Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, D. D


Edited by CHARLES BEECHER. With Illustrations. In Two Volumes. New York. Harper & Brothers.
READING this life of Dr. Beecher is like walking over an ancient battle-field, silent and grass-grown, but ridged with graves, and showing still by its conformation the disposition of the troops which once struggled there in deadly contest, — and while we linger, lo ! the graves are graves no more. The dry bones come together, — sinew and flesh form upon them,— the skin covers them about, — the breath enters into them, — they live and stand upon their feet, an exceeding great and mighty army. Drums beat, swords flash, and the war of the Titans rages again around us.
The life of Dr. Beecher is closely inwoven with the ecclesiastical history of New England. Ecclesiastical, like civil history, is chiefly a military record ; and through both these volumes a sound of battle is in the land, and of great destruction. We who have fallen on comparatively quiet days can hardly conceive the intensity and violence of the excitement that glowed at our theological centres, and flamed out even to their circumferences, when the great Unitarian controversy was at its height,—when ParkStreet Church alone of the Boston churches stood firm in the ancient faith, and her site was popularly christened “Hell-Fire Corner,”—when, later, the Hanover-Street Church was known as “ Beecher’s Stone Jug” and the firemen refused to play upon the flames that were destroying it. There were giants on the earth in those days, and they wrestled in giant fashion.
All this conflict Dr. Beecher saw, and a large part of it he was. In Connecticut he had drawn his sword against intemperance, “ Toleration,” and other forms of what he considered evil, and had been recognized as a mighty man of valor in his generation ; but it was in this Unitarian controversy that he leaped to the battlements of Zion, sounded the alarm through the land, and took his place henceforth as leader of the hosts of the elect. “ I had watched the whole progress,” he says, “ and read with eagerness everything that came out on the subject. My mind had been heating, heating, heating. Now I had a chance to strike.” And strike he did, blows rapid and vigorous, whose echoes ring even through these silent pages. It was to him a real warfare. His speech ran naturally to military phrase. He saw the foe coming in like a flood. “The enemy, driven from the field by the immortal Edwards, have returned to the charge, and now the battle is to be fought over again.” “ The time has at length fully come to take hold of the Unitarian controversy by the horns.” “The enemies..... are collecting their energies and meditating a comprehensive system of attack, which demands on our part a corresponding concert of action.” “ Let the stand taken be had in universal and everlasting remembrance, and we shall soon get the enemy out of the camp.” “Wake up, ministers, form conspiracies against error, and scatter firebrands in the enemy’s camp.” “ A schism in our ranks, with the enemy before and behind us, would indeed be confusion in the camp.” “ It is the moment to charge as Wellington did at Waterloo.” “ Will Walker and his friends feel as if my gun was loaded deep enough for the first shot, and will the Orthodox think I have done so far sufficient execution ? . . . . . As the game is out of sight, I must depend on those who are near to tell me what are the effects of tire first fire.” “ My sermons on Depravity . . . . . are point-blank shot.”
Nor was the fight between Unitarian and Orthodox alone. Even within the ranks of the faithful dissensions arose, and many a time and oft had Dr. Beecher to defend himself against the charges, the insinuations, and the suspicions of his brethren. To the eyes of the more cautious or the more inert his adventurous feet seemed ever approaching tire verge of heresy. Jnst where original sin ceases to be original and becomes acquired,—just where innate illdesert meets voluntary transgression, —just where moral government raises the standard of rebellion against Absolutism,—just where New Haven theology branches off from ultra Orthodoxy on the debatable ground, the border-land of metaphysics and religion, Dr. Beecher and his brethren were engaged in perpetual skirmishing.
