The First of the Beechers

THE Puritan Sunday of one hundred and fifty years ago began Saturday evening and closed Sunday evening as soon as three stars could be seen. One Sunday evening young Lyman Beecher, impatient for the tedious day to end, began to play before he could see the three stars.独 A neighbor boy, learning what he had done, shouted accusingly, ‘God’ll put you in the fire and burn you forever and ever!’

‘That took hold,’ said Lyman. ‘I understood what fire was and what forever was. What emotion I had thinking — no end! no end! It has been a sort of mainspring ever since.’ This was Lyman’s first experience as a sinner.


Born in 1775, the son of David Beecher, a blacksmith and farmer of New Haven, Lyman was a seven months’ baby, so puny and unpromising that the midwife in attendance had set him aside to die while she devoted herself to the tubercular mother, who survived only two days. After doing what she could for her patient, she looked to see if the baby was still breathing; and, finding he was, she washed and dressed him, with the comment, ‘It ’s a pity he ain’t goin’ to die with his ma.’ A neighboring farmer remarked when he saw the infant, ‘He ain’t hardly wo’th raisin’, be he?’ By this close squeak did a man get a foothold on this earth who was to have thirteen children, and become, in the words of Theodore Parker, ‘ the father of more brains than any other man in America.’

Because of his mother’s death, Lyman was brought up by his uncle and aunt, the Lot Bentons, on their farm at Guilford, Connecticut. Thanks to farm work, which he hated, and to hunting and fishing, which he loved, he built up a rugged body. As he grew older and demonstrated his ineptitude for farming, the uncle became concerned about the boy’s future. One day, when the two were picking apples together, Uncle Lot asked Lyman if he would like to go to college. After sleeping on it, Lyman thought he would, and they set off to consult his father in New Haven. David Beecher approved. It was agreed that the Bentons should clothe the boy — Aunt Benton could make most of his clothes — and that his father would do the rest.

After two years of preparatory study with a parson uncle, he entered, in 1793, the small primitive high school which Yale then was. President Stiles of Yale was a pompous little man devoted to the French skeptics. Taking their tone from him, most of the students were skeptics instead of Calvinists, and, in their manner of life, emulated Parisian bons vivants rather than the austere Puritans. Many of them kept wine and liquors in their rooms. Drinking, profanity, gambling, and licentiousness were common. In Lyman’s sophomore year, Dr. Timothy Dwight became President, and began immediately to turn the tide toward Calvinistic belief and Puritan living. Lyman worshiped him from the first, and Dr. Dwight became and remained a dominant influence in his life. ‘I loved him as my own soul,’ he said, ‘and he loved me as a son.’

In Lyman’s junior year, while spending a week-end with his father and stepmother, he underwent that peculiar mystical and psychological experience known as conversion. His stepmother saw a drunkard stumbling past the house who she said was once under conviction. She expressed the hope that the poor fellow might receive all his punishment in this life and escape hell-fire. After his stepmother left the room, Lyman had an impulse to pray. ‘I rose to pray and had not spoken five words before I was under as deep a conviction as ever I was in my life. The sinking of the shaft was instantaneous. I understood the law and my heart as well as I do now or shall in the Day of Judgment, I believe.’

After a year or more of alternating faith and doubt and great agony of soul, he decided to become a minister. In his senior year, his best intellectually, he studied rhetoric, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and, every Saturday, the Catechism, followed by a lecture on theology. His conversion and ministerial aspirations he did not find inconsistent with taking on the job of college butler, which involved selling wines and liquors as well as foods to his fellow students. Sagaciously he commissioned an English sporting parson to buy his wine supply. By this means he paid his debts, bought a new suit of clothes, laid by three hundred dollars, and gained the lifelong opinion that he could have succeeded in business. Thus did the future founder of the American temperance movement become a retail liquor dealer.


Lyman found at this time not only his religion and his calling, but his future wife. A classmate took him to General Ward’s farm at Nutplains, a part of Guilford, Connecticut, to call upon the General’s granddaughters. At sight, Lyman fell in love with Roxana Foote, the handsomest and most gifted of the sisters. ‘I had sworn inwardly never to marry a weak woman,’ said Lyman with the comfortable complacency of youth. ‘I had made up my mind that a woman to be my wife must have sense, must possess strength to lean upon. She was such as I had imagined. The whole circle in which she moved was one of uncommon intelligence, vivacity and wit.

. . . They [Roxana and her sisters] read Sir Charles Grandison, and Roxana said she never meant to marry until she found Sir Charles’ like. I presume she thought she had.’

With a creditable record in everything except mathematics, Lyman graduated from Yale in the year 1797. Of his class of thirty-one, sixteen became lawyers and fifteen ministers. This was significant, although the point was undoubtedly lost on Lyman. Up to that time the clergy had been the dominant professional group in the country — particularly in New England. They had not only ruled the people spiritually, but, through their political power, to a very large extent temporally. This was particularly true of the Calvinist ministers, whose faith was in effect the state religion of Connecticut. The legal profession had been gradually rising in esteem and power from a despised status in Colonial days to one of comparable importance, and, while Lyman was still a young man, was to wrest from the clergy its political dominance. Lyman had himself seriously considered the law, but had become disgusted with what he regarded as the pettifogging and trickery of courtroom practice.

After graduation he went for a year to the Yale Divinity School, where he studied directly and zestfully under his hero, Dr. Dwight — to the irreverent known as ‘old Pope Dwight.’ ‘Dwight was a revival preacher and a new era of revivals was commencing,’ observed Lyman. ‘There had been a general suspension of revivals after the Edwardian era during the Revolution, but a new day was dawning as I came on the stage, and I was baptized into the revival spirit.’

Lyman Beecher faced a world theological and rural, in sharp distinction from ours, which is scientific and urban. To him and his contemporaries, this life was not an end in itself, but merely an antechamber to Heaven or Hell. His preceptor and model, Dr. Dwight, was a Calvinist of the so-called New Light, or Edwardian, School. Calvinists believed that all men since Adam’s fall were born innately wicked and depraved. To mitigate this desperate condition, God sent His Son to die on the Cross for the sins of men. Thenceforth, all persons who came to Christ through a mystical process known as conversion were saved. They were the Elect. It was the object of every Calvinist minister to make converts, thus adding to the number of the Elect who would enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven and diminishing the always incomparably greater number of the damned who would writhe forever in the torments of Hell.

To Dr. Dwight and his disciple, Lyman Beecher, these doctrines were not mere theories — they were vital beliefs. An orthodox church, as they conceived it, was a divine organization deriving its obligations and privileges direct from the Almighty, just as the King, under the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, received his authority direct from God. The minister of such a church spoke as God’s agent. And this God was not the ethical abstraction of to-day, but a personal God — the all-powerful Ruler of the Universe.

Just before leaving Yale, Lyman became anxious about the state of Roxana’s soul. As an Episcopalian, she was suspect. He feared she was suffering from natural goodness because she had never been converted through supernatural intervention. ‘I went over to Nutplains,’ said he, ‘on purpose to converse with her, and, if the disagreement was too great, to relinquish the engagement. I explained my views and laid before her the great plan of redemption. As I went on, her bosom heaved, her tears flowed, her heart melted, and mine melted too; and I never told her to her dying day what I came for.’

He then wrote her four long letters dealing exclusively with his highly technical fears for her soul and prescribing books which might help her. So successful was he in throwing her into alternate states of elation and gloom like his own that her family feared for her reason, but he failed to convince her that her love of God might spring merely from His blessings to her and hence be selfish and sinful. Finally he subjected poor Roxana to the supreme test of true Calvinism by asking her point-blank whether she was prepared to rejoice should God see fit to damn her for His own honor and glory. Roxana’s reaction was as unexpected as it was unorthodox. She retorted that if to be damned meant anything, it meant to be horribly wicked; the idea that horrible wickedness on her part would contribute to the honor and glory of her Heavenly Father was unthinkable! With a bewildered look Lyman exclaimed, ‘Oh, Roxana, what a fool I ’ve been!’ His orthodoxy had received a blow, and he had taken the first step toward his trial for heresy. In revivals, thereafter, when ardent converts said they were prepared to be damned for the glory of God, he confounded them by shouting, ‘Be damned, then, if you want to be!’

