MST78 Convert



78. Orestes A. Brownson, The Convert or, Leaves from My Experience (1857) edited by Arie J. Griffioen. ISBN-13: 978-0-87462-797-8. ISBN-10: 0-87462-797-4. Paper. 258 pp. $29. Bibliography. Index.

Orestes Brownson’s stunning conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in 1844 marked the outset of his career as the leading American Catholic lay apologist of the 19th century. Born in 1803 in the Green Mountains of Vermont and largely self-educated, Brownson’s earliest religious experiences occurred in the ‘burned-over district’ of central and western New York. He soon sought stability from the revivalism of the 2nd Great Awakening by joining an “old light” Presbyterian congregation in Ballston Spa, N.Y., at the youthful age of nineteen. But he soon found the rigidity of its hyper-Calvinism “repugnant to reason” and embarked upon a life-long search to establish the rational grounds for Christian faith. His quest led him through Universalism and, having relocated to the Boston area, through the intellectual ferment of Unitarianism and the emerging Transcendentalist movement. In 1838 he established his influential and widely read Boston Quarterly Review, a literary bastion of antebellum Liberal Protestant Christianity. But by 1842, his Quarterly discontinued, Brownson’s quest for the rational grounds of Christian faith had led him to the doorstep of the Catholic Church.

The Convert, published in 1857, is both a spiritual autobiography and an apologetic account of his intellectual journey to Catholicism. Its purpose is to demonstrate to his Protestant audience that his conversion was not a rash and abrupt decision, but the logical culmination of years of rational development achieved primarily through the aid of the French Eclecticism of Benjamin Constant, Victor Cousin, and especially Pierre Leroux’s doctrine of ‘life by communion’. But The Convert is also an intra-Catholic declaration of Brownson’s intent to discard the scholastic categories that governed his publications as a Catholic to date, and to return to the doctrine of ‘life by communion’, an approach he believed much more appropriate for the unique religious and social needs of the American setting. But through this all, with honesty and sincerity, Brownson allows his reader exposure to the profound spiritual struggles that led him to Catholicism: “I shall never forget the ecstasy of the moment,” he declared soon before his conversion, “when I first realized to myself that God is free.”



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