It is not our province to decide or even to discuss the points at issue. Uninitiated laymen may perhaps be pardoned for hearing in all this din of battle but the echo of the Schoolmen’s guns. Whether the twoyear-old baby who dashes his bread-andbutter on the floor, in wrath at the lack of marmalade, does it because of a prevailing effectual tendency in his nature, or in consequence of his federal alliance with Adam, or from a previous surfeit of plum-cake, is a question which seems to bear a general family likeness to the inquiry, whether there is such a thing as generic bread-and-butter, or only such specific slices as arouse infant ire and nourish infant tissue. But around both classes of questions strife has waxed hot. Both have called out the utmost strength of the ablest minds, and both, however finespun they may seem to the uninstructed eye, have contributed in no small measure to the mental and moral health of the world. But while we would not make so great a mistake as to look with a supercilious smile either upon the conflict between Nominalism and Realism or on that between the Old and the New School theology, (notwithstanding we might find countenance in Dr. Pond of Bangor, who writes to Dr. Beecher, “ In Maine we do not sympathize very deeply in your Presbyterian squabbles, except to look on and laugh at you all! ”) it may be permitted us as laymen to confess a greater interest in the phenomena than in the event of the struggle. We leave it, therefore, to our ecclesiastical contemporaries to descend into the arena and fight their battles o'er again, content ourselves to stand without and give thanks for the Divine voice that rises above the clash of contending creeds, saying alike to wise and foolish, “ God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Spite of all the truculence of his language, and through all his strenuous thrust and parry, Dr. Beecher’s sincerity, integrity, and piety shine forth unclouded. Looking at this memorial in one aspect, he seems to have assumed a charge which Mr. Lincoln has professed himself unable to undertake, namely, to “run the churches.” He evidently believed that the Lord had committed to the clergy, of whom he was chief, the building up of a great ecclesiastical edifice, whose foundation should be laid in New England, but whose wings should presently cover the whole land. Individual churches were the pillars of this edifice. Now in Boston, now in New Haven, now at Cincinnati, he watched its progress, noting a fault, praising an excellence, repairing mistakes, strengthening weaknesses. It was the business and the delight of his life. He had his agents throughout the country. The churches might be many, but the cause was one. Ever watchful, ever active, he spoke of his measures and his plans in just such terse, homely phrase as any house-carpenter would use. Doubtless the fragile reverence of many a clerical cumberer of the ground was shocked by his familiar use of their sacred edge-tools. One can imagine the thrill of horror with which the Reverend Cream Cheese, of the Church of the Holy (Self) Assumption, would hear the assertion, that “it was as finely organized a church as ever trod shoe-leather.” Our elegant Unitarian friends have probably quite forgotten, and will hardly thank us for reminding them, that there ever was a time when they “ put mouth to ear, and hand to pocket, and said, St-boy !” Our decorous Calvinistic D. D.s would scarcely recognize their own dogmas at the inquiry-meeting, where “ language of simplicity came along, and they’d see me talking ’way down in language fit for children. . . . . And then the language of free agency and ability came along, . . . . and they’d stick up their ears. .... But next minute came along the plea of morality and self-dependence, and I took them by the nape of the neck and twisted their head off.” There must have been great inertness in New England at the time of his first visit to Boston, when “ nobody seemed to have an idea that there was anything but what God had locked up and frozen from all eternity. The bottom of accountability had fallen out. My first business was to put it in again.” The coldness and indifference of the Church, which ministers usually employ the vivid language of the Bible regarding the ways of Zion to portray, he described in the equally vivid, but less dignified New England vernacular. “ What did I do at Litchfield but to ‘ boost ’ ? They all lay on me, and moved very little, except as myself and God moved them. I spent sixteen of the best years of my life at a dead lift in boosting.” And we greatly fear that the reverend seigniors in Synod and Presbytery, notwithstanding their firm faith in Total Depravity, will be sadly scandalized at hearing it announced, “That was a scampy concern, that Old School General Assembly, and is still.”
But he would make a great mistake who should infer, that, in thus busily and energetically building up the temple, Dr. Beecher forgot the glory of the Lord which was to dwell in it. He treated it, indeed, as a business matter, but it was the business of immortal souls and of the Most High God. No merely professional attachment bound him to it; there was no contemplating it from a public and a private point of view ; but his whole inner and outer life was enlisted. Not only the religious public, but, what is even more rare, his own family, were vitalized with his spirit and drawn into his train. The doctrines that he preached from the pulpit had been discussed over the woodpile in the cellar. His public teachings had first been household words. The Epistles, death, a preexistent state, were talked over by the fireside. Theology took precedence even of the baby in the family letters. One breath announces that he could not find any trout at Guilford, and the next that he has preached his sermon on Depravity. Catharine writes, that the house needs paper and paint very much, father’s afternoon sermon perfectly electrified her, and his last article will make all smoke again. Harriet records, with great inward exultation, that, on their Western journey, father preached, and gave them the Taylorite heresy on Sin and Decrees to the highest notch, and what was amusing, he established it from the “ Confession of Faith,” and so it went high and dry above all objections, and delighted his audience, who had never heard it christened heresy. He sets forth to attend the Synod, accompanied by his son Henry, with one rein in the right hand, and one in the left, and an apple in each, biting them alternately, and alternately telling Tom how to get the harness mended, and showing Henry the true doctrine of Original Sin. His fatherly heart yearned over his children ; with voice and pen and a constant watchful tenderness, he knew no rest till the whole eleven had adopted the faith for which he so earnestly contended. The genius of Napoleon elicited almost a personal affection, and he read every memoir from St. Helena with the earnest desire of shaping out of those last conversations some hope for his future. He mourned for Byron as for a friend, lamenting sorely that wasted life, and was sure, that, if Byron “could only have talked with Taylor and me, it might have got him out of his troubles.” Indeed, he evidently considered “ Taylor and me,” not to say me and Taylor, the two piilars of Orthodoxy, — in no wise from vanity, but in the simplicity of truth. He spoke of his own feats with an openness that could proceed only from a guileless heart. The work of the Lord was the one thing that absorbed him, to the oblivion of all lesser interests. He was as absolutely free from vanity on the one side as from envy on the other. Lyman Beecher as Lyman Beecher had no existence. Lyman Beecher as God’s servant was the verity. He rejoiced in the prosperity of the sacred cause : if it was Beecher’s hand that furthered it, he exulted ; if another than Beecher’s, it was all the same. There was no room in his mind for any petty personal jealousy. He stood in nobody’s way. He enjoyed every man’s success. So the building rose, it was of small moment who wielded the hammer. Ever on the watch for indications of the mind and will of God, it was from zeal, not ambition, that he waited for no precedence, but pushed through the opened door, opened it never so narrowly. In doubt as to what is the true meaning of some “providence,” he advises “to take hold of the end of the rope that is put into your hand, and pull it till we see what is on the other end.”
