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Information Form. Unitarian Universalist Association. Harvard Square Library. Disillusioned with liberal religion and radical politics, in he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Catholic intellectual, a constitutional conservative, and a fierce critic of Protestantism.
Orestes was born in the frontier village of Stockbridge, Vermont. He and his twin sister were the youngest children of Sylvester Brownson and his wife Relief Metcalf. In Sylvester died, leaving a destitute year-old widow with five children. Orestes lived with his mother until he was six, old enough to remember her Universalist teaching about the "gift of a Saviour's love to sinners.
They were Congregationalists but did not attend church because they disapproved of the evangelical preaching in their local church. They instructed Orestes in the rudiments of the Reformed faith and encouraged him to explore the religious options Royalton had to offer.
He did not unite with any church but had a rich spiritual life centered on private reading of the Bible. Orestes was apprenticed to James Comstock, the owner, editor and printer of the Independent American newspaper, in the fashionable resort of Ballston Spa. Accustomed to the relative equality of a Vermont farming village, Orestes was shocked by the extravagance of the resort's guests and the servility of the slaves, servants, and staff who catered to them. Brownson's work on the newspaper was the beginning of his political education.
From Comstock, he absorbed the idea that democracy was threatened by money and privilege and that "nonproducers" such as lawyers, bankers, and the clergy were parasites living off the labor of the working class. These principles remained the basis of his politics throughout the s and s. At the urging of his aunt, Asenath Delano, a leader of the small Universalist society in Ballston, Brownson read some basic Universalist literature.
Ballou's ridicule of orthodox belief, together with the worldly and irreligious atmosphere of Ballston Spa, caused Brownson to wonder if there was any truth to religion at all. In an letter, he wrote that he "was soon a Deist, and before I was seventeen an Atheist. The experience was an unhappy one, and he left the church after nine months.
By this time Brownson's apprenticeship had ended. He studied for a few months at Ballston Academy, then became a schoolteacher in nearby Stillwater and in Camillus, in western New York. In he took a teaching position in Springwells, Michigan, near Detroit.
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Within a few months, he contracted malaria, and spent most of his time in Michigan ill or convalescing. In less than a year he was back in Camillus. His brief stay in Michigan may nevertheless have changed the course of his life. Detroit at that time was a largely French-speaking, Catholic community. At a time when most Americans thought of Catholicism as, at best, an obsolete religion superseded by a more advanced form of Christianity, Brownson was one of the few American Protestants to have experienced the Catholic church as a living and benign presence. During his time in Springwells and Camillus, Brownson continued to consider the arguments for and against universal salvation.
In he declared himself a Universalist. Skinner recommended that he study with his own mentor, Samuel Loveland. Brownson was soon after accepted into fellowship as a Universalist evangelist. During he prepared for the ministry under Loveland's guidance. He was ordained in Brownson spent the three and one-half years of his Universalist ministry at a succession of small churches in New York state.
After his ordination, he obtained a temporary position supplying pulpits in Fort Ann and Whitehall, near the Vermont border. This was followed by a series of settlements in central New York: Litchfield, ; Ithaca and Genoa, ; and Auburn, In Brownson married Sally Healy, a daughter of the family with which he had boarded while teaching in Camillus. The couple eventually had eight children. Shortly after arriving in New York, Brownson was caught up in a dispute about the advisability of organizing a New York State Convention of Universalists.
He joined a group of ministers, led by Linus Smith Everett, who opposed the convention out of concern about its ill-defined and, in their opinion, arbitrary disciplinary powers. This drove a wedge between Brownson and Dolphus Skinner, who was one of the convention's strongest supporters. When Everett moved to Massachusetts in late , he arranged for Brownson to succeed him as minister at Auburn and as editor of a Universalist newspaper, the Gospel Advocate.
An inexperienced editor, Brownson soon became embroiled in a dispute with Theophilus Fisk, a former owner of the Gospel Advocate.
In the course of the argument, Fisk charged that Brownson had renounced Christianity and become "a secret agent of infidelity. Many Universalists, however, were prepared to believe Fisk's allegations - particularly after Brownson defended Abner Kneeland , then being dismissed from his church on the ground of infidelity, and wrote admiringly of the notorious freethinker Frances Wright.
Even those who approved of Brownson's theology criticized the Gospel Advocate for "splitting straws" with other Universalists instead of spreading the message of universal salvation.
Chapter 4: Orestes Brownson's Conversion to Anti-Fourierism
At a time when Universalists were worried by the rise of a confident and united evangelical party in American politics, they were particularly sensitive to anything that might bring the denomination into disrepute. He merged it with his own Utica Magazine and eliminated Brownson's editorial position. Unable to stay on as assistant editor or to find work on other Universalist publications, Brownson joined the staff of the Free Enquirer , the avowedly anti-religious paper co-edited by Frances Wright.
This confirmed the mistaken idea that his enemies already had about him: that he was an "infidel," and possibly mentally unbalanced as well. Brownson's separation from the Universalist denomination was made formal in September , when the Universalist General Convention voted "that there is full proof that said Kneeland and Brownson have renounced their faith in the Christian Religion, which renunciation is a dissolution of fellowship with this body.
As a Unitarian minister in the s, he wore the "infidel" label with a certain degree of pride, using it to establish himself as an authority on the arguments most likely to appeal to unbelievers. His novel Charles Elwood, or the Infidel Converted was understood to be a thinly disguised history of his own case. After he converted to Catholicism, the story of his past infidelity fit in with the narrative of his progress toward Catholicism, and supported his case for the inadequacy and incoherence of Protestantism. After his departure from the Universalists, Brownson renounced sectarian religion in favor of social reform, declaring himself to be a "philanthropist" rather than a "religionist.
Just as he became disillusioned with Workingmen politics, Brownson experienced a spiritual conversion that led him to declare himself a Unitarian. Behind this re-conversion lay his belief that he detected a divine voice within his soul, an experience that reaffirmed for him the existence of a paternal God.
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By early , Brownson had resumed preaching on an independent basis, affirming his affinity for Unitarians, who taught that "God is our Father, that all men are brethren, and that we should cultivate mutual good will. Although he managed to keep it afloat for about two years, he was forced to fold the insolvent paper in Financial necessity and growing ambitions led Brownson to seek a regular pulpit, with a salary to support himself, his wife, and two young sons.
He accepted a call to Walpole, New Hampshire, a move that put him within the orbit of Boston, the center of American Unitarianism.
He attended gatherings of the American Unitarian Association and began publishing essays in Boston Unitarian periodicals, including the Christian Register , the Unitarian , and the Christian Examiner. In Brownson began serving the church in Canton, Massachusetts, fifteen miles from Boston.
From that post, he began to advocate for fundamental social reform. In an Fourth of July address, for instance, Brownson expressed concern that economic inequality was growing, and noted that the nation was failing to live up to the principle of equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence.