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The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century

af Milton Allan Rugoff

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381512,247 (4.25)Ingen
Bring[s] the characters, convictions, and styles of the Beechers to the fore in a lively and richly detailed narrative ... Exhaustively researched ... as a study of the family itself The Beechers stands as the definitive biography. Mary Kelley, Journal of American History.
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Update 3/7/09 - I just discovered that Lyman Beecher's autobiography is available on Google Books at http://books.google.com/books?id=UX0UAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA468&lpg=PA468&dq=... beecher and predestination&source=bl&ots=0rMC0-KEsD&sig=SwAibWlORPaVQeojkh0_Wh2TQjE&hl=en&ei=-oKySbi3FeHAtgfwt-y7Bw&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPP10,M1. Some of the correspondence with his relatives is fascinating. Very readable.


Milton Rugoff has written a most interesting biography of an influential group of people: the Beecher family. Lyman Beecher, the patriarch, was one of the most famous Congregationalist ministers; his son Henry became equally well-known for preaching, but also for a notorious sex scandal; and another son James became a Civil War general. His daughters were equally famous: Harriet became a well-known author; Catherine, a proponent of education for women; Henry, perhaps the most famous preacher of the late nineteenth century, and Isabelle, a women's rights advocate and colleague of Susan B. Anthony. By 1790, the Mather style of Puritanism was almost moribund. The inherent contradiction between the independent, free, and optimistic thinking of the new republic and “the tyrannical character of the Puritan God” had resulted in a multitude of new sects springing up around the country. Lyman, a reasonably orthodox Calvinist, was quite the homespun preacher, not afraid to attack what he viewed as the debauchery of nineteenth-century Unitarian Boston where he moved in 1826. But he had a sense of humor. Often his preaching was quite demonstrative, and his son Henry once asked him on one occasion why he was so loud. Lyman answered, “Oh, yes, the less I have to say the louder I holler.” He took Jonathan Edwards’ Calvanism quite seriously, but he was troubled by Edwards’ insistence on foreordination and predestination, characterized by a popular poem of the day: You will and you won’t, You can and you can’t, You’ll be damned if you do, And damned if you don’t.

Catherine Beecher failed in the school business. She was better at starting them than keeping them going. Her role evolved into defender of “feminization.” As the nineteenth century progressed and more and more men moved off farms and into jobs in towns and cities, women gained more control over the household. Catherine wrote several books, Treatise on Domestic Economy, for example, that sold huge numbers of copies and which celebrated domesticity. She provided a vision of the happy homemaker providing for her family a healthy, happy, well-built, and well-furnished home. The Beechers' move to Cincinnati was to have a profound impact. Lyman took over the new Lane Seminary, which was to become a hotbed of antislavery activity. Just across the river slave-holding Kentucky, hundreds of slaves crossed the water to disappear into the "Underground Railroad." Slavery was no longer a remote problem for the Beechers as it had been in New England. A major debate erupted at the school between those who favored colonization (favored by Beecher) and complete emancipation (promoted by Theodore Weld a firebrand student). Weld would hold audiences spellbound for as long as eighteen hours delivering a complete history of slavery. The school's trustees, fearing southern and business antipathy, declared the slavery issue to be one not for immature minds — especially not for theology students. Big mistake. A majority of the students moved to the impoverished Oberlin College which overnight became a haven for abolitionist thinking, an interracial student body and free speech. Oberlin flourished while Lane sank into oblivion. A change in the Beecher religious philosophy was undergoing an evolution also: from preoccupation with conversion and the soul to concern with women’s lives and their welfare.