Yet, with all his electric enthusiasm, he was wise in his generation and beyond his generation, and in some respects beyond our own. He watched for souls as one that must give account. He adapted means to ends. He was careful not by fierce opposition to push doubt into error. When a drunkard died, he remembered that “ his mother was an habitual drinker, and he was nursed on milk-punch, and the thirst was in his constitution”; so he hoped “that God saw it was a constitutional infirmity, like any other disease.” He reduced the dogma of Total Depravity to the simple proposition, “that men by nature do not love God supremely, and their neighbor as themselves.” He stoutly resisted the attempt to overawe belief, either his own or another’s. He refused to expend his strength in contending with the friends of Christ, when there was so much to be done against his foes. Yet he was as far as possible from that narrow' sectarianism which sees no evil in its own ranks and no good in those of its adversaries. He denounced the faults of the Orthodox as heartily as those of the Unitarians. Standing in the forefront of Calvinism, he did not hesitate to say, “ It is my deliberate opinion that the false philosophy which has been employed for the exposition of the Calvinistic system has done more to obstruct the march of Christianity, and to paralyze the saving power of the Gospel, and to raise up and organize around the Church the unnumbered multitude to behold and wonder and despise and perish, than all other causes beside. . . . . Who of us are to suffer the loss of the most wood and hay by the process [of purging out this false philosophy] I cannot tell; but all mine is at the Lord’s service at any.time; and if all which is in New England should be brought out and laid in one pile, I think it would make a great bonfire.”
Unfortunately, there was something worse in the Church than false philosophy, unless this book very grievously falsifies facts. Her bitterest foe would hardly dare charge upon Zion such iniquity as the friendly unbosoming in these pages reveals. Wily intrigue, reckless perversion of language, rule or ruin, such things as we regret to see even in a political caucus, are to be found in abundance in the counsels of men who profess to be working only for the glory of God and the good of souls. Insinuations of craft and cowardice are set on foot, where direct charges fail for want of evidence. Rumor is made to do the work which reason cannot accomplish. Private letters are surreptitiously published, the publication defended as done with the permission of the writer, and testimony to the contrary refused a hearing. Extracts are taken out of their connection and made to carry a different meaning from that which they originally bore. What cannot be put down by evidence is to be put down by odium. There is a “ cool and deliberate determination on the part of one half the Presbyterian Church to inflict upon the other half all the injury possible.” Dr. Beecher’s son, himself a prominent clergyman, is forced to confess, that, “for a combination of meanness and guilt and demoralizing power in equal degrees of intensity, I have never known anything to exceed the conspiracy in New England and in the Presbyterian Church to crush by open falsehood and secret whisperings my father and others, whom they have in vain tried to silence by argument or to condemn in the courts of the Church.” And yet, as Dr. Beecher stands forth in this biography, in native honor clad, so, undoubtedly, does Brother Nettleton stand forth in his biography, and Brother Woods in his, and Brother Wilson in his, and all the brethren in theirs, — all honorable men. We venture to say that not one of these reverend traducers and mischief-makers was “dealt with” by his church for his evil-doing. We make no doubt he went through life without loss of prestige or diminution of sanctity, and was bewailed at his death by the sons of the prophets in tenderest phrase, “ My father ! my father ! the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.”
We do not attribute these shameful proceedings to Orthodoxy, still less to Christianity. Perhaps it is a fact of our fallen nature, as Dr. Beecher asserted, that “ Adam and grace will do twice as much as grace alone.” But surely all these things happened unto them for ensamples, and they are written for our admonition. Seeing how unlovely is the spectacle of bickering and bitterness, let Christians of every name look well to their steps, saying often one to another, and especially repeating in concert, at the opening of every council, conference, synod, and assembly, —
“ Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so ;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For 't is their nature, too.
“ But, brethren, we will never let
Our angry passions rise ;
Our little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes.”
This biography, as the title-page asserts, is edited rather than written. By familiar talk and private letters, the subject is made, as far as possible, to tell his own story. What remains is supplied by the pens of different members of the family and of old friends. The result is a composite, the connections of whose parts we do not always readily discern. But what the book lacks in coherence is more than made up in accuracy and vividness. We obtain, by glimpses of the man, a far more exact knowledge of his character and work than we should by ever so steady a contemplation of some other man’s symmetrical rendering of his life. We feel the beating of his great, fiery heart. We delight in his large, loving nature. We partake in his honest indignation. We smile, sometimes not without tears, at his childlike simplicity. We sit around the household hearth, join in the theological disputation, and share the naive satisfaction of the whole Beecher family with themselves and each other. We see how it was that the father set them all a-spinning each in his own groove, but all bearing the unmistakable Beecher stamp. We feel his irresistible energy, his burning zeal, his magnetic force yet thrilling through the land and arousing every sluggish power to come to the help of the Lord against the mighty. For such a life there is indeed no death.