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Orestes A. BrownsonAmerican Religious Weathervane
By Patrick W. Carey
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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Chapter OneA Yankee Religious Outsider, 1803-1829
Orestes Augustus Brownson claimed to be a descendant of the John Brownson clan. John Brownson emigrated from England to Hartford Colony apparently in 1635 or 1636 and fought in the Pequot War of 1637, his one claim to historical fame. In 1860, Orestes wrote that he knew very little about the Brownson family and even less about his own branch of the clan. His paternal grandparents had lived in the vicinity of New Britain, Connecticut, and were apparently farmers. His grandfather, Nodiah (1740-1803), a resident of New Britain, died the year Orestes was born, and his grandmother, Sybble Horsington Brownson, of whom very little is known, was apparently still living as late as 1840, as Brownson intimates in one of his writings, but he never met her. Orestes had no personal memories or oral traditions about the Brownson family probably because he was two years old when his father died, severing connections with the Brownsons.
Sometime in the late eighteenth century, perhaps after Vermont had been admitted as a state in 1791, Sylvester Augustus Brownson (1772-1805), Orestes' father, like many young men of the time in search of land and a living, moved up the Connecticut River Valley and settled at Stockbridge, in Windsor County, Vermont. Stockbridge, founded in 1783, had a population in 1803 of about one hundred inhabitants; it was located on the White River, a little more than thirty miles west of the Connecticut River, on the edge of what is now the Green Mountain National Forest. The luscious countryside, the mountains, the river, and the forest were scenes that Brownson cherished for the remainder of his life, and though he had a reputation in later life as a hard-headed philosopher, he was romantically sensitive to the beauties of nature. In his mature years, he took pride in being a native Vermonter; Vermont was in his bones and he inherited from its topography a love of freedom and independence. Nature, moreover, spoke loudly to Brownson of divine order as well as divine liberty.
We know very little about Sylvester. In all of his voluminous writings, Orestes almost never mentions his father. From certain allusions in his writings it appears that his father was a sheep herder in Stockbridge, or worked as a hired hand. Orestes, though, did not really know his father. According to family tradition, Sylvester died after a severe cold, leading perhaps to pneumonia. What is known is that the Sylvester Brownson family barely eked out a living while he was alive. The Stockbridge landscape was beautiful, but the soil was stingy. Many Vermonters who tried to make the land yield fruit were frustrated in the early nineteenth century and eventually moved west for more fertile acreage. The Brownsons lived in relative destitution and poverty, but such a living was not an uncommon experience for those who sojourned in Vermont in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Involuntary poverty, Brownson repeatedly recalled, was a constant companion of his life.
Orestes' father, as family tradition had it, was a Presbyterian, but there is no record of his identification with any church in Vermont. More than likely he had few if any opportunities for worship in Stockbridge. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Vermont was geographically removed from the centers of Puritan culture and Stockbridge was isolated from the major centers of social life in Vermont. It is not even evident that there were any religious establishments or itinerant missionaries available to Stockbridge residents in the early 1800s. Religion, if there was any, would have been a family affair. The Brownsons were on the fringes of any long-established religious traditions, and it is not clear that there was any religious practice in the Brownson home.
Vermont was part of a religious frontier culture that had not experienced the stability of a religious establishment. Deism, other forms of Enlightenment religious skepticism, "no-churchism," and Universalism were mixed in with pockets of Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Methodism. To the Orthodox Puritans of Connecticut, Vermont seemed like missionary territory in the late eighteenth century. Ethan Allen's deist Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1785) had been published in Vermont, Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (1791, 1792) had been greedily received, and Universalism had a stronghold in the state. Down the Connecticut River, Timothy Dwight, the Calvinist president of Yale, looked upon Vermont as a hotbed of infidelity. To him the Vermonters were "men of loose principles and loose morals. They were either professed infidels, Universalists, or people who exhibited the morals of these two classes of mankind." After the Revolutionary War, Connecticut clergymen had visited the state and reported back to Connecticut that Vermont needed a major missionary effort to claim the souls of those without the ministrations of the gospel. In 1798 Connecticut organized a missionary society and began to send evangelists to Vermont to win souls to Christ and the church. Thereafter others, particularly the Methodists and "Christians," sent revivalists into the state to evangelize.
