Bible Open

Romanticism in America

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher

Rationalism came under challenge in Europe in the nineteenth century, in large part from a complex of new attitudes historians lump together under the term "romanticism." That romantic challenge made its impact in America too. The romantic spirit turned from reasoned analysis to appeals to immediate intuition and from individualism to a new emphasis on the unity of communities, of humanity, and indeed of the whole universe.

Rationalist Unitarians like William Ellery Channing had argued from the Bible and the evidence of its miracles. In the 1830s Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson appealed instead to immediate intuition, which told Emerson that "the world is ... the product of one mind ... everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool."23 I don't need to turn to the Bible to find revelation, Emerson said; I can look within myself.

"Men have come to speak of revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.... In how many churches ... is man made sensible that he is an infinite soul; that the earth and the heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God."24 Why single out a few events long ago as miracles when Jesus "felt that man's life was a miracle"? The rationalist idea of a miracle as a violation of some law of nature is a "monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain."

Religion does not provide some external standard by which I judge myself, for "no law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature." Indeed, "I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."

Transcendentalism inspired many young Bostonians impatient with Unitarian rationalism, but it led them in many different directions. Theodore Parker became a popular lecturer who praised Jesus as a teacher of love but insisted that Christianity really concerns what we make of our lives now. "If it could be proved ... that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm."

Orestes Brownson pursued interests in sacred mystery and tradition to one logical conclusion and became a Roman Catholic. But the romantic turn from reason to intuition and from individualism to Community ran through the whole movement.

In the little town of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, two college teachers from the German Reformed Church, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, developed romantic themes in a different way.

They argued that American Protestantism had strayed far from the principles of the Reformation. American ministers generally followed no set order of service and rarely celebrated Communion. Worship focused on the sermon, and the point of the sermon was to produce conversions.

In Nevin's words, "Religion is not regarded as the life of God in the Soul, that must be cultivated in order that it may grow, but rather as a transient excitement to be renewed from time to time by suitable stimulants presented to the imagination.'

But sin, Nevin insisted, is not a matter of individual people doing evils acts; it is a state into which all humanity has fallen. Therefore its cure must lie in Christ's power to transform all of humanity.

The search for that cure led Nevin back to the study of the theology of the atonement and a new emphasis on the sacraments. All this utterly bewildered most of his contemporaries, who were suspicious of metaphysics and even more suspicious of anything that suggested Roman Catholicism.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, revivalism, with its emphasis on individual conversions and its suspicion of complicated theology, had become so traditional to most American Protestants that Nevin's appeal back to the Reformation struck them as an eccentric innovation.

In those decades just before the Civil War a Hartford minister named Horace Bushnell was also attacking individualism and the emphasis on revivals and raising questions about rationalism in religion. Bushnell rejected both traditional Calvinism and Unitarianism. Both, he said, take much of the Bible and creeds as statements of literal facts.

The Calvinists then affirm them, and the Unitarians deny them. But in religion, according to Bushnell, language can offer "only hints, or images" of truth. Therefore we should treat the books of the Bible, not as "magazines of propositions," but as "poetic forms of life ."

He argued that the emphasis on conversions treated people as isolated individuals who could be changed in an instant. In fact, we grow up in families and communities which shape who we are. Therefore, religion ought to be a corporate experience, not a purely individual one, and it ought to grow gradually in us from earliest childhood.

Bushnell's Christian Nurture became an important text for the emerging Sunday school movement, which at first rebelled against the exclusive emphasis on revivals.

Bushnell also presented the doctrine of the atonement in more corporate terms. The fact that Christ's suffering paid the debt of our sin had come to seem utterly arbitrary to many. Particularly in the aftermath of the Civil War, Bushnell set the atonement in a more general context of human experience.

For over two hundred years the United States had permitted slavery; now thousands had died in this terrible war. Somehow, people can and do die for the sins of others, and sometimes reconciliation and redemption can emerge out of such tragedy.

The atonement will not have a living meaning for us, Bushnell suggested, unless we can relate it to such general patterns of human experience. In seeking to bring doctrine alive by tying it to human experience, and in moving from individualism to a renewed sense of humanity's corporate character, Bushnell too was reflecting the new romantic attitudes.

The following extracts are presented for educational purposes only. The owner retains all rights. This has been broken into individual sections for easier reading.

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher