Bestriding the 19th century, members of the large and well-educated New England–based family headed by patriarch Lyman Beecher would play crucial roles in the development of American Protestant theology, women’s education, and the abolition of slavery.
Daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery best seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was credited with helping to spark the American Civil War; her elder sister, Catharine, reinvented women’s household work as home economics. Their brother Henry Ward Beecher was one of America’s most successful preachers before the scandalous 1875 adultery trial that almost destroyed him.
Born in 1775 to a long line of Connecticut blacksmiths, Lyman Beecher studied at Yale College and was ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1798. At a time when the staunch Puritanism of early New England was giving way to Unitarianism and transcendentalism, Lyman Beecher clung to the harsher beliefs of the First Great Awakening.
He would enjoy national fame and weather severe disapproval during ministerial postings in Hartford, Boston, and Cincinnati, where he was preacher, professor, and president of the fledgling Lane Theological Seminary.
A stern but loving father, Lyman Beecher was deeply involved in the religious and professional lives of his 11 children by two marriages. He saw all seven of his sons become clergymen before he died in 1863.
His eldest child, Catharine, lost her fiancé, a promising mathematician, in a shipwreck and devoted her life thereafter to female education. Beginning in 1823 when she established the Hartford Female Seminary (soon hiring sister Harriet as a teacher), Catharine advocated an expanded academic curriculum for girls and helped make teaching an honored career for women at a time when men still dominated education.
Her 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy was a huge success, endowing women’s work with scientific rigor. In 1850 she founded Milwaukee Female College, where young women were trained systematically to become respected homemakers. Yet she continued, despite her own independent achievements, to proclaim male superiority at a time when other women were beginning to agitate for equality.
Harriet recalled stories of cruelty she heard as a child and developed a keen understanding of slavery and racism as a wife and mother in Cincinnati, on the border between free Ohio and slave Kentucky. Moving back east in 1850 with her theology professor husband, Calvin Stowe, she became keenly aware of the uproar over the just-enacted Fugitive Slave Law.
Inspired by events and encouraged by family members, Harriet began writing. The first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in a tiny periodical on June 5, 1851. When the entire novel appeared the next year, millions of copies were sold.
The book was an international moral and literary triumph despite hate letters from Southerners, one possibly containing the severed ear of a slave. Harriet wrote more best sellers in a long writing career; none would approach the impact of Uncle Tom.
Her younger brother, Henry Ward, first resisted a religious vocation, but having yielded to his father’s dearest wish, became a huge success. After eight years ministering in malarial Indianapolis, where his cautious antislavery sermons sometimes put him in harm’s way, Henry was invited to lead a new Congregational church in Brooklyn, New York.
This “bully” pulpit was well paid, prestigious, and a place where the eloquent Henry could gain national attention. Unlike Lyman, Henry was no Calvinist. God’s love, not God’s implacable wrath, infused his sermons.
Soon, Henry was a celebrity, drawing huge Sunday crowds. He counseled temperance, denounced America’s Mexican War, and took up collections to free slaves, although he long resisted abolitionism and remained patronizing toward African Americans’ potential for full citizenship. After the Civil War, he supported women’s suffrage, despite opposition from his wife and his sister Catharine.
Preacher, writer, novelist, and journalist, Henry almost lost it all when Theodore Tilton, one of his closest associates, accused the minister of an adulterous affair with his wife, Elizabeth.
It was almost certainly true and may not have been Henry’s only affair. He denied it steadfastly; Mrs. Tilton kept changing her story. The trial lasted almost six months, ending with the jury voting nine to three to acquit.
Tarnished, Henry resumed his career on the national lecture circuit, raking in high appearance fees. In later years, he condemned labor unions but stood up for Native Americans and Jewish immigrants.
The offspring of Lyman Beecher, through both achievements and mistakes, played a major role in transforming their America. Leading the way to more socially conscious religious practices, they also helped destroy slavery and elevated women’s roles, foreshadowing greater changes to come.