A Presbyterian clergyman, Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) was one of the outstanding American preachers and revivalists before the Civil War. He achieved national fame as reformer, educator, and central figure in theological controversies.
Lyman Beecher was born on Oct. 12, 1775, at New Haven, Conn. Son of a blacksmith, he was raised on a farm. Beecher entered Yale in 1793. The college president, Timothy Dwight, greatly influenced his religious beliefs and enthusiasm for revivalism. In 1799 he was ordained as pastor of the Presbyterian Church at East Hampton, Long Island, N. Y. Dynamic preaching and a published sermon against dueling earned him a modest reputation, and in 1810 he accepted the more prestigious pulpit of the Congregational Church of Litchfield, Conn.
For 16 years at Litchfield he attracted large crowds, and his influence extended beyond his own congregation. Persons warmed by his revivals were urged to support a growing list of voluntary societies and moral reforms, especially temperance. His defense of orthodox Christianity against Unitarianism in Connecticut was noted by church leaders, and he was invited to move to Boston, where he could be even more effective in that cause.
In 1826 Beecher became pastor of the Hanover Street Church of Boston. His efforts again resulted in spiritual awakening, and his reputation for defending orthodoxy against Unitarianism became widespread. During his years in Boston he edited a monthly, the Spirit of the Pilgrims. A fear of Catholicism began to emerge and led him to share in the nativist attack on that faith.
When he was invited to return to Presbyterianism to become the president and professor of theology of the new Lane Theological Seminary at Cincinnati, Ohio, his concern to Christianize the West and educate ministers for that task was linked to his desire to counteract growing Catholic influence in the Ohio Valley. The sense of purpose he felt in moving to Cincinnati in 1832 was well expressed in his A Plea for the West (1835). Until 1843 he also served as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church there.
Despite his incentive and characteristic vigor, Beecher's years at Cincinnati were an unhappy climax to his career. A disruptive debate over slavery in 1834 so divided students and faculty that it took years for Lane Seminary to recover. Although he favored the antislavery cause, Beecher was not an abolitionist and preferred gradual emancipation. With strange irony in 1835 he was tried twice for heresy by conservative Presbyterians who found his orthodoxy too liberal. A trial by the Presbyterian General Assembly was avoided, but his position had contributed to a major schism in that denomination by 1838. Beecher remained at Lane until 1850. The last years of his life were spent in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he died on Jan. 10, 1863.
Further Reading on Lyman Beecher
Lyman Beecher's Autobiography, edited by Charles Beecher (2 vols., 1864), is the best source on his life and was reprinted with a helpful introduction by Barbara Cross (2 vols., 1961). Chapters in Lyman Beecher Stowe, Saints, Sinners and Beechers (1934), and Constance Mayfield Rourke, Trumpets of Jubilee (1927), are as useful as the older, uncritical biographies.