Chariot of Fire: Religion and the Beecher Family
Henry Ward Beecher: Spokesman for a Middle-Class America
No other nineteenth-century family had a greater impact on American culture than the Beechers. A case could perhaps be made for the Jameses, but only if one adopts a rather elevated view of culture and weighs the long-term influence of Henry and William on American letters and philosophy more heavily than the Beechers’ direct and continuous contribution to the shaping of popular attitudes over three-quarters of a century. Despite their enormous importance, the Beechers have only recently come into their own as objects of serious and sophisticated historical study. During the reaction against “Victorianism” that set in during the 1920s, the leading members of the family were cast as mouthpieces for the cant, vulgarity, and sentimentalism of a benighted age. Lyman (1775-1863), the Beecher patriarch, father of thirteen children, was portrayed as the last hell-fire Calvinist, thundering anathema at violators of a repressive Puritan morality. His sermons on “intemperance” were widely published. Henry Ward, his most famous son, emerged from Paxton Hibben’s muckraking biography of 1927 as a kind of P.T. Barnum of the pulpit—a sanctimonious, self-seeking hypocrite who spoke for the worst tendencies of a corrupt era.
In the 1930s and 1940s, “revisionist” historians of the Civil War made Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin a prime example of the misguided emotionalism that brought on a “needless war.” The other Beecher children attracted less attention, but there was little reason to expect that they were exempt from the combination of bigotry, mindless sentimentality, and self-aggrandizement allegedly characterizing their more famous relations.
During the past decade, the Beechers have been rediscovered and reevaluated. It would be an exaggeration to say that they have been rehabilitated; for their world remains very different from ours and their styles of expression, thought, and sensibility have little in common with those of modern or “post-modern” America. But their portraits, as they have emerged from a series of recent biographies, have acquired a new richness and complexity. Their ideas have seemed worthy of sustained and careful analysis.1 In part, the rise of a more serious and sympathetic interest in the Beechers reflects a reconsideration of “American Victorianism”—a recognition that the cultural milieu in which the Beechers figured so prominently had shades and depths of meaning previously ignored or slighted. In surprising ways, the experiences of this single family impinged directly upon the major public concerns and cultural anxieties of their time.
The Beecher clan was at the heart of a changing American Protestantism. As evangelical Christians, they were perpetually concerned with their own souls and those of their children and siblings. But as heirs of New England Puritanism with its concern for a godly community as well as individual salvation, they also sought to impel the larger society and the nation to live up to their conception of public order and righteousness.
Professionally, they were a family of clergymen. Lyman, the father, was a major transitional figure in the adjustment of the churches from the established religion of the colonial period to the new era of voluntarism and denominational competition. He opposed disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut until it became a reality in 1818. He then deftly shifted his ground and became one of the great architects of an alternate Protestant strategy to save the nation from sin and infidelity—using revivals and organized benevolence to create a climate of opinion that could, without the aid of legal sanctions, enforce piety, public morality, and social control. This decision laid the foundation for the family’s future influence; for the real secret of Beecher success was a keen sense of the importance of public opinion in a democratic society and an unsurpassed ability to mobilize it through the spoken and written word.
The male Beechers of the second generation followed the example of their father and sought to influence the popular mind from prominent Congregational and Presbyterian pulpits. Henry Ward was the most famous clergyman in the United States between the 1840s and the 1880s, and Edward and Thomas were also well-known ministers. (Charles was also ordained but personal idiosyncrasies limited his influence mainly to the family circle.) Two of the Beecher women—Harriet and Catharine—found the equivalent of a pulpit in writing popular books. Catharine’s treatises on domestic economy and female education were, in their way, almost as influental as Harriet’s novels on slavery and New England society. A third daughter, Isabella Beecher Hooker, was active in both the feminist and spiritualist movements.
As Marie Caskey shows in her collective study of the family’s religious life, there were sharp disagreements, not only between Lyman and his children but also among the children themselves. In general, the second generation rebelled against the already modified Calvinism of their father. Lyman had tried to soften the doctrines of original sin and predestination by embracing the idea of “free agency”—the view that individual sin was voluntary rather than absolutely predetermined by Adam’s transgression. But he retained a belief in the eternal damnation of those who had not felt God’s grace in a dramatic and undeniable way.
This doctrine came to seem harsh and even cruel to the younger Beechers, especially after Catharine’s fiancé—a brilliant young mathematics professor at Harvard—died in a shipwreck without having registered a bona fide conversion. Catharine’s own response, as it turned out, was to move in the direction of Unitarianism with its assumption that moral rectitude and not an intense justification by faith was the essence of a healthy religious life. Eventually she abandoned the doctrine of original sin entirely and adopted the position that human beings have the natural ability to save themselves. Henry Ward and Harriet kept the idea of a redeeming grace at the center of their religious life but made it much more accessible than it had been for their father and his contemporaries. By embracing the concept of God as a gentle and loving parent and of Christ as the potential saviour of all mankind and not just an elected minority, they made salvation available to anyone with a good heart and craving for the solace of divine love.
The romantic and Christ-centered evangelicism of Harriet and Henry Ward removed much of the fear of damnation and offered Christians not only a stronger assurance of personal salvation but also a heightened expectation of reunion with loved ones in the hereafter. Furthermore, they transformed the conversion experience itself from the shattering and sudden event that it had been for Lyman and his generation of revivalists into a gradual and gentle process through which the individual, aided by home, church, and school, became increasingly aware of the love of Christ and the rewards of upright and moral conduct.
A third response was that of Edward and Charles, who tried to make the doctrine of original sin appear reasonable to an age that could not accept the notion of an arbitrary and angry God. Arguing that human souls had a previous experience before birth, during which they had participated in a Miltonic rebellion against God, they turned original sin into a just attribution of guilt while making the second chance provided by life on earth (after Christ’s atonement) seem like a magnificent demonstration of divine mercy and magnanimity. Unlike the Romantic evangelicism of Henry and Harriet, this new theology won few adherents—probably because most people could not take seriously the relevance of a preexistence of which they had no recollection.
By far the most bizarre new direction of religious thought in the second generation was that of Isabella Beecher Hooker, whose combination of feminism, spiritualism, and millennialism eventually led her to believe that she was a second messiah; she heard voices telling her that she was the sister of Christ and was destined to preside personally over a world government. Perhaps she was insane, but most of the ingredients of her delusion were part of the Beecher tradition.
Marie Caskey’s book gives a sensitive and intelligent exposition of these different moves toward new types of religious faith and experience. It is also a probing examination of the relationship between family psychology and religious sensibility. The “sainted mother” of nine of Lyman’s children, Roxana Foote Beecher, died when most of them were very young, and Caskey believes this predisposed the younger Beechers toward a view of divinity that incorporated maternal and “feminine” characteristics. Even more significant, Lyman was an affectionate parent who sought to convert his children more through love and persuasion than fear and authority: he thus tended to become the surrogate for a God who was less harsh and authoritarian than the magisterial figure of his own theology. “By insisting as much as they did on the character of God and on the family ties of his children,” Caskey writes, “the Beechers brought God down from heaven and installed him by the hearth. They had in effect made the ideal of parenthood a measure of God’s goodness and greatness. A large measure in their conception was hero worship of their father.”
What Caskey fails to explore, however, is the extent to which the intense family ties of the Beechers may have reflected changes in the conception of the family in American society as a whole. Social historians have shown that the traditional ideal of unquestioning obedience to patriarchal authority began to be displaced in the early nineteenth century by the more egalitarian image of the family as held together primarily by mutual affection. It is at least arguable that the Christian view of the relationship between man and God had always been closely correlated with prevailing conceptions of parenthood and that what was new was not so much the presence of God “by the hearth” as a transformed notion of parental authority that made the remote and severe patriarch of earlier times an inappropriate symbol for divinity in an age that exalted a more affectionate and consensual style of family life.
Caskey was probably wise to limit her study to the search for personal and religious fulfillment among the Beechers. A full account of how the family influenced or exemplified American social, political, and cultural values in the middle decades of the nineteenth century would be a lot to ask from a single book. At one time or another the Beechers were identified with most of the social and political causes that preoccupied the Northern middle class. For years the entire clan was concerned with the salvation of the Middle West from barbarism and infidelity by transplanting New England institutions and values there. The Beechers had a major part in establishing eastward-looking churches, colleges, seminaries, and academies in states like Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Their efforts to “Yankeeize the West” may have been partially responsible for that region’s decision to ally itself with the Northeast rather than the South in the sectional conflict that led to the Civil War.
They were also prominent in the anti-slavery movement. Despite their distaste for the radical abolitionism and harsh invective of William Lloyd Garrison and his followers, they came to regard the “slave power” as a menace to American institutions—partly as a result of their clashes with Southerners and Southern influences during their campaign to “civilize” the Middle West. By the early 1850s, when Harriet moved the Northern conscience by portraying the horrors of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Henry created almost as great a sensation by holding mock slave auctions from the pulpit of his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, the Beechers had placed themselves in the forefront of the broadened antislavery movement inspired by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
During the Civil War, Henry emerged as a kind of semi-official chaplain for the Union cause; besides preaching to Northern Christians that patriotism and piety were synonymous, he served as a propagandist for the North in Great Britain, and at the end of the conflict was recognized for his services to the Union by being asked to give the main address when the American flag was once again raised over Fort Sumter.
Besides promoting Northern concern over slavery and the Union, the Beechers figured prominently as arbiters of middle-class morality, sensibility, and taste during the mid-Victorian decades. Of greatest significance, perhaps, was their contribution to the cult of domesticity and to the new modes of thought and feeling that Ann Douglas described in her recent book The Feminization of American Culture.2 Here the key figures were Catharine and Harriet, with Henry at times lending some male support to their campaigns for the extension of “feminine” and “domestic” influence over a society allegedly threatened by an excess of “masculine” competitiveness and materialism.
