Horace Bushnell:
a Forgotten Figure in our Congregational Heritage

The Rev. Robert L. Edwards
Pastor Emeritus,
Immanuel Congregational Church

March 10, 1993

It is a great pleasure, not to say an honor, to be invited to share in your Lent, and in your 350th anniversary celebration. Three-and-a-half centuries is a grand age, and what a wonderful tradition you have. Immanuel Church in Hartford, which I had the privilege of serving, was founded in 1824–a mere child!

We have lived in Connecticut now for over forty years, but for some reason I cannot boast any personal ties to Guilford. But we do live now as neighbors to some Guilford people. And since our subject is Horace Bushnell, we might note that Bushnell’s mother was a Bishop, descended from one of the Covenant signers of Guilford in 1639. Also, the man who acted as a kind of unofficial Secretary to Bushnell’s Class of 1827 at Yale was Ralph Dunning Smith, a lawyer and long-time genealogist and historian of this town. So there have been connections for Bushnell, if not for me.

Now I understand that you are looking back this Lent to our common Congregational heritage, and what relevant leads there may be there for church life near the end of the 20th century, and on into the 21st. Certainly it would be hard to summarize American Congregational history without giving space to Horace Bushnell. He lived, and lived greatly in this State from 1802 until 1876. I am not sure where you may be as to acquaintance with him. He may be quite unknown to you. Not too long ago he was unknown to me, too.

One way to approach him is to recall that period in which he lived. 1802 – 1876. The mere mention of dates like those is enough to remind us that his life was set in an extraordinary time — not a dreamy golden age, to be sure, but a dynamic, creative era. It was the time of the “flowering of New England.” It was the time when the Industrial Revolution was coming of age here. It was the time of the Second Great Awakening in religion. It was a time of political greatness, when men like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were lifting political leadership and oratory to new heights. It was the exciting time when reform movements optimistically worked for peace and temperance, women’s right, and above all the abolition of slavery. People in these movements were so earnest and hopeful that a man like Edward Everett Hale, of “The Man Without a Country” fame, could say that the leaders of Boston really expected to turn the City of Boston into the City of God. Quite a tall order! In a word, this was a new country coming of age, and as is often true when we are young, anything seemed possible.

There in the midst of it all was this wiry, strenuous, versatile Congregational minister from Hartford named Horace Bushnell. In his lifetime he was thought of as on a par with Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edward Everett, Longfellow and others. If Jonathan Edwards was the most eminent graduate of Yale as people commonly said, Horace Bushnell was not far behind, if, indeed, he was behind at all.

Even so there was nothing very impressive about his beginnings. He began life up in Litchfield County as the son of a farmer, who also in a small way was a miller. Young Horace was almost of age before he really thought he would ever be anything other than that himself, working 14-hour days in all weather, earning enough to live on, and someday having a family. Then, as he approached 20, he began to change his mind. Religion had a good deal to do with it. He thought maybe he might want to be a minister. So he entered Yale — even though his family really could not afford it. He made a good record for himself, and as we have mentioned, he graduated in 1827.

I do not know what Yale did to him. But when he graduated he had hardly an ounce of religion left in his soul! For sure, the ministry was the last vocation that appealed to him. He wondered what on earth to do next. Having no particular lead in any direction, he tried teaching school in Norwich. He hated it, and left in a matter of months to try journalism in New York. There he helped edit a sheet called the Journal of Commerce, which I am told you can still buy on the newsstands. After a year he gave up on that too, and for some reason turned to law. So back to Yale he went, this time to the Law School.

He had just about finished his course and was planning a legal and political career in Ohio, when the powerful religious revival of 1831 struck New Haven. He agonized over this, drawn this way and that. Finally in a kind of moral way he went with it. And since he never could do anything by halves, he changed from law to the Yale Divinity School, where for a fourth time he tried to find the profession that was meant for him. This time things went better. After finishing his theological studies he was called in 1833 to be minister of the North, or Third Congregational Church in Hartford. As it turned out it was the only charge he ever held.

When it called him the prestigious congregation took a real chance. Bushnell was unknown and untested. And Bushnell took a chance. It was a pretty large assignment for a first church, and if he failed, his career could well be permanently damaged. Both Bushnell and the church must have thought about this a number of times during his first few years. He had a rather shaky start. But in time it began to dawn on the North Church people that the man in their pulpit was no ordinary minister.

