Beecher, Lyman (1775-1863)
Lyman Beecher (1775-1863)
Clergyman and moral crusader
Leader. Lyman Beecher was one of the best-known and most influential clergymen of his day. Like many of his contemporaries, Beecher believed that the United States was a chosen land, where the kingdom of God would be established once society was sufficiently reformed. He took it upon himself, therefore, to provide a voice of leadership both in the conversion of souls and in numerous moral crusades. A successful revivalist whose deep concern with national destiny spoke to the hopes and sensibilities of many Americans, Beecher was also a staunch anti-Catholic, who did his best to exclude one segment of the population from full acceptance as American citizens.
Education. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, on 12 October 1775, Beecher was raised on a farm by his aunt and uncle. He had little interest in agriculture, and he declined to become heir to his uncle’s property and profession. Instead, he left the farm in 1793 for Yale College, where he came under the influence of the college’s esteemed president, Timothy Dwight. Dwight, a poet, essayist, and Congregationalist minister, believed that New England tradition, and indeed the fabric of American society, were threatened by the enlightenment radicalism of infidels and Deists. He devoted his efforts at Yale to ensuring that his students did not stray down these paths, advocating instead a view of the religious life as the active pursuit of a godly social order. Beecher was converted under Dwight’s tutelage and preaching, as were Asahel Nettleton, Nathaniel William Taylor, and others who would become leading ministers of their day. Dwight remained an important figure and role model for Beecher for years to come.
First Ministry. Beecher entered the ministry in 1799 and established his reputation as a moral reformer soon afterward. His first ministerial post was at a Presbyterian church in East Hampton, New York. There he proved himself an effective revivalist and also launched a crusade against the practice of dueling, inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s death in a duel with Aaron Burr. Beecher saw the practice of dueling as emblematic of the decline of the social order without which a free and virtuous republic could not survive. Duelists, he argued, were members of a privileged social class who believed themselves above the law and common morality. He advocated voting duelists out of office and offered a vision of politics guided by the notion of the United States as a sacred land.
Defense of Orthodoxy. In 1810 Beecher accepted the ministry of the First Church in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he engaged in a protracted battle against Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Deists in defense of Calvinist or Puritan orthodoxy. Congregationalism remained the established religion of Connecticut, and Beecher hoped to keep it that way, calling for a return to the sacred order of New England’s Puritan founders through the diligent enforcement of laws against intemperance, Sabbath breaking, and other forms of immorality. Despite his efforts Congregationalism was disestablished as the official church of the state of Connecticut in 1818. In many ways this signaled an end to the traditional religious culture of Puritan New England and the rise of the new Protestant evangelical ethos. Although Beecher initially reacted to his defeat by sinking into a depression, he later called disestablishment “the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut,” for disestablishment created a stronger need for an active and zealous clergy who “by voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals” could “exert a deeper influence than ever they could [before].”
Reform Efforts. True to his word, after disestablishment Beecher devoted himself wholeheartedly to the association of evangelism with moral reform and social benevolence. He helped establish missionary organizations, pressured influential men to keep their businesses closed on Sundays, and became a leading voice in the temperance movement, publishing his Six Sermons on Intemperance in 1826. That same year he moved to the Hanover Street Congregational Church in Boston, where he became a leading conservative voice against liberals and Unitarians as well as against the new revivalist style of Charles Grandison Finney. These opponents, he believed, wrongfully stressed human will to the detriment of traditional Calvinist emphases on original sin and divine sovereignty.
