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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Were the Beechers the Most Influential Family in the Early United States?

Aside from the Bible, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was the best-selling book of the nineteenth century. By telling a fictional story about the evils of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe awakened the American conscience in a way that no other person had in antebellum America, propelling the nation to war. In one sense, that such a work was penned by a woman is somewhat remarkable. However, Harriet Beecher Stowe actually hailed from a family of evangelical social reformers. In fact, aside from the Adams dynasty, perhaps no family shaped the moral, social, and political trajectory of the infant nation quite like the Beechers. Lyman Beecher, Harriet’s father, was the nation’s leading champion of temperance and critic of dueling during his lifetime. In a sermon in Long Island, New York in 1809 entitled The Remedy for Duelling, the Congregationalist-turned-Presbyterian chided those who “pervert justice” and “aid in the prostration of justice” by taking the law into their own hands.[1]Lyman was, as George Marsden has called him, “the man who unquestionably best embodied [the] broad New School spirit” in American Presbyterianism, integrating modern ideas and moral reform into a confessional faith.[2] Standing trial in the Cincinnati Presbytery for his views on sin and human ability, Beecher represented the wave of early nineteenth-century ministers who imbibed the theology of Jonathan Edwards and his New England successors. Placing a heavy emphasis on human freedom and responsibility, the so-called “New Divinity” ministers were some of the first anti-slavery voices in the new republic. Although Lyman failed to pass on his Edwardsean theology to most of his nine children, almost all of them would adopt his “New School spirit,” including his pursuit of justice.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was not the first of her siblings to balance a deep religious conviction with social responsibility. Harriet’s older brother Edward was also a minister and community leader who cared deeply about justice. Like his father, Edward was a college president in the American West with moderate anti-slavery views. However, like his sister, Edward was less passionate about dueling and drinking and more vocal about the injustice of slavery. After the murder of the abolitionist and journalist Elijah Lovejoy at the hands of a pro-slavery mob in his state of Illinois, Edward wrote A Narrative of Riots at Alton: In Connection with the Death of Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy (1838). Lamenting that “in a Christian land even the show of justice is laid aside,” Beecher pleaded that his friend had “died in defense of justice, and of the law, and of right: and with the instrument of justice in his hands.”[3] Freedom of the press and freedom from slavery, Beecher argued, were on the side of justice.

Harriet’s younger brother, Henry Ward, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, was the most outspoken on the issue of slavery in the Beecher clan. After the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state but permitted the Fugitive Slave Act, Henry wrote an article in the Independent entitled “Shall We Compromise?” wherein he framed the conflict between North and South as a struggle over God and justice. “Was it thought possible to serve both Liberty and Slavery — God and Mammon? Could the same mouth breathe justice and injustice?”[4] Over a decade later, in the same newspaper, Harriet described the Civil War in much the same way in a poem entitled “The Holy War.” Underscoring the moral high ground of the Union army, she wrote,

To the last battle set, throughout the earth!

Not for vile lust of plunder or of power

The hosts of justice and eternal right

Unfurl their banner in this solemn hour.[5]

From the first decades of the American experiment to the beginning of the Civil War, the epoch that Daniel Walker Howe has called “America’s national adolescence,” the collective religious, moral, social, and political footprint of the Beecher family upon the country was matched by very few.[6] Indeed, as the story goes, upon meeting Harriet in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln famously quipped, “So you are the little woman who made this big war.”[7] If Lincoln, also the child of an evangelical Calvinist, had indeed read Stowe’s book, he would have certainly recognized the evangelical beliefs that imbued her abolitionist message. With his dying breath, after being whipped for not disclosing the whereabouts of escaped slaves, Tom forgives his enemies and quotes from Romans 8:35 to his friend George: “Who,—who,—who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” George’s subsequent words to the brutal slave-master Simon Legree were, in essence, those of Harriet Beecher Stowe to the world: “But, sir, this innocent blood shall have justice.”[8] In many ways, in their tenacious pursuit of justice, whether in the pulpit or with a pen, the Beechers represented the moral compass that had long guided American evangelicalism.

