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. 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 …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.