Horace Bushnell was among the most controversial and well-loved ministers of his day. His anti-Calvinistic belief in a spiritual and forgiving God nearly got him tried for heresy by fellow ministers, but it also influenced American theological thinking.
An intellectual with a practical side - he held two patents for heating devices - he championed children, and businessmen turned to him for advice. And because of him, Hartford undertook one of the first urban renewal projects in the country - America's first public park financed by public funds, Bushnell Park.
Bushnell was born in the Bantam section of Litchfield on April 14, 1802. He enrolled in Yale when he was 21, although his family could ill afford it. He excelled in academics and sports and graduated in 1827 with honors. After a year of teaching and writing for a newspaper, he enrolled in Yale's law school. He passed his final exams and was preparing for admission to the bar, but decided, instead, to enter Yale Divinity School. He was ordained as minister of Hartford's Third, or North, Congregational Church on May 22, 1833. He married Mary Apthorp on Sept. 13, 1833, in New Haven.
At an appearance before Hartford's city council in October 1853, he said that the city deserved an outdoor parlor, or park. He proposed locating it in the blighted area surrounding the polluted Little River (Park River), which contained the city dump, a railroad spur, pigsties, leather tanneries, a soap factory and crowded tenements. The following January, voters approved spending $105,000 to buy the land. The park took nearly 20 years to complete.
Bushnell battled tuberculosis, which forced him to retire in 1859, but he continued to write and occasionally preach. In "Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell," his daughter Mary Bushnell Cheney wrote that he loved sitting in City Park, as it was called. On Feb.15, 1876, two days before he died and on his last day of consciousness, he received a message that the city council voted to name the park after him. He responded weakly, "My park." Bushnell died about 4:30 a.m. Feb. 17, 1876, at his home on Winthrop Street.
Bushnell Memorial Hall (now the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts) opened Jan. 13, 1930. Bushnell's daughter Dorothea Bushnell Hillyer built it as a living memorial to her father.
The January 1881 issue of Atlantic Monthly noted that while in college, Bushnell wrote that he would like to have a name people would remember.
Information also is available in "Hartford Yesterday and Today," by Robert P. Arnold, and "Hartford, Connecticut's Capital," by Glenn Weaver and Michael Swift.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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