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Horace Bushnell and the Question of Miracles

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Robert Bruce Mullin
Mr. Mullin is assistant professor of religion inNorth Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina.


Horace Bushnell has never lacked for commentators, and with notable exceptions the general picture of him (whether for praise or vilification) has been that of the “father” of American theological liberalism. This standard interpretation of Bushnell, however, fails to do justice to one of the more interesting aspects of his thought: his discussion in his treatise Nature and the Supernatural of the possibility of modern-day miracles. Although considered scandalous by his contemporaries and a pitiable misunderstanding by later commentators, his arguments, I believe, bear reexamination. In his treatment of the question of modern miracles Bushnell both offered his contribution to a 300-year-long theological debate and set forth his vision of the direction in which American Protestantism must head in order to meet squarely the growing spiritual crisis of nineteenth-century culture.

Research Article
Church History , Volume 58 , Issue 4 , December 1989 , pp. 460 - 473
Copyright © American Society of Church History 1989

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1. The characterization of Bushnell as father of American liberalism is common to both nineteenth-century commentators and present-day interpreters. See, for example, Theodore T. Munger, Horace Bushnell: Preacher and Theologian (London, n.d.); Buckham, John W., Progressive Religious Thought in America: A Survey of the Enlarging Pilgrim Faith (Boston, 1919);Google ScholarAhlstrom, Sydney E., “Horace Bushnell,” in A Handbook of Christian Theologians, ed. Marty, Martin E. and Peerman, Dean C. (Nashville, 1965);Google ScholarHutchison, William R., The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, Mass., 1976).Google Scholar

2. “De Notis Ecclesiae” in Roberti Cardinalis Bellarmini Opera Omnia, ed. Guiliano, Josephum, 6 vols. (Naples, 18561862), 2:132Google Scholar (my translation). John Jewell cited (and commented on) a slight variation of the above argument; see The Works of John Jewell, ed. Ayre, John, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1848), 3:195–98.Google Scholar

3. Luther, , “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” in Martin Luther, Works, ed. Pelikan, Jaroslav, 65 vols. (St. Louis, 19551986), 24:7475.Google ScholarHoffman, Bengt R., Luther and the Mystics (Minneapolis, 1976), pp. 195201,Google Scholar argues that Luther continued to accept the possibility of miraculous healings. On Calvin, see “Preface Address to King Francis,” Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1960), 1:1518.Google Scholar Whether in this passage Calvin denied that miracles occurred among Protestants, or only that they were theologically insignificant, is unclear. For the former argument, see Jensen, Peter F., “Calvin, Charismatics and Miracles,” The Evangelical Quarterly 51 (1979): 142143.Google Scholar For a broader discussion of this Protestant view, see Walker, D. P., “The Cessation of Miracles,” in Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, ed. Merkel, Ingrid and Debus, Allen G. (Washington, 1988), pp. 111124.Google Scholar

4. Later Writings of Bishop Hooper, ed. Charles Nevinson (Cambridge, 1852), pp. 4445.Google Scholar

5. On the conflict between intellectual theory and popular practice, see Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971), pp. 146151.Google Scholar The rejection of the miraculous was never as absolute on the continent. See, for example, the miracle accounts collected in Boys, Thomas, The Suppressed Evidence: or Proofs of the Miraculous Faith and Experience of the Church of Christ in All Ages (London, 1832).Google Scholar

6. On this turn in the debate, see Burns, R. M., The Great Debate on Miracles (Lewisburg, Pa., 1981);Google ScholarHillerbrand, Hans J., “The Historicity of Miracles: The Early Eighteenth-Century Debates Among Woolston, Annet, Sherlock, and West,” Studies in Religion 3 (1973): 132151;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Jacob, Margaret, The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689–1720 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1976).Google Scholar Although earlier English Protestant writers had united in rejecting modern miracles, there were a number of different theories about when they passed away, with some accepting their status up until the end of the fourth century. The proto-deist Conyers Middleton, in his A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (London, 1749),Google Scholar challenged all postbiblical miracles. For his reasoning and Wesley's opposing views, see Campbell, Ted A., “John Wesley and Conyers Middleton on Divine Intervention in History,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 55 (1986): 3949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis, 1955), p. 133.Google Scholar Francois de Pâris, a minor cleric of strong Jansenist predilection, became a cause célèbre in the first half of the eighteenth century when his relics were believed to be the source of miraculous healings. On the background and contemporary significance, see Kreiser, B. Robert, Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris (Princeton, 1978).Google Scholar

8. See The Works of William Paley, D.D. (Philadelphia, 1853), pp. 313326.Google Scholar

9. A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (Boston, 1907), p. 250.Google Scholar For background, see Weiss, John, Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker, 2 vols. (New York, 1864), 1:160186.Google Scholar