After his year in the Yale Divinity School he was licensed to preach, and went to Guilford to deliver his first sermon. The eager, cocksure, unsophisticated young man looked down from the lofty old pulpit upon Roxana, Uncle Lot, Aunt Benton, and most of his boyhood neighbors and acquaintances, including the man who as a boy had threatened him with hell-fire for not waiting for the three stars. ‘And where is now my hope?’ was his text. He distinguished between true grounds for confidence in one’s salvation and counterfeit assurances such as ‘spurious love of God.’ Since this was exactly what he had feared for Roxana, the sermon was probably for her special benefit.


After a few weeks of waiting, during which he despairingly decided that there were not enough churches to go round and he would never find one, he was invited to preach as a candidate by the Presbyterian Church at East Hampton, Long Island. He sailed there on a sloop from New London, Connecticut. ‘I had but little to carry,’ he commented. ‘I owned a horse with saddle and bridle. All my clothes and personal effects I had packed in a little white hair trunk which I brought with me on the pommel of my saddle.’ During the voyage his horse fell overboard and was almost drowned.

The broad main street of East Hampton was grass-grown, with wheel ruts as the only indication that it was a road. Flocks of cackling geese wandered up and down this primitive thoroughfare. On the outskirts of the town there was a settlement of Montauk Indians, partly Christianized, but mostly debased. Lyman’s first reform activity was an effort to protect these Indians against exploitation by rum sellers. On Gardiner’s Island lived the seventh in descent from the original proprietor, who was known as Lord Gardiner. Lord Gardiner and the young minister became close friends, and the large, hospitable Gardiner mansion his second home. No sermon was complete for the press until Lord Gardiner had read and criticized it. On Sundays all the families from the villages of Amaghsett, Three-Mile Harbor, The Springs and Fireplace, Wainscott, and a town of free Negroes called Freetown, came to meeting in great two-horse uncovered wagons with three seats carrying nine people. ‘It is probable that more than half the inhabitants of those retired villages made no other journey during their whole lives,’ said Lyman.

After a probationary period, Lyman was selected as the minister of the church, but the call was not unanimous. The church, the only one in the town, had had only three pastors during its century and a half. The first had received forty-five pounds a year, his land free of taxes, his grain ground first at the mill on Monday mornings, and one quarter of the whales stranded on the beach. Lyman’s pay was three hundred dollars a year (later raised to four) and his firewood. Although the minister no longer received a share of the whales, the ‘weft’ (the signal that a whale had been sighted) was still in use, and several times Lyman went out with the boatmen in pursuit of whales.

Despite the church, infidelity had gained a foothold in the community. There was an infidel club which, although small, was composed of men of ‘talent, education, and indefatigable zeal.’ They had ceremoniously burned a Bible. ‘It was the age of French infidelity,’ explained Lyman. ‘There was a leaven of skepticism all over the world.’ The church committee had charged the member who was to find a minister, ‘We want vou to get a man that can stand his ground in argument and break the heads of these infidels.’ This was a call to battle after Lyman Beecher’s own heart!

‘If God enable me, shall speak plainly,’ he wrote Roxana. ‘Plainness, my friend, must be used. Everything is at stake. Immortal souls are sleeping on the brink of Hell. Time is on the wing. A few days will fix their eternal state. Shall I hide the truth, neglect the heart, labor to please the ear with smooth periods and be the siren song to lure them down to Hell? . . . Do I love God supremely? Am I willing to resign my dear Roxana? Is God my all in all?’ That would seem an unfair question to ask Roxana.

