Lynn Harold Hough, Irving Babbitt, and Christian Humanism
by Lee Cheek
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’sLeaves 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.
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).
For example, in 1924 Hough was voted one of the twenty-five leading clerics in the United States by the readership of the Christian Century.
Even though Hough was one of the most prominent Methodist and "New Humanist" figures of the 20th century, he has never been the subject of a book-length study. Most recent studies in these areas of inquiry neglect Hough's contribution. Thomas Langford's Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition(Nashville: Abington Press, 1983) includes mention of Hough in a footnote (n. 2, p. 288); Russell E. Richey's "Drew Theological Seminary and American Methodism" [Daniel Clendenin, Editor, Scholarship, Sacraments and Service (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press, 1990], conveniently skips Hough's long tenure as Dean of Drew Theological Seminary (1934-1947); Thomas R. Nevin's Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), makes one reference to Hough--citing an article Hough authored about Babbitt. Stephen L. Tanner's recent Paul Elmer More (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1987) quotes Hough at least three times without ever properly crediting his achievement or stature in the "New Humanist" movement. Claes Ryn's Will, Imagination and Reason (Chicago: Regnery Books, 1986) quotes Hough once, but refers its readers to a tome by Hough. The most thorough history of the "New Humanism" movement, J. David Hoeveler, Jr.'s The New Humanism(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), contains no mention of Hough or his contribution to the movement. On the other hand, several scholars have appreciated Hough's work; the most important study is Floyd Cunningham's "The Christian Faith Personally Given: Divergent Trends in Twentieth Century American Methodism" (Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1983), and his “Lynn Harold Hough and Evangelical Humanism,” The Drew Gateway, Volume 56, Number 1 (Fall 1985), pp. 16-30. On a related note, Hough’s tremendous contribution to American homiletics is evinced in many publications. See Edgar DeWitt Jones, American Preachers To-Day (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971); Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, ed. Wiersbe, Warren M., and Lloyd M. Perry (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), p. 309; and Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices From “A Great Towering Church,” ed. William H. Willimon (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 9-17.
Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography(New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 196.
Cunningham, Ibid., p. 19.
Lynn Harold Hough, The Christian Criticism of Life (New York: Abington-Cokesbury, 1941), p. 276.
Lynn Harold Hough, "Dr. Babbitt and Vital Control," London Quarterly Review, Volume 147 (January 1927), pp. 1-15. While the title of the article would indicate a certain lack of knowledge of Babbitt's academic history, this piece is much more perceptive than a number of the early articles on Irving Babbitt.
Louis J. A. Mercier, Humanism in the New Age (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company), p. 88.