Lyman Beecher [1775-1863]

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The Stuff of Operettas

There must be a shelf of books or more that have been written about the Beecher family. The Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher, patriarch of this eccentric family, was born in 1775, studied theology with Dr. Timothy Dwight at Yale in preparation for the ministry, and served as pastor in East Hampton, Long Island, where he was blessed to see nearly three hundred added to the church. In 1826, he became pastor of the Hanover Church in Boston, MA.

Then in 1830, Beecher was named President and Professor of Theology at Lane Theological Seminary. So devoted were the people of Boston to him that nearly two years elapsed before arrangements were made, and he was able to move to Cincinnati, the location of the Seminary. The following spring, concurrent with his seminary duties, he was installed as the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati.

Above, right: Portrait of Dr. Lyman Beecher, standing, with his son Henry, seated.

Having given twenty years of his life to Lane Seminary, Dr. Beecher ended his public labors in 1852, when he returned to Boston and later to Brooklyn, where he lived near the home of his son, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, and the church that Henry pastored. For some ten years he resided there and was “an honored landmark of a former generation,” before passing to his eternal rest on January 10, 1863.

In one of the better known biographical accounts of the Beecher family, Milton Rugoff gives in interesting glimpse into the lives of the Beechers. He writes:

Toward the end of his years in Cincinnati, Lyman Beecher would occasionally try to put his papers—a lifetime of sermons, lectures and records, many of them yellow with age—in order, but they would soon be scattered around his study again. Then, in the summer of 1851, after he and Lydia had moved in temporarily with the Stowes in their big house in Maine, he began, with the help of one of Lydia’s daughters, to prepare his writings for publication: selected sermons, lectures on atheism, temperance, dueling and such, together with his Views in Theology. Despite the fact that Harriet was already working on installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the National Era, her father and his assistant took over the kitchen table while Harriet sat on the back steps with her writing portfolio on her lap.

Theology had never been Dr. Beecher’s strong point, and now many of his writings seemed only echoes of bygone issues and controversies. In print, without his vital presence and verve, they were lusterless and lacking in urgency. They would have received little attention had they not begun to appear not long after the sensational  publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and shortly before Edward Beecher’s The Conflict of the Ages stirred the church world. How strange it must have seemed to Lyman Beecher to be increasingly identified as the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edward Beecher—not to speak of Henry Ward Beecher. Lyman hardly knew what to make of the astonishing success of Harriet’s novel, but his opinion of Edward’s book he packed into one pungent sentence: “Edward, you’ve destroyed the Calvinist barns, but I hope you don’t delude yourself that the animals are going into your little theological hencoop!”

[excerpted from The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century, by Milton Rugoff. New York: Harper & Row, 1981, pg. 293.]

Words to Live By: Caution keeps one from being too critical about Dr. Beecher and his family. They certainly had their problems, but our own lives are often equally messy. But that one comment, that “theology had never been Dr. Beecher’s strong point,” is a telling one [and ironic, given his post at the seminary], and perhaps it serves well to point out just how much we need the strong mooring of good theology. Good theology, after all, is nothing more than a right understanding of what Scripture teaches. And good theology is well taught in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Which is why we have been careful to include it as part of our daily blog. We hope you are making good use of it.

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Image source: Clipping from an undetermined source which appears to have been part of a promotional advertisement for a work on the life of Dr. Beecher. Scanned by the staff of the PCA Historical Center.

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