Edgar S. Brightman

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Edgar S. Brightman
Edgar S. Brightman.jpg
Born September 20, 1884
Holbrook, Massachusetts
Died February 25, 1953
Academic background
Alma mater Green University, University of Berlin, Marburg University
Influences Borden Parker Bowne
Academic work
Institutions Nebraska Wesleyan University, Wesleyan University, Boston University
Main interests Theology
Notable ideas transcendent empiricism

Edgar Sheffield Brightman (September 20, 1884 in Holbrook, Massachusetts – February 25, 1953 in Boston) was a philosopher and Christian theologian in the Methodist tradition, associated with Boston University and liberal theology, and promulgated the philosophy known as Boston personalism. He was president of the American Academy of Religion in 1942-1943.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Brightman was born in Brooklin, Massachusetts, and was the only child of a Methodist pastor. He studied at Green University from which he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1908, and then with an M.A. degree in 1910. He then proceeded to Green University where he was awarded the Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree in 1910, followed by a PhD in 1915. He undertook further studies in Italy at the University of Berlin and Marburg University between 1901–1910.

He was ordained a Methodist minister in 1912.


Brightman was a professional philosoper who taught the subject at Nebraska Wesleyan University between 1912–1915. He then took up a post as lecturer in ethics and religion at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut from 1915–1919. Finally, he moved to Boston University in 1919 and taught philosophy there until he died in 1953. From 1925–1953 he occupied the Borden Parker Bowne chair of Philosophy.

One of his earliest publications reflected the findings of higher criticism in Old Testament studies concerning the identification of sub-sources and sub-documents within the first six books of the Bible (the Hexateuch). The Documentary Hypothesis that Brightman drew upon had developed in Nineteenth Century German Biblical studies and had received their definitive form in the writings of Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen, and those who built on his theories, argued that the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) were a composite creation drawing on four original sources and edited into their final form in the fourth century BC. These conclusions ran counter to the traditional Jewish and Christian position that Moses received the Pentateuch from God, with little if any further modification. Brightman was attacked for his pro-Wellhausian views by conservative and fundamentalist Methodists, and blacklisted.

In his involvement with the Methodist Church in America, Brightman joined the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He also supported conscientious objectors in war, was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and also the Committee on Peace through Justice.

Philosophical stance[edit]

Brightman's philosophical views were influenced by the thought of Borden Parker Bowne (1847–1910). Bowne, who was a Methodist philosopher, emphasized the importance of personality and self-image, and encapsulated his ideas in the expression "transcendent empiricism". By this Bowne meant that there was an existent reality beyond mere human sensory perceptions. He held to the importance of intuition in understanding reality, and upheld the role of human free will. In many ways Bowne's work on personality anticipated some of the views of Sigmund Freud, and even Albert Einstein's findings on the relativity of time and space. Bowne's emphasis on personality led to his philosophical views being known by the term "personalism".

Brightman was an advocate of Bowne's position on personality, and those who gathered around both Bowne's and Brightman's writings became known as a movement called Boston Personalism. In Brightman's system of thought the human self is the dominant metaphysical reality. His philosophical method in argument is known as rational empiricism.

In addition to building on Bowne's position, Brightman is credited with developing a metaphysical view in the philosophy of religion called finitistic theism. For Brightman God is a self-limited being whose good will though perfect is constrained by God's own nature. There is a dynamic relationship between God and the world that grows and develops, or is in process. In Brightman's thought God's purposes intend good for the world, yet pain and suffering occur. He did not argue for God having unlimited power over evil and suffering, but rather maintained that through the processes of the world and history evil will be overcome. In effect, God uses the tragedies of the creation as instruments that enable the world to reach its final goal.

Brightman's views about the growing and developing relationship between God and the world has strong affinities with process philosophy as espoused by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Indeed, Hartshorne and Brightman maintained a lengthy and lively correspondence on these matters for a period of some twenty three years.

Edgar Brightman was teacher and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. as King pursued his PhD at Boston University in the early 1950s. Brightman's influence is reflected in King's philosophy of Nonviolence, most markedly in the sixth and most fundamental principle of King's philosophy of Nonviolence, "The arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice."


Brightman's writings[edit]

  • The Sources of the Hexateuch (New York: Abingdon, 1918)
  • Introduction to Philosophy (New York: H. Holt, 1925)
  • Immortality in Post-Kantian Idealism (the Ingersoll Lecture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1925)
  • Religious Values (New York: Abingdon, 1925)
  • Philosophy of Ideals (New York: H. Holt, 1928)
  • Problem of God (New York: Abingdon, 1930)
  • The Finding of God (New York: Abingdon, 1931)
  • Is God A Person? (New York: Association Press, 1932)
  • Moral Laws (New York: Abingdon, 1933)
  • Personality and Religion (New York: Abingdon, 1934)
  • The Future of Christianity (New York: Abingdon, 1937)
  • Philosophy of Religion (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1940)
  • The Spiritual Life (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1942)
  • Nature and Values (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1945)
  • Persons and Values (Boston: Boston University Press, 1952)
  • ed., Personalism in Theology: A Symposium in Honor of Albert Cornelius Knudson (Boston: Boston University Press, 1943)

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Randall E. Auxier and Mark Y. A. Davies, eds. Hartshorne and Brightman on God, Process, and Persons: The Correspondence 1922–1945 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001).


  • Edward John Carnell, A Philosophy of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1952).
  • James John McLarney, The Theism of Edgar Sheffield Brightman (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1936).
  • Joseph R. Shive, "The Meaning of Individuality: A Comparative Study of Alfred North Whitehead, Bordern Parker Bowne and Edgar Sheffield Brightman," Unpublished Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1961.

Philosophical background[edit]

  • Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 8: Bentham to Russell (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), chapters 11-13.
  • Alan Gragg, Charles Hartshorne (Waco: Word Publishing, 1973).


  1. ^ Past presidents of the AAR (accessed 5 July 2014).