He began to emerge as a great preacher. He had a fresh way with sermon subjects, and with Biblical texts that made people want to be in church every Sunday. He began coming out with articles and books that marked him as a man of original Christian thought. As a result he gained a national and an international reputation. Few today would question that he was the leading American Christian theologian of the 19th century — the successor in that regard to Thomas Hooker in the 17th century, and Jonathan Edwards in the 18th. The Gospel faith many of us hold today very likely has been shaped and enriched by his insights.

Along with this he developed as a civic leader of major importance. You could argue he was one of the most colorful and versatile figures the century can show, in touch with about as many main currents in the secular life of his era as anyone you can name. It has to be rather fascinating that the same man who was a prince in the pulpit was also a competent engineer. He held two U.S. patents in his own name, loved to lay out routes for railroads and canals, and was a pioneer in city planning. It has to be rather amazing that the same man who wrote solid theological books was also looked to by the Hartford business community to give it a new sense of direction, especially when depressions came along, as they did then as now. It has to be remarkable that the same man who loved the quiet of his study was also a vigorous outdoor enthusiast, a born sailor, a good fisherman, a bowler, a daring mountain-climber and traveller, and a good family man.

All this, however, did not always come easily. For one thing he battled wretched health. For nearly half his days Bushnell had to fight against TB. He was in a real sense a semi-invalid, and at times depression drove him to thoughts of suicide. In his civic efforts he had to battle political opposition. If you want to follow up on any of that there are chapters in the book — especially about the creation of Bushnell Park in Hartford, which was a battle from Day One.

And most of all, he had to battle bitter opposition against his theological ideas. Bushnell grew up under the influence of a great American system of Christian thought. It was called the New England theology, and was held by many fine minds and devout spirits. But it was growing old and out of touch. You may remember Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous poem on “The Deacon’s One Hoss Shay.” It held together for a hundred years and a day, and then suddenly collapsed. That humorous verse was meant in part as a caricature of a dying Calvinism in the 1850’s. The trouble with the beliefs of this school was that they tended to make God too harsh and remote. They tended to think of unredeemed people as so sinful and helpless as to have almost no humanity left. They attempted to analyze the nature of Christ in such detail that he became more of a diagram than a living power. As a result intelligent people were beginning to complain. There must be more to the Gospel than all this. And if not, they were leaving. And some, of course, did leave — Emerson, for example, and his Transcendentalist followers. The Unitarians already had departed.

What Horace Bushnell did was to be a voice for pained and puzzled believers who did not leave, but remained in the churches. In no way did he flatten or weaken Gospel demands. But he preached a more balanced evangel. His God was always in command. But God was also closer and more merciful. One of Bushnell’s great sermons was on “The Gentleness of God.” He gave his parishioners new hope that for all their faults they always could respond to the call of Christ and be accepted. In a word he recaptured some of the mystery, the wonder and poetry of the New Testament, and made it again the beautiful and powerful message that it is.

Now to many of us this sounds congenial enough. But to the establishment in Bushnell’s day it was anything but congenial. It was a terrible threat. Leaders in New England saw Bushnell as a traitor, and they put him through five years and more of punishing inquisition. They made something of a career of trying to drive him from the pulpit and from the ministry altogether. You could say they once came within a single vote of succeeding. Meanwhile, the controversy divided the churches, tormenting some people and comforting others.

We might illustrate the conflict with the reaction to an address Bushnell gave at Yale in 1848 on “The Divinity of Christ.” In it he set forth some of his dissents from the establishment, and some of his more positive ideas. After it was over one woman left the church, very upset. “They have taken away my Lord,” she complained, “and I do not know where they have laid him.” Yet a young student who had listened to the same address was heard to say, “I could kiss the soul of Dr. Bushnell!” There it was. It was a battle it took Bushnell the rest of his life to win, if indeed it was won even then.

Well, these are some of the many aspects of this unusual life. Read more about them in the book if they interest you. Meanwhile what might the Bushnell of 150 years ago have to say now — to a church like yours, or any of our churches, looking toward the 21st century?