Orestes' mother, Relief Metcalf (1776-1864), was a native of southern New Hampshire. The Metcalf family apparently had been a part of the migration from Connecticut to the upper Connecticut River Valley, where her father Jotham Metcalf and his wife settled in Keene, Cheshire County, New Hampshire, about twenty miles east of the Connecticut River. Relief's parents were apparently Universalists, and, as Brownson mentions in one of his letters of 1834, his mother and her sister were Restorationist Universalists. That religious tradition, however, apparently had no influence on Brownson himself until he was about fifteen years of age.
Sometime in 1795 or 1796, Sylvester and Relief married, perhaps at Keene, New Hampshire. We know they were living in Stockbridge in 1803, but where they lived prior to that is unknown. Between the late 1790s and 1803 they gave birth to three children: Oran, Daniel, and Thorina. On 16 September 1803, twins, Orestes Augustus and Daphne Augusta, were born. The names chosen for the twins came from Greek mythology and were not the typical names chosen by Puritan parents for their children. The names reflected much more the influence of classicism or the Enlightenment than that of Puritanism. Relief and Daniel were more typical names in the Puritan heritage.
Two years after the twins were born disaster struck the family when Sylvester died, leaving the young family without any means of support. The other children were probably four, six, and eight years of age. A mother of twenty-nine years of age with five children under the age of eight, with no source of support other than extended family and friends, was going to have a difficult time feeding and rearing her children. Relief tried to raise the children for four more years after Sylvester died, but she could not manage. She had to send Thorina and the twins to three different families to be cared for. Orestes was about six years old when his mother sent him to Royalton, about seventeen miles north and east of Stockbridge on the White River, to live with and be raised by James Huntington (or Hunting) and his wife, middle-aged people (sixty and fifty respectively) whom he never names in his autobiography, but for whom he obviously had deep affection. Orestes was separated from the family for more than seven years before he was reunited with his mother and siblings in 1817 when they all emigrated to Ballston Spa, New York, joining the great Vermont migration west after a devastating famine of 1816. These youthful experiences of separation created in him a strong sense of personal independence, initiative, and self-reliance, but they also put him in a constant search for the communion, continuity, order, and stability that he did not enjoy.
Vermont was a cradle for a number of persons who later became important figures in American religious history. The Vermonters demonstrated the religious initiative, creativity, and imagination that flowed from a country where such virtues were highly prized and where tradition itself, political or religious, was identified with a dead and overturned past. In addition to Orestes Brownson, Vermont gave birth to the founder of the Mormons, Joseph Smith (1805-44), who was born in Sharon and whose family had lived in Royalton during a period in which Brownson was living there. Brownson indicates in the Spirit-Rapper (1854) that he knew Smith as a young man. Brigham Young (1801-77), Smith's trusted advisor and president of the Mormons from 1847 until his death, was from Whitingham. William Miller (1782-1849), founder of the Adventist movement, was born and raised in Pittsfield. John Humphrey Noyes (1811-86), a religious perfectionist and founder of socialist and free-love religious communes, was born in Brattleboro. These Vermont contemporaries of Brownson, probably unknown to one another while in Vermont, were products of a rural, mobile, and unsettled culture. All of them, moreover, moved several times during their youth and eventually joined the westward journey to upstate New York where they all began their careers as leaders of religious ferment, but none of them were from the same mold. They were products of the diverse and freedom-loving religious culture in which they lived, but they were also shapers and creators within a culture that they resisted and in some instances rejected for religious alternatives they themselves helped to direct. All of them would have been considered heterodox or unorthodox by the mainline churchgoers in the society: the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and other early nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicals.