Battle for the West. In 1832 Beecher gained further prominence when he moved west to head Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. He accepted the post because he firmly believed that “the moral destiny of our nation, and all our institutions and hopes, the world’s hopes, turns on the character of the West.” The West was a land of promise, but for Beecher its potential could be fulfilled only if evangelical Protestantism gained as much influence there as it had in the East. In A Plea for the West, published in 1835, Beecher articulated the popular notion that the greatest threat to the West lay in Catholicism. Protestants, he argued, had made great strides toward reforming the nation and preparing for the thousand-year reign of Christ. But Catholic immigrants were spreading rapidly toward the Mississippi Valley, where they might claim American soil for the Pope and thwart Protestant efforts to perfect the nation. Beecher spread his anti-Catholic message wherever he went and delivered three anti-Catholic sermons to large congregations in Boston the night before a mob burned down the Ursuline Convent in nearby Charlestown.
Legacy. Beecher ended his preaching career in 1843 and retired from Lane Seminary in 1850. By then he had become more liberal in his thinking, believing less in human sinfulness and divine sovereignty and more in the potential for human progress. He had married three times and fathered eleven children, of whom Edward, Henry Ward, Catharine, and Harriet (Beecher Stowe) followed in his footsteps to become important figures in American religious history. He died on 10 January 1863.
James Fraser, Pedagogue for God’s Kingdom: Lyman Beecher and the Second Great Awakening (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985);
Vincent Harding, A Certain Magnificence: Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism 1775–1863 (New York: Carlson, 1991).
A Presbyterian clergyman, Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) was one of the outstanding American preachers and revivalists before the Civil War. He achieved national fame as reformer, educator, and central figure in theological controversies.
Lyman Beecher was born on Oct. 12, 1775, at New Haven, Conn. Son of a blacksmith, he was raised on a farm. Beecher entered Yale in 1793. The college president, Timothy Dwight, greatly influenced his religious beliefs and enthusiasm for revivalism. In 1799 he was ordained as pastor of the Presbyterian Church at East Hampton, Long Island, N. Y. Dynamic preaching and a published sermon against dueling earned him a modest reputation, and in 1810 he accepted the more prestigious pulpit of the Congregational Church of Litchfield, Conn.
For 16 years at Litchfield he attracted large crowds, and his influence extended beyond his own congregation. Persons warmed by his revivals were urged to support a growing list of voluntary societies and moral reforms, especially temperance. His defense of orthodox Christianity against Unitarianism in Connecticut was noted by church leaders, and he was invited to move to Boston, where he could be even more effective in that cause.
In 1826 Beecher became pastor of the Hanover Street Church of Boston. His efforts again resulted in spiritual awakening, and his reputation for defending orthodoxy against Unitarianism became widespread. During his years in Boston he edited a monthly, the Spirit of the Pilgrims. A fear of Catholicism began to emerge and led him to share in the nativist attack on that faith.
When he was invited to return to Presbyterianism to become the president and professor of theology of the new Lane Theological Seminary at Cincinnati, Ohio, his concern to Christianize the West and educate ministers for that task was linked to his desire to counteract growing Catholic influence in the Ohio Valley. The sense of purpose he felt in moving to Cincinnati in 1832 was well expressed in his A Plea for the West (1835). Until 1843 he also served as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church there.
Despite his incentive and characteristic vigor, Beecher's years at Cincinnati were an unhappy climax to his career. A disruptive debate over slavery in 1834 so divided students and faculty that it took years for Lane Seminary to recover. Although he favored the antislavery cause, Beecher was not an abolitionist and preferred gradual emancipation. With strange irony in 1835 he was tried twice for heresy by conservative Presbyterians who found his orthodoxy too liberal. A trial by the Presbyterian General Assembly was avoided, but his position had contributed to a major schism in that denomination by 1838. Beecher remained at Lane until 1850. The last years of his life were spent in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he died on Jan. 10, 1863.
Lyman Beecher's Autobiography, edited by Charles Beecher (2 vols., 1864), is the best source on his life and was reprinted with a helpful introduction by Barbara Cross (2 vols., 1961). Chapters in Lyman Beecher Stowe, Saints, Sinners and Beechers (1934), and Constance Mayfield Rourke, Trumpets of Jubilee (1927), are as useful as the older, uncritical biographies. □