Sorting by

Skip to main content

America’s Anti-Calvinist Kuyper

By December 4, 2015 2 Comments

In the summer of 1843, as Isabella Van Wagenen set out on the road as Sojourner Truth, Orestes Brownson was publishing a series of articles explaining why the incarnation of Christ was absolutely essential for salvation. Even more, insisted this Unitarian(!), Christ was still bodily present on earth in the form of the church. The next summer, as Sojourner debuted on the abolitionist speaking circuit, Brownson began to take instruction in the Roman Catholic Church. He formally joined on October 20, 1844—just two days before the no-foolin’, absolutely-final, we-really-mean-it-this-time date stipulated for the second coming of Christ by the Adventist prophet William Miller.

Something was in the air in the 1840s that make it one of the most intriguing moments in the history of American religion. I might have to write a book, or two, to try to unpack it all; at this site I like to note some Reformed pieces of the picture. I did that for Sojourner Truth last time; today, Brownson. He is best known as an exemplar of the spiritual searchers that abounded in pre-Civil War America, one who kept mostly to the left side of the theological spectrum, which made his final turn to Rome so astounding to contemporaries. (Even more striking in that Catholic churches on the East Coast were being battered by mob assaults and arson in the summer of ‘44.) Sojourner was on the left too but over time veered farther left, toward Spiritualism, though she never explained Jesus away as did some intellectuals in that company. For our purposes it’s interesting to see the effects on both of them of their early brush with Calvinism. Brownson reacted against it much more directly and virulently than did Sojourner. Yet by the middle of his Catholic period he was showing any number of parallels with the course that would be taken a generation later by the doughty champion of Dutch Neo-Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper.

First things first. Brownson (b. 1803) has his first conversion at age 13 under precisely the frontier-revival auspices you might expect for someone at the time. But this didn’t take, and he became one of those self-trained teenage skeptics equally familiar on that scene. Then, fearful of his doubts, he precipitously joined the Presbyterian church as a 19-year-old and so began delving into the mysteries of divine sovereignty, free will, the problem of evil, and other Calvinistic conundrums. The experience was so alienating that within a year he had renounced his church membership; alas, its legacy proved harder to shed. Through all his later stops—at Universalism, free-thought, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, the whole accompanied by social radicalism on behalf of labor—he kept a special sore spot for Calvinism, as cruel, outmoded, obscurantist, politically oppressive, theologically incoherent, and generally insulting to God and humanity. Other’n’that, Orestes, how do you feel about it?

The problems he found at all his later stops explain why Brownson eventually, and permanently, landed in the arms of Holy Mother Church. Not that he exactly rested there. He sometimes made bishops and priests, and no few lay leaders of the Irish cause in the US, wish him upon their worst enemy. But Rome it was, as the one holy catholic church, endowed by Christ himself (the apostle Peter, “upon this rock,” and all that) to be his one true body in the world. It had to own all who duly claimed it, and claim it Orestes did. He made good on his profession too, defending Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” (1864) and Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility (1870).

As it happened, the young pastor Abraham Kuyper found something to like in the “Syllabus” too, and said so on no less an occasion than his Reformation Day sermon in 1865! The pope went too far, Kuyper quickly assured his startled (if not outraged) congregation; the document was not to be affirmed in all its details. But its intention was correct. The rising philosophy of naturalism and ethical materialism which the pope was condemning was exactly the enemy that needed to be opposed, Kuyper said, and that opposition would mark his work in church, state, and cultural commentary across the 50+-year career upon which he was just embarking. In fact, this philosophical challenge—this rise of a cruel worldview antithetical to Christianity—is what motivated Kuyper’s turn to strict Calvinism from the more nebulous piety in which he had started out his ministry a few years before. A much older Brownson, now near the end of his career, held much the same sentiments.

Kuyper and Brownson were both prolific—one might almost say inexhaustible—writers. They favored a dogmatic style and regularly gave offense by their imperious tone. They both insisted on boring down to first principles, scoffing at temporizers and compromisers and pragmatists who favored the middle range of things. They saw their set conviction (for Brownson, his conviction du jour) as encompassing everything in life, as standing in antithesis to the big-bloc system that was currently rising in power, threatening faith and society and seducing the weak of mind. Neither was inclined to knuckle under to anybody else, yet both were ardent proponents of community. Above all, both were hungry for certainty in a world where old certainties had been blasted away. One found it at Rome, the other took it from Geneva.

Their journeys led them on very similar routes through the big questions of 19th-century philosophy: subject v. object in epistemology, form v. content in the Ideal, ideal v. concrete in history, order v. liberty in politics, individual v. community in social ethics, with plenty of dialectics all around. Brownson could have been speaking for Kuyper when he said in his Transcendentalist phase that his goal was to democratize Christianity and Christianize democracy. And Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty fleshed out the beginnings of a socio-political theory that Brownson had sketched out a generation earlier. All in all, reading the two men in succession can leave you confused as to who’s who.

I think our knights of Christ would acknowledge and perhaps even welcome these similarities. Just don’t let them discuss election or papal supremacy! Fixed points of certainty don’t suffer dispute.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Leave a Reply