Lyman Abbott

Lyman Abbott (1835-1922) was American Protestantism's foremost interpreter of the scientific, theological, and social revolutions challenging the nation after the Civil War.

Lyman Abbott was born on Dec. 18, 1835, in Roxbury, Mass., the son of Jacob Abbott, clergyman and author of the celebrated "Rollo" books for children. Upon graduation from New York University, young Abbott successfully practiced law but soon entered the Congregational ministry. His first pastorate after ordination in 1860 was in Terre Haute, Ind., and although Civil War sympathies in the community were divided, Abbott ardently upheld the Union. With the coming of peace, he joined the American Union Commission in the healing work of reconstruction. When a subsequent New York pastorate left him discouraged, he turned to a new calling, journalism. He wrote for Harper's Magazine and edited the new Illustrated Christian Weekly, then joined Henry Ward Beecher in the editorship of the Christian Union (after 1893 the Outlook). With Beecher's withdrawal in 1881, Abbott became editor in chief; until his death in 1922, this influential journal was Abbott's major vehicle of expression.

Abbott also succeeded Beecher in 1888 as pastor of the prestigious Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. For 10 years his quiet, conversational sermons (quite in contrast to those of the colorful Beecher) and his Sunday evening lectures on current topics brought him widening fame, as did his many speaking engagements and much-admired books. In sum, no Protestant leader had so large a following over such a long period as did Abbott, and no churchleader surpassed him in interpreting the great issues of the day for American Protestants.

It was Abbott's mission to persuade Americans that science and faith were compatible, that the new scientific theory of evolution was "God's way of doing things," and that the new liberal theology did not mean the death of God. For him the new science and scholarship further proved that God governed the world, man was essentially good and constantly improving, and history was progressing in accordance with a divine plan. He wished to make religion relevant to life, believing that ethics rather than creeds were central to Christianity and that the churches should speak to social problems.

Abbott possessed a rare ability to sense the way the wind was blowing, and he seldom attempted to go against it—not because he was cowardly but because he was by nature a moderate who distrusted radicalism in all forms. He was an evolutionist but not a Darwinian, a religious liberal but not an agnostic, an antislavery man but not an abolitionist, a temperance advocate but not a prohibitionist, and an industrial democrat but not a socialist.

Abbott had a long and full and satisfying life, knowing the love of his wife and six children and the adulation of thousands. When he spoke, an entire generation of Protestants listened.

But Abbott was neither an original nor a profound thinker, and the limitations of his moderate, essentially middle-class position are suggested by the fact that he acquiesced in the increasing segregation of African Americans, lamented the extension of political rights to women, deplored labor violence, rationalized American imperialism, vociferously urged early intervention in World War I (following the lead of his friend Theodore Roosevelt, whom he had backed in 1912 for the presidency on the Progressive party ticket), and approved the suppression of wartime dissent.


Further Reading on Lyman Abbott

Ira V. Brown, Lyman Abbott (1953), is a fine biography. Abbott's own Reminiscences (1916) is helpful. For Protestantism's response to the challenges of modernism, industrialization, and urbanization see Charles H. Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915 (1940); Aaron I. Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865-1900 (1943); Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (1949); and Francis P. Weisenburger, Ordeal of Faith: The Crisis of Church-going America, 1865-1900 (1959).