One writer said of Horace Bushnell: “The preaching of most men is fashioned by the theology of the day; Bushnell’s preaching helped fashion the theology of his day.”1
Born in 1802 on a farm near Litchfield, Connecticut, Bushnell was born to a Methodist father and Episcopal mother who had joined the only local church, the Congregational. Even before his birth, Bushnell’s mother dedicated her first-born son to the ministry, and years later she persuaded her husband to give the boy a college education.
In 1823 Bushnell entered Yale, and upon graduation began teaching school in Norwich, Conn. Soon after that he accepted an editorial post with New York’s Journal of Commerce, with which he soon grew dissatisfied. Bushnell returned to Yale to enter law school, sensing an inner struggle over his life’s direction. While he knew his mother wanted him in the ministry, he wanted no part of it; he wasn’t even sure he was a Christian.
Though he planned to practice law in the West, his mother’s encouragement led him to accept a tutor’s position at Yale. Two years later, when a religious revival swept the campus in 1831, Bushnell at first resisted involvement but eventually experienced a religious commitment.
That fall he entered Yale Divinity School, determined to enter the ministry. At that time the school was dominated by Nathaniel Taylor, with his New Divinity (easing the harsh Calvinism of an earlier era) and stress on revival preaching. Taylor’s views became a starting point for Bushnell’s theological development, which was further influenced by Aids to Reflection by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In 1833 Bushnell was called to the North Congregational Church in Hartford; it would be the only congregation he would ever serve as pastor. Within the year he was married to Mary Apthorp. He settled into a long and influential ministry which would be marred by health problems.
Bushnell’s writings were widely known and debated. His book Discourses on Christian Nurture, published in 1847, challenged popular notions of conversion by arguing for the gradual development of Christian faith under the nurturing influence of family and church.
Though some of his later writings return to what was a more widely-accepted orthodox position, and though his approach to evangelism included strong support of the New England revivals of 1857-58, Bushnell continually faced criticism by ministers who opposed his views. He was cleared in the one formal heresy trial he endured, and the Hartford church withdrew from the local Congregational fellowship to avoid further difficulties.
It was in preaching that Bushnell found his greatest satisfaction. In an 1862 letter he wrote, “there is nothing I so much delight in as preaching.” Several of his sermons have been called among the finest to emerge from an American pulpit.
While Bushnell’s sermons reflected his intellectual gifts, they were also marked by clarity (especially in his later years). Over the years his style changed, moving from a fiery quality in his early ministry to a more restrained, even poetic quality in his mature years.
Bushnell’s preaching was affected by national events–the struggle over slavery and the theological controversies that swirled about the nation were major influences–and by personal events. One personal crisis that proved a significant influence was the death of Bushnell’s five-year-old son. A new quality of compassion entered his preaching following this tragic experience.
Bushnell’s health problems finally led to his resignation as pastor in 1859. He became something of a minister-at-large, traveling and preaching until his death in 1876. The excerpts which follow provide a taste of the preaching of one of the nineteenth-century’s most gifted pulpiteers.
1 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, edited by Clyde Fant and William Pinson, Vol. 4, p. 51.
from “Unconscious Influence”
The Bible calls the good man’s life a light, and it is the nature of light to flow out spontaneously in all directions, and fill the world unconsciously with its beams. So the Christian shines, it would say, not so much because he will, as because he is a luminous object.
Not that the active influence of Christians is made of no account in the figure, but only that this symbol of light has its propriety in the fact that their unconscious influence is the chief influence, and has the precedence in its power over the world.
And yet, there are many who will be ready to think that light is a very tame and feeble instrument, because it is noiseless. An earthquake, for example, is to them a much more vigorous and effective agency. Hear how it comes thundering through solid foundations of nature. It rocks a whole continent. The noblest works of man–cities, monuments, and temples–are in a moment leveled to the ground, or swallowed down in the opening gulfs of fire.
Little do they think that the light of every morning, the soft, and genial, and silent light, is an agent many times more powerful. But let the light of the morning cease and return no more, let the hour of morning come, and bring with it now dawn; the outcries of a horror-stricken world fill the air, and make, as it were, the darkness audible.
The beasts go wild and frantic at the loss of the sun. The vegetable growths turn pale and fie. A chill creeps on, and frosty winds begin to howl across the freezing earth. Colder, and yet colder, is the night. The vital blood, at length, of all creatures, stops congealed. Down goes the frost toward the earth’s center. The heart of the sea is frozen; nay, the earthquakes are themselves frozen in, under their fiery caverns. The very globe itself, too, and all the fellow planets that have lost their sun, are become mere balls of ice, swinging silent in the darkness.
Such is the light, which revisits us in the silence of the morning. It makes no shock or scar. It would not wake an infant in his cradle. And yet it perpetually new creates the world, rescuing it each morning, as a prey, from night and chaos. So the Christian is a light, even “the light of the world.”
Now it is on this side of human nature that Christ visits us, preparing just that kind of influence which the spirit of truth may wield with the most persuasive and subduing effect. It is the grandeur of His character which constitutes the chief power of His ministry, not His miracles or teachings apart from His character.
Miracles were useful, at the time, to arrest attention, and His doctrine is useful at all times as the highest revelation of truth possible in speech; but the greatest truth of the gospel, notwithstanding, is Christ Himself–a human body becomes the organ of the divine nature, and reveals, under the conditions of an earthly life, the glory of God!
