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minister, social reformer
Lyman Beecher was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 12, 1775; to David Beecher, a blacksmith, and Esther Hawley Lyman. His mother died shortly after his birth, and he was committed to the care of his uncle Lot Benton. As a boy he worked in his uncle's blacksmith shop and on his farm, and entered Yale College at the age of eighteen. After graduating in 1797, he spent a year studying theology under Timothy Dwight.
Ordained into the Presbyterian Church in 1799, Beecher began his career at a church in East Hampton, Long Island, New York. It was there that he first gained popular recognition, when in 1806 he gave a sermon concerning the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Moving away from strict Calvinist doctrine, Beecher acknowledged that human beings were deeply sinful, but he also taught that they had the ability to accept God's grace, if they decided to do so.
Finding his salary in East Hampton woefully inadequate to support his growing family, Beecher resigned in 1810 and became the pastor of the Congregational Church of Litchfield, Connecticut. Here he became well known for his fiery sermons against intemperance, six of which were published about 1814 and distributed throughout the United States and Europe. Beecher also began preaching against the spread of Unitarianism about this time.
By 1826 Beecher's reputation had spread across the United States and he was able to secure the ministry of Hanover Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts, which had a large congregation and could, therefore, offer him a salary "worthy of his standing." There, he continued to preach against both intemperance and Unitarianism. In 1830, Beecher's church caught fire. A merchant who rented some rooms in the church stored whiskey in the basement, and the whiskey somehow ignited. Beecher took this as a personal affront considering the sermons he delivered in the church's sanctuary against the evils of liquor.
In 1832 Beecher moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became president of the newly established Lane Theological Seminary. His mission there was to train ministers to win the West for Protestantism, and to that end he created a number of voluntary organizations dedicated to social reform and the spread of Christianity -- the American Bible Society, American Educational Society, American Sunday School Union, American Tract Society and American Society for the Promotion of Temperance. Along with his presidency, he was also professor of sacred theology, and pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati (now Covenant First Presbyterian Church). He served as a pastor for the first ten years of his Lane presidency.
Beecher's years at Lane Theological Seminary were filled with controversy, including the issue of slavery. The school's board of directors tried to prohibit students from supporting abolitionism in 1834. Beecher also had disagreements with other Presbyterian ministers over his religious beliefs. Although he strongly favored religious voluntarism and competition, Beecher's defense of religious diversity had limits. To Beecher, religious disagreement and competition was desirable only if the end result was Protestant agreement and unity. Christians who did not believe in the Trinity, such as Unitarians, did not belong in his vision of America. Neither did Catholics. His own congregation charged him with heresy in 1835, but he was acquitted at both the Presbytery and Synod level.
Tired of the constant bickering, Beecher resigned his position at Lane in 1850 and moved back East. He wished to devote himself mainly to the revisal and publication of his works, but his intellectual powers were by then beginning to wane. He spent the rest of his life living with his son, Henry Ward Beecher, in Brooklyn, New York, where he died on January 10, 1863.
Marriages and Children
In 1799, Beecher married Roxana Foote, with whom he had nine children -- Catherine Esther (who became an educator), William, Edward, Mary, Tommy, George, Harriet Elizabeth (who authored Uncle Tom's Cabin), Henry Ward (who became a respected minister in his own right), and Charles. Roxana died on September 13, 1816. The following year, he married Harriet Porter, and fathered four more children -- Frederick C., Isabella Holmes, Thomas Kinnicut, and James Chaplin. After Harriet died on July 7, 1835, he married Lydia Beals, but had no more children.
A Plea for the West (1835)
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This page was last updated on September 22, 2017.