A Definitive Biography: by Thomas R. Ryan, C.PP.S.
Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth
Orestes Augustus Brownson was born on September 16 at Stockbridge, Vermont, on the same year that President Thomas Jefferson added the Louisiana tract to the domain of the United States, 1803, and only sixteen years after the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. His life was to span the most exciting domestic period of the nineteenth century, and was to come to an end in the centennial year, 1876. From earliest manhood he was to take an intense and most active interest in those problems of the age which concerned the welfare of his fellowmen. In grappling vigorously with these he often shifted his position, becoming many things by turn. But through it all he was to remain ever a staunch critic and reasoning defender of the American system.
The long line of American Ancestry which he could, and did boast, could be claimed by few Americans. On the paternal side he was descended from one of the first settlers with Thomas Hooker of the Hartford Colony, Connecticut; on his maternal side, at least collaterally, he could claim kinship with the Mayflower pilgrims. (1) John Brownson, from whom he claimed descent, came to Hartford probably in 1636, and distinguished himself in the bloody Pequot War of the following year, 1637. (2) It may be to this event, at least in part, that he refers when he tells us that he "came of a military family." (3) Certainly the warrior tradition seems to have been inborn, a fact that was to stand him in good stead in many a resounding battle stretching to the very end of his life.
But who was John Brownson, and from where in England did he come? There is little information on this subject. Not even Dr. Henry Bronson (a direct descendent of Brownson) who wrote The History of Waterbury, Connecticut (homeplace of the Bronsons) in 1858, was able to draw on any dossier for John Bronson. When Orestes reviewed Dr. Henry’s History of Waterbury, in 1860, he noted that the author and the publishers had dropped the w in the name, but he insisted that whether spelled Brownson, Bronson, or Brunsun, the bearers of those names, as far as is known, have all descended from the same John Brownson who had come to Hartford in 1636. (4) The surname itself is lost in the mists of English history. Mrs. Harriet Bronson Sibley, however, tells us in her treatise, The Bronson Lineage (1636-1917), that the first Brownson of whom we have any knowledge came to England from Scotland as one of the eighteen or twenty followers of Mary Queen of Scots when she fled to England after the battle of Langside, near Glasgow, May 1568. This Brownson finally settled in Derbyshire, England. The motto of the Brownson or Branstons of Derbyshire was, "Quod Bonum est Tenere" (Hold to what is good). Mrs. Sibley’s historical research concerned itself with The Ancestors and Descendants of Captain William Bronson of the Revolutionary War and other Ancestral Lines. (5) It would seem not improbable that the original John Brownson may well have come to the New World from Derbyshire, England.
Although the Bronson branch of the John Brownson family (who had dropped the w) settled in Waterbury, Connecticut, the Brownson branch settled in New Britain, Hartford County, Connecticut. From there Sylvester Augustus Brownson, father of Orestes, migrated to Vermont. He was apparently following the road of a previous stream of Connecticut Yankees who were looking for more promising land. To acquire land in Vermont at that time, when it was a no-man’s land between Vermont and New Hampshire, one merely had to establish squatters’ rights, a relatively easy matter. Daniel Stiles informs us that in this movement Ethan Allen, a native of Connecticut, played a prominent role:
"This process [ i.e., acquisition of Vermont land] was greatly abetted by Ethan Allen…who persuaded the Connecticut people that that would be well advised, once the Indian wars were over in 1763, to think of moving to Vermont, and many did, as the repetition of Connecticut place names attests. You paid Ethan Allen for a right or privilege, settled down, then waited for Ethan to defend you, which he did, sometimes against the Yorkers, and sometimes against the less aggressive New Hampshire men, sometimes against both. Ethan’s Green Mountain Boys may or may not have been the scourge of the British later on they are reputed to have been, but they performed valiantly against all and sundry who would disturb the nebulous land titles of Vermont. And however questionable the whole enterprise in the eyes of the law, it got Vermont populated, and provided a place for excess Connecticut population." (6)
It has been established that Sylvester A. Brownson was not the first of his family to come to Vermont. Madeline Wilkinson, a Vermont genealogist, has written, "The U.S. census of 1790 for Vermont has 12 heads of household Brownsons; the 1800 has 15, including Sylvester [Orestes’s father], and one Bronson."(7) This information explains a reference to a Brownson clan in Vermont. J. Fairfax McLaughlin spoke of the martial cast of the Vermont Brownsons when he wrote: "In the early border wars between the Yorkers and the Green Mountain Boys, known as the Hampshire Grants Controversy, the Brownson clan were stalwart partisans on the Vermont side, and responded with alacrity whenever that whirlwind of a man, Ethan Allen, sounded the summons to battle: ‘Leave the harvest to rot on the field where it grows, and for the reaping of wheat the reaping of foes.’"(8)
