December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
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
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.”
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.
His defeat at the hands of Roxana had been significant, and Harriet lost no time in consolidating Roxana’s gains. Lyman had no sooner installed his new wife in the parlor than he seized the opportunity to read to her Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God . Mrs. Beecher listened patiently for some minutes, then rose suddenly from her chair with a splendid swish of bridal petticoats: “Dr. Beecher, I shall not listen to another word of that slander on my heavenly Father,” she exclaimed and swept from the room. To Lyman’s intense surprise God made no objection whatsoever.
Catharine welcomed the new mother with evident relief. Mrs. Beecher found her eldest stepdaughter a highly agreeable young woman with more than ordinary attainments: “a fine looking girl,…not handsome, yet there is hardly anyone who appears better…. ” It was just the moment for someone to love Catharine, and someone did. Alexander Metcalf Fisher, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (now called physics) at Yale College, sought her hand in marriage.
Born in 1794, Fisher seems to have been one of those Mo/artean people whose lives, too soon ended, are a promise broken to a whole generation. Contemporary panegyrics on the young man read with all the spuriousness that such accounts usually convey, but the structure visible behind the ornamental adjectives is startling in its strength and beauty. No human activity seemed beyond his scope. At the age of ten he threw away his arithmetic book and wrote himself a better one. At fourteen he entered Yale, and was graduated at the head of his class in 1813. When he was twentythree the college appointed him adjunct professor of mathematics, and he became a full professor at twenty-five.
According to James Luce Kingsley, an older colleague, Fisher had reached the limits which hitherto had bounded the fields of discovery. [He had] an almost intuitive apprehension of truth in the exact sciences [and] for the detection of error in the mazes of metaphysical speculation and for the quick perception of the ridiculous in human character, the follies and vices of which he had the power to expose with playful humor or the severity of satire.
Alexander Fisher, the eldest son of a farmer of Franklin, Massachusetts, explored the theory of frequency modulation and did an accomplished monograph on the mathematical relationships contained within the diatonic scale. He was fluent in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French, and entertained himself by writing science fiction. A Journey to the Moon and Other Planets is only less revealing of the exquisite quality of his intellect than his delicate diagrams for his computations of the eclipse of the sun on August 27, 1821.
As a traveler from “a small, dull star, just north of Aldebaran,” Fisher describes deviations in the law of gravity and the variations in units of time to be expected on a voyage to outer space. The inhabitants of the distant asteroids he found infinitely superior to human beings in every respect, and they regarded him with a kindly disapproval while according him excellent treatment. They looked upon him “much as we do upon a stranger from the south seas,” and were scandalized by his table manners. Their libraries and universities beggared description. The acquisition of knowledge was made simple by a common language; verse was free since “a poet would no more confide his poetry to the limitations of rhyme than a philosopher would allow himself to be constricted by the margins of a page.” It was a joyous journey.
His personal endowments (incredible to relate) were of as high a quality as his intellectual parts. Samuel Finley Breese Morse painted a portrait of him after his death from a series of sketches, and even his family found it a good likeness. He sits wrapped Hamlet-like in a dark furred cloak; his features are finely formed, and dark hair curls above a noble forehead; in one slim hand he holds a pen. Behind him a swollen sea and a storm in dramatic chiaroscuro set off his pensive and melancholy good looks to imperial advantage.
Besides this exhausting catalogue of perfections Fisher possessed “a deep sense of religious obligation. Few have manifested a higher reverence for the divine law or failed less in their obedience to the precepts of the gospel.”
An infinitesimal flaw could be observed in his being “rather rigid in his requisitions [and] confident in his own opinions.” Otherwise he appears to have been without blemish.
Although music was his avocation he was fond of poetry, and he admired some verses of Catharine’s which appeared in The Christian Spectator . The admiration led to an introduction, a walk home from the Litchfield church after Lyman’s sermon, an invitation to Sunday dinner, more walks home after services, more Sunday dinners, a quarrel, and an engagement. Catharine seems to have had the sense to keep her incomparable suitor guessing for a brief period before “that betrothal took place,…the realization of all my favorite dreams of earthly bliss. Affection, taste, ambition, everything most desirable to me and to family friends seemed secured.”
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.
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.
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.”