Orello Cone (November 16, 1835-June 23, 1905), a Universalist minister and scholar, was a professor at the Theological School of St. Lawrence University and president of the Universalist Buchtel College. According to historian Russell Miller, “the greatest denominational contributions to religious scholarship in the late nineteenth century were made by Orello Cone in the field of Biblical criticism.”
Born in Lincklaen, Chenango County, New York, Orello was raised in a farming family. He was educated at the New Woodstock Academy and Cazenovia Seminary and began teaching school at age eighteen. Two years later, 1855-56, he served as principal of the Union School in Manlius, New York. After a short period of study at St. Paul’s College, an Episcopal school in Palmyra, Missouri, in 1858 he stayed on as principal of the preparatory department and assistant professor of Latin and Greek. After St. Paul’s suspended operations at the beginning of the Civil War, Cone briefly attended an Episcopal seminary. In 1862 he returned to central New York, where he was attracted to Universalism. He began preaching in the neighborhood of Cazenovia.
In 1864, having received Universalist fellowship, Cone was ordained at the recently-organized church in Little Falls, New York. After staying there for a year, he became professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at the Theological School at St. Lawrence University. While there he gained recognition as both a teacher and as a scholar, the latter through his frequent contributions on New Testament criticism to the Universalist Quarterly. In 1877 he received an honorary D.D. from Lombard College.
Three years later Cone left Canton to become president of financially-troubled Buchtel College, a Universalist institution in Akron, Ohio. He worked to expand the small student body by recruiting non-Universalists students. He was a frequent contributor to and co-editor of the New World beginning in 1892. Because he emphasized scholarship over administration, fund-raising, and the football team (coached in 1894 by the legendary John Heisman), in 1896 he was forced by the Ohio State Convention to resign. He then spent a year studying at the University of Berlin and at Paris and London, enhancing his expertise in the field of Higher Criticism (analysis of the Bible to establish its authorship and the background to its composition). According to Thomas R. Slicer of All Souls Church in New York, Cone was there “imbued with the exact methods of German scholarship” and recognized as “an original worker in their own field of biblical criticism.”
Back in the United States, Cone served as minister of the Unitarian church in Lawrence, Kansas, 1897-99. Unlike many of his Universalist colleagues, Cone welcomed association with Unitarians. During the 1890s he promoted Universalist cooperation with Unitarians, Reform Jews, Ethical Culturists, and other religious liberals by means of the American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies, commonly referred to as the “Liberal Congress.” In 1886 he attended a conference of religious liberals at Lake Chautauqua, known as the “Lakewood School of New Theology,” where, for the first time in memory, Universalists and Unitarians shared the same lecture platform. In 1888 he proposed, without success, a new statement of Universalist beliefs designed to replace the Winchester Profession of 1803.
In 1899 Cone returned to St. Lawrence University as Richardson Professor of Biblical Theology and Ethics. By then, through his writings, he had established himself as one of the foremost interpreters and expositors of current European biblical scholarship. One reviewer wrote, “Those who have free access to the works of the German, French, and Dutch critics of the modern schools will still be glad to find here in a thoroughly digested form the most reasonable conclusions of these critics set forth in readable style and tested by the judicial temper and eminent common-sense which do not always accompany sound learning.”
In his book Gospel-Criticism and Historical Christianity, 1891, Cone concluded that although the Gospels “contain unhistorical elements . . . the historical ground of the beginning of Christianity is securely established in the common tradition of the synoptics.” This work was regarded by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., as late as 1932, as “the ablest work in its field from an American pen.” In Gospel Criticism and Its Earliest Interpreters, 1893, Cone explained his impartial method of Biblical scholarship: “The historical and critical treatment of the Biblical writings proceeds upon the presumption that they are literature, and applies to them the canons of literary and historical criticism. It is indifferent to the relations which its results may hold to any doctrines or traditions however cherished and venerable. Its sole aim is to ascertain the facts. These it leaves to the dogmatic theologian, who may make of them whatever he can.”
After his stay in Berlin Cone wrote Paul, The Man, the Missionary, and the Teacher, 1898. Slicer commented that “the Orthodox position concerning the work of Christ may be much reinforced by Dr. Cone’s treatment” because “he does not allow his own theological view to interfere with doing full justice to Pauline theology.” In Rich and Poor in the New Testament, 1902, Cone refuted those who portrayed Jesus as an early anarchist or socialist revolutionary. Instead of a propounding a specific program or preaching a vision of social change, Jesus taught an attitude towards riches and poverty, and embodied a spirit, that might be applied to alleviate the social ills by reformers in any age.
Cone edited and translated a collection of essays by the German Biblical scholar Otto Pfleiderer, Evolution and Theology and Other Essays, 1900. Cone thought that the “conflict” between science and religion had “arisen from the opposition of priests and theologians to the conclusions of scientific investigation.” He considered science, describing the physical world, and religion, presenting the spiritual world, supporting aspects of truth operating in different realms. In “Evolution and Revelation,” Universalist Quarterly, 1885, he argued that science, which “had unveiled the hidden secrets of nature [and revealed] the grandeur of the universe and its wonderful economy, its order, harmony and laws,” made the foundation of religion more secure. Science, however, demonstrated the method of creation, not the force behind it. In “New Testament Criticism and Religious Belief,” New World, 1892, he proclaimed that the scientific method applied alike to science and religion. “When Christian faith shall have become critical, that is, when men shall have come to reason about which they believe, instead of unthinkingly accepting traditional doctrines, they will see the divine accord of all truth.” Because of Cone’s advocacy of evolution, in 1894 the editor of the Universalist Leader rejoiced that “with a grateful welcome to Biblical Criticism—whether the Lower or the Higher—we conjoin a growing belief that Evolution is here to stay.”
Cone continued to teach and carry on scholarly work almost to the end of his life. In 1902 he taught in the Harvard Summer School of Theology. He died in Canton in his seventieth year.
The general spirit of Cone’s writing on the Bible has not been superceded. Yet in the century since his death there have been so many developments in Bible scholarship that the modern literature of Biblical criticism no longer references his work. He was a man of his time: an effective and lucid communicator, who arranged and disseminated the then cutting-edge ideas and techniques for the educated public.
Although not as well-remembered in the history of American Biblical interpretation as his colleagues in the Society of Biblical Literature, Presbyterians Charles A. Briggs and Henry Preserved Smith, who, belonging to a larger and more conservative faith group, aroused more opposition (they were both tried for heresy), Cone was among the earliest in the Society to unequivocally advocate the Higher Criticism. Henry Prentiss Forbes, Cone’s successor as Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature and dean of the St. Lawrence Theological School during Cone’s second period of tenure there, praised him: “A man of robust intelligence, of keen, critical insight, a scholar who loved the quiet and severe tasks of learning, a theologian of wide reaching and rational conviction, he brought honor and fame to himself, to St. Lawrence University and to the Universalist denomination.”
There are institutional archives at St. Lawrence University in Canton New York and the University of Akron (Buchtel) in Akron, Ohio. Cone edited the International Handbooks to the New Testament (IHNT) and Essays Doctrinal and Practical (1889). In addition to the works mentioned above, he contributed Epistles to the Hebrews, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, the Pastoral Epistles, James, Peter, and Jude (1901) to the IHNT and wrote Salvation (1889) and Universalism, What It Is, and What It Is Good For (1898). Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, Vol. 2 (1985) contains a modest amount of information on Cone and his work. There are biographical entries in the Dictionary of American Biography (1928), The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1952), David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985), and Mark Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004). There is an obituary in the Universalist Register (1906).
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted June 19, 2007