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.
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.
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. □