Fortunately he did not have to ‘resign his dear Roxana,’ but married her and brought her to stay with friends while their house was being prepared. A revival started immediately after they arrived. ‘Before evening service one Sabbath news came to me that two of Deacon Shirrell’s sons were under conviction,’ exulted Lyman. ‘Oh, how I went down there! Whether walking or flying or on tiptoe I don’t know. I spilled over. All the old folks waked up, and when I went home after meeting to Aunt Phebe’s, the young people flowed together there . . . the good folks felt that they had a revival and now was their time . . . the work went on gloriously for six weeks and shook the whole town. Eighty were converted.’

In a letter to her sister, Roxana described her husband’s activities at this time. ‘ Mr. Beecher has preached seven or eight times a week the whole winter.

Last week, for example, he preached twice in town and two lectures, besides a funeral sermon on Gardiner’s Island, and five sermons to the Indians and white people down at Montauk. He every week lectures at some one of the villages adjoining. . . . Some weeks at two or three of these places, and when not at these places, there have been meetings afternoons and evenings and sometimes in the forenoon.’ The accomplished Roxana added that she had spent almost all of her time in getting meals and clearing them away, spinning, knitting, and mending her own and her husband’s clothes.


After three years of such activities, Lyman broke down nervously, but neither his doctor nor he suspected any connection between these exhausting occupations and his condition. After weeks of complete prostration he was able to fish and hunt and eventually to go for a horseback ride of several weeks. It was a year before he could fully take up his work. One old man refused to pay his church taxes until he did. The orthodox churches were then supported by a general legal tax as are the public schools to-day. Lyman told of one old man who, on refusing to pay his church tax, had his heifer seized and sold by the sheriff.

There was no store in the town. All purchases were made in New York through a schooner which ran once a week. ‘There was not a carpet from end to end of the town,’ said Lyman.‘All had sanded floors. . . . Your mother [Roxana] introduced the first carpet. Uncle Lot gave me some money and I had an itch to spend it. Went to a vendue and bought a bale of cotton. She spun it and had it woven, then laid it down, sized it and painted it in oils with a border all round it and bunches of roses and other flowers over the centre. She sent to New York for her colors and ground and mixed them herself. The carpet was nailed down on the garret floor and she used to go up there and paint.

‘After the carpet was completed and laid on the parlor floor, old Deacon Tallmadge came to see me. He stopped at the parlor door and seemed afraid to come in.

‘“Walk in, Deacon, walk in,” said I.

‘“Why I can’t,” said he, “’thout steppin’ on’t.” Then, after surveying it awhile in admiration, “ D’ye think ye can have all that an’ Heaven too?’”

Four children made their appearance as rapidly as nature permitted — Catharine, William, Edward, and Mary. The salary, although by now $400 a year, was inadequate to the mounting expenses, so Roxana had to open a school, with five young girls as boarders and day pupils besides. Her sister Mary helped her, and her husband in English composition. Lavoisier’s newly published Chemistry was one of their textbooks. Chemistry was a new subject and a constant topic of conversation — chemistry and embroidery appear to have been the two subjects most stressed. Lyman hated teaching as much as he had hated farming. Roxana did the housework, including making the cloth and clothes for a family of six, with the assistance of two Negro children (bound girls); she conducted the school, and also found time for her hobbies — gardening and ‘drawing likenesses on ivory.’


When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Lyman Beecher, in a blaze of indignation, decided that dueling must be stopped. He found Burr had forced the duel upon Hamilton after himself practising pistol shooting for three months. After studying the subject six months, he wrote a sermon which he preached first in his own church and then before the Synod, to the amazement of that rigidly conservative body. In that day clergymen — in the pulpit, at any rate — were supposed to devote themselves to theology.

‘ Dueling is a great national sin,’ thundered young Lyman Beecher. ‘With the exception of a small section of the Union, the whole land is defiled with blood. From the lakes of the north to the plains of Georgia is heard the voice of lamentation and woe — the cries of widows and the fatherless. This work of desolation is performed often by men in office, by the appointed guardians of life and liberty. On the floor of Congress challenges have been threatened if not given, and thus powder and ball have been introduced as auxiliaries of deliberation and argument. . . . A duelist may be a gambler, a prodigal, a fornicator, an adulterer, a drunkard, and a murderer, and not violate the laws of honor.’