Lyman was an anachronism, a Calvinist in a changing world, and despite their love for him, his children moved away from his theology, distinguishing between the man and his profession. "But it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge him apart from his calling: he alone was responsible for setting himself up as a spiritual guide and for spending his life telling everyone else how to live. It was the kind of vanity and pride—sinful pride, as the religious would say—that crusaders of every sort are so often guilty of." Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet's brother, became perhaps the most famous preacher in America — also the most scandalous, but more later. Several of the family had moved west only to move back later, having discovered that the vaunted western inhabitants were not as desirous of salvation as they had supposed. Henry was to find Lawrenceburg, in Indiana, a thriving, dirty little community that shipped huge quantities of whiskey among its products. His invitation to become minister was welcome, and he fantasized he might eventually have a congregation of perhaps four hundred souls. The reality was nineteen women. He crammed orthodoxy for his appearance before the ordination board of the presbytery and answered all the elders' queries with studied conservatism, to their consternation. They failed him the next day anyway when he refused to say he was of the Old School. His congregation promptly changed from the Oxford Presbytery to independent. Henry remained cynical, admonishing his younger brother to "Preach little doctrine, except what is of moldy orthodoxy. . . .Take hold of the most practical subjects; popularize your sermons." His observation of the enmity between Catholics and Protestants and the divisiveness between Protestant sects made him vow never to attack another Christian sect. Henry became notorious for a series of sermons lambasting vice in every form. He was particularly scathing toward gambling and prostitution. His descriptions of these vile habits were so detailed and vivid that many readers assumed he had more than a stranger's acquaintance with these sins. When published in book form, the sermons became bestsellers for many years, satisfying the audiences need for expiation and titillation at the same time. Slavery as sin was conspicuously absent from these tirades. The call from a church in Brooklyn came as a relief and was based partly on the belief that Beecher represented middle class America: "A more comforting interpretation of Christian doctrine, a faith in America's future, a moderate position on public issues, a reliance on persuasion rather than threat in moral matters, and a natural optimism." Released from his rigid Calvinist upbringing, his message substituting love for fear in bringing people to the faith was reaping huge benefits. After his first church burned down, it was rebuilt to seat two thousand. Soon it had to be reconfigured for three thousand, and even then people were standing in the aisles. He brought new meaning to the word charisma. His sermons were electric and vivid. Theology became superfluous – he once told a seminary student that theology was all right as long as it was not taken too seriously. Optimism was crucial and he was a master at distinguishing between money earned through honest labor and wealth achieved through “hook or crook.” America had become the land of endless opportunity, and those profiting from it wanted reassurance.

Henry had surrendered to the love of middle class. After a trip to Europe, he began collecting art, and New York gem dealers soon learned it was to their benefit to call him when they ran across something of interest, knowing of Henry's passion for carrying loose, uncut jewels around in his pockets. He was heard to brag about how he could sneak fine new first editions into the house past long suffering Eunice, whose main responsibility seemed to be bearing children. This capitulation to materialism began a descent into an ethical quagmire when it came to slavery. He hated and despised it, but the middle class fears anarchy and chaos more than anything, so he counseled caution and patience even while decrying slavery's wickedness. Little he did in the battle against slavery required any personal sacrifice, but it did bring him fame and acclaim. Henry's other claim to fame was the scandal surrounding his torrid affairs. One wonders if Harriet had Henry in mind when she wrote of hypocritical ministers. Harriet, of course, is famous for [b:Uncle Tom's Cabin|46787|Uncle Tom's Cabin|Harriet Beecher Stowe|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1170343506s/46787.jpg|2478635], a book she always insisted she did not write. She simply said she wrote down the visions that were sent to her from on high. The book had an astonishing influence and was an almost instant bestseller. Despite, or perhaps because of, her intimate relationships with so many familial clergy, she could write of them as hypocritical apologists for slavery. She went so far as to identify one of these in a footnote as the Reverend Joel Parker. He was not amused and recriminations were traded back and forth in the press. The end of the book ends on a particularly Calvinistic and apocalyptic note warning churches to “stop protecting injustice, cruelty and sin.” ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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Bring[s] the characters, convictions, and styles of the Beechers to the fore in a lively and richly detailed narrative ... Exhaustively researched ... as a study of the family itself The Beechers stands as the definitive biography. Mary Kelley, Journal of American History.

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