First, be a confident church. And in a pluralistic, secular society, make it your first business to preach the Gospel without hesitation or apology. In this century Bushnell has generally been labelled a liberal. In a way he was. Yet strange as it may seem, he himself intensely disliked the term. To him it was slippery and vague. It implied a Christianity that was too easy, too lacking in distinctive content, and too adjusted to the surrounding culture. He wanted no part of it. When he finally resigned from his ministry at the North Church in 1859 and bade farewell to his people, he urged them to avoid at all costs what he called “a vapid [or empty] liberalism.” “Assert above all,” he advised them “a supernatural Gospel; for there is, in fact, no other.”

That may well be a good word still. If I may bear a little testimony here, I might say my work has been in a main line church. But like a good many such ministers, I have been around a little on the outside–in academic communities, in the military, some contact with government, and I am a newspaper addict. I know it is nothing very new to say, but the farther along I get, the more I realize that the Christian message is not like all that out there. It is concerned for it, of course. But it is different. Christmas is news from another network. The Cross and Easter call us to another kind of life. Pentecost gives us another kind of power.

Back in the supposedly liberal 1960’s and 1970’s we used to say as though we had made some big new discovery, “Let the world set the agenda.” But I am not sure that led us anywhere. Maybe it is time now to say again in our Christian congregations, “Let the Church set the agenda. And if, after we have done our best with it in faith and hope and love, the world does not always buy it — that we can safely leave in the hands of the Eternal.” It seems to me that is what Bushnell was saying to his people when he spoke of being faithful to the “supernatural Gospel.” And it may be a message for us to hear again.

Under quite another heading. Bushnell surely would be telling us to take very seriously the raising of our children. As many of you will know, his most famous book was not about complicated theological ideas, or big civic issues. It was about children — Christian Nurture it is called, and it has become an American classic. In it he writes about such things as the importance of the first two or three years of childhood as crucial to all the rest of life. He speaks of the importance to children of the atmosphere of home and church and school as just as important, or maybe more important than anything we say or do. In it he discussed good communication between parents and children, and not just leaving children to flounder as to their religious choice, but giving them an affectionate lead.

If you read this book — and professionals and other people still do — you have to get through a certain amount of wordiness. Some passages inevitably are dated. But it is uncanny how time and again it is as though Bushnell were looking right at the problems and pressures we face today. Goodness knows, those are almost overwhelming for parents and children alike. But all the more reason why the church needs to be a special center of sensitivity when it comes to children, not letting other interests demolish their childhood. Certainly it is one of Horace Bushnell’s most attractive traits that all his life he was concerned for children, and related well to them, including a very good relationship with his own children. As you look to your future, Bushnell might well be of help here.

Then lastly, Bushnell would urge us not to be too afraid of letting religion influence our political life. As most of us are, and as the Constitution is, he was opposed to having the Church as an institution, and the State as an institution, get too close. But religious influence back and forth is another matter.

What is politics, after all? It is simply the way we decide to get along together in community. That involves values. And what is religion at its best about but the best values for us to live by — not only individually, but corporately. It was axiomatic with him that nothing finally lay outside the sphere of Christian faith. All his own involvements in secular life, from Bushnell Park to his work in education, or even his interest in commerce, stemmed from Christian motives.

I confess that I do not always find Bushnell a sure political guide. He could get pretty discouraged about democracy. We can feel for that! But surely he was right in this: that democracy as we know it is not likely to survive for long without a Christian foundation under it. I am sure he would be urging us as much in our day as in his to keep up the old New England Congregational tradition. Refresh faith in here week by week. Then bring it to bear out there on community and national — and today international — life. In the Gospel according to Horace Bushnell, that needs to be part of our vision for any future.

Time is up. But there in broad brush is something of Bushnell, and his legacy. And speaking of legacy, his best legacy may well have been not anything he said or did, but the man himself. That is what his contemporaries remembered most about him. Not that he was a perfect man. He had his handicaps and weaknesses. But he was a figure of great Christian insight and courage and hope. As they said of him at the time, he kept “a sharp outlook upon the moving great world.” But he also looked with undaunted eye into the reaches of eternity. A man indeed “of singular genius”–no doubt of that. But also one “of singular grace.”

A rare combination. He is a significant part of our New England Congregational heritage. And knowing he is there in our past could well help us into a meaningful future. Blessings on you in yours.

Thank you for your patient listening.