- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003


By Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr.

John Wiley & Sons, $30, 373 pages


The story of the colorful Beecher family is a tribute to the power of words and convictions in 19th-century America. Four of the sons of patriarch Lyman Beecher were preachers, among them the famous Henry Ward Beecher. Three of the four daughters became famous because of their writings and speeches, one of them, Harriet Beecher Stowe, producing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” perhaps the most influential novel of the century.

The whole family, as Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr. observes in “The Passionate Beechers,” was out “to save the world,” and “although they may not have saved the world as they set out to do, it also must be acknowledged that the lives they led made a difference.”

They argued and wrote passionately about original sin, politics, the role of women in society, repatriation for slaves, spiritualism, and virtually every other issue of the day.And they shared a tendency toward fragile mental health, several of them suffering repeated nervous breakdowns and two brothers — James and probably George — committing suicide.

Father Lyman and sons Henry Ward and Charles were tried for heresy in their churches, and Henry Ward’s trial for adultery (which the woman involved alternately acknowledged and denied) is documented at some length in this book. A church council found Beecher innocent, but his reputation never fully recovered. The evidence against him as presented here seems not altogether convincing.

Lyman, who married three times, was a strict Calvinist who staunchly endorsed the temperance movement, opposed dueling, and attacked slavery. For all his admirable qualities, his theology was, for many years, rigid; he often wept over the “lost state of his unconverted children.” When the brilliant fiance of his eldest daughter Catharine drowned en route to Europe, Lyman used the occasion to express doubt about the young man’s spiritual fate, and to implore her to “turn at length to God.”

Catharine was the only of Lyman’s children never to marry. She devoted her life to establishing schools to educate the children of her siblings and others and to publishing her views on assorted topics. Her titles were as forbidding as her personality: “Letters on the Difficulties of Religion”; “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism with Reference to the Duty of American Females”; and “Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper.”

When Catharine needed a geography text for one of her schools, she commissioned her young sister Harriet to write it — but published it under her own name. Not to worry. A paper that the self-effacing Harriet had submitted anonymously to the wonderfully named Semi-Colon Club in Cincinnati won a $50 prize, encouraging Harriet to make a living from her pen.

She endured two decades of genteel poverty while rearing a half-dozen children — her husband, Calvin Stowe, was a poorly paid seminary professor — before the appearance in 1852 of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” after a long gestation. The book made her instantly both rich and famous, and her many subsequent novels also sold well.

Meanwhile, her brother Henry Ward Beecher became a phenomenally successful proponent of a far more compassionate Christianity than that of his father. Although his theology was controversial among his more orthodox colleagues, he was so charismatic that “he had no trouble getting his people to buy the freedom of slaves or send rifles to Kansas.”

Henry Ward felt so confident of his Brooklyn congregation’s support that he freely weighed in on all subjects, especially politics. Against the prevailing norm, he encouraged women to speak out in prayer meetings. As the author wryly notes, “When one of them rambled on pointlessly for too long a time, Henry Ward said as she finally sat down, ‘Nevertheless I believe that women should speak. We will now sing hymn number five hundred six.’”

The Beechers, male and female, traveled widely and knew virtually everybody of note in America, including William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. Several Beechers crossed swords with the more radical leaders of the feminist movement, particularly “the Woodhull” (Victoria Claflin Woodhull), who advocated free love before moving to England and marrying into a wealthy family.

In later life, Henry Ward sprang to the defense of Jews flooding into the United States to escape pogroms in Russia, embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution, and helped elect Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland. In the case of Cleveland, who had acknowledged his paternity of an illegitimate child, Henry Ward told a large crowd that he was deserting the Republicans, mainly because they had failed to reform the civil service or support the rights of labor.

He then endorsed Cleveland, saying: “Because I know the bitterness of venomous lies, I will stand against infamous lies that seek to sting to death an upright man and magistrate. Men counsel me to prudence lest I stir again my own griefs. No, I will not be prudent. If I refuse to interpose a shield of well-placed confidence between Grover Cleveland and the swarm of liars that nuzzle in the mud or sling arrows from ambush, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth and my right hand forget its cunning.”

Mr. Schreiner has told his remarkable saga well, although it’s sometimes hard to keep all those Beechers straight, and some minor players may receive more attention than they merit. (It’s a scandal that the publisher did not require the author to include a family tree.) But any readers interested in America’s social, cultural, political, and religious history before, during, and after the Civil War will find a good portion of it here.

Priscilla S. Taylor is the former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s quarterly Key Reporter. She lives in McLean, Va.

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