Bushnell Park and the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts concert hall are named for a man whose bicentennial birthday is barely being marked this year. In his era, the sermon was the literature that served rich and poor, much as television does today, and the Rev. Horace Bushnell was a major practitioner. In an era when "pulpit princes" reigned, he was one of the royalty, and a kind of rebel royalty at that.
Born in Bantam in 1802, he arrived in Hartford as a preacher in 1833, when its population was at 10,000 and growing rapidly, just starting to change from the port city of the previous century to the insurance, manufacturing and publishing center of the 19th. There was change in the air in the still-predominant Congregational Church with its Calvinistic views, heavy with logic, predestination, damnation and fate. At Yale, Bushnell had been deeply influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Aids to Reflection," in which the poet said that Calvinism had perpetrated "outrages on the common sense and moral feelings of mankind."
Bushnell stayed a Congregationalist, but with appeals to the heart and feelings, says his biographer, Robert L. Edwards of West Hartford. "He struggled to make room for spiritual imagination and feeling, for the artistic, the poetic, the symbolic and even the mystical."
Bushnell advocated the spiritual education of children while old-style Calvinists believed children were totally depraved until they went through a "conversion" experience in adulthood. He believed that words - even the words of the Bible - did not relay solid truths but were "inspirations and poetic forms of life, requiring also divine inbreathings and exaltations in us, that we may ascend into their divine meanings." The old-style Calvinists were not amused and came close to trying Bushnell for heresy.
Bushnell never could separate the religious life and the life of the city, taking part in the founding of Hartford Public High School and creating Hartford's Central Park, which, when he was on his deathbed in 1876, the city council renamed in his honor.
His writings were read throughout the world. In "Moral Uses of Dark Things," he took on the problem of evil: Why does God allow disease, bad government, snakebite and hunger? On a trip to Europe, he wrote to the pope, inviting him to let Catholicism and Protestantism contend freely to determine the truth. (The Catholics, mystified by this heretic upstart, put the letter on its index of forbidden literature, ensuring its sales. The Courant charged 2 cents for a copy.)
But his bestseller was "Christian Nurture," with its Dr. Spock-like sensitivity to child psychology. It is still in print today.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times