Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803–1876) was a New England intellectual and activist, preacher, labor organizer, and finally a prolific Catholic writer. Brownson is best remembered as a publicist, a career which spanned his affiliation with the New England Transcendentalists, through his subsequent conversion to Catholicism.
Brownson was an orphan who was adopted and raised by impoverished rural farmers in Stockbridge, Vermont. He was self-educated and had a series of religious conversions throughout his life. In 1822 Brownson became a Presbyterian and in 1824 he became a Universalist, becoming ordained in 1826 and preaching in New York and New England. Later, rejecting Universalism, he became associated with Robert Dale Owen and Fanny Wright in New York City and supported the New York Workingmen's Party. Then he became a Unitarian, preaching in Walpole, New Hampshire from 1832 and in Canton, Massachusetts from 1834.
For the next decade, Brownson was a part of the Transcendentalist movement which swept through the Boston Unitarian community. He read in English Romanticism and English and French reports on German Idealist philosophy, and was passionate about the work of Victor Cousin and Pierre Leroux. In 1836, the year of Emerson's Nature, Brownson participated in the founding of the Transcendental Club; he also published a pamphlet, New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church, which combined Transcendental religious views with radical social egalitarianism, angrily criticizing the unequal social distribution of wealth as un-Christian and unprincipled. In 1838 he founded the Boston Quarterly Review, and served as its editor and main contributor for four years. Other contributors included George Bancroft, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and Elizabeth Peabody. Brownson originally offered use of the Boston Quarterly Review as the vehicle for the transcendentalists; they declined and instead created The Dial.
Brownson's writing contributions were political, intellectual, and religious essays. Among these was a review of Thomas Carlyle's Chartism, separately published as The Laboring Classes (1840), which caused considerable controversy. Also in 1840, Brownson published his semi-autobiographical work Charles Elwood; Or, The Infidel Converted. Through the protagonist, Brownson railed against organized religion and the truthfulness of the Bible. In 1842, Brownson ceased separate publication of the Boston Quarterly Review, and it was merged into The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, but his beliefs were once again evolving, and he found it necessary to break with the Review after a series of his essays created new scandal.
In the spring of 1843, rumors spread that Brownson was considering converting to Catholicism, especially when he met with the Roman Catholic Bishop of Boston. He finally converted on October 20, 1844, his religion for the rest of his life. As a Catholic, Brownson became politically conservative. Brownson had been writing many articles for the Paulist Fathers Catholic World publication. Brownson now saw Catholicism as the only religion that could restrain the undisciplined American citizens and thus insure the success of democracy. To him, America was to be a model to the world, and the ideal model was a Catholic America. He repudiated his earlier Fourierist and Owenite ideas, now criticizing socialism and utopianism as vigorously as he had once promoted them. A staunch Douglas Democrat, Brownson, like Douglas supported the Union in the Civil War, and polemicized against the Confederacy and against Catholic clergy who endorsed secession. He also wrote against the theory of invincible ignorance, the belief that non-Catholics have a chance of being saved if they die in invincible ignorance.
After his conversion, he revived his former publication, now renamed Brownson's Quarterly Review, in 1844. He used it to strike out against his former friends in the Transcendental movement, who he wrote would be damned unless they converted as well. He succeeded in convincing Sophia Ripley, wife of George Ripley. This journal continued until 1864, and then was relaunched again later in Brownson's life and after a nearly ten-year hiatus, in 1873. It finally ceased publication in 1875.
In 1845 Brownson coined the term "Americanization" at Fordham University, where he was an intellectual leader on campus. In his 1848 "Letter to Protestants", Orestes Brownson coined the term Odinism. In 1857 he wrote a memoir, The Convert; or, Leaves from My Experience.
Brownson was summed up by poet and critic James Russell Lowell in his satirical A Fable for Critics as someone trying to bite off more than he could chew: "his mouth very full with attempting to gulp a Gregorian bull". Edgar Allan Poe refers to Brownson in his Autography series, calling him "an extraordinary man", though he "has not altogether succeeded in convincing himself of those important truths which he is so anxious to impress upon his readers." He is also mentioned in Poe's story "Mesmeric Revelation", referring to Brownson's 1840 novel Charles Eldwood; or, The Infidel Converted.