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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
She not only convinced herself; she convinced Lyman. His women had been too much for him,, Heresy exploded in him like a nova, and he defended it until his death. Three times he faced trial before an ecclesiastical court for his daring views on the Everlasting Mercy. When Catharine published the Letters on the Difficulties of Religion in 1836, the orthodox lowed like cattle in a slaughterhouse. But history was against them; evidently they were predestined to defeat and oblivion. Free enquiry into the sciences, an aroused public conscience basing its religion on the cry, “By their fruits ye shall know them,” a world changed out of all recognition by steam and by chemistry, combined to hurry them from the world and bury them deep. Congregationalism, its fever burned out, exchanged the fear of God for an attitude of respectful admiration.
The romantic chapter of Catharine’s life closed with the refutation of Edwards. Her heart lay under the sea with Fisher, but it seems to have lain at peace. Even in the midst of her spiritual struggles she acknowledged the desirability of keeping body and soul (whether elect or not) together, and this impulse, coupled with a desire to “do good,” led her into teaching. Fisher had left her two thousand dollars. With this capital, after a few weeks of cramming (Day’s Algebra in five weeks) and a hard look at Latin, Hebrew, French, and Immanuel Kant, she opened the Hartford Female Seminary; at 24 she was a successful headmistress.
She lived for seventy-eight driving years, teaching, traveling, lecturing, and writing on behalf of women’s education, home economics, and civilized legislation for children (see “When Housekeeping became a Science, by James Marston Fitch, A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August, 1961). She was not born a Connecticut Calvinist and a Beecher for nothing, and she clung to her heresies, sometimes at great personal cost, and also to her curls, and took them, with a gathering eccentricity, to her grave. To her last day she wore on her finger Alexander Metcalf Fisher’s engagement ring, denying herself all other ornament. She grew dictatorial, vague, and comically antique. When she joined the Porter family in Hartford for hymn singing she refused to join the chorus which runs, “I am nothing, Lord, oh nothing—thou art all, all!” “I am not nothing,” said Catharine Beecher.
The courage that screamed down the terrible puppet-god of the Calvinists was not the less courage because the thing was after all merely a puppet. One of our tragic heroes held his strings. He was the unsuccessful creation of a great natural artist, a Punch-andJudy monstrosity, hiding by his antics the nobility of the scene and by his noise the splendor of Jonathan Edwards’ dialogue with creation. For Edwards stands at the apex of Catharine’s story (like all good love stories, hers is a triangle), the dark giant who gave shape to the American conscience, suffering under the chastisement of an eternal misapprehension.
Edwards’ theological certainties subside, useless and harmless as the properties of a stage villain. But something of his line of thought persisted to shape such men as Fisher and, in a later generation, the physicist Willard Gibbs. The foundations of the New England hell crumbled when men preferred to scrutinize the structure of light waves. The proportion of sin to the eternity of God’s punishment lost meaning under the impact of the exploration of the conservation of energy. The laboratory and not the pulpit would show what Edwards never succeeded in teaching his listeners, “How all arts and sciences, the more they are perfected the more they issue in divinity and coincide with it and appear to be parts of it.”