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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
The lovers played and sang at the piano, exchanged verses, and indulged in all the engaging and innocent byplay of a seemly and happy courtship. Not even the New England Sabbath could dull their delight in each other. They planned their marriage for the spring of 1823, when Fisher would have returned from a year of study and travel in England and on the Continent. He sailed on the ship Albion on the first of April, 1822. She was wrecked in May off the coast of Ireland, and all but two of her twenty-three passengers were lost.
“After the first stunning effect was over,” writes Catharine, “the next feeling was ‘this is the indispensable sorrow! This is to save me from eternal death .’ Shut up in entire seclusion, all my dearest hopes forever crushed, without hope or object in life, overwhelmed with grief, [I was] horrified less at his dreadful death than at the awful apprehensions he himself had imparted that he was unprepared to die! ”
With Fisher’s death the ancient and neglected deity of the Puritan divines had proclaimed himself like the Fenris-wolf of the Norse legend and slavered for the soul of the young scientist. His friends groaned in pity and terror. For this “model of every domestic, social and official virtue, so reverent to God, so tender as a son and brother, so conscientious and faithful as an instructor,” was almost certainly damned, damned by his own showing, as Catharine learned to her agony when his parents put their son’s personal papers in her hands.
Here I read his private records of years of almost superhuman effort to govern his mind and yet…all ended in failure; and this too without any murmuring or any accusation of anyone but himself. It was as he maintained, because he was so ungrateful, so hardened, so obstinately “unwilling,” so averse from God and His service. In not a single duty did he fail that the closest intimacy could discover; and yet…he had no love to God and was entirely “unwilling” to love and serve Him.
There was no comfort, no hope, no help, not even the peace of annihilation. “At this period,” says Catharine, “I almost lost my reason.” Fisher’s formidable virtues conspired to mock his bereaved lover. While Honesty put the question, Humility blew the coals, and Mercy applied the hot irons. One frightful image succeeded another in Catharine’s distraught imagination: Fisher writhing under a Promethean torment, wailing that he had ever been born, “the noble faculties of such a mind doomed to everlasting woe.”
He had made no public profession of conversion. His blameless behavior and irreproachable piety were meaningless. The only hope of his salvation lay in the faint possibility that he had experienced a saving grace in the very hour of death when, with bloodied face, he stood brooding over one of the ship’s compasses, crying the course of the Albion , aware apparently that nothing could save the vessel from foundering against the old head of Kinsale.
Both at home and in public Catharine’s friends hastened to treat her raw wounds with spiritual sulphuric acid. Her father could discern only the frailest hope that Fisher was saved and bade her turn her thoughts toward her own salvation. Dr. Emmons of Franklin said in his eulogy that there were grounds for hope (it was the best he could do) that Professor Fisher had suffered conversion at the end. In an encomium delivered at Yale, James Luce Kingsley added good measure, pressed down and running over, to Catharine’s cup. Fisher was a nonpareil, to be compared with Leibnitz; further, said Kingsley, his uniform tenderness of conscience, the sacred regard which he always manifested for religion…raise in our minds a presumption of holy affections in the heart as the source from which this conduct flows…We can hardly refrain from ascribing to Professor Fisher that personal piety which had he professed none who knew him would have doubted his sincerity. In indulging this pleasant hope we may indeed be deceived.
Many years later Harriet chose the ordeal of the Fisher family for the crux of her now all-but-forgotten novel, The Minister’s Wooing . People who remembered Catharine’s visit to Caleb and Sally Gushing Fisher after their son’s death found that in this instance Harriet exaggerated nothing. For if Catharine suffered, she at least had within her the seeds of recovery. “The intelligent, tender, heartbroken mother,” convinced of nothing but her son’s sufferings in hell, lay down and died. Into the mouth of the mother of the drowned hero Harriet puts her indictment of the mad God of her fathers and shouts him down.