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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Horace Bushnell (1802–1876)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Theodore Thornton Munger (1830–1910)
 
HORACE BUSHNELL was born in 1802 in Litchfield, Connecticut, and reared in New Preston, a hamlet near by. He was graduated at Yale College in 1827, and after a year of editorial service on the Journal of Commerce in New York he became tutor in Yale College, studied theology at the same time, and in 1833 was settled in the ministry over a Congregational church in Hartford, Connecticut. He resigned his charge in 1853 on account of ill health, but lived till 1876, filling the years to the last with arduous study and authorship. He published three volumes of sermons, two of essays and addresses, a treatise on Women’s Suffrage, under the title ‘A Reform against Nature,’ and five treatises of a theological character. Each of the latter was a distinct challenge to the prevailing thought of his day, and involved him in suspicion and accusation that well-nigh cost him his ecclesiastical standing. It is now generally acknowledged that he led the way into the new world of theological thought which has since opened so widely, and thereby rendered great and enduring service to the Christian faith.  1
  It is enough to say of his work in this respect that it was characterized by a mingling of the thought of the first three centuries, and of the modern spirit which had found its way from Germany into England through Coleridge. The two did not always agree well, and the latter is the predominating feature in all his writings. He was the first theologian in New England to admit fully into his thought the modern sense of Nature, as it is found in the literature of the early part of the century, and notably in Wordsworth and Coleridge. Dr. Bushnell was not a student of this literature beyond a thorough and sympathetic study of ‘The Aids to Reflection,’ but through this open door the whole spirit of that great thought movement entered his mind and found a congenial home. The secret of this movement was a spiritual interpretation of nature. It was a step in the evolution of human thought; and appearing first in literature, its natural point of entrance, it was sure to reach all forms of thought, as in time to come it will reach all forms of social life. The thing that the world is rapidly learning is, that not only is the world God’s but that God is in his world. Bushnell was by nature immensely open to this thought, and its undertone can be heard in almost every page of his writings. It was this that gave value to his works and made them exceptional in his day and place. Each of his great treatises is, with more or less distinctness, an effort to put natural things and divine things into some sort of relevance and oneness.  2
  He took the path by which superior minds have always found their way into new realms of truth. They do not pass from one school to another, but instead rise into some new or some larger conception of nature and start afresh. All gains in philosophy and religion and civilization have been made by further inroads into nature, and never in any other way. Dr. Bushnell, with the unerring instinct of a discoverer, struck this path and kept it to the end. At the bottom of all his work lies a profound sense of nature, of its meaning and force in the realm of the spirit. He did not deny a certain antithesis between nature and the supernatural, but he so defined the latter that the two could be embraced in the one category of nature when viewed as the ascertained order of God in creation. The supernatural is simply the realm of freedom, and it is as natural as the physical realm of necessity. Thus he not only got rid of the traditional antinomy between them, but led the way into that conception of the relation of God to his world which more and more is taking possession of modern thought. In his essay on Language he says (and the thought is always with him as a governing principle):—“The whole universe of nature is a perfect analogon of the whole universe of thought or spirit. Therefore, as nature becomes truly a universe only through science revealing its universal laws, the true universe of thought and spirit cannot sooner be conceived.” Thus he actually makes the revelation of spiritual truth wait on the unfolding of the facts and laws of the world of nature. There is something pathetic in the attitude of this great thinker sitting in the dark, waiting for disclosures in nature that would substantiate what he felt was true in the realm of the spirit. A generation later he would have seen the light for which he longed—a light that justifies the central point of all his main contentions.  3
  His first and most important work, ‘Christian Nurture,’ contended that the training of children should be according to nature,—not in the poor sense of Rousseau, but that it should be divinely natural. So ‘Nature and the Supernatural,’ whatever place may be accorded to the book to-day, was an effort to bring the two terms that were held as opposite and contradictory, into as close relation as God is to his laws in nature. So in ‘The Vicarious Sacrifice’ his main purpose was to take a doctrine that had been dwarfed out of its proper proportions, and give to it the measure of God’s love and the manner of its action in human life. Dr. Bushnell may or may not have thought with absolute correctness on these themes, but he thought with consummate ability, he wrote with great eloquence and power, and he left many pages that are to be cherished as literature, while theologically they “point the way we are going.”  4
