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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
I cannot, will not be resigned. It is all so unjust, cruel! To all eternity I will say so. To me there is no goodness, no justice, no mercy in anything. Life seems to me the most tremendous doom that can be inflicted on a helpless being! What had we done that it should be sent upon us? Why were we made to love so, to hope so?…Think of all those awful ages of eternity! And then think of all God’s power and knowledge used on the lost to make them suffer! Think that all but the merest fragment of mankind have gone into this-are in it now!…And Dr. Hopkins [Samuel Hopkins, one of Jonathan Edwards’ chief disciples] says that this is all for the best, better than it would have been in any other possible way,-that God chose it because it was for a greater, final good-that he not only chose it but took means to make it certain-that he ordains every sin and does all that is necessary to make it certain—that he creates the vessels of wrath and fits them for destruction and that he has infinite knowledge by which he can do it without violating their free agency. What a use of infinite knowledge! What if men should do so? Yet they say our salvation depends on our loving God-loving him better than ourselves-loving him better than our dearest friends. It is impossible. It is contrary to the laws of my nature! I can never love God! I can never praise him! I am lost! Lost! Lost! And what is worse I cannot redeem my friends! Oh, I could suffer forever how willingly if I could save him! But oh eternity, eternity! Frightful, unspeakable woe!
Operatic as this passage is, it illustrates correctly the state of mind of the Fishers and Catharine during the ghastly summer and autumn of 1822.
To many minds abstract philosophy is inimical, and religion, save at its sweetest and simplest, incomprehensible and therefore terrifying. Such people (and they make up a large proportion of the human race) do not deal in symbol and paradox. The courts of theology for all their grandeur are halls of homesickness and oppression to such natures. Catharine’s was one of these. She was active, benevolent, warmhearted, civilized, and sound, but it would have taken a miracle to make her religious. Like Fisher she was a victim of the remorseless New England tradition that required that every man, woman, and child, however ungifted religiously, achieve the experience of a religious genius.
But while Catharine lived, Fisher could not be left in hell. Thus, equipped with a piety that was in her case little more than a Pavlovian reflex, induced by stimuli quite beyond her reason or control, she prepared to attack the validity of the bloodstained idol of the orthodox, and free Fisher from death’s dark prison.
“The first ‘change of mind’ I now recall,” she says, “was an outburst of indignation and abhorrence. I remember once rising as I was about to offer my usual, now hopeless prayer, with a feeling very like this: that such a god did not deserve to be loved; that I would not love him if I could and I was glad I did not!” In this mood she launched her attack with the premise, “There must be a dreadful mistake somewhere.”
Proceeding from this debatable ground and using twenty words where two would do, Catharine undertakes to show that God and the Christian religion are not in violation of common sense. Herein lies the essence of her argument, and it was not easily or briefly resolved, as The Letters on the Difficulties of Religion attest at length. “I can find no comfort in looking for the sad and terrific probabilities of reason,” she sighs, and fortunately does not try too hard. Palpably, God is incomprehensible. He permits extraordinary things. Herod massacres the innocents, and amiable gamblers ruin themselves and their families in full view of omnipotence; the good die young, and dealers in human misery wax old arid prosperous. Reason collapses under the weight of the puzzle.
But she hit on a few truths as satisfyingly self-evident to her as anything in the Declaration of Independence. God does not require of us what we are unable to perform, and Almighty Power is what is possible in the nature of things and compatible with the idea of universal benevolence. Predestined damnation is not compatible with universal benevolence and therefore not possible in the nature of things.
Then what decides the state of man after death? Character, she answers. Ah, but the Bible does not teach that any trait of character is a prerequisite to salvation. Then what are the causes of the love of God toward His creature? “Physical beauty!” cries plain Catharine, attributing to Heaven itself a love of Fisher’s beauty. Physical power, moral principles in resisting temptation, intellectual superiority, the power of giving and appreciating affection, true love of God: these she shows are the essentials to salvation.
It was a fearful task, and it is ill-performed since Catharine was no more fitted for such chop-logic than a tone-deaf man for musical composition. Half-strangled in syntax, scorched by contradiction, pulled down in her tracks by metaphor and simile, she pushed through the labyrinth of her thesis to her conclusion and her satisfaction. She was able to demonstrate that the merciless system of Jonathan Edwards was of no use for practical purposes, and the redeemed soul (Fisher’s in this case) rises through the argument “by supernatural divine influence” to the realms of bliss, where common sense and universal benevolence unite in assigning it.