Ohio Biographies

The Beecher Family

The Beechers lived in Cincinnati (Walnut hills), from 1832 to 1852, twenty years, and were so closely connected with the anti-slavery and educational history of this region as to require a further notice than that given by Dr. Mansfield, Dr. Lyman Beecher, the head of this remarkable family, was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1775, the son of a blacksmith and the direct descendant of the Widow Beecher, who followed the profession of midwife to the first settlers there about 1638. Lyman was educated at Yale, but as we heard in our youth could not “speak his piece” on graduating day from the inability of his father to supply him with a suit of new clothes in which to appear. He studied theology under the famous Timothy Dwight, and was settled as an Orthodox Congregation minister successively over churches at East Hampton, Long Island; Litchfield, Conn.; and Hanover Street Church, Boston. To fight evil in whatever form he saw it and help on the good was the love of his life. Old men who remember him in his prime pronounce him the most eloquent, powerful preacher they ever heard, surpassing in his greatest flights of oratory his highly gifted son Henry Ward.

In 1814, in New England, the vice of intemperance had become so demoralizing, even the clergy at their meetings often indulging in gross excesses, that Dr. Beecher arose in his might and wrote his wonderfully eloquent six sermons against it, which were translated into (825) many languages and had a large scale even after the lapse of fifty years. The rapid and extensive defection of the Congregation Churches under the lead of Dr. Channing was the occasion of his being called to Boston to uphold the doctrines of Puritanism; which he did with such great power as to soon be regarded as “unequalled among living divines for dialectic keenness eloquence of appeal, sparkling wit, vigor of thought and concentrated power of expression. His personal magnetism was intense and his will unconquerable.”

Mansfield in his Personal Memories writes that Dr. Beecher spells of eloquence seem to come on by fits. One hot day in summer and in the afternoon, says he I was in church and he was going on in a sensible but rather prose half sermon way, when all at once he began to recollect, that we had just heard of the death of Lord Byron. He was an admirer of Byron’s poetry, as all who admire genius. He raised his spectacles and began with an account of Byron, his genius, wonderful gifts, and then went on to his want of virtue and want of true religion and finally described a lost soul and the spirit of Byron going off and wandering in the blackness of darkness forever! It struck me as with an electric shock.

The Lane Theological Seminary having been established at Walnut Hills and the growing importance of the great West having filled the thought of the religious public at the East, a large sum of money was pledged to its support, on the condition of Dr. Beecher accepting the presidency, which he did in 1832. Then to eke out his salary for ten years he officiated as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, in Cincinnati. One of his first acts here was to startle the Eastern orthodoxy by a tract upon the Roman Catholic supremacy at the West.

Soon after, in consequence of a tract issued by the abolition convention, at Philadelphia, the evils of slavery were discussed by the students. Many of them were from the South; an effort was made to stop the dis-cussions and the meetings. Slave-holders went over from Kentucky and incited mob violence in Cincinnati, and at one time it seemed as though the rabble might destroy the seminary, and the houses of the pro-fessors. In the absence of Dr. Beecher, a little after, the board of trustees were frightened into obeying the demands of the mob by forbidding all discussion of slavery; whereupon the students withdrew en masse. A few returned, while the seceders laid the foundations of Oberlin College.

Dr. Beecher in person was short, and sub-stantially built, his complexion was florid and he had such a genial, fatherly expression and withal was so very odd one could not but smile on meeting him. He was proverbially absent-minded, cared nothing for the little conventionalities of life; as likely as anything else when out taking tea with a parishioner to thrust his tea-spoon into the general pre-serve dish and eat direct therefrom; evidently unconscious of his breach of manners. Like many nor so great, he never could remem-ber where he put his hat. Topics of vital welfare to humanity seemed to fill his mind to the exclusion of thought himself, or to what people thought of him, or where he had last put his hat. In 1846 we made his acquaintance and walking with him on Fourth street one day he described the situation at the time of the mobbing of the Philanthropist The seminary was some three miles distant and over a road most of the way up-hill, ankle-deep in clayey, sticky mud, through which the mob to get there must of necessity flounder, even without being filled as they would undoubtedly have been with Old Bourbon. The mud was really what probably saved the theologian. “I told the boys,’ said he, “that they had the right of self-defense, that they could arm themselves and if the mob came they could shoot,’ and then looking in my face and whispering with an air that was irresistibly comical, he added, ‘but I told them not to kill ‘em, aim low, hit ‘em in the legs! hit ‘em in the legs!