Perhaps something more than Ethan Allen’s personal charism made the Brownsons especially responsive to his influence. Allen had joined the Brownson family back in Connecticut; he had married Mary, the daughter of Cornelius Brownson, on June 23, 1762, in Judea parish, Woodbury. The wedding ceremony cost him four shillings. (9)
In what precise year Sylvester A. Brownson arrived in Vermont is not known. Nor is it known where or when he met and eventually married Relief Metcalf, daughter of Jotham Metcalf, a native of Keene, Cheshire County, New Hampshire. But whether the couple came before or after Vermont had been added to the original thirteen states in 1791, they made their home in Stockbridge, Vermont, Windsor County, a small town on the White River founded in 1783, and numbering scarcely more than a hundred inhabitants. The surrounding countryside, though very picturesque, was rough and mountainous; here Syvester Brownson accepted the obvious hardship of wresting out a livelihood for himself and family of five – Daniel, Oran, Thorina, and the twins, Orestes and Daphne Augusta. Shortly after the birth of the twins, Sylvester Brownson took a bad cold, went into pneumonia, and died, leaving his spouse with the care of five small children. (10)
This irreplaceable loss clearly and understandably affected the development of the young, intelligent and deeply sensitive boy Orestes. In later life he was to lament frequently the unhappy condition of the widow and the orphan when he pleaded with stirring eloquence the cause of the underprivileged classes of society. There is deep pathos in the words he used in adult life to describe the effect on him of William Ellery Channing’s sermon "Likeness to God" when read to him by a friend:
"I listened [he said] as one enchanted. A thrill of indescribable delight ran through my whole soul. I could have leaped for joy. I seemed suddenly to have found a father. To me this was much. I had never known an earthly father, and often had I wept when I heard, in my boyhood, my playmates, one after another, say: "my father." But now, lone and deserted as I had felt myself, I too had become a son, and could look up and say, "my father" – around and say, "my brothers." (11)
This passage takes on additional significance in the light of some recent observations of Per Sveino who has seen in Brownson’s long and intense life an ardent search for a father. After noting Brownson’s never-failing search for a unity or synthesis in all things, beginning especially with his Society for Christian Union and Progress in 1836, he observed that "his way to traditional Christianity and, more particularly, to Catholicism was his fervent search for a FATHER. The tragic loss of his father in childhood seemed to motivate to a great extent his desires of believing in a heavenly father." Per Sveino’s view is that this search of Brownson strongly motivated his philosophical speculations on the problem of God as evidenced in his article on Cousin’s philosophy in 1836. After weaving together a long stream of philosophical terms more or less abstract, Brownson imparted warmth to them all when he indicated what they ultimately meant to him: "Hence, from the absolute principles of Causality, Substance, Unity, Intentionality, the Just, and the Beautiful, we obtain the absolute God, Cause of causes, Being of beings, Substance of substances, Unity of unities, Intentionality of intentionalities, morally just, beautiful, righteous – our Father." (12)
At all events, with his father gone, the boy Orestes lived a somber and lonely childhood. His father died intestate, and left the family in difficult circumstances. Relief Metcalf Brownson struggled admirably for some years to keep her children together, but she was finally forced to capitulate to increasing difficulties, and to accept the offer of kind neighborhood friends to take or adopt separately the two youngest, Orestes and Daphne, aged six. The separation of the twins was so painful that Daphne, recalling it in her old age – she lived to be ninety or more – spoke of it as one of the great griefs of her life. (13) Orestes went to live with an elderly couple (their name has never been given) near the town of Royalton, five or six miles north of Stockbridge. They lived on a small farm and supported themselves by their own industry. They were not churchgoing people, but had been reared in New England Congregationalism, and were strictly moral – far more willing to suffer wrong than to do it. They taught him, as he informs us, "to be honest, to owe no one any thing but good will, to be frugal and industrious, to speak the truth, never to tell a lie under any circumstances, or to take what was not my own, even to the value of a pin; to keep the Sabbath, and never to let the sun go down on my wrath." They also taught him the Shorter Catechism, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a short rhymed evening prayer. (14)
How well the elderly couple succeeded in impressing these moral lessons on the plastic character of the child, may be gathered from his own later words:
"I grew up a healthy, active, well-made and unusually strong boy. I never begged, and never stole the value of a pin, and would have starved or frozen to death rather than I would have done either: I had no vicious tendencies, and I think I was well disposed, and my heart swelled and my eyes overflowed in any one spoke a gentle word."15)
But he tells us also in his autobiography that he had an irritable temper, and was not free from violent outbreaks of passion, which, however, he tried hard to control so as not to do or say anything wrong. And he could not remember ever to have allowed the sun to go down on his wrath. He acknowledged that he had his faults, and did many things which were by no means right or excusable; but his conscience, he adds, was always active, he readily felt remorse, and was ready to submit to any humiliation on matter how great, to atone for any fault he had committed, or to repair the wrong done. For he felt that "the next best thing to never doing wrong, was to own the wrong done, and endeavor to undo it." (16)
