an authority on the arguments most likely to appeal to unbelievers. His 1840 novel Charles Elwood, or the Infidel Converted was understood to be a thinly disguised history of his own case. After he converted to Catholicism, the story of his past infidelity fit in with the narrative of his progress toward Catholicism, and supported his case for the inadequacy and incoherence of Protestantism.

After his departure from the Universalists, Brownson renounced sectarian religion in favor of social reform, declaring himself to be a “philanthropist” rather than a “religionist.” For a few months in 1830 he edited the Genesee Republican, a newspaper of the Workingmen’s party in New York State, but he quickly decided that this party lacked the broad support necessary to spearhead an effective reform movement.

Just as he became disillusioned with Workingmen politics, Brownson experienced a spiritual conversion that led him to declare himself a Unitarian. Behind this re-conversion lay his belief that he detected a divine voice within his soul, an experience that reaffirmed for him the existence of a paternal God. By early 1831, Brownson had resumed preaching on an independent basis, affirming his affinity for Unitarians, who taught that “God is our Father, that all men are brethren, and that we should cultivate mutual good will.” In making this turn towards Unitarianism, Brownson had been influenced by William Ellery Channing, especially his 1828 sermon, “Likeness to God.”

Brownson established a newspaper called the Philanthropist, probably the only Unitarian periodical in New York State at the time. Although he managed to keep it afloat for about two years, he was forced to fold the insolvent paper in 1832. Financial necessity and growing ambitions led Brownson to seek a regular pulpit, with a salary to support himself, his wife, and two young sons. He accepted a call to Walpole, New Hampshire, a move that put him within the orbit of Boston, the center of American Unitarianism. He attended gatherings of the American Unitarian Association and began publishing essays in Boston Unitarian periodicals, including the Christian Register, the Unitarian, and the Christian Examiner.

In 1834 Brownson began serving the church in Canton, Massachusetts, fifteen miles from Boston. From that post, he began to advocate for fundamental social reform. In an 1834 Fourth of July address, for instance, Brownson expressed concern that economic inequality was growing, and noted that the nation was failing to live up to the principle of equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence. His social radicalism alienated some of his parishioners. When his contract was renewed in 1836, ten church members voted against his retention.

In the summer of 1836, Brownson seized upon an opportunity suggested by George Ripley, to become a minister-at-large for the poor and working classes of Boston (a position previously filled by Joseph Tuckerman). Moving his family to the suburb of Chelsea, Brownson launched the Society for Christian Union and Progress, which he hoped would allow him to unite Christianity with social reform. In 1836 he published a short book, New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church, in which he diagnosed the ills of contemporary Christianity and proposed a cure based upon the theological principle of atonement. He reinterpreted atonement by envisioning Jesus mediating between the spiritual and the material; once humanity understood the unity of the spiritual and the material, he believed, “Man [will] stand erect before God as a child before its father,” and therefore “Man will reverence man.” Brownson achieved rapid success in attracting listeners—hundreds attended his weekly preaching.

The Panic of 1837 inspired Brownson to sharpen his criticisms of the economic status quo. In a fervid sermon entitled “Babylon is Falling,” he predicted the end of the commercial system of banks and paper money, which he believed promoted “artificial inequality.” William Ellery Channing and other socially conservative Unitarians were less than pleased with Brownson’s radical pronouncements. Brownson, however, was energized by his time in Boston. In 1838 he launched the Boston Quarterly Review, in which he hoped to reach a larger audience.

The next several years were tumultuous for Brownson. In 1836, with a number of current and former Unitarian ministers, including his friend Ripley, Ralph Waldo EmersonFrederic Hedge, and Theodore Parker, he had attended the first meeting of what would become known as the Transcendentalist Club. Brownson expressed support for the basic principle of Transcendentalism: that every human had the potential to gain direct, intuitive access to spiritual and moral truth. Though he harshly criticized the radical individualism expressed by Emerson in his 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School graduates and by Parker in his 1841 sermon “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” Brownson nevertheless aligned himself with the Transcendentalists during the late 1830s and early 1840s.

Brownson harnessed his evolving religious beliefs to his desire for radical social and economic change. He called first for a new church and then, more radically, for “no church,” by which he meant the replacement of the morally hollow activities of praying and psalm-singing with strenuous effort to create an actual Christian community. He asserted that social reform is the true religion of Jesus: “No man can enter the kingdom of God, who does not labor with all zeal and diligence to establish the kingdom of God on the earth; who does not labor to bring down the high, and bring up the low; to break the fetters of the bound and set the captive free.” In his incendiary 1840 essay “The Laboring Classes,” he predicted possible class warfare—”now commences the new struggle between the operative and his employer, between wealth and labor”—and argued for a radical solution to the inequality generated by the wage system: the abolition of hereditary property and the creation of a fund to provide educational and occupational opportunities for all young men and women as they reached adulthood. The essay was greeted with intense hostility, even by his own Democratic party.

Brownson was disappointed by the response to his plan and devastated by the Whig victory in the presidential election of 1840. He believed that voters had been duped by the packaging of William Henry Harrison as the “man of the people” when the Whigs’ policies actually supported the economic interests of the wealthy and undermined constitutional limitations on government power. Brownson was one of the few people at the time who understood the implications of the commodification of public opinion and the threat it posed to democratic government. Of what use was theoretical political equality if the wealthy could use their wealth to convince the working classes to vote against their own best interests? “Man, against man and money,” he recognized, was “not an equal match.”

