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People & Ideas: Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher

Source: Library of Congress

A Presbyterian minister, leading revivalist and social reformer, Lyman Beecher helped build the organizations that became known as the "benevolent empire" and gave religion in America its distinctive voluntary stamp.

The son of a blacksmith, Beecher attended Yale University, where he came under the influence of university President Timothy Dwight. Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1799, he plunged into the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening. Moving away from strict Calvinist doctrine, Beecher acknowledged that human beings were deeply sinful, but he also taught that they also had the ability to accept God's grace, if they decided to do so.

In 1810, Beecher became the pastor of the Congregational Church of Litchfield, Conn. The Congregational Church was the established church in Connecticut, and it held on to its favored status even while other state churches were being disestablished. But in 1818, with much trepidation, Connecticut decided to end ties between church and state. Beecher fought hard against this move and lamented the day that it was accomplished: "It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable."

But Beecher changed his mind and made a public about-face -- from leading defender of religious establishment to champion of religious voluntarism. He came to recognize that the end of the church's dependence upon the state made it a more vital, more forceful institution. He wrote that it was:

... the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. ... They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could by queues, and shoe-buckles, and cocked hats, and gold-headed canes.

In 1832, Beecher moved his family to Cincinnati. Eagerly absorbing tales from travelers who had ventured as far West as California, Beecher exalted that only then "did I perceive how God, who seeth the end from the beginning, had prepared the West to be mighty."

Beecher's ebullient hopes for the West reflected his brimming expectations for the country as a whole. For Beecher, the United States was uniquely blessed by divine purpose and endowed with a special destiny. He believed America had a duty to serve as "a light to the nations," to demonstrate by example what other peoples can achieve. He expressed this view in a famous sermon: "Look now at the history of our fathers and behold what God hath wrought, ... a powerful nation in full enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, where all the energies of men ... find scope and excitement on purpose to show the world by experiment of what man is capable."

Beecher believed that the bright and shining promise of America would be fulfilled in the West. Tamed and guided by religion and morality, its future would be "glorious." But there was one problem: the growing Roman Catholic Church in America. In 1832, Beecher delivered a series of lectures and published an influential book, A Plea for the West, denouncing the church and warning of its inevitable and corrupting influence. In the wake of his warnings, a Boston mob, influenced by false rumors that schoolgirls were being held captive against their will, burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass.

In Cincinnati, Beecher became president of Lane Theological Seminary and poured his prodigious energies into creating voluntary organizations dedicated to social reform and the spread of Christianity -- the American Bible Society, American Educational Society, American Sunday School Union, American Tract Society and American Society for the Promotion of Temperance. The infrastructure created by these organizations contributed to social cohesion and unity, and Beecher believed that religious leaders should look past denominational differences to come together to reform the nation: "With trumpet-tongue, the providence of God is calling upon Christians of every denomination, to cease from their limited views, and selfish ends, and to unite in the conflict which is to achieve the subjugation of the world to Christ."

Even as he called for unity, he became caught up in fractious religious controversies, including a debate about the proper role of ministers. Should they take the lead on social reform efforts ? Or should they focus on saving individual souls? Beecher strongly favored religious voluntarism and competition, but his defense of religious diversity had limits. To Beecher, religious disagreement and competition was desirable only if the end result was Protestant agreement and unity. Christians who did not believe in the Trinity, such as Unitarians, did not belong in his vision of America. Neither did Catholics.

Beecher himself was charged with heresy by his own congregation, now the Presbyterian Church, after he supported the controversial New Measures initiated by revivalist Charles Finney; the charges were dropped after protracted litigation. But these arguments and contradictions of his own principles did not stop him from becoming one of the most influential religious thinkers and social reformers of his time.

Beecher married three times, after becoming a widower twice, and fathered 13 children. All seven of his sons, including Henry Ward Beecher, followed their father into the ministry. Three of his daughters became active in public service. Isabella fought for human suffrage; Catharine advocated for educational reform for women; and Harriet became a prolific author whose book Uncle Tom's Cabin fueled the abolitionist cause in the days leading up to the Civil War. Beecher himself continued to believe that recolonization, gradual emancipation, was the answer. He died two years before the war ended and was buried in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Published October 11, 2010

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