Comparing William Booth and Isaac Hecker: my paper at WTS

I’m looking forward to the annual Wesleyan Theological Society meeting late next week at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.  I’ve never been to Idaho, so I’ll be glad to see it first-hand, although I must confess I’d rather visit that state during a warmer time of the year!

This year’s theme is “Atonement in the Wesleyan Tradition,” and features keynote addresses by Ben Witherington III, Randy Maddox, and Jason Vickers.  A recent press release discussing the speakers and award recipients is available here.   You can find the full schedule of papers here.

I’ll be presenting a paper that builds on my dissertation research.  It will be presented in the Ecumenical Studies section, and the title is “Universal Atonement or Ongoing Incarnation? Comparing the Missional Theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker.”  Here is the abstract:

This paper will compare the missional theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker, two founders of 19th century missionary agencies. Booth, who started The Salvation Army in East London in 1865, was a Wesleyan revivalist who had previously been ordained in the Methodist New Connexion. Hecker was also raised in the Methodist church, but after a roundabout spiritual journey, became a Roman Catholic, first serving as a Redemptorist Priest, and then founding the Paulist Fathers in New York City, in 1858.

William Booth via wikimedia commonsBooth and Hecker were both possessed by visions of universal revival and reform in their later years, and both believed that God’s vision for universal reform extended beyond spiritual life, to social and political structures. However, the theological assumptions behind their universal visions for mission were markedly different, and are illustrative of divergences in 19th century Wesleyan and Catholic theology. The scope of Booth’s vision was founded upon the universality of the atonement, which provided a missionary mandate to evangelize the whole world, with a particular focus on those people not being reached by “the churches.” Hecker’s vision, on the other hand, was built on the universality of the Catholic Church as the historical extension of Christ’s presence in the world. These differing Christological starting-points funded two very different understandings of work of the Spirit, the place of the Church in God’s universal mission, and the relationship of their respective missionary bodies to established church structures. Whereas the Church has a rather ambiguous place in Booth’s understanding of world-wide redemption, Hecker’s view is thoroughly ecclesiocentric.

I will close by reflecting on the potential pitfalls of each view, and suggest some ways in which contemporary Wesleyans and Catholics might think together about universal mission in a way that avoids the theological extremes of our 19th century foreparents.

Hecker via wikimedia commonsFor Booth, the scope of Christian mission is very much related to his convictions about the universality of Christ’s atoning work, and the full implications of the atonement for human life.  As he got older, he came to believe that Christ had come not only to offer “spiritual” redemption, but to “destroy the works of the devil in the present time” by relieving humanity of temporal as well as spiritual evil (see his article “Salvation for Both Worlds” for example).  On other hand, for Hecker, the Catholic Church’s unviersality meant that the church was called to take up and incorporate the best of all the cultures of the world.  Hecker had a keen sense that the Spirit was guiding universal history, and had given “characteristic gifts” to the different cultures and races of the world, all of which needed to be directed to their proper ends and brought together in the one universal Church so that they might enrich the church’s life and bring glory to God.

As I’ve previously note here, I think Booth and Hecker are a very interesting comparison.  They are both compelling figures in their own right, but also provide an fascinating window into broader trends in the nineteenth-century church.   Hopefully the paper will help to bring out the contrast between the ecclesiological ambiguities of Wesleyan-holiness revivalism and the ecclesiocentrism of Catholic thinking from the same period.

A “greater effusion of the Holy Spirit”: Isaac Hecker’s hopes for renewal

Hecker via wikimedia commonsIn one of William Booth’s songs, he famously penned the line, “We want another Pentecost.”   Booth and his holiness movement counterparts placed a heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit in their preaching, teaching, praying, and worshipping – an emphasis that David Rightmire has termed a “pneumatological priority” (see his article in the most recent Wesleyan Theological Journal and his book, Sacraments and The Salvation Army).

