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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
In Catharine’s case the ellorts were not nearly strenuous enough; rather she lived for “doll dressing, baby house building, afterward drawing, painting, snow-castles, forts, summer excursions, school and family drama-acting and the like.” Don Quixote was much more to her liking than the pious dissertations that stocked her father’s library, and she wondered as she leafed through Reid’s work on mental science “how people could read such stuff.” Catharine’s enchanting little sister, Harriet (the future author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin ), with her unconquerable passion for gaiety, kept the whole family in gales of laughter. She was so clever, sighed Lyman, that he woidd have given a hundred dollars to have had her born a boy, for she would surely have made her mark.
But for all the combing of curls and home theatricals, this charming and gifted household preserved its temporary happiness by ignoring the dragon rather than by fighting it. Whether they thought of it or not, predestination and the doctrine of election were a central fact of their lives, but, as Catharine says: “Since the selection of the recipients of this favor [grace] was regulated by a divine decree of election…[and] it was so…a matter of mere chance…there was very little motive of any kind to lead a religious life.” At the age of nine Harriet trifled with what struck her lather’s friend, the Reverend Joel Hawes of Hartford, as a kind of wildcat conversion. Delight in religion, he assured the child, was not to be mistaken for grace, and mere love of God was insufficient to salvation. Despite her charm and high spirits, Harriet learned the harsh realities of eternity early.
“Fearful…were the shadows that lay over the cradle and the grave,” Harriet tells us. The mother ckispecl her babe to her bosom and looked with shuddering to the awful oncoming trial ol free agency with its terrible responsibilities and risks…When the stroke of death came and some young, thoughtless head was laid suddenly low, who can say what silent anguish of loving hearts sounded the dread depths of eternity with the awful question, “Where”?
For neither the prayers of the faithful, the intervention of the church, a godly life, nor the act of redemption by the Saviour Himself availed the sinner in the hands of an angry God.
“Your wickedness makes you heavy as lead and you tend downwards with great weight and pressure toward Hell…God will be so far from pitying you when you cry to him that ‘tis said he will only laugh and mock…’I will slain all my raiment with blood,’ ” the mellifluous Jonathan Edwards, that high priest of Congregational Calvinism, had whispered. His sermons, said Harriet, were so terrifie in their refined poetry of torture that few persons of…sensibility could read them without agony: and when…in those calm and tender tones which never rose to passionate enunciation he read these discourses the house was often filled with shrieks and wailings…and (it is said) a brother minister once laid hold of his skirts, exclaiming as in involuntary agony. “Oh, Mr. Edwards! Mr. Edwards! Is God not a God of Mercy?”
How merciful He was, die great preacher had taken pains to inform the fellow minister: The saints will he sensible of how great their salvation is…in the difference between themselves who were by nature and perhaps by practice no more sinful and ill deserving than they. Every time they look upon the damned it will excite in them a lively and admiring sense in the Grace of God in making them so to differ. A view of the miseries of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in Heaven.
“Thus it happened,” concludes Harriet in her remarks on the Xew England sermon, “that while strong spirits walked palm-crowned with victorious hymns along these sublime paths, feebler and more sensitive ones lay along the track, bleeding away in lifelong despair.”
When Catharine was sixteen Roxana died, leaving the young girl anxiously presiding over the younger children and attempting to comfort the heartbroken Lyman. She mourned her mother sincerely, but she was at an age when no hardship could down her. Her natural health and spirits would assert themselves: “I was so happy that I could not do anything but enjoy life.” Here was a sure indication of an unregenerate heart. Nothing short of total catastrophe would do her any good.
“Dear child,” exclaimed Lyman in tears, “must I die too?” Catharine fobbed him oft with a gratifying display of her own tears and put the matter out of her mind. She had her hands full with the cooking and with the clothing and education of the children, and about this time Lyman, instead of dying, went courting. The parsonage at Litchfield, Connecticut, prepared itself for a new mistress after two years of interregnum by Catharine.
Lyman’s choice had fallen on Harriet King Porter, a woman as attractive and independent in her own way as Roxana. It was his fate to attach himself to women who loved him dearly but had no real use for his opinions. He never succeeded in converting either a wife or a daughter to his way of thinking. They found it both impractical and unpleasant. They mended his socks, kept his accounts, cooked his meals, waited on him hand and foot, and solved their theological disputes with him by changing his religion for him as they changed the diapers on the baby.