These Vermonters found the religious differences in the society to be troubling; they were in search of something that could transcend the very multiplicity that they themselves would ironically increase. They wanted to escape the infallibilities of differing dogmas, the intrigues of priestcraft, and the wars of the sects. They did so in ways that rejected the tradition of Puritan and evangelical culture. But they could not escape that culture entirely no matter how hard they tried. They were a part of its long-standing reforming zeal. They also shared another characteristic: they were not instructed well in what they came to reject. They all experienced the benefits and suffered the consequences of being self-educated, being intellectually and religiously flexible and simultaneously subject to their latest individual insights untested by tradition and common experience.
Brownson's own religious and intellectual formation was neither very systematic nor consistent. He picked up in bits and pieces what he could of religion and knowledge from those around him and from the limited number of books that were available to him. His religious development, especially in his earliest years, was a process of osmosis, absorbing what he could from his immediate religious surroundings. In various autobiographical accounts of his religious life and development he never mentions the influence of his mother on his religious formation. Nor do we learn who taught him how to read, but we do learn that he knew how to read at a very early age. His earliest religious and intellectual formation appears to come from the period when the Huntingtons were primarily responsible for nurturing him.
The Huntingtons, with whom Brownson lived from the ages of six to fifteen, were Congregationalists, although not churchgoing ones. They taught him various prayers, the Apostles' Creed, and the Shorter Catechism. These he had committed to memory early on. Once he learned to read, moreover, he was drawn to the Scriptures, which he read repeatedly, committing much of it to memory, as is clearly evident in his later writings. In The Convert, his 1857 autobiographical account of his conversion to Catholicism, Brownson admits that he was always interested in things religious and had contemplated becoming a minister in his early adolescent years. Periodically he attended Methodist and "Christian" worship services because he considered them the "wisest" of all the denominations (Congregationalist, Baptist, Universalist) available in Royalton.
When he was thirteen, Brownson attended a "Christian" revival in the town of Royalton and had an experience that can only be characterized as something of a religious conversion, although it never made him join the Christian Church or Christian Connection, a Vermont denomination established in 1801 by revivalists and Christian Restorationists Abner Jones (1772-1841) and Elias Smith. The Royalton event was part of a major religious awakening that occurred in Vermont in 1816 and one of several revivals that had taken place in the state during the Second Great Awakening. Although he did not record the experience in The Convert, he did retell it two or three times during his late twenties and early thirties. In one semi-fictional account in 1831, he told how he had been convicted of sin as an early adolescent in one of the revivals, how he sought relief from the terror of his condition, and how one dark night in the quiet of his room he experienced a joyful release and a feeling of redemption.
The time had come, when nature must sink or triumph. The darkness disappeared; the storm subsided; the thunder hushed his voice; all was silent, calm and bright. I lay entranced. A soft, an inexpressibly sweet sensation pervaded my whole frame. There was a light around to which the day would have seemed as night; yet it was midnight. I could see every part of my room clearly and distinctly, yet I was not startled. All my guilt, all my grief, all my anguish, were gone and I felt as if ushered into a new world, where all was bright and lovely, where the air was perfumed with sweet spices, where soft and thrilling music breathed from every dwelling and warbled from every grove. I could bear no more. The contrast of feeling may be imagined. I broke out so loud that I was heard all over the house: 'I have tasted heaven today, what more can I contain?' Thus was I born again.
This teenage experience was not unusual during revivals, and Brownson had developed a way of reporting it that reflected classical conversion stories. He did not join a church, though, as a result of that experience. This conversion and a similar one in his late teens when he did join the Presbyterian Church, however, provided him with a sense of traditional Christian values that acted like a subterranean foundation for his later defense of historical Christianity when he saw it threatened by the criticisms of some Transcendentalists.
Excerpted from Orestes A. Brownson by Patrick W. Carey Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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