As I’ve noted here before, my dissertation compares the Booth and Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, a Roman Catholic movement from the same time period.   Although the two men are quite different in many ways, Hecker’s theology could also be said to evidence a certain “pneumatological priority.”

Hecker was possessed by a life-long quest for the renewal of human society.   He came to believe that societal renewal could only be achieved if individuals were renewed, and that such individual renewal could only come through religion.  As a devout Catholic, he believed that the Catholic faith was the one true religion, and therefore placed the Catholic Church at the heart of his vision for social renewal.

His particular emphasis on the direct work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals, however, was somewhat unique among Catholic authors of his day.  While he drew on traditional Catholic sources, his particular way of emphasizing the Spirit’s direct work went against the grain of the majority of Catholics in his day, and raised some eyebrows.   He put the Spirit’s work in the individual Christian at the centre of his vision of renewal.  As John Farina has summarized, for Hecker, “The cure for the world’s problems was Spirit-filled individuals” (An American Experience of God: The Spirituality of Isaac Hecker, 150).

Hecker via bustedhaloHowever, unlike Booth, Hecker was keen to safeguard against potential fanaticism by grounding the immediate work of the Spirit upon individuals in the external authority of the church, which he also credited to the Spirit’s presence.

These twin emphases are abundantly clear in his book The Church and the Age.  Of individual renewal by the Spirit, Hecker writes:

The renewal of the age depends on the renewal of religion. The renewal of religion depends upon a greater effusion of the creative and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The greater effusion of the Holy Spirit depends on the giving of increased attention to His movements and inspirations in the soul. The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age, and the source of all true progress, consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul (The Church and the Age, 26).

The other side of the Spirit’s two-fold action, however, is found in the church’s external authority.

The action of the Holy Spirit embodied visibly in the authority of the Church, and the action of the Holy Spirit dwelling invisibly in the soul, form one inseparable synthesis; and he who has not a clear conception of this twofold action of the Holy Spirit is in danger of running into one or the other, and sometimes into both, of these extremes, either of which is destructive of the end of the Church (Ibid., 33).

Hecker 2 via wikimedia commonsOf course, most Protestants will note that individual discernment of the Spirit’s voice often comes into conflict with the discernment of those in ecclesial authority.  Church life is often filled with these types of conflict, and this raises questions about Hecker’s claim of an “inseparable synthesis” between the Spirit’s action in individuals and in the church’s authority structures.   When push comes to shove, how do we know which side is really hearing the voice of the Spirit?  As we would expect, Hecker takes the traditional Catholic line:

From the above plain truths the following practical rule of conduct may be drawn. The Holy Spirit is the immediate guide of the soul in the way of salvation and sanctification; and the criterion, or test, that the soul is guided by the Holy Spirit, is its ready obedience to the authority of the Church. This rule removes all danger whatever, and with it the soul can walk, run, or fly, if it chooses, in the greatest safety and with perfect liberty, in the ways of sanctity (Ibid., 35).

In spite of his clear affirmations of the ultimate authority of the church over individual believers, Hecker was still accused of leaning too much towards Protestantism by some of his contemporaries.  While these concerns were probably overblown (as we might expect in the nineteenth century, given the state of Protestant-Catholic relations), he certainly shared a “pneumatological priority” with William Booth and his contemporaries, and some of his writings seem to point to a desire for “another Pentecost.”

Methodist Influence on Isaac Hecker

One of the reasons I chose to study the Paulist Fathers alongside The Salvation Army in my dissertation is because the Paulist Founder, Isaac Hecker, had connections to the Methodist tradition.  Hecker’s Methodist grounding was tenuous, and nothing like William Booth’s ardent devotion to all things Wesleyan.  Booth is famously quoted as describing his early commitment to Methodism in the following terms: “To me there was one God, and John Wesley was his prophet.” (Booth-Tucker, Life of Catherine Booth, I: 52). Hecker had a fairly negative view of all the Protestant denominations, and spoke very negatively of his religious upbringing.  However, some have suggested that Methodism had more of an influence on Hecker than he himself might have wanted to acknowledge.