  One of the most characteristic and interesting things about Dr. Bushnell is the method he took to find his way between this spiritual view of things and that world of theological orthodoxy where he stood by virtue of his profession. It was a very hard and dry world,—a world chiefly of definitions,—but it covered vital realities, and so must have had some connection with the other world. Dr. Bushnell bridged the chasm by a theory of language which he regarded as original with himself. It was not new, but he elaborated it in an original way and with great ability. In its main feature it was simply a claim to use in theology the symbolism of poetry; it regarded language as something that attempts to make one feel the inexpressible truth, rather than a series of definitions which imply that it can be exactly stated in words; it held that truth is larger than any form which attempts to express it; it images and reflects truth instead of defining it.  5
  This theory might be assumed without so long explication as he gave, but it was greatly needed in the theological world, which at that time was sunk in a sea of metaphysical definition, and consumed with a lust for explaining everything in heaven and earth in terms of alphabetic plainness. Dr. Bushnell was not only justified by the necessity of his situation in resorting to his theory, but he had the right which every man of genius may claim for himself. Any one whose thought is broader than that about him, whose feeling is deeper, whose imagination is loftier, is entitled to such a use of language as shall afford him fullest expression; for he alone knows just how much of thought, feeling, and imagination, how much of himself, he puts into his words; they are coin whose value he himself has a right to indicate by his own stamp. There is no pact with others to use language in any given way, except upon some very broad basis as to the main object of language. The first object is not to secure definite and comprehensive understanding, but to give expression, and to start thought which may lead to full understanding—as the parable hides the thought until you think it out.  6
  Dr. Bushnell’s theory did not blind the ordinary reader. No writer is more easily apprehended by the average mind if he has any sympathy with the subjects treated; but it was an inconvenient thing for his theological neighbors to manage. While they insisted on “the evident meaning of the words,”—a mischievous phrase,—he was breathing his meaning into attentive souls by the spirit which he had contrived to hide within his words. It is a way that genius has,—as Abt Vogler says:—
  “But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear:
The rest may reason and welcome: ’tis we musicians know.”
  7
  The first thing that brought Dr. Bushnell out of the world of theology into the world of literature was his oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College in 1848. He had achieved a reputation as a preacher of remarkable insight for such as had ears to hear, and he was already in the thick of theological controversy; but his fine power of expression and breadth of thought had not been specially noticed. This oration introduced him into the world of letters. Mr. J. T. Fields—the most discerning critic of the day—said to the writer that the oration was heard with surprise and delight, and that it gave the speaker an assured place in the ranks of literature. That he should have been so readily welcomed by the literary guild is not strange, for the title of his oration—‘Work and Play’—led the way into a discussion of the secret that underlies all works of genius. For once, the possessor of the divine gift heard its secret revealed and himself explained to himself; his work was set before him as the full play of his spirit. Beginning with nature, where our author always began, and finding there a free and sportive element, he carries it into human life; making the contention that its aim should be, and that its destiny will be, to free itself from the constraint of mere work and rise into that natural action of the faculties which may be called play—a moral and spiritual process. His conclusion is that—
        “if the world were free,—free, I mean, of themselves; brought up, all, out of work into the pure inspiration of truth and charity,—new forms of personal and intellectual beauty would appear, and society itself reveal the Orphic movement. No more will it be imagined that poetry and rhythm are accidents or figments of the race, one side of all ingredient or ground of nature. But we shall know that poetry is the real and true state of man; the proper and last ideal of souls, the free beauty they long for, and the rhythmic flow of that universal play in which all life would live.”
