An American Family: The Beecher Tradition
prev Lyman Beecher Catherine Beecher Edward Beecher Harriet Beecher Stowe Henry Ward Beecher Isabella Beecher Hooker Charlotte Perkins Gilman next

LYMAN BEECHER

Photograph from upper waist to head in battered frame.

Portrait of Lyman Beecher, c. 1850. Courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
See larger image.

The continuous story of important Beecher family members begins with Lyman Beecher, born in 1775 in New Haven, Connecticut, educated at Yale, and influenced by the teachings of Timothy Dwight. Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1799, he began his career in East Hampton, Long Island. Gaining a distinguished reputation on Long Island he moved to Litchfield in 1810 where he preached the new school of Calvinism which stressed the evils of intemperance. From Litchfield he went to Boston's Hanover Church, where he attempted to instruct his congregates on the evils of Unitarianism. The highlights of his career included the Presidency of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati where his mission was to train ministers to win the West for Protestantism. His years there were controversial, and he was charged with acts of heresy, slander and hypocrisy by opposing religious factions. He resigned in 1850 and went to live with his son, Henry Ward Beecher, in Brooklyn, where he died in 1863.

Yale College in the 1790s was not what we think of as a distinguished college today. It was actually just a step above a high school in its physical facilities, which were meager by any account. The school during this period was devoted to divinity and secular studies, but the students were not models of Christian morality and discipline. Lyman Beecher, a pious freshman was repelled by the behavior of his compatriots and by his sophmore year had found his ideal in Timothy Dwight, the new President of Yale. It was Dwight who stirred Yale into a religious fervor that led to many revivals in the next twenty-five years. Lyman graduated in 1797 and spent the next year in Yale Divinity School under the tutelage of his mentor Timothy Dwight.

Illustration of house with road in front in semi-rural setting.

Litchfield, Connecticut House. Courtesy The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
See larger image.

When Lyman Beecher moved his family to Litchfield, Connecticut, it was a prosperous town with many prominent New England families, including the Tallmadges, Wolcotts and Buells. Its economy was rooted in businesses such as grain mills, sawmills, tanneries, small factories and craftsmen's shops. Located between New York and Boston, the Litchfield citizenry had the advantage of enjoying entertainment from prominent performers en route from either of the two major cities. It was less than forty miles from Yale College, and was a center of culture and enlightenment with its professional schools and academies.

The Beechers moved to Litchfield in 1810, and their early years in this town were probably the happiest in Lyman Beecher's life. It was in Litchfield that Lyman began preaching toward a revival. After the revival movement caught on, it lasted for several years, followed by one in 1816 and another in 1825. They helped to spread Beecher's reputation as an evangelist.

The Boston Years

Lyman Beecher was, by the age of fifty, one of the best known preachers in the country, but he felt that he was underpaid and had already preached enough sermons to Litchfield's congregates. It was time to move on. He resigned from his Litchfield post in January of 1826 and was shortly after invited by the Hanover Church in Boston to be their minister, at an annual salary of two thousand dollars.

Boston in 1826 had a population of 50,000 and was still growing. It was considered the intellectual, cultural and religious center of America, with many churches and schools, a library-museum and theaters. Lyman faced a challenge in Boston since his Calvinist doctrines were suspect in this center of Unitarian power.

He organized new revivals in Boston and preached sermons on intemperance, which did not add to his popularity among Bostonians. By 1832, Beecher moved again this time to the West where a new phase in his distinguished career was undertaken.

Illustration of church.

Hanover Church, Boston. Courtesy of The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
See larger image.

The Hanover Church was erected in 1826, and was an imposing edifice by 1826 standards. It was from this pulpit that Lyman Beecher preached his sermons and led his revivals. In 1830 the church caught fire, and it was found that a merchant who rented a room in the church basement stored jugs of liquor in it an embarrassment to the leading temperance preacher of the day. It was after the fire and his realization that he was not as popular as he had hoped that he began to think of new places where he could spread his doctrines.

Moving West

In 1830 Lyman started to think of the West as virgin territory for revival religions. He wrote to his daughter Catherine:

The moral destiny of our nation, and all our institutions and hopes, and the world's hopes, turns on the character of the West, and the competition now is for that preoccupancy in the education of the rising generation, in which Catholics and infidels have got the start on us.

I have thought seriously of going over to Cincinnati, the London of the West, to spend the remnant of my days in the great conflict, and in consecrating all my children to God in that region who are willing to go. If we gain the West, all is safe; if we lose it, all is lost. (The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, ed. Barbara M. Cross, vol.2, p.167 as quoted in Rugoff p.78)

Lyman Beecher already had pioneer family and friends who settled in Ohio. In the spring of 1832 he accepted two position, that of the pastorate of the Second Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati and the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary of Cincinnati. At the age of fifty-seven the Reverend Lyman Beecher pulled up his New England roots and ventured West to Cincinnati.

In 1832 Cincinnati was a bustling city of 30,000, which boasted a manufacturing center with over sixty foundries, and numerous factories and mills. Known as the "Queen City of the West" it had two colleges, churches, newspapers, and hotels. Travelers from the East as well as Europe stopped there and were often surprised by the civility of its culture and the beauty of the scenery. However, it did have critics such as the famous Mrs. Trollope, who wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans and expressed her opinion on the coarseness of Cincinnati society.

Lyman Beecher remained in Cincinnati until 1851 and during the intervening years was faced with the controversy over the issue of slavery at Lane Seminary, which caused some students to rebel and seek asylum in the newly formed Oberlin Collegiate Institute. The Old School Calvinist, Reverend Joshua Lacy Wilson, also confronted him with charges of heresy and slander, challenging Beecher's eastern Congregationalism and his New School theology. Lyman Beecher was acquitted of the charges but controversies were never really silenced while he remained in Cincinnati.

House in large lot.

Lyman Beecher House, Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, Ohio. Courtesy of The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
See larger image.

 

Illustrated panorama of seminary with three buildings.

Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio. Courtesy of The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
See larger image.

 

Three men, two seated, one in middle standing.

Lane Theological Seminary Faculty. Courtesy of The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
See larger image.

After their arrival in Cincinnati the Beechers took up residence in a rented house until their permanent house was completed in Walnut Hills. It was a comfortable two-story brick house with a pretty garden, and a barn with a cow, horse and chickens. There were thirteen members of the family including two servants who were to live in this residence.


prev Lyman Beecher Catherine Beecher Edward Beecher Harriet Beecher Stowe Henry Ward Beecher Isabella Beecher Hooker Charlotte Perkins Gilman next

Go to Newman Library's Digital Collections page