Issac Hecker was born in New York, the son of German immigrants, in 1819.  His parents married in the Dutch Reformed Church, but his mother Caroline soon joined the Methodist Church, and was a faithful member of Forsythe Street Church for the remainder of her life, even though most of her family members had no association with Methodism.  Of the four Hecker children, only one, Elizabeth, joined her mother’s church.  Caroline Hecker seems to have maintained a remarkably tolerant attitude in matters of religion, and was quite content to let her sons worship in other traditions.

Although not a great deal is known of Isaac Hecker’s involvement with the Methodists, it seems clear that he did have at least some exposure to Methodism as a child, and he had his first job working for a Methodist publishing house.  Vincent Holden, one of his biographers, claims Hecker “became acquainted with fundamental Methodist doctrine and with the Methodist form of worship.”  (The Yankee Paulp. 7)

Indeed, it has been argued that some of the Methodist ethos remained with Hecker in subtle ways throughout his life.  The point is made by John Farina, both in his Introduction to Isaac T. Hecker, The Diary: Romantic Religion in Ante-Bellum America, as well as in chapter 2 of his book, An American Experience of God.

Farina highlights several features of Methodism that would have been formative to Hecker’s early religious instruction, and which remained prominent in his own thinking and experience throughout his life:

  • The ideal of Christian community
  • A doctrine of God’s special providence
  • The doctrine of Christian perfection
  • A focus on personal experience
  • An emphasis on free will and human agency

Anyone picking up Hecker’s own writings, or reading the story of his life, can see how these emphases remained an important part of his spirituality after he became a Catholic.

Hecker was surely exaggerating when he later claimed, “no positive religious instructions were imparted to me in my youth.” (The Paulist Vocation, 49).  By the time he had reached adolescence, however, he seems to have decided that Methodism was not sufficient for the spiritual desires he felt had been placed in his own heart.  He started off on a circuitous spiritual quest that led him through political action and Transcendentalism, before he came back to the Christian Church, and eventually entered the Roman Catholic church.

Hecker was an enthusiastic Catholic, and had some strong criticisms for the Protestant traditions. In a document submitted to his spiritual directors in Rome as part of his petition for permission to found the Paulists (1858), Hecker recalled that he considered the various protestant bodies but “none answered the demands of my reason or proved satisfactory to my conscience.” In The Paulist Vocation, 52.

More specifically, regarding Methodism, Hecker commented in 1887: “…in our time it had no stated intellectual basis.  It was founded totally on emotional “conversion,” with the notorious exclusion of the intellect.” See “Dr. Brownson and Catholicity,” The Catholic World 46 (November 1887): 231.

Farina suggests that his critique of the “intellectual basis” of Methodism (and other protestant traditions) was aimed not at the internal coherence of protestant doctrine, but more fundamental questions about the nature of religious faith, and the correspondence between inner religious experience and the external world (Farina, An American Experience of God, 29).

In spite of his criticisms of the Methodism he had known as a child, I think Farina is correct in suggesting that Methodist influence can be seen in Hecker’s own thought.  I hope that at some point in my future writing I will have a chance to take up this question and provide a thorough scholarly demonstration the Methodist influence on Hecker.

Can charisms change? Insights from the examples of William Booth and Isaac Hecker

My research on the charism of William Booth and Isaac Hecker is raising some interesting questions in relation to the relative permanence or provisionality of charisms.   Are charisms a permanent endowment given to a person, or can they change, or even come and go, depending on the specific situations faced by the church in various times and places?

The issue is particularly important as it relates the charisms of ordained ministry, because traditions with a “high” view of ordination often believe it bestows a permanent character on the ordained person.

