Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87), V
Bill Long 6/11/07
Debby Applegate's Treatment of His School Days
As Applegate settles into her narrative (this essay will review chs. 2 and 3, pp. 51-108 in her biography of Henry Ward Beecher), she skillfully places Henry not only into his own world in Amherst, MA or Boston bit she ably placed him in the context of his father's (Lyman's) world as well as some of the intellectual currents swirling in America in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Especially useful and well-done was her awareness of how Amerst, as well as America, changed on a year-to-year basis. It is almost as if we "relive" the 1820s and early 1830s under her skillful tutelage. She also tells poignant and pungent stories, stories which bring the times and the people to life. My quibbles are few; my appreciation for her vivacity of narrative is immense. This essay will focus on two things: (1) Principal "lessons" Henry learned from school; (2) the nature of Lyman's commitments and influence in these years. I will close with my quibbles.
I. Henry at School
Henry spent his prep school and college days in the little town of Amherst, MA. Founded in 1821 as conservative counterbalance to Harvard, Amherst College provided the context for Henry's intellectual efflorescence. At first he seemingly wanted to do anything other than study, but during his later years at college he matured quickly and his room became the place of late night bull-sessions, and theological and philosophical discussion of all kinds. But it was the Mount Pleasant academy, which he attended for three years before Amherst College, which provided some lessons for life. He learned that he needed to be persistent when reciting, if he knew he was right. His teacher had tried to tell him "NO!," to get him off the track of what he knew was correct, but then the teacher told him, "It is not enough to know your lesson. You have learned nothing till you are sure. If all the world says No, your business is to say Yes and to prove it." (p. 63).
Henry also learned the world of (male) friendship, as he developed an intimate relationship with Greek expatriate Constantine Newell. Applegate helpfully points out that male friendships in the 19th century included activity that we might consider signs of homosexuality today, but this is more a judgment on our own narrow understanding of friendship than anything else. She says:
"This was an era in which men regularly shared beds with each other, often talking deep into the night, in which male intimacies were honored and envied rather than discouraged as an alarming sign of unmasculine weakness or homosexuality" (p. 65).
When Beecher and Newell parted, they drew up a five-point covenant of friendship to be "real, lawful, and everlasting brothers" (p. 72). Though this friendship ended abruptly in 1842 with Constantine's death, it indicates the way that young Beecher longed to connect with people of his age.
Applegate then tells the story of how Henry also formed a fast friendship with a male student twelve years his senior at Amherst , Moody Harrington, who inspired Henry to seek in this friendship a metaphor of Henry's growing relationship to God. As Henry struggled toward a new vision of God,
"there arose over the horizon a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ as a living Friend, who had the profoundest personal interst in me, I embraced that view and was lifted up" (p. 81).
We see in these stories the roots of Beecher's fondness for male (and especially for female) company, as well as his sense that Christ related to the world and people on the basis of Friendship and not judgment. She has brought alive a buoyant person.
Lyman Beecher's World
Henry's life is presented in the context of his father Lyman's religious pilgrimage and crusades. Lyman was born just before the Revolutionary War and didn't die until the Civil War, and his life saw the most remarkable changes in American society and religion. His time as a pastor in Litchfield (1810-26) saw him embrace a moral agenda which would soon be embraced by the Protestant establishment--anti-dueling, temperance, sabbath-keeping, elimination of gambling and other so-called sins of the flesh. When he moved to Boston to become pastor from 1826-32 he took these crusades to the devil's den, but was more rebuffed than accepted. Applegate tells the delightful story of the irony faced this temperance crusader when his Church in the North End caught fire in 1830. Beecher had already made himself unattractive to many Catholics in the area (because of his anti-Roman preaching), and so the firefighters, most of whom were Catholic, refused to fight the blaze. But the seeming desperation of the moment was replaced by a tone of hilarity when people realized that what made the fire so intense was the rum stored in the Church basement--apparently because Beecher's church was "renting out space" to a local merchant who sold rum (p.86).
A Few Quibbles
One of the biggest fights in the 1810s and 1820s in Massachusetts was between the Congregationalists and Unitarians. She is correct in saying that in 1821 a major court decision ended the Congregational monopoly (p.52), but her explanation seems too brief and general. I recall that the issue in those days was not the simply the ability to "pick their own pastor," but rather the struggle between the parish and the congregation and which body was authorized to pick a pastor and, thus, control the direction of the church. The ultimate "payoff" in all of this, of course, was who got to control church property. I had wished that she might have been a little more precise on this issue, an issue that still rattled people in the Northeast when I began to study it in the 1970s.
Then, when speaking about the nature of the new Amherst College, she says: "the number of colleges had quintupled from nine to nearly fifty" (between 1812 and 1830, p. 76). But this can't be right. I know that the eight Ivies were founded by 1764 (Dartmouth was the last), and then by 1812 there was Transylvania and Centre and Ohio Univ. and the initial beginnings of the U of TN and KY and Hampden-Sydney and tons of other colleges. So, what is she thinking about? Certainly there was a lot of college growth in the 1810s and 1820s, but care should have been taken to tell the story more accurately.
And, if I am not mistaken, the place where Henry's future wife Eunice spent a winter was Whitinsville, MA and not Whitingsville, as she mentioned.
I continue to like the book.