- Beecher family
- In the 19th century, few names were as important in American Protestantism as Beecher. The family's rise began with Lyman Beecher (1775-1863). Educated at Yale and ordained as a Presbyterian, in 1799 he became a minister of the Presbyterian church at East Hampton, Long Island, and in 1810 was called to the Congregationalist parish in Litchfield, Connecticut. A quickly won reputation landed him a church post in Boston, where he vigorously defended orthodoxy and opposed Uni-tarianism, Roman Catholicism, intemperance, and dueling (which he helped outlaw across the United States).In 1832, Beecher became president of Lane Theological Seminary, a new Presbyterian school in Cincinnati, Ohio, which aimed at educating ministers in what was then the American West. Soon after his arrival, the faculty and student body split over slavery. When in 1834 Beecher and the faculty tried to curb abolitionist activism among students, many left for the more liberal atmosphere at Oberlin College. Beecher was later accused of being a Calvinist and charged with heresy by a conservative colleague. Though ultimately acquitted, he had to undergo the humiliation of a heresy trial.All Beecher's seven sons became ministers. His well-educated daughters made their marks in literature.In 1851, Beecher returned to Boston and in 1856, went to live his last years in Brooklyn, New York, with his son Henry Ward Beecher, then a rising star.Henry (1813-87) attended Amherst College and Lane Theological Seminary He ministered to congregations in Indiana for a decade before becoming pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, in 1847.At Plymouth, Beecher emerged as one of the most well-known preachers in America. His sermons were noted for their power, their use of humor, and their originality, and he was frequently called upon to give lectures and after-dinner talks. In 1863, he traveled to England on a lecture tour supporting the Union cause at a time when England appeared to favor the Confederacy. Beecher began to publish his sermons in The Plymouth Pulpit as early as 1859; he founded a periodical, The Christian, in 1870 and authored a number of books.Beecher became a leading spokesperson for the new liberal Protestantism, supporting both biblical criticism and biological evolution. He formally resigned from the Congregational Church and became an independent minister, though remaining at Plymouth Church.At the very height of his career, Beecher was almost undone by accusations of adultery with the wife of a church member. A lengthy trial in 1875 resulted in a hung jury, but the church found him innocent, and he remained its pastor until his death in 1887.The Beecher most remembered today is Henry's sister Harriet (1811-96), born on June 14, 1811. As a young adult, she became a teacher and wrote a book on geography. In 1836, she married Calvin Stowe, with whom she had seven children, all the while writing poems, travel books, children's books, and novels.She was lifted from obscurity by her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which provoked a national controversy when it was serialized in the National Era, a controversy that intensified when the book version appeared in 1852. Stowe wrote A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), which extensively documented the book's realism, which had been challenged by pro-slavery critics. Now deeply involved in the antislavery cause, in 1856 she authored a second novel, Dred, in reaction to the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court. Stowe continued to write until her death in 1896.Lyman Beecher's other children also made their marks. Catherine Esther Beecher (1800-78) became a prominent educator; Edward Beecher (1803-95) pastored the prestigious Park Street Church in Boston and was a college president in Illinois; Isabella Beecher Hooker (1822-1903) became a leading suffragette. The year of Lyman's death, leading Congregationalist minister Leonard Bacon observed, "This country is inhabited by saints, sinners and Beechers."See also Congregationalism.Further reading:■ Henry Ward Beecher, Autobiographical Reminiscences of Henry Ward Beecher, ed. by Truman, J. Ellinwood (New York: Stokes, 1898);■ -----Evolution and Religion (New York: Fords Howard & Hulbert 1886)■ -----, Sermons by Henry Ward Beecher Plymouth Church Brooklyn. Selected from published and unpublished discourses and revised by their author, 2 vols. (New York: Harper, 1869)■ Barbara M. Cross, The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961)■ Joan Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: An American Woman's Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)■ Paxton Hibben, Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait (New York: Doran, 1927)■ Robert Shaplen, Free Love and Heavenly Sinners: The Henry Ward Beecher Scandal (London: Andre Deutsch, 1956)■ Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 16 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.