When he had finished he introduced a resolution, to which he anticipated no opposition, providing for the formation of societies to stop dueling. But the members of the Synod had begun to hear from prominent parishioners ‘ politically affiliated with men of dueling principles.’ Hence there was powerful opposition led by an eminent elderly Doctor of Divinity. Lyman Beecher was an obscure young man of thirty. ‘When my turn came, I rose and knocked away their arguments and made them ludicrous,’ said Beecher. ‘Never made an argument so short, strong, and pointed in my life. . . . Oh, I declare! if I did n’t switch ’em an’ scorch ’em an’ stamp on ’em. It swept all before it. . . . It was the centre of old-fogyism, but I mowed it down and carried the vote of the house.’

The sermon was published with an introduction by Dr. Mason, the outstanding preacher of New York City at the time, and over forty thousand copies were distributed. That achievement made Lyman Beecher, if not a national figure, at least something more than a country minister. ‘An impression was made that never ceased,’ he concluded. ‘It started a series of efforts that affected the whole Northern mind at least; and in Jackson’s time the matter came up in Congress, and a law was passed disfranchising a duelist.’

By 1809 he had found it impossible to support his family on $400 a year, even supplemented by the school, and served notice on his church that unless they would pay his debts, amounting to $500, and raise his salary to $500 he must leave. For a few Sundays he preached in the Brick Church in New York, and while there Roxana wrote him her views on the salary question. ‘The very low estimate which people appear to have of the blessing of the Gospel ministry is strikingly exemplified when we compare what they are willing to pay for it with what they are willing to pay for their gratification in a hundred other respects, and a people who are provided with all the comforts of life, and who, as a people, pay so much annually for more luxuries (tobacco, for instance) ought to be able to support a minister so that he shall not need to be harassed with worldly cares ’

It is little wonder that this situation puzzled Roxana Beecher when one realizes that in her day Heaven and Hell were vital realities, and it was thought to be impossible to win the one or escape the other without the aid of one’s minister. The fact that a clergyman cannot haggle over his pay without losing caste was presumably responsible for the low pay of ministers then as now.

At this crucial moment, Judge Reeve of the famous Litchfield Law School, the first law school to be opened in this country, sent a message to Lyman Beecher inquiring whether he would consider a call to the Litchfield Congregational Church. He assented, went there to preach as a candidate, and was formally invited to accept the ministry of the church. Thereupon he went back to East Hampton to preach to his people a farewell sermon on ‘the universal and entire depravity of human nature.’ The Litchfield church offered him $800 a year, with firewood, which was to be furnished through the minister’s ‘woodspell,’ a function which all the parishioners attended once a year at the parsonage, bringing a load of wood for the minister, each guest receiving in return not only the minister’s thanks but hot flip and doughnuts.


Litchfield, situated high among the Berkshire Hills, with its broad streets shaded by splendid elms and its many large and beautiful Colonial houses, was no ordinary New England town. Many years later Lyman Beecher’s daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, said of her childhood memory of it: ‘My earliest recollections of Litchfield are those of its beautiful scenery which impressed and formed my mind long before I had words to give names to my emotions or could analyze my mental processes. I remember standing often in the door of our house and looking over a distant horizon where Mount Tom reared its round blue head against the sky, and the Great and Little Ponds, as they were called, gleamed out amid a steel-blue sea of distant pine groves. To the west of us rose a smooth-bosomed hill called Prospect Hill; and many a pensive, wondering hour have I sat at our play-room window, watching the glory of the wonderful sunsets that used to burn themselves out, amid voluminous wreathings or castellated turrets of clouds — vaporous pageantry proper to a mountainous region.’

