Orestes Augustus Brownson

Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876) was an American clergyman, transcendentalist, and social activist. He passed through the whole range of American religion, from nebulous Unitarianism to firmly disciplined Catholicism.

Orestes A. Brownson was born in Stockbridge, Vt., on Sept. 16, 1803, to Sylvester Augustus and Relief Metcalf Brownson. He was entrusted to the care of neighbors after his father died and his mother could not support him. Brownson grew up on a small farm, educated only by his own reading; farm work toughened him and self-education trained his mind. From the start, his bent was toward the church. In 1822 he became a Presbyterian, but he was uncomfortable with the Presbyterian doctrines of election and reprobation. Universalism, on the other hand, preached that all men could be saved and that over the universe presided a loving rather than a just God. In 1826 he became a Universalist minister.

The following year Brownson married Sally Healy and embarked on a restless pastorate. He preached in Vermont, New Hampshire, and upstate New York, seeking not only the ideal pulpit but the ideal theology. In 1829 he became the editor of a church paper, the Gospel Advocate. But he gradually developed doubts about Universalism too, questioning Christ's divinity, the Bible's authenticity, and the idea of eternal life. The one denomination more open than Universalism was Unitarianism, so from 1832 he served as a Unitarian minister. In 1836 he shook off this last affiliation and formed his own congregation in Boston.

Significantly, the new congregation was made up of poor people. Brownson had shown increasing interest in social action, particularly in bettering the condition of New England's urban poor. Before forming his Boston church, he had been a socialist and had helped set up the Workingmen's party. Now he found that he could make his best contribution not through political activity but through the church. He expressed his ideas in New Views of Christianity, Society and the Church (1836).

Brownson founded the Boston Quarterly Review in 1838. It outraged many New England conservatives by attacking inherited wealth, harsh criminal codes, and organized religion and espousing the cause of the poor and the Democratic party. In 1842 he merged his magazine with the Democratic Review; the merger proved unsuccessful, and 2 years later he reestablished his own journal as Brownson's Quarterly Review.

Meanwhile, though he remained an individualist, he found friends and allies among members of the transcendentalist movement. Their rather vague philosophy had little appeal for him, but he admired their unconventional stance and joined in their occasional efforts at social reform. Among his friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, George Ripley, and William Ellery Channing. Brownson sent his son Orestes to the transcendentalist commune Brook Farm.

In 1844 Brownson's supporters experienced a shock. The man they had systematically identified with individualism and dissent suddenly joined the Roman Catholic Church. He embraced his new denomination with more ardor than he had shown for any other, becoming that classic figure, the convert with more zeal than any cradle Catholic. The steps in his conversion are described in The Convert; or Leaves from My Experience (1857).

Brownson's conversion dealt a blow to the Review, which lost many Protestant and agnostic readers but failed to add many Catholic ones. It endured as an essentially Catholic journal until January 1865, and he revived it again in 1872 for 3 years.

Brownson was extraordinarily active throughout his life. His pen was seldom still. He contributed to other magazines besides his own and published several books. In old age, still driven by abundant energy, Brownson moved from place to place restlessly, as in his early days. He died in Detroit on April 17, 1876.

Further Reading on Orestes Augustus Brownson

The Works of Orestes A. Brownson (20 vols., 1882-1907) was edited by Brownson's son, Henry F. Brownson, who also wrote Orestes A. Brownson's Life (3 vols., 1898-1900). Two good biographies of Brownson exist: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress (1939), traces Brownson's life especially as it related to his religious and social ideas; Theodore Maynard, Orestes Brownson: Yankee, Radical, Catholic (1943), written by a Catholic, emphasizes the years after Brownson's conversion. See also Lawrence Roemer, Brownson on Democracy and the Trend toward Socialism (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Ryan, Thomas R. (Thomas Richard), Orestes A. Brownson: a definitive biography, Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1976.

McDonnell, James M. (James Michael), Orestes A. Brownson and nineteenth-century Catholic education, New York: Garland, 1988.