The First World War and the Great Depression provided myriad challenges to the mission of the Methodist Church. As a nation began to doubt its role in the modern world, one of the country’s most dominant and politically-engaged religious denominations sought to respond to the chaos by reconsidering its own attachment to the historical sources of Christian order. Amidst the crisis, Lynn Harold Hough, Methodist theologian, philosopher, and educator, offered an intellectual framework, guided by hope, and devoid of the messianic tendencies of the emerging ideological movements that had begun to influence many aspects of American Christianity, including Methodism.
Hough was one of the greatest Methodist theologians and preachers of the 20th century; however, his contribution has not received the sustained attention of scholars. For half a century, he published at least a book a year, served as a regular writer for numerous theological journals, was a contributing editor to the Christian Century–and these were his avocational interests. Hough was deeply influenced by the scholarship of his friend and philosophical mentor, Irving Babbitt. It was Babbitt’s attempt to renew the notion of humanism that most interested the young pastor, who was deeply embroiled in the religious debates of the 1920s and 1930s. Hough was attracted to the balance of sympathy and selection in Babbitt’s presentation of the doctrine. The purpose of this essay will be to present Hough’s elucidation and utilization of Babbittian Humanism, and demonstrate how Hough’s understanding contributes to some of the important questions of philosophy and religion.
Hough graduated from Scio College in 1898 and Drew Theological Seminary in 1905. He was ordained into the Methodist ministry after his graduation from Drew and served pastorates in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. Hough spent the next two decades teaching historical theology at Garrett Biblical Institute, with a one year stint as president of Northwestern University, and appointments to several prominent pastorates, including Central Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit. At this point in his life, Hough was already a powerful figure in ecclesial and theological circles. Richard Fox, for example, notes in his important study of Reinhold Niebuhr that Hough served as the model for many aspiring theologians during this period including Niebuhr and Joseph Vance. Floyd Cunningham demonstrates that “Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, based on his Detroit years, lauded the wealth of scholarship’ undergirding Hough’s ideas and praised his colleague’s ability to unite ‘religious emotion with aspiration rather than duty.’”
By the early 1920s Hough had, according to his account, “already read pretty much everything written by Irving Babbitt.” In 1927 Hough met Babbitt and published an article on his work in The London Quarterly Review. The relationship between the two men remained cordial and regular until Babbitt’s death. Louis Mercier poignantly describes the association: “They were to remain in touch until Babbitt’s death, and it was Lynn Harold Hough who spoke the last words at the [Babbitt’s memorial] service in the Harvard Chapel.”
In addition to Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, Hough was also an important contributor to the New Humanism movement. Through his major philosophical works, The Meaning of Human Experience, The Christian Criticism of Life, Evangelical Humanism, Christian Humanism and the Modern World, and other works, Hough introduced a new, more dynamic theophanic element to the “New Humanism,” making it a more palpable concept to students of Christian theology.
Hough’s interpretation of Babbitt’s concept of humanism differs from Babbitt’s own view in some respects; however, like Plato and Aristotle, Hough argued for a natural harmony in the relationship between humans and their world. The greatest test of such a harmony, Hough argued, was in the souls of the individual citizens who comprise a given republic. Perhaps Hough’s important departure from Babbitt involves Hough’s conviction that the “New Humanism” could actually be preached and disseminated in a fashion similar to the way one might spread the good news of the Gospels. Unlike the “religious humanism” proposed by John Dewey, Hough reconciled Babbitt’s most important insights with the enduring witness of the classical, consensual tradition of Christianity. For Hough, true humanism served as a guide for a rigorous discipline of the mind. He attempted to counter the various ideologies of the time, while presenting Babbittian humanism refreshed with a Christian view of the moral order.
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1. For an overview of rise of ideological thinking among Methodists see Robert Wilson’s Biases and Blind Spots: Methodism and Foreign Policy Since World War II (Wilmore, Kentucky: Bristol Books, 1988) [He also includes chapter on World War I]; and Mark Tooley’s Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Anderson, Indiana: Bristol House, 2012).
9. Louis J. A. Mercier, Humanism in the New Age (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company), p. 88.