Living apart with an aging couple, attending no school, young Orestes was largely without playmates as he grew into youth. However he may have felt about it at the time, he was to lament it in later years. He tells us that properly speaking he had no childhood at all, that being brought up with old people, debarred from the sports and frolics of children, he had the manners, the tone and the tastes of an old man before he was a boy. "A sad misfortune," he said, "for children form one another, and should always be suffered to be children as long as possible. Both children and youth are quite too short with us, and the morals and manners of the country suffer from it." (17)
But it seems clear that his unusual childhood was not an unmitigated misfortune, for it turned him in his earliest years to reading as a substitute for other pursuits, and developed in him an insatiable appetite for books. In the home in which he lived there was the King James Bible, Watt’s Psalms and Divine Songs, The Franklin Primer, Edward’s History of the Redemption, and a few other volumes. Having begun on these – there was no public library in the vicinity – he scoured the neighborhood for what he could find. In the home of one gentleman he found the English classics of Queen Anne’s reign, in another home fifty volumes of the English poets, in still another a work on universal history. Further inquires turned up Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, Pope’s Homer, various monographs of American history, books on the planting of the colonies, on wars with the Indians, Robinson Crusoe, Philip Quarles and the Arabian Nights. Although he did not understand all that he read, he devoured them all the same; reading was his supreme delight. Whenever he had a moment of leisure, he always had a book in his hand. In later life he was to say, "I have had my joys and sorrows, but I have never known or imagined on earth greater enjoyment than I had as a boy lying on the hearth in a miserable shanty reading by the light of burning pineknots some book I had just borrowed. I felt neither hunger or thirst, and no want of sleep; my book was my meat and drink, home and raiment, friend and guardian, father and mother." (18) Here surely we have kinship with Abe Lincoln.
He considered it fortunate that he never got his hands on children’s books in his growing childhood. What is needed, he insisted, are books or reading matter that will severely exercise, toughen and strengthen the mind of the growing child. He wrote:
"There were in those days few children’s books and none came my way, for which I have been thankful. Old people may read children’s books, and find recreation in them; but they are unprofitable reading for children. It is a damage for children to have thought [ideas] made easy for them. The earlier their intellects are taxed, and the harder they are obliged to struggle to find some meaning in what they read the better for them. Their minds grow by exercise and become strong; but children’s books feed their minds on pap and panada, and keep their mental indigestion always weak and incapable of relishing even in after life, healthy and invigorating food. Hence in our day we are obliged to dilute our literature for grown up men and women, and write novels and romances, and to take care that we do not overload them with thought. We no longer train our children to be men, thinking men, or as Emerson says, men thinking. We do their thinking for them, what little there is, and keep them children in understanding all their lifetime. I think it was a great advantage to me that I read books beyond my age, and could think, reason, reflect before I had a beard on my upper lip." (19)
But of all the books that came within his reach, none did he study with more intense interest than the Bible, "all of which," he said, "I had read by the time I was eight, and a great part of which I knew by heart before I was fourteen years of age." (20)
The edition of the Bible which he had for reading, as has been noted, was the King James Version. (21) Here one may detect one of the sources of that superb literary style which he was to develop when he later turned to writing. In an article in his Review on "The Study and Reading of Scriptures," 1861, he extolled highly the literary excellence of the King James Version, and asserted that its literary superiority is doe to the fact that the translation was made in the sixteenth century when the English language was at its zenith. The English language was then marked by a majestic simplicity, a naturalness, an ease, grace and vigor which it had been gradually losing since; what it had retained of the these qualities is due to the influence of the King James Version together with the Book of Common Prayer. Every day, he continued, the English language had been departing more and more from the grandeur, strength and simplicity that had distinguished it in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – a proof in itself that the reading of the Scriptures, at least in the King James Version, had grown less and less common, or that the authors who had gained the mastery in the modern literary world, had not modeled their literary tastes after its study. (22) His own close knowledge of that version could not but have exerted considerable influence on the formation of his literary style.
