Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) was born in Bantam, Connecticut. He was educated to hard work. His daughter, Mrs. Cheney, in her biography, says that he did the full work of a man for at least five years before he came to the age of a man, often working thirteen hours a day. He spent the first twenty-one years of his life on the farm and in the factory. He had his winters in school, but the school was an interval from work. His father was a Methodist and his mother an Episcopalian, but when they moved to New Preston they joined the Congregational Church. His younger brother, George, who also became a minister, said of Horace: “If ever there was a child of Christian nurture, he was one.”
Bushnell was admitted to Yale in 1823, and graduated four years later. His college career was marked by intellectual conflict and doubt, and a degree of deliberation which did not allow him to become an outstanding student. His problem of adjustment at Yale was a reflection of societal changes in New England at that time. An urban society was emerging from a farming economy. The people from the farming areas were able to retain the traditional religious faith, while the newly-formed classes looked for more sophisticated ways of expressing their religion. After graduation Bushnell taught school, worked on a newspaper, and studied law.
His mother had dedicated him from his birth to the Christian ministry, which finally decided him — somewhat against his own inclination — to be a minister. While he was a tutor at Yale, a great revival swept the college, during which he was converted. He entered Yale Divinity School in 1831 and was ordained at North Church, Hartford, in 1835, and was married the same year. He resigned his pastorate in 1859 because of continual ill-health, with which he waged battle all his life. He spent the years 1859 and 1860 in Minnesota, and from 1861 until his death in 1876 he remained in Hartford, writing and occasionally preaching.
His interest in the world and life was intellectual and philosophical. This habit of mind he took into his discussion of theological questions and he always sought to penetrate to the heart of the question and to get at what was fundamental. All his life he was a student, a thinker, and one who in the secret recesses of his soul fed himself on God. He had both imagination and common sense, he was both saintly and shrewd, and all he said was quick with vigorous life.
A thinker first, when the spirit burned he became a preacher. Language with him was the reflection of his thought rather than the exact representation of it. He sought to translate the language of the pulpit into common speech and to restore reality to the theology of the day. He was convinced that theology must speak to the modern world in terms which were in keeping with the contemporary developments in thought.
Bushnell was a mediator between the old school of theology and the newer views. As a student at Yale he had battled his way single-handed from doubt to faith but his mind was always the mind of the sceptic in the true sense of that word. He must prove before holding fast. “I have been greatly blessed in my doubtings,” he once said. One of his most famous sermons preached in the chapel at Yale was “On the dissolving of doubts.” He had an independent mind, and was by nature a solitary thinker. He loved the truth with an undivided mind and was willing to pay any price to possess it. It has been said that the neglect of what others had done and thought was the serious fault of his life.
No American preacher of the nineteenth century succeeded in introducing more theology into the pulpit and in discussing theological problems in a more interesting way than Bushnell. He did not believe in a theology that could not be preached and translated from the realm of thought to the realm of life. Henry Van Dyke described him as “the most logical of mystics and the most mystical of logicians.” He understood thoroughly the laws of thought and he was the better preacher because of this. He presented the truth in an orderly, logical manner. But the mystical and the poetical gradually won the ascendancy in him.
It was fifteen years after Bushnell entered the ministry before the mystical element in his religious nature came to the fore. It was then that he entered into a higher type of religious life. As a result of this experience he tells us that he gained new conceptions of the significance of Christ and this became the basis of new conceptions of the character of God. From this time on his religious life was constantly deepened and enriched. He lived more completely in the abiding presence of God.
He was not a popular preacher in the usual sense of that word but he made a strong appeal to reflective minds. The common people did not listen to him with the same intensity of emotion as they listened to Beecher. But he was in many ways the superior of Beecher as a preacher, and certainly a much more desirable model for most preachers. Sir George Adam Smith once remarked that Bushnell is the preacher’s preacher as Spenser is the poet’s poet and that his sermons were on the shelves of many a manse in Scotland. The Christian faith, Bushnell said, could never be based upon any system which demanded intellectual proof. Religion appeals ultimately, he insisted, to the heart and to feeling. He wrote: “When the preacher touches the Trinity and when logic shatters it all to pieces, I am all at the four winds. But I am glad I have a heart as well as a head. My heart wants the Father; my heart wants the Son; my heart wants the Holy Ghost — and one just as much as the other. My heart says the Bible has a Trinity for me, and I mean to hold by my heart.”1
Bushnell was a Christian mystic. On a winter morning in February 1848 his wife awoke to hear that the light they had waited for, more than they that watch for the morning, had arisen. She asked, “What have you seen?” He replied, “The Gospel.” Like Paul’s revelation on the Damascus road, Augustine in the garden in Milan, Bunyan in Bedford Jail, John Wesley at the meeting house in Aldersgate Street, this was a transforming experience. Bushnell was a practical mystic who saw the stars but kept his feet on the earth. He expressed his discovery in a sermon on “Christ the Form of the Soul,” based upon the text, “until Christ be formed in you.” John Winthrop Platner, in his Religious History of New England, describes Bushnell as “a seer of mystic visions hidden from the many, who was faithful to the spirit of the past, yet able to interpret to his fellow ministers the theology of the future.”
Bushnell was preeminently a preacher. When he preached his first sermon, someone said: “There is more where that came from.” He was outstanding as a preacher from the very beginning of his ministry. Here is a description of his preaching in his early days, “His preaching had a fiery quality, an urgency and willful force, which, in his later style is still felt in the more subdued glow of poetic imagery. There was a nervous insistence about his person, and a peculiar emphasizing swing of his right arm from the shoulder, which no one who had ever heard him is likely to forget. It seemed as if, with this gesture, he swung himself into his subject, and would fain carry others along with him. His sermons were always written out in full and read; never extemporized, never memorized. For the latter method and its results he had no liking. For the former, not sufficient confidence, though that came to him later, when driven to extempore work by ill-health.”2
The criticisms he received of his preaching were two: “one, that I preach too long sermons, which is sometimes true, and the other that I preach Christ too much, which I cannot think a fault to be repented of.”
His voice had good carrying power but was not notable for strength or richness. He lacked the oratorical training that did so much for Beecher. His was a conversational style. It lacked the passion and pathos and flashing wit of the Brooklyn preacher. He was chained to his manuscript and had to stand in one spot. The manliness and courage of the man were obvious in every tone of his voice and in his movement and attitude. His effectiveness as a preacher was much less dependent on his physical personality than that of his contemporaries. “The sincerity of the word was matched by the quiet confidence of his bearing and the poetry of his diction was sustained by the music of his voice.”3
Bushnell was a pastoral preacher rather than an evangelistic preacher. His preaching was for edification rather than conversion. There is creative power and personal experience in all his sermons.
The honesty which he brought to his task, the earnest study which he devoted to it, the dedication to his convictions, bore fruit in profound sermons. William Warren Sweet remarks that “it is not an exaggeration to say that the best preaching in America during the last half of the nineteenth century largely came from Horace Bushnell who was a prophet rather than a theologian.” His great contribution was to restore the Christ of the Gospels and to lift Him up as a living and appealing personality.
1. Mary Bushnell Cheney, Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell, p. 65.
2. Theodore T. Munger, Horace Bushnell, Preacher and Theologian, p. 276.
3. Op. cit., p. 279.