Orestes Brownson and the Problem of Revelation: The Protestant Years

Orestes Brownson and the Problem of Revelation: The Protestant Years

Orestes Brownson and the Problem of Revelation: The Protestant Years

Orestes Brownson and the Problem of Revelation: The Protestant Years


Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) is known as the foremost American Catholic lay apologist of the nineteenth century. However, before his conversion to Catholicism in 1844, Brownson labored for nearly twenty years as a Protestant, publishing prodigiously and debating frequently with leading luminaries of his day, including William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Using little known and underutilized primary sources, this book traces Brownson's theological development as a Protestant against the backdrop of the post-Enlightenment problem of establishing the grounds for the possibility of divine revelation. As such, it offers an excellent vantage point into the antebellum American intellectual context while allowing Brownson's Protestant thought to stand on its own as an original and enterprising intellectual response to the religious problems of the day.


In orestes Augustus Brownson's unpublished papers at the University of Notre Dame Archives is a letter from an unnamed French correspondent who had met Brownson on a visit to the United States in the early 1840s. the correspondent told Brownson that he saw him as a type of the new self- made man that only a free American society could produce. Brownson had not the advantages of nobility, wealth, or a formal education and yet he had brilliant insights into the philosophical, religious, and political movements of modern society. He represented what all human beings could become if they had the freedom to demonstrate their inherent capacities. He arose to a position of prominence in American intellectual circles as editor of one of the more insightful and influential journals in the country, the Boston Quarterly Review, on the basis of his own native abilities. He demonstrated clearly the benefits of a free culture for the development of human potential.

Others in Europe, and in the United States, saw the disadvantages of such a culture where freedom led to individualism, pluralism, instability, and a constant change that had no respect for tradition and common values. Here was a culture where individuals' preoccupations with their own internal religious life lead them to ignore the social and political needs of their poorer neighbors. Here was a culture where individuals believed that their successes were the result of their own individual efforts and had nothing to do with the contributions and labors of their own families, their communities, and indeed the culture in which they lived.

Brownson lived in such a culture, and he shared both evaluations of that culture at various time in his life. His own life, in fact, manifested the tensions of these polar opposites. His great struggle was to bring these two dimensions into some kind of intellectual and personally satisfying synthesis.

Arie J. Griffioen tells the story of the internal intellectual struggle and development of Brownson's early years, focusing on a crucial issue in his thought that has to date been overlooked. the issue of revelation, of course, was a central issue for Christians in the eighteenth century as they faced the rise of deism and the challenge of critical reason, and that issue continued to . . .

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