So much has changed in Unitarianism and Universalism, and later, Unitarian Universalism over the centuries. But it seems to me that one important spirit has abided: the belief in the ultimate supremacy of the individual conscience in matters religious; the idea that each one of us ultimately bears personal responsibility for the decisions of faith we make; that each one of us is on his or her own religious journey, and that where we end up is, in the end, a matter between us and God alone.
That belief is important, to each of us individually, and to our life as a particular denomination, a particular household of faith. Its implications can be far reaching.
It means that we trust one another to make our own religious decisions: to believe what we feel called to believe; but even more: to pledge to this church what we choose, each of us, of our time and talent and resources; to place it where we decide in our hierarchy of needs and commitments and responsibilities.
It means that in educating our young, the important thing is not to raise good little Unitarian Universalists, but to raise decent and ethical and questioning and reverent young men and young women. Not to inculcate them with some sort of “UU dogma”, but to stir up the spiritual and religious impulse within their own souls.
And it means that we, each one of us, take our own religious journeys seriously, that every day, amidst the clamor of our lives, that we do our utmost, and engage our senses and our hearts and minds, to listen for “the pure, deep tones of the spirit.” Then, it means that we follow where that call leads, to where the Spirit intends for us to be.
This is the spirit in which I wanted to introduce you this morning to Orestes Augustus Brownson.
Brownson was, at various times in his life, a Congregationalist, a Presbyterian, a Deist, an atheist, a Universalist, a Unitarian, a Transcendentalist, an independent Christian minister, and a Roman Catholic. He also held various positions within each of these positions, as well. In addition to being a minister, he was also a farm hand, a printer, a school teacher, a journalist, an essayist and critic, a political organizer, a labor leader, and a nationally-read commentator on politics, religion, society, and literature. (He would probably also have reviewed movies, had there been movies back then.) He was an associate (though not always friend) of the famous and influential of his day; he may have cost one President re-election; and he consulted with Abraham Lincoln at the White House during the height of the Civil War.
And today, he is almost entirely forgotten.
Orestes Augustus Brownson and his twin sister, Daphne Augusta Brownson, were born on the Vermont frontier, in the village of Stockbridge (just east of Rutland today) on September 16, 1803. His father, Sylvester Brownson and his wife Relief Metcalf, had three older children, so when Sylvester died in just two years later, Relief, just 28 years old, was left as a destitute widow with five youngsters. Orestes lived with his mother and his birth family until he was six, but was then sent to live with an older couple in nearby Royalton. (Interestingly, their names were never recorded.) But we do know that this old couple were stern, Yankee stock, nominal Congregationalists who did not attend church because they disapproved of the “evangelical” preaching in their local congregation. They taught their young charge, as Brownson himself recorded later, "to be honest, to owe no one any thing but good will, to be frugal and industrious, to speak the truth, never to tell a lie under any circumstances, or to take what was not my own, even to the value of a pin; to keep the Sabbath, and never to let the sun go down on my wrath." They also taught Orestes the rudiments of the Christian faith, like the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Twenty-third Psalm, and, most important of all, they taught him to read, and encouraged him to read the Bible on his own.
It was a lonely and austere childhood. There was no public school in the area, and indeed, there very few children in that area of Vermont at all. Being brought up with old people, solely among adults, Orestes developed the manners and tastes of an old man while still a boy. "[It was] a sad misfortune," he wrote later, "for children form one another, and should always be suffered to be children as long as possible.”
But there was one great recompense: Reading. The house in which he grew up boasted only a Bible and a few other volumes. But soon, young Orestes was walking miles a day, scouring the area in search of other books that neighbors might have. In one house, he would find the works of Homer. In another, Alexander Pope or John Dryden or the philosopher John Locke. He read of the history of ancient Rome and the America colonies; delighted in new volumes like Robinson Crusoe or The Arabian Nights. As an old man, he would write: "I have had my joys and sorrows, but I have never known or imagined on earth greater enjoyment than I had as a boy lying on the hearth in a miserable shanty reading by the light of burning pineknots some book I had just borrowed. I felt neither hunger or thirst, and no want of sleep; my book was my meat and drink, home and raiment, friend and guardian, father and mother.”
