STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/06/2011

Essay: The Beechers in Our Backyard

Teaching Gordon’s introductory U.S. history course last fall, I looked for a figure to illustrate transition between late-colonial religion and the Second Great Awakening. I chose a family—the Beechers of the 19th century, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin stirred slavery debates in the 1850s; Henry Ward, the pastor whose recent biographer affirms him “The Most Famous Man in America”; and Catherine Beecher, who reshaped female education. Hardly a 19th-century trend eluded the Beechers: religious revival and reform, westward migration, foreign missions, abolition, women’s rights, spiritualism.

Charles Beecher, brother of Harriet, is buried in Harmony Cemetery near our home in Georgetown, Massachusetts.

The local presence of some of the family gives us claim to the whole lot of them—their solidarity, lively arguments, and public engagement making them important in their century as well as our fascinating neighbors.

Lyman Beecher was the paterfamilias, a disciple of Timothy Dwight and defender of Connecticut’s Congregational church establishment. When Connecticut’s church lost state support in 1818, Lyman lamented but then rejoiced to see American Christians energized by voluntarism: “For several days I suffered what no tongue can tell for 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. . . . By voluntary efforts, societies, missions and revivals exert a deeper influence than ever they could by queues, and shoe-buckles, and cocked hats, and gold-headed canes.” Lyman exerted that influence, preaching for revival and railing against dueling, drunkenness, Jesuits, slavery. He moved west to transplant the institutions of New England civilization. But as the father of many, he increases in stature still more. Theodore Parker called him “the father of more brains than any other man in America.” Married three times, Beecher fathered four daughters and seven sons.

His children influenced a broad range of cultural and theological tensions of their century. All his sons became ministers, and most of his daughters grew into prominent figures in 19th-century reform.

But son Charles Beecher made this corner of the North Shore his mission field and resting place. Charles was musical, intellectual—nephew Lyman Beecher Stowe names him “the only real scholar of the family.” Had his father not pegged him for the ministry he would have preferred a career in music. As a young adult he was a church organist in New Orleans, where he gathered stories of slave life that Harriet would later employ in her writing. After pulpits in Indiana and New Jersey, he moved to Georgetown in 1858 to assist the aged pastor and then to lead the church.

Like his siblings, he faltered on the theology of his father (Reformed and predestinarian). In the summer of 1863, 27 members of his congregation petitioned the ecclesiastical council, complaining: “It seems to us that several doctrines preached by our pastor are not in accordance with the faith once delivered to the saints, and held generally by the churches of New-England.” The pastor suspected they also objected to
his advocacy of abolition. Charles was tried for heresy. A heresy trial concurrent with the Civil War: one event a small, local, ecclesial matter; the other a great national conflict.

Charles was convicted. As The New York Times reported, the council decided:

It is in evidence that much of Mr. Beecher’s preaching has been in accordance with the Scriptures and with standard New-England Divines. Yet this is so interwoven with preaching of an opposite and erroneous character as dangerously, if not fatally, to neutralize the good effects of his teachings. With some things on these doctrines that we think truthful, he has indulged in much that we consider wholly irreconcilable with the articles of faith of this church . . . and of the Orthodox churches generally in New-England.

Both the complainants and the council identified not only Scripture but also a strain of New England tradition as standards for orthodoxy. Beecher’s conviction split the Georgetown church, with the majority willing to flout the ecclesiastical conference to keep him as pastor. And the majority of Georgetown voters even elected him their state representative in 1864. Some in Beecher’s fold did leave to start a new church, but several years later his heresy conviction was overturned.

Sorrow came to bind him to the dust of Georgetown. One day in 1867 daughters Essie and Hattie were boating with a Beecher cousin on Pentucket Pond when their craft capsized and the teenagers drowned. Two years later his son Frederick was killed in an Indian battle in Colorado. A large stone in Harmony Cemetery commemorates all four.

Worn down by pastoral work, in 1870 Charles was lured to Florida by Harriet to minister among the freedmen, who, he reported, were wary of him as “unsound.” He became superintendent of public education in Florida’s Reconstruction government. By the end of his tenure, school enrollment had more than doubled, and blacks and whites were both involved in the educational system. Though he prized the climate and flora of the South, he eventually moved back to Georgetown. He died here in 1900.

What does one make of the Beechers in our own backyard? How might we take stock of the historically rich area where Gordon College is located? Our placement on the North Shore links us to the early fishing and Bible Commonwealth settlements in the 17th century, to revolution in the 18th, to a frenzy of movement, piety, reform, industry and immigration in the 19th. Charles Beecher is not quite enough to make Georgetown famous.

But he and his siblings call to mind three noteworthy features of our historical landscape. First, they remind us how influential clergy were in public life for spiritual and social concerns. Second, Charles Beecher draws interest and empathy for his efforts to square his ancestral faith with the demands of his time. Being at Gordon makes us heirs of a New England theology that features twists and turns as the academy and the pulpit wrestled with hard doctrines and cultural currents. With his siblings, Charles entertained ideas we might dismiss, like the preexistence of the soul or spiritualism. Some of his answers might seem plain wrong; others peculiar to his time; and others earnest attempts to understand Scripture, tradition and the pain of living. Third, the entanglement of his family with the big events of the day directs us to the social, cultural and private currents that came along with political turning points.

Surveying his era, 19th-century pastor and Yale professor Leonard Bacon quipped, “This country is inhabited by saints, sinners, and Beechers.” Saints we occasionally meet and sinners we already know in abundance, but Beechers merit our reacquaintance.

Agnes Howard, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English and history at Gordon. She and her husband, Tal, associate professor of history, live in Georgetown and have three children. Agnes’ essays have appeared in First Things, The Cresset and other publications.

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