The Scripture writers have much to say, in this connection, of the image of God; and an image, you know, is that which simply represents, not that which acts, or reasons, or persuades. Now it is this image of God which makes the center, the sun itself, of the gospel. The journeyings, teachings, miracles, and sufferings of Christ, all had their use in bringing out this image, or what is the same, in making conspicuous the character and feelings of God, both toward sinners and toward sin.
And here is the power of Christ–it is that God’s beauty, love, truth, and justice shines through Him. It is the influence which flows unconsciously and spontaneously out of Christ, as the friend of man, the light of the world, the glory of the Father, made visible.
from “Every Man’s Life a Plan of God”
God has a definite life-plan for every human person, girding him, visibly or invisibly, for some exact thing, which it will be the true significance and glory of his life to have accomplished.
Many persons, I am well aware, never even think of any such thing. They suppose that, for most men, life is a necessarily stale and common affair. What it means for them they do not know, and they scarcely conceive that it means any thing. They even complain, venting heavy sighs, that, while some few are set forward by God to do great works and fill important places, they are not allowed to believe that there is any particular object in their existence.
It is remarkable, considering how generally this kind of impression prevails, that the Holy Scriptures never give way to it, but seem, as it were, in all possible ways, to be holding up the dignity of common life, and giving a meaning to its appointments, which the natural dullness and lowness of mere human opinion can not apprehend.
They not only show us explicitly, as we have seen, that God has a definite purpose in the lives of men already great, but they show us how frequently, in the conditions of obscurity and depression, preparations of counsel going on, by which the commonest offices are to become the necessary first chapter of a great and powerful history.
David among the sheep; Elisha following after the plough; Nehemiah bearing the cup; Hannah, who can say nothing less common than that she is the wife of Elkanah and a woman of a sorrowful spirit–who, that looks on these humble people, at their humble post of service, and discover at last, how dear a purpose God was cherishing in them, can be justified in thinking that God has no particular plan for him, because he is not signalized by any kind of distinction?
No man is ever called to be another. God has as many plans for men as he has men; and, therefore, he never requires them to measure their life exactly by any other life. We are not to require it of ourselves to have the precise feelings, or exercises, or do the works, or pass through the trials of other men; for God will handle us according to what we are, and not according to what other men are. And whoever undertakes to be exercised by any given fashion, or to be any given character, such as he knows or has read of, will find it impossible, even as it is to make himself another nature.
God’s plan must hold and we must seek no other. To strain after something new and peculiar is fantastic and weak, and is also as nearly wicked as that kind of weakness can be. To be a copyist, working at the reproduction of a human model, is to have no faith in one’s significance, to judge that God means nothing in his particular life, but only in the life of some other man.
Submitting himself, in this manner, to the fixed opinion that his life means nothing, and that nothing is left for him but to borrow or beg a life-plan from some other man, what can the copyist become but an affection or a dull impostor.
from “Christ the Form of the Soul”
What form is to body, character is to spirit. For as all material bodies are shaped by the outline or boundary which contains them, so the soul has its working and life contained within the limits or laws of the character. Indeed, we can give no better definition of character than to say that it is the form of the spirit, that habit or mould into which the feelings, principles, aims, thoughts and choices have settled.
And as all material objects have their beauty in their forms, so the soul has her beauty in the character, that lovely shape of goodness and truth in which she appears to men. It is on the ground of this analogy between form and character that the word image is so frequently used in Scripture with a spiritual sense. Other kindred words are used in a similar manner.
Thus it is that Christ, the divine Word, is spoken of as being in the form of God, the image of God, the image of the invisible God, the express image of his person. In the same way man is said to be created in the image of God, the design being not only to affirm a resemblance between his nature and God’s, but also that his character is in the form or likeness of God.
from “The Power of an Endless Life”
We exist here only in the small, that God may have us in a state of flexibility, and bend or fashion us, at the best advantage, to the model of his own great life and character. And most of us, therefore, have scarcely a conception of the exceeding weight of glory to be comprehended in our existence.
If we take, for example, the faculty of memory, how very obvious is it that as we pass eternally on, we shall have more and more to remember, and finally shall have gathered in more into this great storehouse of the soul, than is now contained in all the libraries of the world.
And there is not one of our faculties that has not, in its volume, a similar power of expansion. Indeed, if it were not so, the memory would finally overflow and drown all our other faculties, and the spirits, instead of being powers, would virtually cease to be any thing more than registers of the past.
from “Growth”
He dies! it is finished! The body that was taken for endurance and patience, has drunk up all the shafts of the world’s malice, and now rests in the tomb.
No! there is more. Lo! he is not here, but is risen; he has burst the bars of death and become the first fruits of them that slept. In that sign behold his victory. Just that is done which signifies eternal redemption–the conquest and recovery of free minds, taken as powers dismantled by eternal evil. By this offering, once for all the work is finished.
What can evil do, or passion, after this, when its bitterest arrows, shot into the divine patience are by that patience so tenderly and sovereignly broken? Therefore now to make the triumph evident, he ascends, a visible conqueror, to the Father, there to stand as priest forever, sending forth his Spirit to seal, and testifying that he is able to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God by him.

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