Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) - American EducationCharismatic American Presbyterian minister whose hold over the minds of so many Americans of his day preserved Protestant influence in American education for nearly a century. Born in Connecticut, Beecher came from a family of farmers and blacksmiths whose forebears had arrived in Boston with the Puritans in 1637 and a year later founded New Haven.
He attended Yale College and, under the influence of college president Timothy Dwight, emerged a fierce Calvinist conservative who quickly became leader of the burgeoning evangelical movement that swept the United States at the beginning of the 19th century. After a 10-year apprenticeship as minister in a church in East Hampton, Long Island, he took over the pulpit in Litchfield, Connecticut, then a social and cultural center of the Northeast, from which his preachments and writings were heard across the nation and even in England. A rigid Calvinist, he told his wife after their marriage that he expected complete and unquestioning obedience from her. “She entered my character completely,” he later wrote.
He quickly became one of America’s most powerful leaders, preaching twice on Sundays and speaking every day of the week to audiences throughout the Northeast. He was responsible for conversion of tens of thousands of Americans. After he succeeded in obtaining a ban on alcohol in Connecticut, state legislators decided to disestablish Congregationalism as the official state religion lest his ministerial powers supersede their own. This disestablishment in 1818 spurred him to found the Domestic Missionary Society to educate an army of devout young ministers who would control the nation’s churches and, therefore, the education of the nation’s children. Public schools were still 15 years away in Connecticut and as many as four to five decades away in many parts of the nation. The church was America’s primary educational institution. Beecher knew this and prepared to take control of it through his new Missionary Society and the American Bible Society, which he had helped found two years earlier.
In 1826, he moved to the even more visible pulpit of a Boston church, where, for six-andhalf years, he attacked Unitarians, Roman Catholics and all others who refused conversion to what he considered America’s church. One of his sermons provoked a Boston mob to sack the Convent of Ursuline Nuns in Charlestown.
In 1832, he accepted an offer to be the first president of the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where he could spread his influence throughout the West. In 1834, however, the trustees banned any on-campus discussion of abolition, and most of the students left for OBERLIN COLLEGE, which had become a hotbed of abolitionism.
Lyman Beecher (center, front), shortly before his death, surrounded by his illustrious children and their spouses. To his immediate right is famed educator Catherine Beecher; her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is on the far right. (Stowe-Day Foundation)
As abolition replaced evangelism as the foremost issue in the United States, Beecher’s influence began to wane. In 1850, he moved to Brooklyn, where he lived the remainder of his life with his clergyman son Henry Ward Beecher, who would replace his father as the most influential Protestant minister in the United States. Besides Henry, Beecher had four other sons, who also became ministers of considerable influence, and four daughters. Catherine Beecher became an educator, women’s advocate and perhaps the most influential American woman of her day. Harriet Beecher married her father’s chief ministerial assistant, Calvin Stowe, and later wrote the celebrated Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Historians agree that next to the Adams family, Lyman Beecher’s family was the most influential 19th-century American family.