What Isaac Heckler Can Teach Us about America
Robichaud, Paul, The Catholic World
Isaac Hecker, Catholic evangelist and author, loved to talk about America. As a Protestant become a Catholic, Hecker saw his own story as paradigmatic for all Americans, for he believed that a synthesis between the Catholic faith and American culture was possible. While his life and ministry spanned most of the nineteenth century, this article asks if there is in the life and thought of Hecker an intuitive sense of the American character, or an understanding of American culture that continues to have value? Can this mid-nineteenth century visionary provide us a way to re-examine our society and recover some sense of our culture that we have lost?
Hecker was born in New York City in 1819 to a German American family who had become evangelical Methodists during the Second Great Awakening. Failing to find personal satisfaction in evangelical Christianity, Hecker spent his early twenties living among the Transcendentalists of New England, first at George Ripley's Brook Farm, and later at Brownson Alcott's brief experiment called Fruitlands. In the summer of 1844, he surprised his Transcendentalist friends by converting to Roman Catholicism. Ordained as a Redemptorist priest five years later, his own interest in working with non-Catholics like himself soon led to conflicts with his religious superiors, who were primarily concerned to develop ministry to immigrant Catholics.
Together with three other Redemptorist priests who were also converts, Isaac Hecker founded the Paulist Fathers in 1858, devoting his life and ministry to the evangelization of the American people. Based upon his own experience of conversion, Hecker came to believe that every American would in time become a Roman Catholic; that the Catholic faith would dramatically transform American culture; and that when the Catholic faith combined with the energy and youthfulness of the American people, a renewal of church throughout the entire world would soon take place. His enthusiastic vision and his hopes for the transformation of American culture and ultimately the entire Catholic world appear in three books that he wrote between 1855 and 1885, and in his monthly, The Catholic World, which he founded in 1865.(1)
HECKER'S HOPE FOR AMERICA
He was an optimist by nature, and his enthusiasm and hopefulness were infectious. His friend Orestes Brownson described Hecker in these terms, "He is one of those men whom you feel it is good to be with ... full of life and cheerfulness, he wins at once your love . . . he infuses as it were, his own sunshiny nature into your heart."(2) Hecker's optimism must be placed against the background of his life which was filled with disappointments, including his physical incapacity during the last fourteen of his sixty-nine years of fife. The fact that Hecker never lost hope in himself or America only adds to the power of his beliefs. In the summer of 1851, after his return to the United States to begin his priestly ministry, he wrote to Brownson, "Let it be known that we have hope in the future ... we are a young people, a vast immeasurable field is before us, and (we) have no overpowering monuments of the past to check our fresh enthusiasm or to dishearten us."(3)
Hecker's optimism was primarily derived from his own spirituality. An evangelical Protestant who, according to historian David O'Brien, became an evangelical Catholic, God's transforming spirit was at work for Hecker beneath the events that comprised his present moment. "God's Providence," a phrase Hecker derived from American Puritanism, was the movement of the Spirit of God which guided and directed each individual life as well as the large church in the world. The Holy Spirit was at work in each individual, prompting one's hopes and aspirations, imparting grace to endure, and illumination to understand, and taking the polarities of a person's life and bringing them into synthesis. Every experience of the Spirit became, for Hecker, one further example of the ultimate triumph that lay ahead. "We must. never forget," Hecker wrote, "that we are living members of Christ's living body, the Church, and that the life of the Church is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not given us occasionally, but always. The Spirit dwells within us."(4)
American culture served as a second source of Hecker's optimism. New England Puritanism's balance of reason and feeling had splintered at the beginning of the nineteenth century between liberal Christianity's religion of the head and evangelical Christianity's religion of the heart. While these two religious movements went in different directions, the consequences were much the same. The dark and critical view of human nature that had characterized Puritanism gave way to a belief in the goodness and perfectibility of people. Transcendentalism, an offshoot of liberal Christianity, romanticized the presence of God in nature and celebrated the ability of the individual to rely on one's inner feelings and conscience to discover the presence and power of God within the soul. From Ralph Waldo Emerson's sense of self-reliance to Henry David Thoreau's sounds of "a different drummer," Hecker's formative years were filled with optimism and possibility.(5)
Today we live in an age of fear and cynicism about the role and effectiveness of government. We have lost faith that our society still has the possibility to develop a more hopeful future. Calls for the reinstitution of the death penalty and punitive rather than rehabilitative imprisonment, penalties against immigrants, the urban poor and those outside the mainstream, and a lack of concern for dignity of life are all manifestations of the negativity of our present society. In this age of cynicism, Isaac Thomas Hecker reminds us that we need to have hope in the strengths and the gifts of the American people; that we need a rebirth of hope about the possibilities of our society; and most importantly that we need to learn again how to trust in the goodness of people. Hope in the goodness of others is possible, as Isaac Hecker said, because of the powerful presence of God among the American people. The Holy Spirit will do the same for American society.