  8
  The key to Dr. Bushnell is to be found in this passage, and it is safe to say of him that in hardly a page of a dozen volumes is he false to it. He is always a poet, singing out of “the pure inspiration of truth and charity,” and keeping ever in mind that poetry and rhythm are not figments outside of nature, but the real and true state of man and the proper and last ideal of souls.  9
  The centrality of this thought is seen in his style. It is a remarkable style, and is only to be appreciated when the man is understood. It is made up of long sentences full of qualifying phrases until the thought is carved into perfect exactness; or—changing the figure—shade upon shade is added until the picture and conception are alike. But with all this piling up of phrases, he not only did not lose proportion and rhythm, but so set down his words that they read like a chant and sound like the breaking of waves upon the beach. Nor does he ever part with poetry in the high sense in which he conceived it. I will not compare his style, as to merit, with that of Milton and Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne, but he belongs to their class; he has the same majestic swing, and like them he cannot forbear singing, whatever he may have to say. His theme may be roads, or city plans, or agriculture, or emigration, or the growth of law; yet he never fails of lifting his subject into that higher world of the imagination where the real truth of the subject is to be found, and is made to appear as poetry. It would be unjust to identify him so thoroughly with the poets if it should lead to the thought that he was not a close and rigorous thinker. It should not be forgotten that all great prose-writers, from Plato down to Carlyle and Emerson, stand outside of poetry only by virtue of their form and not by virtue of their thought; indeed, poet and thinker are interchangeable names. Dr. Bushnell wrote chiefly on theology, and the value and efficacy of his writings lie in the fact that imagination and fact, thought and sentiment, reason and feeling, are each preserved and yet so mingled as to make a single impression.  10
  This combination of two realms or habits of thought appears on every page. He was, as Novalis said of Spinoza, “A God-intoxicated man,” but it was God as containing humanity in himself. His theology was a veritable Jacob’s ladder, on which the angels of God ascend and descend; and if in his thought they descended before they ascended, it was because he conceived of humanity as existing in God before it was manifest in creation; and if his head was among the stars, his feet were always firmly planted on the earth. This twofoldness finds a curious illustration in the sub-titles of several of his books. ‘The Vicarious Sacrifice’ does not spring alone out of the divine nature, but is ‘Grounded in Principles of Universal Obligation.’ ‘Nature and the Supernatural’—the great antithesis in theology—constitute ‘The One System of God.’ ‘Women’s Suffrage’ is ‘The Reform against Nature’—the best book, I must be permitted to say, on either side of this much-debated question.  11
  It is a popular impression of Dr. Bushnell that he was the subject of his imagination, and that it ran away with him in the treatment of themes which required only severe thought: the impression is a double mistake: theology does not call for severe thought, alone nor mainly; but first and chiefly for the imagination, and the seeing and interpreting eye that usually goes with it; its object is to find spirit under form, to discover what the logos expresses. For this the imagination is the chief requisite. It is not a vagrant and irresponsible faculty, but an inner eye whose vision is to be trusted like that of the outer; it has in itself the quality of thought, and is not a mere picture-making gift. Dr. Bushnell trained his imagination to work on certain definite lines, and for a definite end—namely, to bring out the spiritual meaning hidden within the external form. He worked in the spirit of Coleridge’s words:—
                  “I had found
That outward forms the loftiest, still receive
Their finer influence from the Life within.”
  12
  No analysis or recapitulation of his works can be given in these preliminary words. Perhaps his most influential book is the first, ‘Christian Nurture’; while a treatise for the household, it was surcharged with theological opinions which proved to be revolutionary and epoch-making. ‘The Vicarious Sacrifice’ has most affected the pulpit. ‘Nature and the Supernatural,’ the tenth chapter of which has become a classic, has done great service in driving out the extreme dualism that invested the subject of God’s relation to creation. His ablest essay is the treatise on Language; the most literary is that on ‘Work and Play’; the most penetrating in its insight is ‘Our Gospel a Gift to the Imagination’; the most personal and characteristic is ‘The Age of Homespun.’ His best sermon is always the one last read; and they are perhaps his most representative work. The sermon is not usually ranked as belonging to literature, but no canon excludes those preached by this great man. They are timeless in their truth, majestic in their diction, commanding in their moral tone, penetrating in their spirituality, and pervaded by that quality without which a sermon is not one—the divine uttering itself to the human. There is no striving and crying in the streets, no heckling of saints nor dooming of sinners, no petty debates over details of conduct, no dogmatic assumption, no logical insistence, but only the gentle and mighty persuasions of truth, coming as if breathed by the very spirit of God.  13
  Language was to him “the sanctuary of thought,” and these sermons are the uttered worship in that temple where reason and devotion are one.  14
 
 
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