The report on Ministry from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (1973) provides an example of this kind of thinking:

In this sacramental act, the gift of God is bestowed upon the ministers, with the promise of divine grace for their work and for their sanctification; the ministry of Christ is presented to them as a model for their own; and the Spirit seals those whom he has chosen and consecrated. just as Christ has united the church inseparably with himself, and as God calls all the faithful to life-long discipleship so the gifts and calling of God to the ministers are irrevocable. For this reason, ordination is unrepeatable in both our Churches (#15).

On the other hand, Miroslav Volf, in his After our Likeness, while not discounting the possibility of lifelong charisms, suggests that charisms may come and go:

In contrast to calling, charismata in the theological sense of a combination of calling and endowment for a specific ministry in church and world are not “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Various charismata can replace one another over time, something implied by the interactional model of their bestowal.  Over the history of the congregation and of its individual members, the charismata with which these members serve in the congregation can also change; certain charismata come to the fore at certain times, while others become unimportant (either for the congregation itself of for the bearers of these charismata). This does not mean that the divine calling and endowment for a certain ministry cannot be a lifelong affair; but it is not necessarily such.  In any case, there is no correlation between the permanence of a particular charism and its divine origin.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of life, adn the Spirit’s gifts are accordingly as varied as is ecclesial life itself (233).

William Booth and Isaac Hecker are interesting case studies in relation to this question, because both experienced what could be called a “broadening” of their respective vocations.

For Booth, the broadening related to his theology of redemption.  This is the development traced in Roger Green’s War on Two Fronts, in which Booth’s understanding of redemption expanded to include efforts at social reform.   Whereas early in his ministry Booth was strictly a revivalist who engaged in some social ministry as a means to and end (the end being evangelism), by 1890 he had come to see efforts at social reform as part of the church’s mission.  Booth came to see salvation as social as well as personal, and therefore solidified and extended the mission of The Salvation Army to include organized efforts at social redemption.

Does this shift in missional thinking and practice signify a change in Booth’s personal charism, or did his charism remain the same, while he gained a broader understanding of its vocational direction?   The answer, of course, depends on how Booth’s charism prior to 1890 is understood.   Was his ministry to the poor and marginalized an essential aspect of his charism, or did he simply have the charism of an evangelist?  Is it possible to have a charism of “evangelist to the marginalized”?

I’m working these questions through right now, but I’m leaning toward suggesting that it wasn’t Booth’s charism that changed, but simply his understanding of where that gift ought to take him and the ways he ought to exercise it in his own context.   If salvation includes the social as well as the spiritual, then being an evangelist ought to include social action, since the good news of the gospel itself has social implications.

For Isaac Hecker, the change came in terms of the scope of his personal mission.   At the time of the founding of the Paulist Fathers (1858), Hecker was captivated by a strong belief that he should be a missionary to America.  He felt that his experience as a native-born American, his acquaintance with the culture, desires, and values of the American people, and his familiarity with a class of Americans who were already on a spiritual quest had placed him in a unique position to reach out to the American people as a Catholic evangelist.  This required, he believed, the founding of a religious society that was specifically adapted to the American culture, since the established religious orders were all of European origin, and thus unsuited to the task of reaching Americans.

Starting in the 1870s, however, Hecker began to broaden his vision, and now felt that the Paulists should not confine themselves to America, but should expand into Europe.  This was supported by his view of America’s providential place in the world – he felt that the American culture, and the experiences of the Catholic Church in America, would provide the solutions for the Church’s troubles in Europe.   He thought the Paulists should take what they had learned in America and come to the aid of the European Church.

Writing in 1875 along these lines, Hecker seems to suggest something like a “provisionality of charisms”:

One may be engaged in a good work, but of an inferior order, more on the circumference; but as it is a good work, and he sees no better, he should act where he is and be contented. Suppose, however, it is given to a soul the light to see a good of a much higher order, more essential, more efficacious, more general, more universal, including the former; and this light draws him from the former, all his interest as such in it has expired, and he lives in this higher and more universal light; can he do no otherwise than follow it? (The Paulist Vocation, Revised and Expanded Edition, p. 96)

As with Booth, I’m not entirely sure where to come down on this issue.  Hecker clearly believed his vocation, and that of the Paulists, had expanded – does this imply a change of charism?  Again, I’m leaning toward the idea that his personal charism did not change; rather his sense of vocation was expanded, based on his growing familiarity with the challenges facing the Church in Europe.

