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Miss Beecher In Hell
Her brilliant fiancé had drowned, unconverted: Was not his soul forever doomed? To rescue it (and her own sanity) a girl of only 22 had to refute the harsh theology of Puritanism
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Many times by the presentation of such an awful theme ( THE ENTERNAL IRREMEDIABLE LOSS OF THE SOUL ), I have brought the young to me with tears and willing docility, and to the question ‘What can we do to be saved?’ my shut-up heart was ready to exclaim ‘Nothing,’…I have been so burdened [as] to take every lawful mode to turn my thoughts to other less exciting themes.”
The eternal irremediable loss of the soul is a iheme whose excitement can scarcely be overestimated, nor was Catharine Esther Beecher, the author of the somewhat disheveled paragraph quoted above, one to do so.
“If the fear of the Lord,” Catharine continues, “is the beginning of wisdom, I certainly began aright.” Catharine’s case was not an unusual one for her time and place: she was a nineteenth-century Connecticut Congregationalist.
At the time of Catharine’s birth the heroic drama of Congregationalism in the New World was reaching its epilogue. The orthodox clergy mouthed their last strophes anil antistrophes from Holy Yale while Unitarian Harvard hardly took the trouble to listen. Three revolutions, the American, the French, and the Industrial, had remade the world in the image of man, and the cold, mad, feary father of the Puritans was forsaking the white temples to join Peor and Baal in the land of forgotten gods. But when the gods go, they go with a horrid clang, and the old fury clung to life like grim death. When Catharine Beecher was born in East Hampton, Long Island, in 1800, he was still angrily alive and very dangerous.
“Oh thou little immortal!” exclaimed the promising young Congregationalist minister Lynian Beecher when the newborn Catharine, his first child, was laid in his arms. The greeting was as much a warning as a welcome. Before the squirming hour-old baby lay the two inescapable alternatives of eternity: unmitigated bliss or unspeakable, never-ending torment, foreordained before the dawn of time and dependent on the whim of an almighty paranoid whose only preoccupation lay in the gratification of his self-love.
Having deprived man of the means to salvation, this uncontrollable egotist held him responsible for his failure to achieve it; and as if this were not enough, he then inflicted on the helpless soul and body unmentionable torture forever and ever. Even newborn infants were not exempt but fried with the rest, that their punishment might show forth God’s glory. The number of the “elect” was so negligible that their state, however blissful, scarcely merited consideration. It was not a comfortable doctrine.
In spite of the risks inherent in bringing children into the world, Lyman Beecher never flinched from his duties as a begetter. Twelve little Beechers (the offspring of the first two of Beecher’s three wives) followed Catharine into the world with an optimism that defies all reason in view of their father’s beliefs. As it happened, neither the first nor the second Mrs. Lyman Beecher would put up with the damnation of infants. While he was a young minister mouthing fire and brimstone, Lyman had courted Roxana Foote, an Episcopalian. He did not permit her to labor long under the pleasant delusions of the Anglican faith. He was no sooner betrothed than he began propounding to his love some of the more disquieting tenets of Calvinism, urging her to yield, like Mrs. Jonathan Edwards, “with sweet submission to the sovereign will of God, of being fully willing to die in horror and live a thousand years in horror—even to be eternally damned…if it be most to the glory of God.” Roxana fell into such transports of alternating religious ecstasy and panic that her family “feared for her reason.”
While the courtship proceeded for a time in this satisfactory manner, Lyman had reckoned without Roxana’s logical powers. To be damned, she reasoned, implied that she must be utterly wicked and depraved; since it was out of the question that wickedness and depravity in her should redound to God’s glory she was, ergo , not damned nor about to be. This argument made sense and left a bad bruise on Lyman’s orthodoxy from which it did not recover. He shook in his shoes, but he married her and set his feet firmly on the path that led ultimately to his three trials for heresy.
With the steady arrival of immortals year after year, life in the Beecher parsonages (of which Lyman occupied a number in and about New England during Catharine’s childhood) was evidently calculated to distract the mind from the future state in an effort to keep up with the demands of this one. Lyman was a devoted and energetic parent, and the children were as red-cheeked, well-grown, and inventive as any parson could desire. At an early age Catharine discovered that she owned a remarkably handsome head of hair, and she took pains to dress and display it in and out of season, finding occasion lor it to fall in graceful tresses over the pages of her book if anyone was by to see.
“My strict religious training,” says Catharine in her recollections of her childhood, “made little impression for I never heard anything so dull and unintelligible.” Moral depravity in toddlers was apparently of epidemic proportions, and one leading Congregationalist journal, The Christian Spectator , comments glumly on the situation in an article on Christian education: “The aversion of the natural heart to religion is manifest from the beginning. Children naturally dislike it and they are not to be won over to its demands and to be modelled by its rules without the most strenuous efforts.”