ISAAC HECKER by David J. O'Brien

ISAAC HECKER

An American Catholic
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 An intriguing biography of the founder of the Paulist order, unfolding a rich chronicle of the intellectual and religious controversies of 19th-century America. No mean polemicist himself, O'Brien (The Renewal of American Catholicism, 1972) keeps his head close to the ground here and provides a thorough, scholarly, and impartial accounting of his subject. Hecker was the type of ``earnest seeker'' that is rarely found beyond these shores. The son of a prosperous New York tradesman, he extended his meager formal education through an elaborate and voracious reading of Scripture, political science, and German philosophy. His youthful involvement in the political reform movements of the 1830's brought him into contact with Orestes Brownson, who invited him to visit the Brook Farm commune in Massachusetts. There, under the tutelage of Emerson and Thoreau, Hecker tried to work out a new mode of living founded upon the primacy of personal experience and intuition. The same frustration with formality and abstraction that drove most of the New England transcendentalists away from Protestant Christianity, however, carried both Brownson and Hecker along a circuitous route to Catholicism--where they cut rather curious figures. Catholic intellectuals were rare in 19th-century America--mistrusted by their native-born peers and misunderstood by their largely immigrant church. Hecker attempted to bridge the gap by directing his efforts toward the conversion of America, founding the Paulists to accomplish this goal. His attempts to reformulate the tenets of Catholicism in more distinctly ``American'' tones brought him into strenuous and protracted controversy, however--not only with nativist bigotry, but with the Roman magisterium and prominent American Catholics as well. The detailed history of his bureaucratic squabbles with Vatican congregations and the US hierarchy is a bit trying, but it will be important to scholars of the period, and can be bypassed easily by others. A fascinating account of an exceptional man. (Twenty-five photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: July 22nd, 1992
ISBN: 0-8091-0397-4
Page count: 480pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1992