But he missed his mother and his siblings dearly, and was overjoyed when, finally, in 1817, when he was 14 years old, he was reunited with them, and the family moved to Ballston, New York, near Saratoga, where Orestes was apprenticed to a printer.
At the fashionable resort of Ballston Spa, he had his first contact with the class stratification of American society, something he had not experienced on the egalitarian frontier of Vermont. "Wealth, more frequently the veriest shadow of wealth, no matter how got or how used, is the real god, the omnipotent Jove, of modern idolatry," he wrote bitterly. Gradually, there grew up in him ideas that American democracy was most threatened by privileged "nonproducers" living off the labor of the working class.
Religiously, he was growing more radical as well. At the urging of his aunt, one of the leaders of the small Universalist society in Ballston, Brownson read some basic Universalist literature, but was unimpressed. The Universalists, to him, were little more than heathen unbelievers in the disguise of religious clothing. If one was going to question the fundamentals of the Christian faith, he thought, why not give it up altogether? So he did—for a time. In a letter he wrote that he "was soon a Deist, and before I was seventeen an Atheist." But then, driven either by guilt or a deep spiritual hunger, he changed his mind, and when he was 19, made a desperate attempt to regain his faith by joining the Presbyterian church. But it didn’t work, and he left the church after nine months.
For the next few years, Brownson drifted about, both physically and religiously. He attended no church, but moved to Michigan, where he took a job as a school teacher. But when he came down with malaria, caught in “wilds” of Michigan, he moved back east to New York State. There, in 1825, he declared he was a Universalist, and began to prepare for the ministry. He was ordained by the Vermont Universalist Convention, meeting at Hartland Four Corners, in the spring of 1826.
He would spend about four years in the Universalist ministry, serving a succession of small churches in New York state, near the Vermont border, and later larger congregations in Ithaca and Auburn. He also began to write for the Universalist periodical, The Gospel Advocate.
But these were troubled and tumultuous years for the Universalist denomination, which was divided and contentious, both theologically and organizationally. Brownson was never one to back away from an argument, and soon found himself at the center of several, alienating most of his fellow Universalist colleagues along the way. Brownson’s thinking just seemed too “way out” to many of the Universalists of the day, as when he defended a fellow minister, Abner Kneeland, who had been excommunicated from the Universalist fold for his radical—even atheist-- ideas.
When he was fired from his editorial position at the Gospel Advocate, Brownson joined the staff of the Free Enquirer, an avowedly anti-religious newspaper. This was the last straw for his Universalist cohorts, who were now convinced that Brownson was, indeed, an "infidel," and possibly mentally unbalanced as well. In September 1830, the Universalist General Convention voted "that there is full proof that said Kneeland and Brownson have renounced their faith in the Christian Religion, which renunciation is a dissolution of fellowship with this body."
Booted out of Universalism, Brownson was tempted to jettison organized religion entirely. But a “divine voice” within his soul, as he described it, reaffirmed for him the existence of a paternal God. In 1831, he joined the Unitarians, captured by their beliefs that "God is our Father, that all men are brethren, and that we should cultivate mutual good will."
Soon, Brownson had established a Unitarian newspaper called the Philanthropist, and then accepted a call to the Unitarian Church in Walpole, New Hampshire, from where he also contributed articles to various Unitarian publications in Boston. In 1834, he was called to the First Parish in Canton, Massachusetts, and from that pulpit he began to advocate for fundamental social reform. In his 1834 Fourth of July address, for instance, Brownson expressed concern that economic inequality in America was growing, and noted that the nation was failing to live up to the principle of equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Not everyone in Canton appreciated his outspokenness.