His son Henry tells us that his father early acquired three traits of character which were to dominate the rest of his life. From the elderly couple with whom he lived he absorbed a great love of truth; from the scenery around him, a love of nature’s beauties and a patriotic attachment to his boyhood home; from the Bible and the History of the Redemption, a love of religion as a matter of the first importance in life. These three loves were to run like golden threads through all the thought and writings of his long life. His son mentions also another trait that distinguished him as a youth, namely, that "he would suffer no one of his age to surpass him in any kind of manual labor." (23) This was prophetic of his future prodigious energy and the extraordinary labors he was to perform during his lifetime. (24)
Again, Henry Brownson suggests the importance of his father’s early love of his native Vermont. It was great indeed. To what extent his youthful imagination had been stimulated by the heroic deeds of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in the border wars against the Yorkers, or by the long and fierce struggle of Vermont for separate independence, or statehood, we are not told. It is certain that the heroic spirit of the people of what was to become the state of Vermont, their fierce love of freedom and personal independence, was to pass into the sensibility of Orestes A. Brownson and leave with him the characteristics of the "true blue" Vermonter. Few Americans, perhaps, have ever had a deeper attachment to their native state than he. Although he was to leave the state in his early years, its memory was ever nostalgic with him, and he spoke of it with great affection. It was ever to remain with him like a mother from whom he had received so much.
"We feel toward that state [he said in middle age], though it has not been our home for many a year, all the affection of a son for his mother. Amid her Green Hills we drew our earliest breath, and there are all the associations which become all the dearer the farther we recede from them. To Vermont we owe our hardy constitution, our fearless love of freedom, our indomitable spirit of independence; and if, in the restless excitement of youth, or the deeper ambition of manhood, we have ever been touched by that infirmity, "love of fame," it has been that we might leave a memory to our own native state, which she would not be unwilling to preserve. But she needs not this. In the struggle for independence, she was the first to obtain a victory; on her soil was fought the battle that decided the War of the Revolution; and should liberty be driven from all the rest of the Union, she will still make her eyrie in the cliffs of her Green Mountains, and where her eagle-brood shall continue her line through all time." (25)
But whatever the developing characteristics of the boy, it was religion more than anything else that engaged his budding mind. His "great pleasure was in conversing, or hearing others converse on religion." (26) The age in which he lived, so different from our own times, was basically religious-minded too. Religion was taught in the schools of the land, the elementary school, the college and the university. It had a clear and prominent part in the ambience of nineteenth-century America. The people of those times talked and argued more readily about religion in the home, at the country store, in the railroad car or on the steamboat than we moderns do in the present-day setting, while not abating an interest in politics, athletics, business trends, education and foreign policy. The people of those times were a serious-minded people, for the day was yet far off in which the movement began that was to secularize modern society. The country saw, too, from time to time, great spiritual revivals. The second revival, or Great Awakening, coming in 1800, was to have immediate and lasting effects upon American society generally. As Russell Blaine Nye has remarked:
"[The second Great Awakening] meant that the United States, despite the shocks of eighteenth-century rationalism and "infidelity," remained predominantly a religious-minded nation, with an emotional, pietistic, and moralistic thinking for generations to come. The shrewd French traveler, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted this primary fact of American life in 1831, after the Awakening had run its course. "There is no country in the world," he said, "in which the Christian religion retains a greater hold over the souls of men than in America. Religion is the foremost of institutions in the country." (27)
Though engrossed in religion, young Orestes was interested in all that went on around him. When he was nine years old, he was permitted to accompany an older boy to the "middle of the town [probably Royalton]," about four miles from where he lived, to witness a general training of a brigade of militia. On his return, he was asked what of interest he had seen. He replied that he had seen two old men arguing about religion. So interested had he himself become in the discussion that he forgot all about the soldiers, even though he had come from a military family. The card of gingerbread he had brought along almost went uneaten. The discussion turned on free will and election, and the nine-year-old actually took part in it, "stoutly maintaining free will against Edwards, who confounds volition with judgment, and maintains that the will is necessarily determined by the state of the affections and motives presented to the understanding." (28) There is here an early foreshadowing of that astonishing role he was to play in the intellectual arena of the nineteenth century.