When Mrs. Stowe was in Paris, half a century later, an old French count, who had been one of Judge Reeve’s students, never tired of saying that ‘ the society of Litchfield was the most charming in the world.’ A letter which Roxana wrote her sister-in-law, a year or more after the family moved to Litchfield, shows that she at least had scant time to enjoy this ‘charming society ’: —

‘Would now write you a long letter were it not for several vexing circumstances, such as the weather extremely cold, storm violent and no wood cut; Mr. Beecher gone, and Sabbath day with company — a clergyman, a stranger, Catharine sick, George [he was the third son] almost so, Rachel’s finger cut off and she crying and groaning with the pain [she was one of the Negro bound girls]. . . . As for reading I average perhaps one page a week. . . . I expect to be obliged to be contented (if I can) with the stock of knowledge I already possess except what I glean from the conversation of others. . . . Mary has, I suppose, told you of the discovery that the fixed alkalies are metallic oxyds. . . . I think this is all the knowledge I have obtained in the circle of the arts and sciences of late; if you have been more fortunate pray let me reap the benefit.’

The Reverend Lyman Beecher, who had recently become a D.D., on his way to church one Sunday morning crossed a trout stream. Seeing a big trout jump, and remembering he had left a pole and tackle under the bridge, he sprang down the bank, grabbed his pole, and landed the trout. Slipping him into the tail pocket of his ministerial coat, he ran on to the church and breathlessly mounted to his high pulpit, his clerical necktie all awry and his handsome ruddy face flushed with exertion, just as the bell stopped tolling. The next Sunday morning when poor Roxana opened the closet door to brush the ministerial coat she smelled that fish before she found it.

Mrs. Stowe has described the church mice in her father’s venerable meetinghouse. ‘In front of the pulpit was a bench on which at noon between the two long sermons some members of the congregation who came from afar sat and ate their dinners. Consequently there would be by time of the afternoon service sundry crumbs of cheese and bread on the floor. In the base of the pulpit just above the floor dwelt a number of pious church mice, and in the afternoons, when Father was thundering away in the lofty pulpit, I would see their little bright eyes shining cautiously out of their holes. If Father became quiet they would venture out and begin a meal on the crumbs; but suddenly some awful words, like reprobation or foreordination, would come roaring down from above, the mice would run for their lives and not venture out again until they thought the danger past.’

A year or so after coming to Litchfield, Lyman Beecher went to two ordinations in succession where the reverend members drank heavily. The ministerial society actually furnished the drinks — they were ‘on the house.’ ‘The sideboard with the spillings of water and sugar and liquor looked and smelled like the bar of a very active grog-shop,’ commented Beecher. While none of the ministers were really drunk, many were considerably exhilarated. He resolved never to attend another such affair.

The next year, when Lyman was thirty-six, at a meeting of the General Association of Connecticut (an organization of the Congregational ministers of the state) a committee, appointed a year before to look into intemperance, reported that while it was increasing in an alarming manner, ‘ they were obliged to confess they did not perceive that anything could be done.’ ‘The blood started through my heart when I heard this,’ exclaimed Beecher. ‘I rose instanter and moved that a committee of three be appointed to report at that meeting the ways and means of arresting the tide of intemperance. The committee was named and appointed. I was chairman, and on the following day brought in a report, the most important paper I ever wrote.’

This report gave a long list of concrete recommendations, among them that parents should cease to serve ‘ardent spirits’ on their tables; that church members cease to regard them as essential to hospitality; and that employers stop serving them to their employees. This report was adopted and put into effect. The next year marked improvement was reported. The Massachusetts Association took similar action. The movement spread throughout New England and eventually the entire country. The American temperance movement was launched.

Some years later Lyman Beecher went to preach in a hamlet near Litchfield in connection with his incessant revival activities. As was his custom, he went to the house of a promising young man who had actively helped him. He found the young wife in tears of despair and the husband in bed — drunk. This aroused him against drunkenness just as had the BurrHamilton fight against dueling. Hurrying home, in a white heat of indignation, he wrote six sermons against drinking which he preached on successive Sundays. They were later published, translated into many languages, and widely circulated in this country and many others. In the concluding sermon he asked what the remedy is for intemperance, and answered, ‘ It is the banishment of ardent spirits from the list of lawful articles of commerce by a correct and efficient public sentiment such as has turned slavery out of half of our land and will yet expel it from the world.’