HECKER AND THE DIVISIVE NATURE OF SOCIETY
By the 1850s, Hecker's society had become frictious and volatile. The question he asked of his age was how to reconcile these growing divisions in order to build up the American community. The founders of America, the last participants in the revolution and the early national period, were long dead. As sectionalism and regionalism swept American society, American cities were in turmoil with the arrival of immigrants who had few skills and seemed to bring both crime and disease in their wake.(6) The politics of the age were fought over the question of whether black slaves had rights as human beings and were to be given any protection under the nation's court system. Slavery inflamed the passions of many in the nation, and was so divisive that American political parties began to self-district over the issue. In the midst of this fractious age, was there any vital center to American society?
"The age is out of joint ... the future lies hid in obscurity and thick darkness," wrote Isaac Hecker in his first book, Questions of the Soul, published in 1855. As he addressed young America, Hecker asserted that what underlay all this disorientation was a lack of self-understanding over the aspirations and destiny of the American people. According to Hecker, what was fundamental to all Americans was their freedom to choose, to literally create their own future. Every person, he wrote, "has his task to find his destiny, or to make one."(7) Americans seek to follow their aspirations in order to grow and develop. Therefore a system of belief that speaks to these aspirations would provide the unity his society so desperately needed, and provide a stable floor beneath the atomistic nature of American individualism.
Hecker's brilliance lay in his early understanding of the voluntary nature of religious faith within democracy. Religion is something people must choose to embrace voluntarily. Religion cannot be imposed. Americans must be drawn to a set of beliefs that they see answering their inner aspirations. But what religious system could provide all Americans with this vital center? For Hecker, Protestantism is atomistic and divisive by nature. It makes few demands on an individual and only confirms them in their present status with little challenge. New England Transcendentalism with its emphasis on self-reliance, as found in the writings of Emerson, speaks of growth--but without direction. All things in nature grow on the basis of their instincts, but according to Hecker, human beings who struggle to grow without direction experience a deep sense of emptiness if not loss. "The Catholic Church alone is able to give unity to a people, composed of such conflicting elements as ours, and to form them into a great nation."(8) As he stated in his 1857 sequel, Aspirations of Nature, "Philosophy for long centuries has vainly endeavored to solve the riddle of man's destiny, and answer his aspirations.... Our own country is becoming conscious of this truth.... With the free exertion of reason, with the natural impulses of our instincts, and with the silent impulses of our noble institutions, the American people will rise up.... and proclaim itself Catholic."(9)
It is hard for an age as secular and pluralistic as our own to appreciate Hecker's sense of a singular national faith. In the mid-nineteenth century, the belief in a common developing culture rooted in religious faith was a commonly accepted idea. Our present understanding of religious pluralism is an early twentieth century concept, and our debates over cultural pluralism are even more recent. While pluralism is generally accepted today by many Americans, this does not mean that we should dismiss Hecker's ideas. If he were alive today, he might well accept the idea of pluralism, and then talk about the need for a spiritual consensus to develop from it. Hecker would probably view pluralism as a practical and interim step to an even greater reality. His nineteenth century insight into the American character--that only a spiritual core can provide the American people with the vital center they so desperately seek to unify diversity and individualism--remains valid.
THE NEED FOR ONGOING CONVERSION
Hecker would certainly decry the secularism of contemporary American culture. As he wrote, "Nations unaided by the powerful influences of religion cannot realize their destinies."(10) In his last published book, The Church and the Age, he described his society in terms that sound contemporary: he called his age "superficial," "materialistic," "disordered," "impious," and "sensual," and as having "lost and almost forgotten God."(11) His answer was to recover the presence of God and to announce that presence to the larger society. This would occur through conversion, beginning with the individual and expanding to the entire society. Conversion understood in a Catholic context is a process rather than a singular moment in time. It began with the individual discovering God's presence, and through the medium of specific individuals the Spirit would then move out toward the larger society. He wrote, "From this source within the soul will gradually come to birth the consciousness of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, out of which will spring a force surpassing all human strength.... The light the age requires for its renewal can come only from this same source. The renewal of the age requires the renewal of religion."(12)
The conversion of society began on the level of the individual. Hecker had no difficulty moving from a microscopic and personal understanding of conversion to a macroscopic and cultural understanding; both events were united in the action of the same Spirit. To modern Americans who feel powerless and overwhelmed by the forces of the larger society, Hecker's linkage between personal and cultural conversion is a difficult if not surprising message. While many people have come to believe that they specifically do not make a difference, Hecker believed that the first stage of recovering moral value and a spiritual dimension to society begins by finding it within ourselves.
THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN AMERICAN LIFE
In The Church and the Age, Hecker stated that at the heart of the American character was the recognition of the natural rights of liberty, equality and the search for happiness with a trust in the ability of persons to govern themselves. Hecker found these truths, which are embraced by all Americans, to be derived from reason and God's revelation. They were for Hecker divine, fundamental and practical. Divine because true religious faith supports these principles, for they "put man in the possession of himself, and leave him free to reach the end for which his Creator called him into existence"; fundamental for without them, all people are enslaved; and practical, for all persons under God become masters of their own destiny, and can fulfill the obligations and duties which God expects from them.(13)
For Hecker, Americans must use their liberty, together with their intelligence and religious faith, for the purposes of fulfilling their destiny within democratic societies. For Americans, it is education that develops their intelligence, and it is the right to education which protects their freedoms. For Hecker, persons of faith are called to educate and persuade the American people to develop their moral center. Religious ideas should not be imposed by the force of government, but argued in the public forum. Hecker championed the American separation of church and state as a clear guarantee that religion must and should remain voluntary in nature. Religion like republicanism for Hecker must rely on intelligence, conscience and the aspirations of human nature in order to grow and succeed.(14) It is here in the forum of the human conscience that Roman Catholicism can articulate its fundamental beliefs and trust that the truth of its teachings will be received. This gave Isaac Hecker a tremendous confidence that he could evangelize America. He believed that if he spoke out in the marketplace about his fundamental beliefs and values, they would be given a hearing by what is best in the American people.
While, on the one hand, Hecker champions the centrality of religion in American life and the importance of the American soul to the success of the nation, he also argues for the separation of church and state. When government and religion mix, the voluntary nature of religion in democratic societies can be lost. I am certain there are many Catholic Americans who would like to see their fundamental religious values enshrined in law. But here we encounter a caveat from this nineteenth century Catholic thinker. If Catholics have failed to persuade their fellow citizens as to the truths of their beliefs, but seek only to transform their values into legislation, they will ultimately fail, because they have fundamentally misread the American character. As Hecker liked to say, it was when religion worked in tandem with liberty and intelligence that the American people would experience a conversion to a new and better life.
Isaac Hecker, the champion of nineteenth century culture, has at the end of the twentieth century become a counter-cultural critic. In an age of cynicism, Hecker renews our spirits with his sense of optimism. At a time of great societal distrust, Hecker calls us to believe in the fundamental goodness of the American people. In a society that has become so secularized, Hecker invites Catholics to rediscover the spiritual and moral dimensions of our national identity. At a time when people feel powerless, Hecker calls us to believe that individuals do make a difference. In a litigious age when many Americans want to turn their religious values into legislation, Hecker reminds Catholics that persuasion and education are what triumph in a democratic society.
Either Isaac Hecker is out of step with our society, or he reveals something about our character and culture that we have forgotten.
NOTES (1.) The most recent biography of Hecker is David O'Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic, (New York: Paulist Press, 1992). (2.) Orestes Brownson, Questions of the Soul, Brownson's Quarterly Review, No. 3, (April 1855), 209-26. (3.) Isaac Hecker to Orestes Brownson, 29 July, 1851, Isaac Hecker Papers, Paulist Archives, Washington. (4.) Isaac Hecker, "Notes on the Holy Spirit," Journal of Paulist Studies, No. 2, (1993), 99. (5.) On the division of Puritanism, the standard work remains, Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind From the Great Awakening to the Revolution, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966). On Transcendentalism see Anne C. Rose, Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981). (6.) Alan Kraut, Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the Immigrant Menace (New York: Basic Books, 1994). (7.) Isaac Hecker, Questions of the Soul (New York: Appleton, 1855) 5, 10. (8.) Hecker, Questions of the Soul, 293. (9.) Hecker, Aspirations of the Nature, (New York: The Catholic Publication House, 1857) 360. (10.) Ibid. (11.) Hecker, The Church and the Age, (New York: The Paulist Press, 1887) 27. (12.) Ibid, 26. (13.) Ibid, 69. (14.) Ibid, 82-97.
PAUL C. ROBICHAUD, C.S.P. is asistant professor of American History at The Catholic University of America, and director of the Office of Paulist History and Archives in Washington, D.C.…
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Publication information: Article title: What Isaac Heckler Can Teach Us about America. Contributors: Robichaud, Paul - Author. Magazine title: The Catholic World. Volume: 238. Issue: 1423 Publication date: January-February 1995. Page number: 41+. © 1993 Paulist Press. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.