His earliest wish was to be a minister of religion, to bring others to a knowledge and love of God. It was for this ambition that he longed to go to school, to pursue learning, to grow up and be a man. "I looked upon myself," he writes, "as one called and set apart for the service of religion." (29) Later he dreamed of becoming a missionary to the heathen, a short-lived dream, it is true; upon reflection he concluded that the warring sects should first settle their differences before offering a Babel of tongues for the gospel message. His early call to the service of religion reminds one of young John Henry Newman’s premonition that God’s will demanded for him a celibate life, more or less connected in his mind with the notion that his calling would indeed require such a sacrifice, as, for instance, missionary work among non-Christians to whom he had been strongly drawn for some years. (30) The many striking similarities in the lives of these two great men of the nineteenth century will be noted in the course of this book.
The strong sense of religion that was becoming deeply embedded in the nature of the youth Orestes, urging him to dedicate himself totally to the service of religion, stemmed no doubt from his meditative reading of the Sacred Scriptures. Explaining the effects on him of Bible reading, he said:
"The simple story of the Passion of Our Lord, as I read it in the Evangelists, affected me deeply, I hung with delight on the mystery of the Redemption, and my young heart often burned with love to Our Blessed Lord, who had been so good as to come into the world, and to submit to the most cruel death of the cross that he might save us from our wicked dispositions, and make us happy forever in heaven. I wanted to know all about him, and used to think of him frequently in the day and night. Sometimes I seemed to hold long familiar conversations with him, and was deeply pained when any thing occurred to interrupt them. Sometimes, too, I seemed to hold a spiritual intercourse with the Blessed Mary, and with the holy Angel Gabriel, who had announced to her that she was to be the mother of the Redeemer. I was rarely less alone than when alone. I did not speculate on the matter. It all seemed real to me, and I enjoyed often an inexpressible happiness. I preferred to be alone, for then I was in the presence of Jesus and Mary, and the holy angels; yet I had not yet been baptized, and had very little instruction except such as I had obtained from the reading of the Holy Scriptures." (31)
Yet in spite of his ardent leanings toward religion, there seems to have been no one to explain doctrinal matters to him, such as the necessity of baptism, or the nature and office of the Church in the scheme of salvation. All that he was told is that he must "get religion," "experience religion," "have a change of heart," "be born again." But just how this was to be done, there was no one to enlighten him. In the town near which he lived there were Congregationalists, called the "Standing Order." Methodists, Baptists, Universalists, and Christians, or as they insisted on being called, Christyans. The Methodists and the Christyans were the more numerous, and it was to them that he felt himself most drawn. Whenever he went to a religious meeting, it was to one of these two groups. He knew they differed, but the only difference he could readily notice was that the Methodists preachers had stronger lungs: when they preached the people shouted more. He gave them the first place as preachers inasmuch as they made the most noise, and gave the most spine-tingling descriptions of hellfire and the tortures of the damned. Yet all that he learned from either set of preachers is that he must be born again or go to hell, get religion or be damned. Apparently nothing was said about the means of salvation. (This is evidently a case of preachers taking for granted a certain amount of rudimentary religious knowledge in the audience.) The more he listened the more his fear of hell increased, and the less he loved God. He was constantly in dread that the devil might come and carry him off bodily. "I had tried to get religion," he said, "and at times almost made up my mind to submit to the Methodists, and let them bring me out."(32)
Sadly perplexed at twelve, Orestes decided to seek the counsel of an elderly lady, whose advice was to have considerable influence on his thought for years to come. She was a Congregationalist, fairly well-educated for those times, and a person of intelligence and refinement. Now reduced to penury, she was living alone in a miserable hut on the edge of the farm on which Orestes lived. He visited this American anchoress one evening, and unburdened himself as he told her of his perplexities in matters of religion: which sect should he join? She listened patiently, and then said:
"My poor boy, God has been good to you, and has no doubt gracious designs toward you. He means to use you for a purpose of his own, and you must be faithful to his inspirations. But go not with the Methodists or any of the sects. They are not New Lights, and not to be trusted. The Christian religion is not new, and Christians have existed from the time of Christ. These New Lights are of yesterday. You yourself know the founder of the Christian sect, and myself knew personally George Whitfield and John Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Neither can be right, for they came to be too late, and have broken off, separated from the body of Christians, which subsisted before them. When you join any body calling itself Christian, find out and join one that began with Christ and his Apostles, and has continued to subsist the same without change of doctrine or worship down to our own times. You will find the true religion with that body, and nowhere else. Join it, obey it, and you will find rest and salvation. Beware of sects and New Lights: they will make you fair promises, but in the end will deceive you to your own destruction." (33)
Narrating this incident in his autobiography years later, Brownson says that her words made a deep impression upon him; they struck him as just. But what is to be noted in particular is his statement that her counsel prevented him from "ever being a genuine, hearty Protestant, or a thorough-going radical even." The woman was not a Catholic, but a sincere Congregationalist, and only held the church views of the New England Puritans which were insisted upon in those days by the old Standing Order in New England. As Brownson explained: "However erroneous were the views of the New England Puritans, they retained a conception of the Church of Christ, held that Christ had himself founded a Church, established its order, and given it its ordinances, and taught that it was necessary to belong to it in order to be saved." (34)
When Orestes turned fourteen, his mother left Vermont with her children and went to live at Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, New York. One may only guess at the reasons. It may be that she was practically forced out of the state in the aftermath of the catastrophe which had occurred in Vermont in the year 1816. Winter came in summer; the year became known in Vermont history as the "famine year." On June 8 a foot of snow fell and blew into drifts three or four feet high. There was also some snow in July and August, and on September 10 came a killing frost. Scarcely any crops survived for harvesting. With the failure of the hay crop, much of the livestock perished. Many of the inhabitants had nothing between them and starvation but nettles, wild turnips, hedgehogs and other cruel substitutes for normal fare. Never had the people of the territory known such intense physical sufferings and hardships. Many of them struck out for lands of promise in the West, particularly Ohio, toward which many in the New England states were already drifting. (35) Whatever the precise reason for the move, Mrs. Sylvester Brownson may have decided to go at least far enough to get out of the state. All this could be of some significance in determining how soon Orestes may have been able to attend school in Ballston Spa. If the family had been in straitened circumstances because of the hardships of the previous year, any earnings Orestes was able to garner during the first years in New York State may well have been needed for family support.
Henry Brownson mentions the academy at Ballston Spa which Orestes attended, and in which "he acquired some Latin and less Greek, and attained to a fair knowledge, as it was then considered, of the usual branches of English education." (36) Yet it is at least questionable whether Orestes attended the academy immediately after coming to Ballston Spa. Sir John (later Lord) Acton, who had a four-day interview with Brownson, July 1853, on his visit to the United States, stated in a letter to his tutor in Munich, Johann Joseph Ignaz Dollinger, that Brownson had told him – among other things- that although "he learned to read with an old uncle, and soon began to work…in his eighteenth year he did not know how to write." (37) Taken prima facie the statement would seem to argue that he did not attend the academy his first two or three years at Ballston Spa. Brownson himself mentions that when he joined the Presbyterians (in his fourth year at Ballston Spa), he was at the time pursuing his studies at the academy. (38) In its obituary notice for Brownson’s passing in 1876, the New York Times noted: "He was sent to the Ballston Academy, in this state, at the age of nineteen." (39) It seems, then, that his formal education began and ended at this academy – very meager indeed – perhaps one school year at that.