What with the periodic arrival of babies and the high prices following the War of 1812, in spite of the 100 per cent increase in salary the spectre of poverty was now haunting the Beechers again. Roxana had a little money in an uncle’s business in New York, on the strength of which she built an addition to the house so that they might take as boarders some of the young women of Miss Pierce’s school. This effort to make ends meet proved desperate. Her uncle’s business failed. She lost everything. The addition cost twice as much as estimated. They would have been bankrupt had not the church come to their rescue.

Borne down by overwork, worry, and poverty, Roxana died of consumption in 1816. This was the supreme sorrow of Lyman Beecher’s life. Mrs. Stowe commented on the relation between them, ‘The communion between her and my father was a peculiar one. It was an intimacy throughout the whole range of their being. There was no human mind in whose decisions he had greater confidence. Both intellectually and morally he regarded her as the better and stronger portion of himself and I remember hearing him say that, after her death, his first sensation was a sort of terror like that of a child suddenly shut out alone in the dark.’ Many years later he said to his son, Henry Ward, as he pointed to a great pile of manuscripts, ‘There are the sermons I wrote the year after your mother died and not one of them is good for anything!’

Lyman Beecher was left, not only with his burden of grief, but with debts and eight children ranging in age from sixteen-year-old Catharine to the baby of nine months, Charles. Between these extremes came William, Mary, Edward, George, Harriet, and Henry Ward. Lyman’s sister Esther and his mother, devotees of quietness and immaculateness, made the heroic sacrifice of moving from their little peaceful cottage into the big noisy house. Aunt Esther, with Catharine as aide-de-camp, took command of the household. A few days after the funeral, Catharine found little Henry Ward, his curls palpitating with his efforts, digging under her window. When she asked him what he was doing he looked up and replied, ‘I ’s diggin’ down to find Mother.’


Having declared war on infidelity, dueling, and drinking, Lyman Beecher next attacked Unitarianism at the citadel of its power in Boston. In 1817 he delivered the installation sermon for a new minister at the Park Street Church. This was his first notable blow at Unitarianism. He called the sermon ‘The Bible a Code of Laws.’ It was later published and widely read. ‘From the time Unitarianism began to show itself in this country it was a fire in my bones,’ he said of this attack. ‘My mind had been heating, heating, heating. Now I had a chance to strike.

. . . There had been no such attack on Unitarianism, explaining our doctrines so that they could stand. The sensation all over the city was great. It was a perfect victory.’

‘You are right in thinking the Unitarians are gaining,’ he wrote a fellow minister. ‘Their power of corrupting the youth of the commonwealth by means of Cambridge [Harvard] is silently putting sentinels in all the churches, legislators in the halls and judges on the bench and scattering everywhere physicians, lawyers and merchants.’ The crime of the Unitarians in Lyman Beecher’s eyes was, of course, their denial that Christ was the Deity, and that only by His death on the Cross was the salvation of mankind made possible. By false hopes they were luring people away from Heaven and down to Hell.

He met at this time, and shortly married, Miss Harriet Porter, of Portland, Maine. She was a daughter of Dr. Aaron Porter, one of the most successful physicians of the time. One of her brothers had been the first Governor of Maine, another a Congressman noted for his oratory, and a third a member of the Continental Congress, of the Constitutional Convention, of the United States Senate, and twice Minister to Great Britain. She herself was noted for beauty, wit, and cultivation. This plebeian son of the New Haven blacksmith had a way with him which won the hearts of patrician women.

The arrival of the new mother was described by Mrs. Stowe: ‘I was about six years old and slept in the nursery with my two younger brothers. We knew Father was gone away somewhere on a journey, and was expected home, and thus the sound of a bustle or disturbance in the house more easily awoke us. We heard Father’s voice in the entry, and started up, crying out as he entered our room, “ Why, here’s pa!” A cheerful voice called out from behind him, “And here’s ma!”

