The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.
Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.
The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910].
(Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)
The premier theologian of the Boston Personalists was Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953), who earned a Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology.
Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school (Dorrien, p. 286)
And, in honor of Father’s Day:
His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)
Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)
A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, another thinker with a Ph.D. under Bowne.
The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.
The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.
“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)
American theology has always been characterized by the strife of its competing sectarian bailiwicks, and I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably contributed to its failure to attract a wide following among non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.
I think it is sad that a perverse sectarianism infects so much of American religious thought even today. From the nineteenth century, each sect has had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in all the other sects. There has been little opportunity for a pooling of religious genius in this country, and therefore no great salient of progressive Christian thought. Although each sect seems to have had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. It was not until the rise of secular universities very late in the 19th century that we see the fruit of combined intellectual powers from different backgrounds – except this fertility was chiefly won for non-religious concerns