Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane

Article excerpt

Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane. By Patrick W. Carey. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2004. Pp. xx, 428. $28.00 paperback.)

Patrick W. Carey's new biography of Orestes Augustus Brownson is a shining example of how looking back at our past can illuminate our present. Brownson-characterized as a minor Transcendentalist in nineteenth-century literary anthologies-was one of the bright lights of mid-century Roman Catholicism.

Carey's work presents us with the first modern critical biography of Brownson, which supersedes Thomas Ryan's often unwieldy and uncritical tome (1976, reprinted 2000). What Carey brings to the reader is his decades-old fascination with Brownson, as well as his intimate knowledge of obscure corners of Brownsoniana.

Vermont-born of a Presbyterian family, Brownson converted amid widespread publicity after his tortuous journey through a variety of affiliations, both denominational and philosophical. His 1857 autobiography, The Convert, illustrated this movement toward conversion to Catholicism. Carey's monograph reminds the reader that Brownson came-of-age in the "burned-over district" of upstate New York. This places Brownson in the thick of the ferment of the religious revivalism and experimentation, as described in Whitney Cross's The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York 1800-1850. Not only was Brownson affected by the momentary waves of religious fervor, but this also had a major impact on his own long-term religious search.

Brownson was received into the Church at a time when Catholics such as fellow-convert Isaac Hecker, Roger Brooke Taney, Bishop John England of Charleston, and Archbishop John Hughes of New York-a sometime nemesis of Brownson-were advocating and promoting a more strapping and assertive form of Catholicism, at a time during which floods of Irish Catholic immigrants were coming to America. Once in the Church, he had found his home, and was sought out by religious and political thinkers alike, including Edward Sorin (founder of the University of Notre Dame) and Senator John C. Calhoun.

Carey presents us with the paradox of Brownson as a "religious weathervane. …

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