Both Catharine and Harriet stayed apart from the women’s suffrage movement (although Henry lent his name to the cause for a time and Isabella became a militant feminist) because of their strong commitment to the notion that women belonged in the home rather than in public life. But for them, the home was not merely “a haven in a heartless world” to which men might retreat to bind up their wounds after a bruising day in the marketplace. They thought of the home, and the feminine influence that presided there, as an active and expansive force destined to conquer the outside world and make it over in its own image. By instilling a “feminine” ethic of self-sacrificing love in their husbands and sons, women would regenerate America from the amoral individualism of an expanding capitalistic society.
Catharine also saw single women as being in a crucial position: as school-teachers, they could impress the same ethic of self-denial on their pupils. As Kathryn Sklar has shown in her splendid biography, Catharine Beecher was a major force in developing teacher training for women and in fostering the idea that teaching was a female profession and a base from which the feminine ethic could be promulgated.3 Such ideas may now seem at best utopian and at worst reactionary. Perhaps the effort to “feminize” American culture served ultimately to sanction the status quo of materialistic capitalism by creating the illusion that a society conforming to Christian ethics could emerge from such an economic system without the necessity of fundamental reforms. It is scarcely to be doubted, however, that the female Beechers were sincere in their belief that women were naturally superior to men in their religious and ethical proclivities and that society would be vastly improved if this female supremacy was given free reign.
Of all the Beechers, however, the one who probably exerted the broadest influence on middle-class culture was Henry Ward, an eloquent orator and loose thinker who had a genius for obscuring or superficially reconciling various contradictions and conflicts besetting the popular mind. He could simultaneously, for example, be a supporter of his sisters’ ethic of feminization and a major proponent of a “manly” or “muscular” Christianity appropriate to active men of affairs who had little time to worry about their souls. Henry Ward Beecher, as the “spokesman for a middle-class America,” is the subject of a perceptive and even-handed new biography by Clifford Clark. More sympathetic to Beecher than previous historians, Clark presents him as successfully ministering to “a profound and traumatic crisis of faith” during which “many Americans felt as if they had lost a sense of community and purpose.” Henry Ward accomplished this, Clark argues, by preaching
a new romantic Christianity that healed wounds, promised forgiveness of sins, and urged love for one’s fellow men. It reassured Americans that the universe was governed by moral laws, that truth and justice did exist, and that the American nation had a glorious future as the vehicle of God’s Chosen People.
Beecher’s gospel, according to Clark, contributed to a cohesive social order by helping “to internalize habits of self-repression and self-control.” Beecher therefore helped to domesticate a potentially destructive and amoral American individualism by encouraging internal checks on selfish and antisocial impulses. Unlike earlier revivalists who had sought the same end through sudden conversions, he understood that the steadying influences of the family, the school, and the church were necessary to creating the kind of personal “character” that could maintain personal equilibrium and moral direction in an era of rapid economic and social change.
Other historians have characterized the older Henry Ward Beecher as a clerical apologist for an oppressive capitalistic system. He called for the use of Gatling guns against the strikers of 1877 and prescribed a diet of bread and water for workers who demanded higher wages. Clark treats such episodes as temporary and unrepresentative outbursts. He notes that Beecher later grew friendlier to organized labor and more hostile to corporate power, and portrays his “social evolutionism” of the 1880s as more an anticipation of the Social Gospel movement than a celebration of unrestrained competition and “the survival of the fittest.”
One can accept most of what Clark has to say about Beecher and yet end up with a more critical view of the man and his influence. Although Clark notes the elitist quality of Beecher’s early thought, his “assumption that only those of superior intelligence and virtue could speak to the mass of men,” he fails to give the stress it deserves to Beecher’s continuous contribution to the hubris and overpowering self-satisfaction of the Victorian middle class. Was Beecher’s real function to provide creative relief of cultural anxiety, or was it to buttress class pride and a sense of superiority among privileged Americans, thus allowing them to continue their pursuit of wealth or status with a conviction of moral rectitude? What Clark calls “the balance that was so crucial to the Victorian outlook”—the avoidance of extremes and the retention of “openness and open-mindedness”—may in Beecher’s case have been simply the refusal to face up to the real problems of his time in a manner that would trouble the self-assurance of the middle class.
The source of Beecher’s influence, in my opinion, lay in his capacity for the pseudo reconciliation of inherently contradictory values, his skill at papering-over genuine dichotomies and polarities in the name of false harmony and a specious optimism. Beecher managed in the end to obscure the differences between Protestantism and American patriotism, capitalistic economics and Christian morality, social control and social reform, elitism and democracy. He was indeed one of the progenitors of a middle-class ethos, as Clark contends, but it was an ethos that avoided hard questions, diffused impulses for genuine reform, and thereby prepared the way for the triumph of a corporate oligarchical society whose spokesmen would continue to rationalize power and privilege by invoking the highest standards of morality and virtue.
See especially, William G. McLoughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher (Knopf, 1970).↩
Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (Yale University Press, 1973).↩