In Ballston Spa there was also a printing office, owned by James Comstock. Here young Orestes found employment, first as an apprentice, then as a journeyman. (40) Here too (at the printing office and elsewhere), he fell in with a speckled crowd of secretaries, Universalists, deists, atheists, "nothingarians," as they were called, and those professing no particular form of religion. For one with no sympathetic instruction in religion, the effect was disastrous. He tried desperately to hold on to religion, but his young head became so bewildered by contradictory assertions, by the doubts and denials expressed, that he half persuaded himself that all religion is humbug, the work of priestcraft and statecraft. "I was in a labyrinth of doubt," he later wrote, "with no Ariadne’s thread to guide me out to the light of day. I was miserable, and I knew not where to turn for relief. I felt that my own reason was insufficient to guide me; and the more I attempted by it alone to arrive at truth, the further I went astray, and the more…perplexed I became." (41)
At this time he became acquainted with a number of Universalist books; he had in fact been instructed in that creed by his mother’s sister who had herself listened in her youth to the preaching of Dr. Elhanan Winchester, one of the earliest and most distinguished Universalist preachers in America. Among the several books Winchester had written were his Dialogues, his Lectures on the Prophecies and an epic poem celebrating the triumph of the empire of Christ. (42) when he was between fourteen and fifteen years of age Orestes had read these works, and, aided, as he tells us, by the brilliant and enthusiastic commentaries of his aunt, they had shaken his faith in the central doctrines of Christianity. A neighbor’s gift of a Treatise on the Atonement by Hosea Ballou, another distinguished Universalist minister, added to the young man’s bewilderment. In this work Ballou "denies free will, denies responsibility, denies a future judgment, denies all rewards and punishments, denies virtue, denies sin, in all except name, and consequently the whole moral order." Never, said Brownson, in after life, had a book issued from the American press been more replete with heresies of the most deadly character, or one that was more calculated to carry away "a large class of young, ingenuous, uniformed minds." If anything was wanting to compound the evil, some popular works "openly warring against all revealed religion, indeed against all religion, whether revealed or natural," came his way at the time. (43) As he had no rule of guidance at all in religion, these books only increased his gnawing doubts and perplexity, and made him despair of ever being able to know what to believe.
In this state of mind, it happened that one Sunday morning, when he was about nineteen, he was passing a Presbyterian meetinghouse in Malta, Saratoga County, New York. He saw people gathering for the service, and he decided to join them. He had not been in a place of worship for some time. While the hymn singing displayed no special art, it did soothe him, even to the point of tears. He listened reverently to the reading of the Scriptures, to the prayer and the sermon. Years later he would recall nothing at all of the sermon. Nevertheless, he went out from that meetinghouse not only deeply touched, but also feeling that he had somehow missed his way in life. As he continued on his journey, he kept asking himself what he had gained by his speculations, why he must stand alone and find no belief to sustain him, why there was no worship to refresh him.
"I have, said I, in my communing, done my best to find truth, to experience religion, and to lead a religious life, yet here I am without faith, without hope, without love, I know not what to believe, I know not what to do. My life is like a stream that follows out of darkness. The world is dark to me, and not a ray of light even for one instant relieves it. My heart is sad, and I see nothing to hope for, or to live for. For me heaven is dispeopled, and the earth is a desert, a barren waste. Why is this so? Why does my heart rebel against the speculations of my mind? If doubt is all there is for me, why cannot I discipline my feelings into submission to it? Why this craving to believe when there is nothing to believe?...Why this thirst for an unbounded good, when there is no good, when all is mere show, an illusion, and nothing is real? Have I not mistaken my way?
Was I not told at the outset that, if I followed my own reason, it would lead me astray, that I should lose all belief, and find myself involved in universal doubt and uncertainty? Has it not been so? In attempting to follow the light of reason alone, have I not lost faith, lost the light of revelation, and plunged myself in universal darkness? I did not believe what these people said, and, yet, were they not right? They were. They told me to submit my reason to revelation. I will do so. I am incapable of directing myself. I must have a guide. I will hear the church. I will surrender, abnegate my own reason, which hitherto has only led me astray, and make myself a member of the church, and do what she commands me." (44)
These later reflections on the state of his mind at this youthful time of his life were perhaps expressed with a greater clarity than he could have achieved in the very midst of his early confusion. But that we have here an accurate description of the early state of his mind, and his desperate resolve to extricate himself from it, can scarcely be questioned. No doubt he added some coloring at times to facts in general, but there seems no reason to dispute Brownson’s recollection of the facts themselves of his early experience. As Augustine Hewitt has observed: "Intellect, reason, imagination, and memory were alike powerful faculties of his mind." (45) In any case, it seems clear that at this youthful period he had lost his way in life. Perhaps it was well that he did not know or suspect how long the road and how rocky its travel before he would find an inn for his spirit and the warm fire of his tested conclusions.