On one hand, the Beechers, like evangelicalism itself, were a diverse lot. As Molly Oshatz has demonstrated, Lyman and his son Edward did not agree on whether to label slavery an “organic sin” or a “national sin,” as the older Beecher tended to view wickedness in much more corporate, covenantal terms that reflected his Puritan background. Oshatz has even identified Edward as one of the “inadvertent pioneers of liberal Protestantism” for his moderate anti-slavery arguments during the antebellum era.[9] In Henry Ward Beecher, who Debby Applegate has labeled a “Christian Transcendentalist,” the apple fell even farther from the Puritan tree. In 1867, he remarked to Ralph Waldo Emerson that “he did not hold one of the five points of Calvinism in a way to satisfy his father.”[10] “What is orthodoxy?” Henry once asked his readers. “I will tell you. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and Heterodoxy is your doxy, that is if your doxy is not like my doxy.”[11] In terms of style, Henry’s ministry appeared to have more in common with the Methodists and Baptists than the Congregationalists. In 1864, older sister Harriet even joined St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hartford, Connecticut — interestingly enough, one year after her father’s death. If Lyman Beecher adhered to a socially conscious Calvinism, most of his children shed the Calvinism and kept the social consciousness.

Nevertheless, what tethered the Beecher family together was their Christian brand of republicanism, namely the idea that evangelical values were in the best interest of the nation. When Lyman Beecher preached against intemperance (which he often associated with Roman Catholicism), he stressed the fact that Christianity was “indispensable” to a healthy republic. “It is admitted,” he declared, “that intelligence and virtue are the pillars of republican institutions, and that the illumination of schools, and the moral power of religious institutions, are indispensable to produce this intelligence and virtue. But who are found so uniformly in the ranks of irreligion as the intemperate?”[12] In other words, without intelligence and virtue, the American experiment would fail. And without Christianity, intelligence and virtue would disappear. Although the Beechers belonged to various denominations and sometimes disagreed on points of doctrine, this seminal idea lasted generations in their family. Indeed, it endured the Civil War. One week after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ward Beecher offered a word of encouragement to his congregants at Plymouth Church that would have made his father proud:

Republican institutions have been vindicated in this experience as they never were before; and the whole history of the last four years, rounded up by this cruel stroke, seems now in the providence of God, to have been clothed with an illustration, with a sympathy, with an aptness, and with a significance, such as we never could have expected or imagined. God, I think, has said, by the voice of this event, to all nations of the earth, “Republican liberty, based upon true Christianity, is firm as the foundation of the globe.”[13]

Although theologically worlds apart, Henry Ward Beecher was indeed his father’s son. In this way, the Beechers represent the complex story of American evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, when freedom and justice were such fixed yet fluid republican concepts.

Even Lyman’s understanding of freedom and justice had changed over the course of his lifetime. Once a clergyman of the Standing Order who supported a state church and strict religious laws, he had eventually boasted that the disestablishment of religion in Connecticut in 1818 was “the best thing that ever happened to the state.”[14] He celebrated the church-state separation as a victory for free, voluntary religion. And yet, despite his evolving belief in the freedom of religion, his republicanism could never be divorced from his Christian faith. So thoroughly did he embrace Christian republicanism that he once delivered a lecture entitled “The Republican Elements of the Old Testament”(1852). Not surprisingly, in the lecture, Beecher praised the “administration of justice” of the Israelite government, “especially in respect of the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the fatherless.”[15]

Lyman, Edward, Henry, and Harriet were by no means the only Beechers to significantly influence the shape of the early republic. Catharine Beecher and her sister Mary founded the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823, for example. Amazingly, each of the Beecher children found their own niche in nineteenth-century society and carved out their own legacies. Without this family, the early United States would have looked much differently.

[1] Lyman Beecher, The Remedy for Duelling (New York: J. Seymour, 1809), 3, 36. [2] George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 20. [3] Edward Beecher, A Narrative of Riots at Alton: In Connection with the Death of Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy (Alton: George Holton, 1838), 124, 136. [4] Henry Ward Beecher, “Shall We Compromise?” in Patriotic Addresses in America and England, from 1850 to 1885, on Slavery, the Civil War, and the Development of Civil Liberty in the United States, ed. John R. Howard (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1891), 171. [5] Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Holy War,” Independent, 9 May 1861. [6] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), xiii. [7] Lyman Beecher Stowe, Saints, Sinners and Beechers (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1934), 205. [8] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852), 281–2. [9] Molly Oshatz, Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4, 88. [10] Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 274, 355. [11] Henry Ward Beecher, The Independent, May 11, 1850. [12] Lyman Beecher, Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance (New York: American Tract Society, 1827), 56. [13] Henry Ward Beecher, “Abraham Lincoln,” in Patriotic Addresses in America and England, from 1850 to 1885, on Slavery, the Civil War, and the Development of Civil Liberty in the United States, ed. John R. Howard (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1891), 711. [14] Lyman Beecher, Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, D.D., Vol. I, ed. Charles Beecher (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1865), 344. [15] Lyman Beecher, “The Republican Elements of the Old Testament” in Beecher’s Works, Vol. 1: Lectures on Political Atheism (Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852), 187.

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