‘A beautiful lady, very fair, with bright blue eyes and soft auburn hair bound round with a black velvet bandeau, came into the room, smiling, eager and happy-looking, and coming up to our beds, kissed us and told us she loved little children and would be our mother. We wanted forthwith to get up and be dressed, but she pacified us with the promise that we should find her in the morning.’

Lyman Beecher attempted to read to his bride Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God ’ — the sermon that used to make women faint so that they had to be carried out of church. Before he read far, his beautiful bride got up with flushed cheeks, exclaiming, ‘Dr. Beecher, I shall not listen to another word of that slander on my Heavenly Father!’ and swept out of the room. This gave Lyman Beecher’s orthodoxy its second blow and he took another step toward his trial for heresy.

A series of revivals now swept the state, into which he plunged headlong until he broke down again. He had to give up work and tried hunting, fishing, and trips to Niagara Falls and Maine, all in vain. Thinking he had consumption, he consulted a Dr. Jackson in Boston, whose diagnosis was ‘acute dyspepsia as a result of overwork and false methods.’ Encouraged by his doctor, he took to farm work as a cure. ‘I bought eight acres of land east of the house, hired a man, bought a yoke of oxen, plow, horse-cart and went to work every day. . . . I did n’t study a sermon that summer. There is some advantage in being an extempore speaker. Squire Langdon used to say that when he saw me out digging potatoes Saturday evening he expected a good sermon Sunday morning. Slowly but surely I got up.’

This breakdown led him to develop what he called his ‘clinical theology,’ which, as he said, enabled him to distinguish in his penitents between ‘dyspepsia and piety.’ He amazed earnest inquirers at revival meetings by asking them, instead of the expected questions about their souls, how much exercise they took and whether their bowels moved regularly.

His remarks had now come to be widely quoted. When asked why he did n’t reply to an opponent who was savagely attacking him in one of his many public controversies, he rapped out, ‘Once threw a book at a skunk and he had the best of it. I made up my mind never to try it again!’

When he was being violently attacked in the religious press, and some friends offered sympathy, he brushed it aside with the comment, ‘Oh, I don’t mind, because when I see the feathers fly I know I ’ve hit my bird!’ After an exasperating altercation with some dullards he exclaimed, ‘Wish the Creator had made fewer people an’ given ’em more brains.’ Of an especially responsive listener in his congregation he remarked, ‘He makes me think of a partridge on a dead limb, watching me when I ’m trying to get a shot at him.’


By 1825 it was painfully evident that he could no longer support his wife and family — now eleven children — on his salary of $800 a year, which had not been raised since he came to Litchfield in 1810. He could neither pay his debts nor prevent the accumulation of fresh ones, and it was impossible to continue the education of his children. He requested dismissal from his church, and reviewed before his congregation the story of their losing struggle to make ends meet. ‘My late investigation of my concerns had convinced me,’ he concluded, ‘that there is an annual deficiency in my salary of two hundred dollars wholly irremediable by any possible efforts of my own or by any authorized reliance upon Providence.’

So this now fifty-year-old eminent member of the profession on which, as was then thought, the eternal happiness of men depended, who had labored tirelessly for his parishioners for fifteen years, was allowed, for lack of two hundred dollars, to give up his church just as he had previously been allowed to leave East Hampton for lack of one hundred dollars!

In spite of poverty, dyspepsia, duelists, drunkards, dullards, infidels, and Unitarians, Lyman Beecher’s spirits were usually buoyant. He trained his boys in fishing and hunting and woodcraft as zealously as in theology. He romped with his children. He came home after evening meetings and played his fiddle ‘to let down,’ as he called it. If his wife was n’t there to prevent, he would take off his shoes and dance a hornpipe to the delight of the children. His wife’s objection was not ecclesiastical, but purely domestic — it wore out his socks.

At the moment of this second crisis in his career, just as before, a call came to a larger opportunity. Twenty-four hours after he had decided he must leave Litchfield he received a letter from the Hanover Street Church of Boston, asking if he would come to them. He accepted and set off full of zest to beard the wicked Unitarians in their den.