As Brownson became disillusioned with democratic politics and secular reform in general, he experienced another resurgence of faith that led him to return to preaching in 1842. Later that year, he published an open letter to Channing entitled The Mediatorial Life of Jesus. He believed that Pierre Leroux’s concept of the collective life of humanity explained the transmission of human sinfulness from generation to generation. He saw in this a means of redemption. Jesus, who was both divine and human, performed the critical function of transmitting his divine life to humanity. All that humanity needed to do to be saved was to join in communion with the divine essence of Jesus.

Orestes BrownsonIn early 1843 Brownson published an extraordinary series of articles in the Christian World, a new Unitarian periodical. After establishing a few key principles—that humans were sinful, that they needed to be redeemed, and that God had surely provided a means of redemption—Brownson began his intellectual march toward Rome. He explicitly repudiated traditional Protestant soteriology, denying that individuals could read the Bible profitably without guidance and arguing that faith was the result rather than the cause of being saved. What was needed, Brownson asserted, was a church that embodied Christ’s “life” (in Leroux’s sense) and that could provide both guidance and grace. The Christian World cut Brownson off before he could draw conclusions about what church deserved allegiance, but his trajectory made it clear enough that he no longer represented a Unitarian perspective.

For Brownson, it remained but to answer a historical question: which church was the true church? Ideally, the fragments of the church universal might unite, but barring that unlikely outcome, Brownson was beginning to see that his line of thought led him almost inexorably toward the Roman Catholic Church. In the July 1844 issue of Brownson’s Quarterly Review (he had revived his journal earlier that year), he announced his final conclusion: “either the church in communion with the See of Rome is the one holy catholic apostolic church or the one holy apostolic church does not exist.”

After Brownson, along with his wife and children, converted to Catholicism, he became an aggressive Catholic apologist, whose anti-Protestant rhetoric alienated even some Catholics. By the late 1850s he had adopted a more conciliatory tone, emphasizing the continuity between Catholic and American values, and encouraging Catholic immigrants to take their rightful place as Americans. His autobiography, The Convert, 1857, was part of his effort to explain Catholicism to Protestant Americans. During the 1860s, his most liberal Catholic period, he argued that the Catholic church should incorporate insights from modern science and democracy.

Although Brownson disapproved of slavery, before the Civil War he had opposed the abolitionist movement. Since he believed that labor for wages was tantamount to slavery, he did not think slavery justified placing the nation at risk. Once secession and war had actually come, he supported the Union and supported emancipation as a war measure. He became a Republican and ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, in 1862. After losing two sons in the war, in 1864 Brownson ended the twenty-year run of his Quarterly Review.

After the war Brownson continued to write for other Catholic publications. He remained an active lecturer and a prolific writer until his death in 1876. Although he sometimes accepted oversight from his bishop, he never abandoned the spirit of intellectual freedom that he had developed as a Universalist and a Unitarian.

The Archives of the University of Notre Dame hold the Orestes A. Brownson Papers. Letters written by Brownson exist in numerous libraries, including the Houghton Library at Harvard University. For early correspondence, see Daniel Barnes, “An Edition of the Early Letters of Orestes Brownson” (Univ. of Kentucky thesis, 1970). The best resource for locating Brownson’s published writings is Patrick W. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson: A Bibliography, 1826-1876 ( 1997). Most of Brownson’s published work is available in one of three editions: The Early Works of Orestes A. Brownson, 7 vols, edited by Patrick W. Carey (2000-2005), which collects Brownson’s writings up to 1844; The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, 20 vols, edited by Henry F. Brownson (1882-1906), which contains Brownson’s post-Catholic conversion publications; and Orestes Brownson: Works in Political Philosophy, 5 volumes (projected), edited by Greg Butler (2003- ).

Brownson’s autobiography, The Convert (1856), is an essential work, if used carefully and in the light of other sources. The best modern biography of Brownson is Patrick W. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane (2004). A number of older biographies, including Henry F. Brownson, Orestes A. Brown’s Early Life (1898), Middle Life (1899), and Later Life (1900); Theodore Maynard, Orestes Brownson: Yankee, Radical, Catholic (1943); and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Pilgrim’s Progress: Orestes A. Brownson (1939) continue to be valuable resources. Brownson’s earliest years are covered by Lynn Gordon Hughes, “The Making and Unmaking of an American Universalist: the Early Life of Orestes A. Brownson, 1803-1829” (Brown Univ. thesis, 2007). Part of this was published as “Orestes A. Brownson’s This-Worldly Universalism,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (2008). On Brownson’s middle years, see David J. Voelker, “Orestes Brownson and the Search for Authority in Democratic America” (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill dissertation, 2003). Philip F. Gura takes Brownson’s roles in the Unitarian and Transcendentalist movements seriously in American Transcendentalism: A History (2007). Ann C. Rose, Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850 (1981) and William R. Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance (1959) are also valuable studies on this count.

Article by Lynn Gordon Hughes and David Voelker
Posted November 2, 2009