The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers: two interesting cases of missional diversity in the church

I’m switching gears now with my dissertation and moving into writing about two historical case studies: The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers.   While these two particular movements might seem like an odd pair, there are a number of reasons why I’m looking at them.

First of all, there are a number of similarities between their two founders, William Booth and Isaac Hecker.   They were near-contemporaries in age (Booth lived 1829-1912 and Hecker 1819-1888).  Both have Methodist roots, with Booth originally ordained in a Methodist tradition  and Hecker raised at Forsyth Street Church in New York City.  Both are, in many respects, men of their time, typifying the optimistic, industrious, world-encompassing spirit of the nineteenth century.  Both were “home missionaries,” who brought a missionary approach to ministry in their native countries, and each could be classified as “revivalists” in their respective traditions.  Both Booth and Hecker began their ministries in other movements – Booth the Methodist New Connexion, Hecker the Redemptorists – and both ended up branching out to found their own missionary societies because of conflicts with established leadership of those movements.  Finally, both eventually developed comprehensive visions for the worldwide mission of the Church.

I’m also interested in these two movements because they both raise interesting questions about unity and diversity in the church – questions I think might be addressed using the theology of ecclesial charisms.

The Salvation Army is an interesting case because of its original insistence that it was a missionary movement, and not a church, even while it remained independent of any formal ties to a church. Its members were not members of any other churches, creating the strange situation where Salvationists could claim to be Christians but to not be part of any church.  A decisive historical moment in the movement’s history came in 1882, when a series of serious discussions with the Church of England caused William Booth to ask himself if The Salvation Army should remain an independent mission or be placed under the auspices of the Church (if you’re interested in this episode see Roger Green, The Life and Ministry of William Booth, 140-145). The fact that such discussions took place shows that Booth was not completely sure whether or not he wanted the Army to remain autonomous.  The fact that they decided to remain independent was the result, I believe, of a lack of clarity regarding ecclesiological questions (noted by Green, p. 144-145).  The Army’s independence was of decisive significance for its future course, including its non-sacramental stance and its slow progression towards claiming “churchly” status.

The Paulists, on the other hand, were never outside of the Church’s fold, but rather press the question of unity and diversity from the side of the Church’s authoritative discernment.  First of all, very early in their history they were forced to make a compromise regarding their specific mission.  The founding members wanted to be an exclusively missionary society, but they could not find a Bishop who would support them unless they took on a parish.  This meant that they had to divert some of their energy to traditional parish concerns.  It seems that the bishops they approached did not recognize the particular gift of the Paulists, and so, in order to remain a part of the Catholic church, they were forced to compromise.  Another Paulist “gift” that wasn’t recognized was Hecker’s progressive ecclesiology, in which he saw the Spirit at work, adapting the Church to particular cultures and places, in concert with the providential developments in each society.  In Americathis meant making Catholicism more “American,” by becoming more democratic and embracing the separation of Church and state. This was not received well by a Catholic hierarchy which was struggling to ensure uniformity around the world, and had been marginalized by democratic governments throughout the nineteenth century.    After Hecker’s death, his ideas were taken out of context and twisted into the “phantom heresy” of “Americanism,” which was censured by Pope Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae, issued in 1899.

If the theology of charisms is in fact useful in helping us to understand reform movements as a legitimate form of diversity in the Church, then it should be able to be applied to these two cases.  My hope is that a study of their history and self-understanding, along with a sustained critical engagement with the theology of charisms in the context of the question of the church’s visible unity, will clarify some of the questions surrounding the limits of legitimate diversity in the church.