The Weathercock and the Mystic: The Prophetic Friendship of Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker

Except for a few saints and possibly a handful of bish­ops, Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker were the two most interesting American Catholics of the 19thcentury. They were certainly the most intellectually interest­ing and, in the long run, the most influential. The matters they agreed on, and especially those they disagreed on, are crucial to today’s debate about Catholic identity and the future of the Church in America. Together, Brownson and Hecker not only anticipated its terms but, almost despite themselves, pointed to its ideal outcome.

It hardly needs saying that America in the middle de­cades of the century before last—roughly from the 1850s through the 1870s—was very different from America today. Still, many of the issues Brownson, Hecker, and their col­leagues and antagonists confronted and fought about have contemporary parallels: for crassness and commercialism then, crassness and consumerism now; for anti-Catholic na­tivism, anti-Christian secular humanism; for ethnic conflict between Catholic Irish-Americans and Catholic German- Americans, ideological conflict between Catholic liberals and conservatives; for slavery and the Civil War, abortion and the culture war.

Hecker biographer David J. O’Brien calls the Brown­son-Hecker relationship “one of the great stories of Ameri­can Catholic history.” Indeed it was. But even those who know the story often fail to grasp its message for American Catholics. In their collaboration and their conflict, these two men framed the central question for the Church in the United States, relevant both then and now: Is it possible to be fully American and fully Catholic at one and the same time? In doing so, they underlined the still-unresolved is­sue of whether Catholic evangelization in America is a pipe dream or a realistic possibility.

‘The Weathercock Rules’

Orestes Brownson was born in Stockbridge, Vermont, on September 16, 1803. His father died when he was two years old, and the little boy was separated from his mother and four siblings and raised by an elderly couple who were non- practicing Congregationalists. While receiving almost no formal schooling, he had a powerful intellect and was a vo­racious reader and determined autodidact.

Religion obsessed Brownson from an early age, and the bubbling stew of new movements and ideas that was the American religious scene in the 1820s and 1830s suited him perfectly. First he tried Presbyterianism. Next came Universalism—Brownson served as a Universalist minister at several places in upstate New York—followed by Unitarianism and even, for a short time in Boston, his own “Church of the Future.”

In Boston, Brownson fell in with the Transcenden­talists. Major figures in that avant-garde movement— Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and others—became his colleagues and friends. In these years, too, he earned a growing reputation as an editor of periodicals and as a writer and popular lecturer. He read widely in current philosophy and theology and argued heatedly about religion and social issues. In 1837 he launched a journal called the Boston Quarterly Review. By the early 1840s he was a national figure with a substantial audience.

In late 1841 or early 1842 Brownson had a life- changing religious experience that opened his eyes to what he called the “freedom of God.” God, he explained, is “not a resistless fate, an iron necessity, inaccessible to human prayer…but a kind and merciful Father who hears when his children cry, and is ready, able, and willing to supply all their wants.” The insight spurred him to resume his religious quest, and in short order the quest led him to Catholicism. On October 20, 1844, Brownson was formally received into the Catholic Church.

Old friends found this move impossible to comprehend on any grounds except Brownson’s well-known changeable­ness. In his Fable for Critics (1848), after speaking of Emerson and Alcott, James Russell Lowell wrote of Brownson:

He shifts quite about, then proceeds to expound
That it’s merely the earth, not himself, that turns round, 
And wishes it clearly impressed on your mind
That the weathercock rules and not follows the wind.

Biographer Patrick W. Carey calls Brownson “an American intellectual activist” whose best insights were sometimes buried under a too-copious output of journalism and po­lemical rhetoric. It’s a verdict many would share: “Not an academic specialist…more like an American Renaissance man, always engaged on many different fronts.”

‘Angelic Pure Being’

Preceding Brownson into the Church by several months was Isaac Hecker, 16 years his junior and a disciple of Brownson since 1841. “God alone knows how much I am indebted to him,” Hecker wrote many years later. Born December 18, 1819, in New York, he too was a religious seeker, as well as a mystic whose life was changed forever in his early 20s by a vision of “a beautiful angelic pure being.” Hecker’s spiri­tual journey led him to the Transcendentalists’ experimental Brook Farm community, then to the Catholic Church, the Redemptorist order, and on October 23, 1849, to ordina­tion as a Catholic priest.

Early in their Catholic years Brownson and Hecker shared the conviction that the United States was ripe for conversion. But they differed significantly in temperament and style. The older man was an aggressive, argumentative logician of whom Hecker wrote:

He is so strong and intellectually active that all his energy is consumed in thought. He is an intellectual athlete. He thinks for a dozen men…. He defeats but will never convince an opponent…. No one loves to break a lance with him because he leaves such un­gentlemanly gashes.

In contrast, Hecker was a person of great charm; even peo­ple who disagreed with his ideas seldom disliked the man. But the commitment to evangelization that Brownson and Hecker shared soon brought both of them into conflict with others who took a different view of the Church’s priorities at mid-century.

Brownson moved to New York in 1845 where he re­launched his journal under the name Brownson’s Quarterly Review. But his relations became strained with the pug­nacious Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, who regard­ed the conversion of America as an unrealistic distrac­tion from the pressing needs of an immigrant Church. “I want no one in my diocese I can’t control,” Hughes is said to have told Brownson. Brownson took the hint and in 1856 moved himself and his Review to Elizabeth, New Jersey.

For his part, Hecker was frustrated by what he con­sidered the ethnic narrowness and cramped vision of the American Redemptorists, who were more interested in giv­ing missions and doing parish work among German immi­grants than in converting members of the New England in­tellectual elite whom Hecker had known at Brook Farm. In August 1857, Hecker went to Rome to plead his case with the leadership of the Redemptorists, there depending on how one interprets events—he either was expelled from the order or quit. But his pleasing personality and sincer­ ity won friends in high places, among them Pope Pius IX. Returning to the United States, in 1858 Hecker founded the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle—the Paul­ists—with a nucleus of members who were ex-Redemptor­ists like himself.

Early Signs of Trouble

Symptoms of serious disagreement between Hecker and Brownson appeared at a fairly early date. Hecker’s first book, Questions of the Soul (1855), established him as, in O’Brien’s words, a prominent Catholic spokesman. But he was disappointed when his second book, Aspirations of Nature (1857), declaring the country ready for conversion (“… in this unfettered civilization, true Religion will find a recep­tion it has in vain looked for elsewhere”), received much less attention.

Particularly galling to the author was Brownson’s skeptical review. Proclaiming that the number of “earnest seekers” in the United States was far less than Hecker imagined, he wrote that those most likely to be attract­ed to Catholicism were evangelical Protestants, not the post-Christian Brook Farm types who interested Heck­er. America’s conversion would not be easy, Brownson warned, since there was “scarcely a trait in the Ameri­can character as practically developed that is not more or less hostile to Catholicity.” Americans, he held, were “imbued with a spirit of independence, an aversion to au­thority, a pride, an overwhelming conceit, as well as with a prejudice that makes them revolt at the bare mention of the Church.”

Hecker was surprised and hurt. Their friendship sur­vived the shock, but it was never quite the same again. Still, when Hecker launched a new magazine called the Catholic World in 1865, with the aim of giving American Catholi­cism a first-rate journal of ideas as a vehicle for evangelizing culture, Brownson became a regular contributor. The great parting of ways finally came in the early 1870s. By then both men had outgrown the naïve idealism of new converts and had suffered hard knocks from life and from their expe­rience of the Church.

Brownson, deeply saddened by the loss of two sons in the Civil War, was disgusted by Catholic support for the South in that conflict, and on top of that was plagued by gout and failing health. Having given up Brownson’s Quarterly Review, he chafed under the edit­ing of Rev. Augustine Hewit, Hecker’s colleague at the Catholic World. In religious matters, he had become a convinced ultramontanist who declared himself “a convert to” Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and its repudiation of many aspects of the secular consensus of the day. “The bolder and more uncompromising the Church,” Brownson pronounced, “the sounder is the policy.” His intense dislike of whatever he judged to be Catholic ac­commodationism made him increasingly suspicious of Hecker and the Paulists.

Hecker had problems of his own. Having wangled a place on the fringes of the First Vatican Council (1869­70), he sided emotionally with the inopportunist party which opposed defining the dogma of papal infallibility at that time. Strange to say, he nevertheless embraced infallibility enthusiastically after the fact, even calling it a helpful vehicle for the evangelization of America. But few of his fellow Paulists seemed much interested in that great work.

Separate Ways

Matters came to a head over a letter Hecker wrote Brown- son from Rome dated January 30, 1870. Citing the “in­creased interest and appreciation” for the United States that he claimed to have found among “men of all parties and schools in Europe,” Hecker declared that “no greater service can be rendered” to the Europeans than to give them an account of “the relations of the Church to our free institu­tions.” He went on:

This extension of political power to the people, is in no way hostile to the spirit and dogmas of the Catholic Religion. For the more the responsibility in the direc­tion of a nation is shared by those who compose it, provided they rightly fulfill its duties, the greater their dignity and merit, & the greater the glory of God….

This concession of greater political power to the people, will call forth fresh zeal in the Church to educate and direct the people in order properly to fulfill their new responsibilities. This will ex­tend her influence, and a new title of gratitude for her services, and show in a new light the absolute necessity of Religion to sustain civil society and good government….

In our own country, where the Church exists in her entire independance [sic] from State control, yet all her rights acknowledged and protected by the laws of the country, where her right to hold property, of establish­ing colleges, schools, charitable associations, etc. and to govern and administer her affairs according to her own laws and customs; it is here she is putting forth an energy and making conquests which vie with the zeal & success of the early ages of Christianity.

Brownson was not impressed. He had long suspected Hecker and his colleague, Father Hewit, of holding a watered-down view of the effects of original sin bordering on heterodoxy. His own certainty that the effects went very deep fed his increasingly jaundiced view of American democracy, and Hecker’s effusions evidently struck him as jejune. Brownson also deplored the tendency he found in Hecker to paper over differences with Protestants for the sake of agreement, and on that score he considered his old friend’s views not merely fatuous but dangerous.

On August 25, 1870, Brownson wrote the Paulist a letter saying that he supported the American system of govern­ment “because it is the legal & only practicable form,” but added: “I no longer hope anything of it.” Then he continued:

Instead of regarding the Church as having advantag­es here which she has nowhere else, I think she has here a more subtle and powerful enemy to combat than in any of the old monarchical nations of the world. Say what we will, we have made little impres­sion on our old American population, & what little we have made we owe to the conviction that [the] Church sustains authority, demands government, is anti-radical, anti-democratic.

The United States was emphatically not good for the spiri­tual health of Catholics, according to Brownson. Perhaps thinking of his old friend Emerson and the quintessentially American theme of radical individualism to which Emerson lent an eloquent voice, Brownson wrote:

Catholics as well as others imbibe the spirit of it.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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