Orestes Brownson Was a Uniquely American Voice in the Church

Once he formally joined the Catholic Church, Brownson became one of its strongest defenders.

George Peter Alexander Healy, “Portrait of Orestes A. Brownson”, 1863
George Peter Alexander Healy, “Portrait of Orestes A. Brownson”, 1863 (photo: Public Domain)

Orestes Brownson is not a well-known name, even among American Catholics. But he should be.

As the critic Russell Kirk has written, over his long life Brownson (1803-1876) knew practically everyone and wrote about practically everything in the nineteenth century. A prolific author, his collected works run to twenty volumes and include philosophy, political theory, fiction, reviews, and autobiography. After spending three days visiting with Brownson, Great Britain’s Lord Acton wrote to a colleague, “Intellectually, no American I have met comes near him,” and he was praised more recently by figures such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Woodrow Wilson.

Most of this output was published in journals for which Brownson served as editor and almost sole contributor—first the Boston Quarterly Review, which he published from 1838 to 1842, then Brownson’s Quarterly Review, which appeared from 1844 to 1864. As Richard Reinsch has written of him, ““Brownson’s writings, born from his existential wrangling, were addressed to our authentic human longings to know the truth about ourselves. To study Brownson is to learn from a man whose first concern was to be open to the truth about what it mans to be a human person.” And what it means to be human is to live in relationship (what Brownson called communion) with others, with the world, and ultimately with God.

His most famous book-length work is probably the political treatise The American Republic, published in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. After Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, it has been called the best book on American democracy. Schlesinger and Wilson are among those who considered Brownson one of the few true political thinkers America has produced. After a period of neglect, Brownson’s works are being republished and he is regaining his former reputation. The American Republic has been republished, and some of his political writings have been collected into a new edition. Cluny Media has also republished The Spirit-Rapper, Brownson’s 1854 novel of the spiritualism craze that spread through America in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Brownson personified the religious and social upheavals that regularly convulsed nineteenth-century America. He lived during the religious revivals of the 1820s, the economic depression of the 1830s, the Civil War and its aftermath, and the growing role of Catholicism in America, all of which became subjects for his fertile pen. His decision to become a Catholic in 1844 was the end of a lifelong search for a truth that would satisfy both his strong analytic mind and his social principles. At the time, Brownson’s former friends and intellectual allies believed his conversion was only a temporary phase; he had changed beliefs so often in his path from Unitarian to Transcendentalist to philosophical Christian to Catholic that no decision he made was thought to be permanent. But he proved them wrong: Brownson was to remain a loyal, if occasionally controversial, Catholic for the rest of his life. Indeed, his standing was so great in the United States and abroad that John Henry Cardinal Newman offered him a post in his proposed Catholic University of Ireland. Brownson would eventually be called “the Newman of America.”

The fifth of six children, Orestes was born in 1803 in Stockbridge, Vermont, where his family had settled upon moving from their native Connecticut. His father, Sylvester Brownson, died while Orestes was still a child. After some years of struggle, his mother, Relief Brownson, placed Orestes in the home of an older couple in the nearby town of Royalton. In his autobiography, The Convert; or, Leaves from My Experience, Brownson describes these foster parents as “plain country people” who “had been brought up in New England Congregationalism, were honest, upright, strictly moral and far more ready to suffer wrong than to do wrong, but had no particular religion, and seldom went to meeting.” Although he was given very basic Christian religious instruction by his foster parents, religion does not seem to have been a focus of his home life. Brownson had his first “conversion experience” at a Methodist revival in Royalton that he attended on his own. This would be the first of many intense religious encounters until he found a final spiritual home in the Church. Along the way, Brownson spent time at the famous commune at Brook Farm, where he befriended Emerson, among others.

By the 1840s, however, Brownson was once again growing restless in his faith. This time the question was ecclesiastical. Was there a true Church and, if so, which one was it? In 1844, he stated that such a true Church was not yet in existence. Soon afterward, however, Brownson began taking instruction as a Catholic. Once again, as with Channing and his return to liberal Christianity, Brownson found a writer who changed his understanding of religious belief. This time the author was Pierre Leroux (1797-1871). Leroux advocated a doctrine called “life by communion.” Briefly, Leroux taught that each individual was a manifestation of a larger being and that all individuals were interconnected with each other, with nature, and with God. The progress of humanity was mediated through the work of exceptional individuals, such as Jesus or Confucius. Other individuals learned from them and absorbed something of their exceptional natures, thus improving humanity as a whole by their communion with one another. Although Leroux was not Christian, his doctrine allowed Brownson to explain such complex theological ideas as the communion of saints. Brownson tried to adapt Leroux’s theory to Christianity in an 1842 open letter to the famous Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing entitled “The Mediatorial Life of Jesus.” Although he condemned Leroux for being a pantheist, the doctrine of life by communion was able to surmount Brownson’s final hesitations about becoming a Catholic.

Once he formally joined the Church, Brownson became one of its strongest defenders. But, as a convert, his was also a uniquely American voice in the Church, for example, in his defense of constitutional religious liberty as both a reflection of our human dignity and also an opportunity for Catholics to evangelize.

Gerald J. Russello is the editor of a new edition of The Spirit-Rapper, under the title Like a Roaring Lion, from which this post is derived.