Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Beechers

This summer I read Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time. It has been called one of the most important books in our nation's history. I would agree. President Lincoln himself gave it credit for turning the tide of popular opinion overwhelmingly against slavery. It is one of those books we all know about but few of us have read. Then, I went on to David Reynold's book, Mightier Than the Sword, which tells about the influence of Stowe's book and the pushback from Southern authors. Then, I wanted to know more about Stowe's famous and fascinating family. She was one of 13 children born to the most influential Puritan preacher of his day, Lyman Beecher. Beecher began his ministry in New England and was the leading voice of Puritan theology in the church. Later, he was called to Cincinnati (the "west" at that time) to bring a renewal of Puritan theology out there. He became president of Lane Theological Seminary which became a hotbed of abolitionism. It was there Harriet became a Stowe marrying Calvin Stowe who was a professor at the seminary. Her brother, Henry, was the closest to Harriet of all the siblings both in age and passions. He became a famous preacher and reformer. His antislavery preaching changed the minds of many northerners and inflamed the minds of just as many southerners (and some northerners too). After taking the pastorates of two small churches out "west" (in Ohio, and Indiana) he was called to a prominent pulpit in Brooklyn which at that time was a thriving, growing, 100,000 people, most of whom worked in Manhattan. From a two room house where Henry Beecher and his wife scraped by he suddenly found himself in one of the most influential pulpits in the country. Plymouth Congregational had many of the wealthiest businessmen in the country on its board. As the church prospered under Beecher's preaching so did his financial fortunes. He was a spellbinding orator at a time when public speaking was the main form of entertainment in the city. Nearly all of his sermons were published in a newspaper owned by a friend and trustee of the church. Soon, he was nationally known and famous. He was a counselor to presidents; Lincoln even came to meet him and listen to him during his presidential run. People wanted to hear what Beecher had to say on most topics. He was a strong opponent of slavery and was not afraid to say that one could not be a Christian and own slaves. Beecher found that his father's Puritanism didn't preach well and as he aged his theology changed. He was never much for study although he read widely but you get a sense from his biographer Debby Applegate (The Most Famous Man in America) that he preached what seemed to work the best. In his later years, during the Civil War, remarkably, he seemed to waffle on his antislavery views. Not that he changed them as much as he moderated them. It was almost as if he was hiding something or hiding from something and the confusion in the pulpit masked a confusion in his own life. He had become famous and rich. He had several homes and trips to California and even Europe which were underwritten by his wealthy church members. He was home less and less and as he was in demand as a speaker all over the country. He developed several highly questionable relationships with women in his church which eventually got him into trouble. He had too many irons in the fire and he finally got burned.

To be fair to Henry Beecher he had to deal with a lot of pain and suffering in his life. His mother died when he was young, and he buried several of his young children. His strong antislavery views and the theological battles of the time must have drained his energies. He was vulnerable to the applause and praise of men and women and it seems like he believed it. He got sloppy in his theology and in his personal life. There were not many friends or family who would confront him. If a friend questioned what he was doing, he would simply move on to some other adoring supporter of whom there were many.

Beecher was a flawed man. He was a great preacher but some of his gifts became his greatest curses. God used his vision and his passion - and his talents - to make a strong case against one of the most critical social issues in our history. His was a prophetic voice - one of the most powerful at the time. His life shows us it is never easy to be a prophet and few of us can handle the dangers of wealth and power.