824Those who knew the road to Walnut hills in those days will remember it was largely a mere shelf cut out of the mud of the side hills whereupon omnibuses and single vehicles were often upset. The old divine coming down one night after dark was crowded off by some careless teamsters, and went rolling down the precipice perhaps some thirty feet, and so badly hurt he could not preach for three weeks. The stupid teamsters, attracted by his cries for help, came to the verge and peering down in the darkness hollowed, “How can we get there?” “ Easy enough,” he answered, “come down as I did!’

On one occasion a young minister was lamenting the dreadful increasing wickedness of mankind. “I don’t know anything about that, young man” Replied he in his whispering tones. “I’ve not had anything to do with running the world the last twenty-five years. God Almighty now has it in charge.”

This good man was wont, after preaching a powerful sermon, to relax his mind from his highly wrought state of nervous excitement, sometimes by going down into his cel-lar and shoveling sand from one spot to an-other; sometimes by taking his “fiddle,” playing “Auld Lang Sync,’’ and dancing a double shuffle in his parlor. His very eccentricities only the more endeared him to the public. He was great every way. On a platform of a hundred divines, his was the intellect that all felt was their master. No American, except Benjamin Franklin, has given utterance to so many pungent, wise sentences as Lyman Beecher. In time power of concentrated expression he has been rarely equaled, and in his more sublime solemn outbursts he was hike a thunderbolt.

Lyman Beecher was married thrice and had thirteen children; his seven grown sons all became Congregational clergymen, and his four daughters mostly gained literary and philanthropic distinction. Henry Ward, his most distinguished son, was educated at Lane (826) Seminary; and it was on Walnut hills that his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, met the originals of the persons that figure in her novel of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and got filled up for that famous work, which was pub-lished on her return East.

Her maiden sister Catharine’s entire life was marred by a tragic event. She was betrothed to Prof. Fisher, of Yale College, who lost his life in 1822, by the wreck of the packet ship Albion off the coast of Ireland, at the age of twenty-seven years. He was a young man of extraordinary genius, thought to be akin to that of Sir Isaac Newton, and his loss was regarded as national. In the Yale Library to-day is an exquisite bust of him in marble. The face is very beautiful and refined. Evidence of his masterly power was shown by the opening article (an ab-struse paper on the science of music) in the first volume of Stillman’s Journal of Science, issued in 1818.

In conversation Miss Beecher was humor-ous, incisive and self-opinionated, but kindly. While at the head of a female seminary she became a convert to the Graham system of diet, and practised it upon herself and pupils, whereupon some of them invited her to par-take of a good generous dinner at a restaur-ant. It operated to a charm, converted her, and she came to the conclusion that a rich, juicy, tender, well-cooked beefsteak, with its accompaniments was no object for contempt with a hungry soul.

An anecdote of her we heard in our youth was that, on being introduced at a social gathering in Hartford to the poet Percival, she went at him in an exciting adulatory strain upon his poetry, which had then just appeared and was eliciting general admiration. Percival, who was then a very young man, and the most, shrinking of mortals, was completely overwhelmed; he could not an-swer a word, but as soon as possible escaped from her, and then, in his low, whispering tones, inquired of a bystander, “Is not that the young lady who was engaged to Prof. Fisher’’ “ Yes.’’ “Ah!’ rejoined he, “it is well he died.’’ No American family has so much influ-enced American thought as the BeecherS, and none, through its genius and eccentrici-ties, has been so interesting; and it did Ohio good that she had possession of them for twenty years. It used to be a common ex-pression forty years ago that the United States possessed two great things, viz., the American flag and the Beechers.


From Historical Collections of Ohio by Henry Howe; Pub. 1888