10. Ibid., pp. 186–187, 242.

11. The work, though originally published in 1858, had been worked on by Bushnell for a number of years. In the preface to a second edition (1864) he singled out as his opponents Charles Hennel, D. F. Strauss, and Theodore Parker. For biographical background to the work, see Cross, Barbara M., Horace Bushnell: Minister to a Changing America (Chicago, 1958), pp. 118133.Google Scholar Bushnell was not unique in publishing a defense of the reality of the supernatural. See, for example, Fisher, George P., Essays on the Supernatural Origin of Christianity (New York, 1866);Google ScholarMcCosh, James, The Supernatural in Relation to the Natural (New York, 1862);Google Scholar and Smith, Henry B., “The New Latitudinarians of England,” (1861) in Faith and Philosophy, ed. Prentiss, George L. (Edinburgh, 1878).Google Scholar Although Parker is criticized as well in these works, the central issue for them was the attack on miracles found in Essays and Reviews, published in 1860.

12. Nature and the Supernatural (New York, 1871), pp. 6869.Google Scholar

13. Munger, , Bushnell, p. 224.Google Scholar

14. Nature andthe Supernatural, pp. 316–317. For a parallel of this emphasis on the character of Jesus, see McCosh, , Supernatural, p. 246.Google Scholar

15. See, for example, Gordon, George A., Relsgion and Miracle (Boston, 1909), pp. 8392.Google Scholar

16. Nature and the Supernatural, p. 350.

17. Ibid., p. 447.

18. Ibid., p. 448.

19. Ibid., pp. 453, 451.

20. Ibid., pp. 468, 457. The Scottish miracles involving the brothers James and George MacDonald and a “Miss Fancourt” were a great issue of debate within evangelical circles in the early 1830s. Their integrity was upheld by the Irvingite Morning Watch or Quarterly Journal on Prophecy, and Theological Review (which was Bushnell's source). The criticism of them was led by the Christian Observer, which was the source Bushnell alluded to in the text. See, for example, the discussion found in the American edition of the Christian Observer beginning 41 (1831); 99.Google Scholar

21. Bushnell acknowledged that John Henry Newman was attempting much the same endeavor in England, yet the Protestant Bushnell was clear in distinguishing the miracles he was defending from those “ecclesiastical” miracles of Newman. For Bushnell, these miracles were to be dismissed because they did not reflect the high moral character necessary for a true miracle.

22. Howie, John, Biographia Scoticana: or A Brief Account of … Scots Worthies, 2d ed. (Glasgow, 1827).Google Scholar

23. Nattre and the Supernatural, p. 467.

24. Ibid., pp. 475–490.

25. Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 31 (1859): 155.Google Scholar

26. [Porter, Noah], “Nature and the Supernatural,” New-Englander 17 (1859): 254.Google Scholar

27. See, for example, “Bushnell on Miracles,” Eclectic Magazine 49 (1860): 7579.Google Scholar

28. See, for example, Warfield, B. B., Counterfeit Miracles (New York, 1918), pp. 2831.Google Scholar On the relationship between Middleton and Deism, see Stephen, Leslie, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (New York, 1949), 1:264270.Google Scholar

29. Gordon, , Religion and Miracle, pp. 141142.Google Scholar

30. [Bartol, Cyrus], “Dr. Furness and Dr. Bushnell: A Question of Words and Names,” Christian Examiner 66 (1859): 112124.Google Scholar

31. The passage was originally coined by Moore, Aubrey\; see “The Christian Doctrine of God,” in Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation, ed. Gore, Charles (New York, nd.), p. 82.Google ScholarMcGiffert, A. C. quotes this passage (with slight variations) approvingly in his The Rise of Modern Religious Ideas (New York, 1921), p. 181.Google Scholar

32. Huxley, T. H., Hume (New York, nd.), p. 129.Google Scholar

33. Munger, , Bushnell, p. 216.Google Scholar

34. There is more than a touch of irony in that even in the reprinting of Bushnell's own work this eradication of the supernatural can be seen. Thus in the 1902'reprint of “The Character of Jesus” as a separate volume, the publisher described Jesus in terms of being “superhuman” rather than supernatural.

35. Cheney, Mary B., Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell (New York, 1903), p. 420.Google Scholar Munger identified this person as Cyrol Bartol (Bushnell, p. 232).

36. On the widespread interest in the experience of religious reality, see Wacker, Grant, “The Holy Spirit and the Spirit of the Age in American Protestantism, 1880–1910,” Journal of American History 72 (1985): 5457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37. Nature and the Supernatural, pp. 506, 507, 515.

38. Ibid., pp. 499, 521 (second emphasis mine).

39. An exception to the above generalization is the largely positive reaction by John W. Nevin in the Mercersburg Review. See Appel, Theodore, The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin (Philadelphia, 1889), pp. 529550.Google Scholar

40. See, for example, Gordon's, A. J. appeal to Bushnell in his defense of faith healing, The Ministry of Healing, or Miracle Cures in All Ages (Boston, 1882), pp. 110115.Google Scholar

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