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The Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume IO, Number I, Spring, 1979 Joseph Stevens Buckminster: The Making of a New England Saint Lawrence Buell Joseph Stevens Buckminster ( 1784-1812), Boston minister and man ofletters, is a pivotal but elusive figure in New England intellectual history. His importance has been recognized without being fully understood. In his own day he was praised without discrimination by his admirers. All the eulogies agreed that he was "one of the most eminent men whom our country has produced." 1 During the seven years before his pastorate at Brattle Street Church was cut short by epilepsy, liberal Congregationalists came to regard Buckminster as their intellectual leader, despite his youth. After his death he was credited with a major role in instigating a revolution in pulpit oratory, the Unitarian movement , the New England literary renaissance, and the rise of American biblical studies. 2 In our century indiscriminate praise has given way to benign neglect. The claims for Buckminster's historical importance have been acknowledged and largely sustained. It is agreed that he influenced American Unitarianism at a crucial stage and that he helped inspire subsequent developments in literature and scholarship through his preaching, his discovery of German biblical criticism, and his contributions to the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, the North American's most significant predecessor. Perry Miller rightly begins his anthology. The Transcendentalists, not with Emerson but with Buckminster. Yet few scholars have really studied Buckminster in depth. Those who have-Lewis Simpson, Jerry Wayne Brown, and Daniel Howe in particular- have written astutely, but their work is limited to selected aspects 2 La11·re11(·c Bue /I ) I • ,.'/ ,. iJ111h111 //, It· ---- Joseph Stevens Buckminster of his career. 3 No one has yet attempted a comprehensive intellectual portrait. Buckminster's works are seldom read; his manuscripts have been almost untouched~ the last and only attempt at a biography was in 1849.4 In modern surveys of the period, a passing reference seems to suffice. 3 There are some obvious reasons for this neglect. First, Buckminster is less memorable for what he wrote and said than for what he set in motion. His chief significance is as a background figure to whom two generations of New Englanders paid homage, men like George Ticknor, Edward Everett, Andrews Norton, John Gorham Palfrey and William Ellery Channing. Second, Buckminster exemplifies a type of professional career which attracts less attention today than it once did. Like the Mathers, Benjamin Colman and Ezra Stiles, he carried on the New England tradition of clerical attainment in many fields. But through no fault of his own he suffers by comparison both with these predecessors and with those he inspired. Since the minister's role as a social force was more limited in his day than in the Mathers', he seemed even then a less commanding figure, while his secular accomplishments were soon superseded by the progress of specialization in scholarship and the arts. By 1900, Buckminster's pulpit presence had long been forgotten; the religious movement he helped inspire had been dwarfed by the growth of other denominations ; his literary activities seemed amateurish; and the Federalist mentality , which he shared, had been stigmatized as derivative and reactionary, a recrudescence of Toryism in politics and a watered-down neoclassicism in letters. There are also good reasons, however, for reexamining Buckminster. For one thing, recent estimates of his character diverge sharply. Simpson more or less accepts the flattering portrait in his sister's Memoirs; Howe sees him as "a snobbish aesthete." 5 Who, then, was this man? Beyond this biographical question, Buckminster presents an interesting riddle in New England hagiography . "I cannot attempt to descriibe," a close friend declared, "the delight and wonder with which his first sermons were listened to by all classes of hearers. The most refined and the least cultivated equally hung upon his lips."6 How could a youth of twenty have made such an impression on one of the most cultivated communities in America? Surely he must have been an uncommon individual, or else Federalist Boston must have been very different from the world we know. In either case, Buckminster's canonization is worth reviewing for what it can tell us...


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