Orestes Augustus Brownson, 1803 - 1876

Orestes Augustus Brownson was a prolific editor, reviewer, author, and member of the Transcendental Club.  Essentially, his life was a religious quest.  He began as a Congregationalist, then turned to Presbyterianism, then was ordained as a Universalist minister, then, after seriously considering agnosticism, became a Unitarian preacher--all before 1833.  At this time he was influenced by the French philosophers Benjamin Constant and Victor Cousin, and in particular by Cousin's system of eclecticism, upon which he wrote at length in the Christian Examiner in 1836.  In 1836, also, he organized the Society for Christian Union and Progress and published his seminal New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church.  Brownson was an indefatigable writer of reviews of other works, both by the New England Transcendentalists and by their antagonists, and largely single-handedly wrote the Boston Quarterly Review from 1838 to 1842.  He was a leading defender of the Transcendentalists during this period, supporting them even when he did not agree completely with their views.  When Amos Bronson Alcott was vilified for publishing Conversations With Children on the Gospels (1836 - 1837), Brownson asserted that "there was no man in our country who so well understands the art of education."  Ralph Waldo Emerson was praised in the same manner.  After writing his stimulating "The Laboring Classes" (1840), however, Brownson experienced a fatal lack of faith in transcendental progress and eventually joined the Roman Catholic church as a critic of Transcendentalism.
He has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
From what has been said it may be inferred that Transcendentalism in New England was a movement within the limits of "liberal" Christianity or Unitarianism as it was called, and had none but a religious aspect.  Such an inference would be narrow.  In 1838, Orestes Augustus Brownson started "The Boston Review," instituted for the discussion of questions in politics, art, literature, science, philosophy and religion.  The editor who was the principal, and almost the sole writer, frankly declares that "he had no creed, no distinct doctrines to support whatever"; that he "aimed to startle, and made it a point to be as paradoxical and extravagant as he could, without doing violence to his own reason or conscience."  This avowal was made in 1857, after Mr. Brownson had become a Roman Catholic.  The pages of the Review prove the writer to have been a pronounced Transcendentalist.  A foreign journal called him "the Coryphœus of the sect," a designation which, at the time, was meekly accepted.
Mr. Brownson was a remarkable man, remarkable for intellectual force, and equally for intellectual wilfulness.  His mind was restless, audacious, swift; his self assertion was immense; his thoughts came in floods; his literary style was admirable for freshness, terseness and vigor.  Of rational stability of principle he had nothing, but was completely at the mercy of every novelty in speculation.  That others thought as he did, was enough to make him think otherwise; that he thought as he had six months before was a signal that it was time for him to strike his tent and move on.  An experimenter in systems, a taster of speculations, he passed rapidly from one phase to another, so that his friends ascribed his steadfastness to Romanism, to the fatigue of intellectual travelling.  Mr. Brownson was born in Stockbridge, Vermont, September 16, 1803.  His education was scanty; his nurture was neglected; his discipline, if such it can be called, was to the last degree unwise.  The child had visions, fancied he had received communications from the Christ, and held spiritual intercourse with the Virgin Mary, Angels and Saints.  Of a sensitive nature on the moral and spiritual side, interested from boyhood in religious speculations, he had, before he reached man's estate, asked and answered, in his own passionate way, all the deepest questions of destiny.  At the age of 21, he passed from Supernaturalism to Rationalism; at 22 became a Universalist minister; at 28 adopted what he called "The Religion of Humanity"; the year following, joined the Unitarian ministry.  At this time he studied French and German, and became fervidly addicted to philosophy.  Benjamin Constant's theory of religion fascinated him by its brilliant generalizations, and its novel readings of Mythology, and was immediately adopted because it interested him and fell in with his mood of mind.  In 1833, he accepted Cousin's philosophy as he had accepted Constant's, "attending to those things that I could appropriate to my purposes."  In 1836 he organized the "Society for Christian Union and Progress" in Boston, and continued to be its minister till 1843.  All this time he was dallying with Socialism, principally in the form of St. Simonianism; thought of himself as possibly the precursor of the Messiah; threw out strange heresies on the subject of property and the modern industrial system; and was suspected, he declared afterwards unjustly suspected, of holding loose opinions on love and marriage.  "New Views of Christianity, Society and the Church," appeared in 1836, a little book, written in answer to objections brought against Christianity as being a system of extravagant spiritualism.  This idea Mr. Brownson combated, by pointing out the true character of the religion of Jesus as contrasted with the schemes that had borne his name, exposing the corruptions it had undergone, during the succeeding ages, from Protestantism as well as from Romanism, and indicating the method and the signs of a return to the primeval faith which reconciled God and man, spirit and matter, soul and body, heaven and earth, in the establishment of just relations between man and man, the institution of a simply human state of society.
"Charles Elwood, or The Infidel Converted," was published in 1840.  Two or three passages from this theological discussion, thinly masked in the guise of a novel, will suffice to class the author with Transcendentalists of the advanced school.
"They who deny to man all inherent capacity to know God, all immediate perception of spiritual truth, place man out of the condition of ever knowing anything of God." . . .  "There must be a God within to recognize and vouch for the God who speaks to us from without." . . .  "I hold that the ideas or conceptions which man attempts to embody or realize in his forms of religious faith and worship, are intuitions of reason." . . .  "I understand by inspiration the spontaneous revelations of the reason; and I call these revelations divine, because I hold the reason to be divine.  Its voice is the voice of God, and what it reveals without any aid from human agency, is really and truly a divine revelation." . . .  "This reason is in all men.  Hence the universal beliefs of mankind, the universality of the belief in God and religion.  Hence, too, the power of all men to judge of supernatural revelations." . . .  "All are able to detect the supernatural, because all have the supernatural in themselves."
The "Boston Quarterly," was maintained five years,--from 1838 to 1842 inclusive,--and consequently covered this period.  It would therefore be safe to assume, what the volumes themselves attest, that whatever subject was dealt with,--and all conceivable subjects were dealt with,--were handled by the transcendental method. . . .