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)
Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953) earned his Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology and the premier theologian of the Boston Personalists.
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, also 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 limited by its division between competing sects. I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably created a certain indifference on the part of non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.
I think a perverse sectarianism infects much of American religious thought even today. Each denomination has always had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in their own and in all other denominations. Although each sect had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. I think the lack of community among different types of religious genius in this country has thwarted progressive Christianity. Not until the rise of non-sectarian universities in the late 19th century did the American mind finally bear the fruit of its diverse genius – unfortunately by that time the advances were chiefly limited to non-religious concerns.