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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

When a Puritan married an Episcopalian...



The wedding between Rev. Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote in 1799 in New Haven, Connecticut was proof that opposites attract. Lyman, the son of a blacksmith who had been raised by his aunt and uncle, had married the cultured, artistic, and well-traveled granddaughter of a Revolutionary War General. In terms of personality, Lyman was energetic and full of religious zeal while Roxana was content to let her new husband stand in the spotlight. Theologically, Lyman was a Congregationalist, a son of Puritanism, and Roxana an Episcopalian, a decidedly un-Puritan denomination. Nevertheless, they enjoyed a relatively happy marriage, having nine children together (one dying in infancy).


When Roxana passed away in 1816 of tuberculosis, she left behind eight young children and a grieving, overwhelmed husband. As Harriet Beecher Stowe recalled years later, her father was left in “a sort of terror, like that of a child suddenly shut out alone in the dark.” Three-year-old Henry Ward, when told that his mother had gone to heaven, began digging in the ground around the grave, declaring, “I’m going to heaven to find ma.’”[1]


Understandably, the Beechers needed help. Thankfully, they found some in the form of Roxana’s sister Harriet, after whom little Harriet had been named. The old school New England woman took seriously the education of her namesake, including memorization of the catechism. However, unlike her Puritan brother-in-law, Aunt Harriet was not a Congregationalist. Like Roxana, she had been raised in the Episcopal church. While dating, Lyman and Roxana had come to blows over the doctrine of "disinterested benevolence," the idea that self-interested love of any kind was inherently sinful. According to Samuel Hopkins, a chief disciple of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, a regenerate person must be so “disinterested” in their affection for God that they must be willing to be damned for his glory.[2] As one might expect, this was perceived by many as a rather extreme idea, including Roxana.


Lyman Beecher, a young student at Yale under Timothy Dwight (Edwards’s grandson), was an adherent of this “New Divinity” movement. While Roxana was infatuated with Lyman, she was not in love with the idea that sinners must “joyfully acquiesce” in being damned.[3] Although their theological differences nearly capsized the engagement, and despite the fact that Roxana never really came around to disinterested benevolence, she eventually became a Puritan preacher’s wife. However, by the time of Roxana’s death, her sister had remained a staunch Episcopalian. In fact, one might say that Harriet was as zealous for the old ways as Lyman was for the new.


Not surprisingly, Aunt Harriet’s Old World faith caused a degree of friction in the Beecher home. To begin, she catechized young Harriet in the Anglican catechism, not in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. (Stowe would later convert to Episcopalianism, as would her older sister Catharine, interestingly, after Lyman’s death) In her heart of hearts, Harriet did not consider Lyman an ordained minister, even walking past his church on Sundays in Litchfield, Connecticut (a “seedbed” of New Divinity revivalism) in order to attend the much smaller Episcopal church.[4] In a small town in New England, it was difficuilt to overlook these kinds of theological differences.

These were the days of John Henry Hobart, bishop of New York, and his high church theory which decreed that the Episcopalian church was the only true church with ties to the apostolic age. In An Apology for Apostolic Order and Its Advocates (1807), Hobart submitted the idea that God’s promise of blessing was limited to this established, visible, and historic church, implying that non-Episcopalians were outside salvation.[5]Harriet’s visit to Litchfield coincided with many of these heated Episcopalian-Presbyterian debates.[6] But as Harriet carried a genuine respect for her brother-in-law and love for her nieces and nephews, the Hobartian doctrine presented a problem. Was Roxana in heaven? Was Lyman’s church…a church?


Unaware that little ears could hear her theological conversation, Harriet once confided to a friend that “many persons out of the Episcopal Church would be saved at last, but that they were resting entirely on unconvenanted mercy.”[7] In other words, while Lyman’s church was not a true church, his salvation was a real salvation. Harriet had imbibed the ideas of John Henry Hobart and the high churchmen, who used the same language of “uncovenanted” mercies.[8] Harriet would not adopt the Puritan faith of her sister, but she believed it was a genuine faith, nonetheless. Although Congregationalists and Episcopalians disagreed over the nature of American society and Christianity itself, they still found ways to co-exist, even, at times, in the same family.


[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Filial Recollections,” in The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, Volume 1, ed. Barbara M. Cross (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 222, 224.

 

[2] See Joseph A. Conforti, Samuel Hopkins and the New Divinity Movement: Calvinism and Reform in New England between the Great Awakenings (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 119–20.

 

[3] Roxana Beecher, “Nutplains, September 1, 1798,” in The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, Volume 1, ed. Barbara M. Cross (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 57.


[4] Joseph Conforti, “The Rise of the New Divinity in Western New England, 1740–1800,” Historical Journal of Western Massachusetts Vol. 8, Issue 1 (Jan 1, 1980): 37. Also see David W. Kling, A Field of Divine Wonders: The New Divinity and Village Revivals in Northwestern Connecticut 1792­–1822 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).

 

[5] John Henry Hobart, An Apology for Apostolic Order and Its Advocates (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1807).

 

[6] In the Plan of Union (1801), Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches merged for the sake of western missions. Therefore, ministers like Lyman Beechers pastored in both denominations. Ultimately, the Plan of Union was sundered in the Schism of 1827. See George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 59–87.

 

[7] Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Visit to Nutplains,” in The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, Volume 1, ed. Barbara M. Cross (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 230.


[8] Robert Bruce Mullin, Episcopal Vision / American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 40.

 

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