In the summer of 1836, Brownson moved to Chelsea, to become a minister-at-large for the poor and working classes of Boston. The Panic of 1837 inspired Brownson to sharpen his criticisms of the economic status quo even further. His radical sermon "Babylon is Falling” predicted the end of the commercial system of banks and paper money, which he believed promoted "artificial inequality", making the wealthy richer and impoverishing everyone else. The sermon gained Brownson great notoriety around Boston; it also alienated most of the socially conservative Unitarian hierarchy. But Brownson was energized by the controversy, and in 1838 he launched the Boston Quarterly Review, which he hoped would reach a larger audience.
Although affiliated with the Transcendentalist Club of current and former Unitarian ministers like George Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Theodore Parker, Brownson was growing impatient both with the extreme conservatism of the established Unitarian leadership, and with the extreme individualism of Emerson and his cohorts. He began to preach a “social gospel”—a “new church” which would replace the morally hollow activities of praying and psalm-singing with strenuous effort to create a genuine Christian community in the world. He asserted that social reform was the true religion of Jesus: "No man can enter the kingdom of God, who does not labor with all zeal and diligence to establish the kingdom of God on the earth; who does not labor to bring down the high, and bring up the low; to break the fetters of the bound and set the captive free," he wrote. In his incendiary 1840 essay The Laboring Classes, he predicted possible class warfare—"now commences the new struggle,” he declared, “between the operative and his employer, between wealth and labor.” The Laboring Classes was greeted by intense hostility, even within the Democratic Party of which Brownson was part. When Democratic President Martin Van Buren lost New York State (and thus, the election) to the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison by a few thousand votes in 1840, many pointed to Brownson’s Laboring Classes as the cause of the defeat.
Bitterly disappointed and utterly exhausted by Van Buren’s defeat, Brownson began a process of intense inner searching. In early 1843, Brownson, still nominally a Unitarian, he published an extraordinary series of articles in the Christian World, a new Unitarian periodical. After establishing a few key principles—that humans were sinful; that they needed to be redeemed; and that God had surely provided a means of redemption—Brownson began what would be called “his intellectual march toward Rome.” In order to experience salvation, Brownson asserted, what a a person needed was a Church that embodied Christ's "life", and that could provide both guidance and grace. Shortly after the articles appeared, Brownson was relieved of his position on the editorial staff of the Christian World.
So early in 1844, he decided to establish his own newspaper, Brownson’s Quarterly Review. There, he set out to answer (for himself, as much as for the world) the great historical question: Which church is the true church? Finally, in July of 1844, he announced his final conclusion: "either the church in communion with the See of Rome is the one holy catholic apostolic church or the one holy apostolic church does not exist."
By the end of the year, Orestes Brownson, along with his wife and their eight children, converted to Catholicism. In his new household of faith, true to form, he became an aggressive Catholic apologist, so vehement in his anti-Protestant railing that even some bishops asked him to tone it down, lest he alienate honest searchers. By the late 1850s, however, he had adopted a more conciliatory tone, and his liberal Christianity would show its head from time to time. He argued that the Catholic Church should incorporate insights from modern science and democracy, and spoke out forcefully for the right of the informed Christian conscience as the ultimate judge in matters religious.
When Civil War came, Brownson supported the Union and the emancipation of the slaves. He became a Republican and ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, in 1862, but Abraham Lincoln saw him as a trusted advisor and a bell weather of American political sentiment. He travelled to Washington several times to consult with the President. Two of his four sons were killed in the war.
He remained an active lecturer, a prolific writer, and a devoted Catholic for the next decade and a half. It was not always an easy fit. He never abandoned the spirit of intellectual freedom that he had developed as a Universalist on the frontier and a Boston Unitarian and confrere of Emerson and Parker. Of him, his friend Edgar Allen Poe, wrote: “[Brownson] was an extraordinary man, who has not altogether succeeded in convincing himself of those important truths which he is so anxious to impress upon his readers.”
But he was true to who he was, and he followed where the Spirit led. Such is a religious legacy any of us might wish. When he died in 1876 at the age of 72, his body was laid to rest in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame.