The Perceptivity of Isaac Hecker
Americans are an incorrigibly religious people. In spite of the predictions—primarily by European thinkers—that modernization inevitably means secularization, over ninety percent of Americans today continue to describe themselves as believers. When the first Middletown studies were done in the 1920s, that percentage was lower than it is today. Though we may justifiably question the nature and quality of this professed belief, there is no denying the central role that religion plays in the everyday lives of most Americans.
Religious belief has not figured largely, however, in the standard histories of the United States. Everyone knows of the religiosity of the Pilgrims. Most of us have picked up some vague notions of the history of our own denominations in the two centuries since the nation was founded. Perhaps a few of us have even heard that Methodism had something to do with Prohibition. But it would be difficult to find any widely used account of nineteenthand twentieth-century America that pays much attention to the ongoing religious history of our people. Such a gap is doubly unfortunate because it not only falsifies our past, but impoverishes our present in its grapplings with questions of religion and politics.
John Farina, the former editor-in-chief of the multi-volume Classics of Western Spirituality (volumes of which have been appearing for years under the imprint of the Catholic publishing house Paulist Press), has taken a strong step toward remedying this situation. He has instituted another important series, Sources of American Spirituality. In addition to making available valuable neglected texts of American Catholicism, the new series already includes volumes on topics as diverse as Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, the work of William Ellery Channing, and the meditative poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Other titles essential to a proper understanding of U.S. religious history are to follow.
Besides overseeing the entire series, Farina has edited the volume containing the diary of one of the most important figures in nineteenth-century American Catholicism, Isaac T. Hecker. Hecker was a convert who had direct personal contact with many of the most significant religious leaders and movements in his time, both inside and outside the Catholic Church. His diary, therefore, is an indispensable primary source of information and analysis of religious currents in America in the 1840s and beyond. Emerson and Thoreau, Brook Farm and the Fourierists, are some of the more familiar figures in this story, with a host of lesser characters who should become better known to students of American religion.
As in his previous and very fine book on Hecker, An American Experience of God, Farina tries, in his various introductions to the texts in this volume, to disentangle three main strands in Hecker’s pilgrimage: “That experience is best described as American, Romantic, and Catholic.” Each of these terms requires careful elucidation.
The America that Hecker confronted was primarily the ante-bellum America of New York and New England. In the decades that followed the birth of the nation and prior to the self-laceration of the Civil War, Americans sought a path that would preserve two seemingly irreconcilable aims: liberty and union. Emphases varied from person to person. An Andrew Jackson might put the Union above all else, while a John C. Calhoun would value the Union highly—after liberty. Hecker was influenced by these national debates, which had cultural and religious dimensions as well.
As the son of German immigrants who grew up speaking German as well as English, Hecker was impressed by the current of Romanticism that swept Western culture in the early nineteenth century. He read many of the early German Romantics in the original language. But the Romantic pitting of the human subject against the impersonality of the world and modern society was a drama played out most concretely for him among the American Transcendentalists. Farina sees the Transcendentalists as basically falling into two large blocs, the solitaries and the communitarians, each drawing on a portion of the original Romantic impulse.
Though Hecker learned a great deal from his contacts with the Transcendentalists, he had a visceral dislike of the overly individualistic, non-Christian wing of that movement best represented by Emerson. On June 13, 1844, Hecker made a famous diary entry that Emerson had clearly inspired:
A transcendentalist is one who has a keen sight but little warmth of heart. Fine conceits but destitute of the rich glow of Love. He is en rapport with the spiritual world, unconscious of the celestial one. He is all nerve and no blood, colorless. He talks of self reliance but fears to trust himself to Love but is always on the lookout for some new facts. [sic] His nerves are always tightly stretched like the string of a bow; his life is all effort. In a short period they lose their tone. Behold him sitting on a chair! He is not sitting but braced upon its angles as if his bones were of iron and his nerves of steel. . . . He prefers talking about Love to possessing it, as he prefers Socrates to Jesus. Nature is his church and he is his own God.
The combination of doctrinal heterodoxy and personal stiffness, which Hecker captured brilliantly here, continues to have a cautionary value of far greater force than a mere refutation of Emerson’s philosophy would have had.
It was as he was trying to sort out what was solid and what inauthentic in the Transcendentalist movement that Hecker, like Orestes Brownson and several other distinguished contemporaries, discovered in the Catholic Church what he regarded as a sane balance between the individual and the community. Taking the same basic route as had Friedrich von Schlegel, the brilliant founder of German Romanticism, Hecker thought that Catholic dogma and ecclesiology resolved the problem of unity and liberty, and that the Church combined aesthetic, ethical, social, and spiritual elements in a way that satisfied the whole man. The example of the Oxford Movement in Great Britain and its followers in the United States also made the path toward Catholicism smoother in the English-speaking American context.
Hecker’s fervent embrace of Catholicism was not universally greeted with the fervent embrace of Hecker by Catholics. Some thought Romanticism non-Catholic in its essence. Others regarded Hecker’s belief that democratic liberties are fully consonant with the Church’s classical and medieval heritage as an “Americanist” heresy. Acrid controversies erupted both during his lifetime and after. To this day there are those, Catholic ultramontanists and anti-Catholic bigots, who believe the Roman Church cannot tolerate republican liberties.
As can be seen from even this brief glimpse at Hecker’s life, the record of his struggles and his successes may have a great deal to tell us as we seek to live our own faiths in a free society. Those who think that irreligion and Eastern-inspired New Age movements, for example, are unprecedented threats to America’s Biblical foundations, will find in Hecker’s diary entries (particularly those from the period of his stay at the fittingly named utopian community “Fruitlands”) an uncanny relevance to what we are experiencing today, Also, Hecker’s reflections on church and state from a Catholic perspective stand near the head of a distinctively American tradition of thought. America’s experiment in ordered liberty surely needs to keep alive the memory of such efforts to deal with these and many other issues lest we defect from the principles of our past and, in so doing, spoil out future. We all owe John Farina and his Paulist colleagues a great debt of gratitude for making available to us this significant document of our native American spirituality.
Robert Royal was at the time of writing vice-president for research at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Currently, he is founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing.
Posted: June 17, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.
Morgan N. Knull
Volume 39, Number 3 (Fall 1999)