Thursday, November 8, 2018

Those Amazing Beechers

Thomas Beecher among Elmira notaries

In the Nineteenth Century, a certain form of Biblical progressivism rapidly changed the dynamics in regards to women's rights, abolition of slavery, and many other social causes. As I researched several of my stories from The Abolitionist's Daughter, set in a Civil War town where women could get the same college degree as a man in the mid1800's, to my newest Barbour novella project involving school teachers, one family's influence kept coming up over and over, and that is the Beecher Family.

I've previously written about Thomas K. Beecher, a beloved pastor and influential figure in my hometown of Elmira, NY. Members of his congregation were active on the Underground Railroad and committed to Abolition. Reverend Beecher himself ministered to Confederate Prisoners of War at Elmira Prison camp, and served the community for decades, creating a true community where the church extended beyond the walls of his Independent Congregationalist building. He enjoyed people, and loved life, and valued education, and it showed. He helped organize baseball teams in town, led parties to the local observatory and planetarium, participated in croquet, billiards, target shooting, cricket, and encouraged community activity and relationship building with other faiths. He could often be seen riding a three wheeled bicycle through town, wearing his straw hat, waving and calling citizens by name. He organized a library in his church building with his own collection of books for community use. He was a devout man of the Word, and his sermons are filled with inspiration, clearly a man motivated to love others because of a passionate love for the Lord. He had the privilege of officiating the marriage of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, to Elmiran Olivia Langdon. He himself was married to the granddaughter of Noah Webster. Beecher helped sponsor and raise up two different regiments of recruits in Elmira during the Civil War--NY 107th and NY 141st, and served briefly as chaplain for the latter.

I was delighted to learn some time ago that Thomas was brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the renowned author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She wrote 30 books, none as successful as this record-setting novel about the perils of slaves after the Fugitive Slave Law, a book which most scholars argue was a catalyst to the Civil War. The book sold more than 300,000 copies in the US and over a million in Great Britain. It was made into a play which ran in New York City. Stowe was received by President Lincoln in 1862, where it is alleged he greeted her as "the little lady who started this great war." Stowe was active in education and in abolition and the Underground Railroad with her husband.

Henry Ward Beecher was another minister brother, who was also active in the Abolitionist cause. Henry was perhaps the most controversial in the family. He raised money to purchase slaves' freedom, and guns to distribute to the abolitionist militants in bleeding Kansas and Nebraska. The rifles were euphemistically called "Beecher's Bibles." Later in life he took a kindler, gentler view of social reform and the gospel, emphasizing God's love. He championed women's suffrage, and the temperance movement. But he also supported Darwinism and evolution, and was accused of adultery. The subsequent trial over his former business partner's accusation of philandering with his wife resulted in the most sensationalized court proceeding if its day, like an OJ Simpson Murder trial of its time. Despite this controversy in his later years, one can still find inspirational Henry Ward Beecher quotes in calendars and publications. His biographer considered him "The Most Famous Man in America."

Today I learned that one more sibling left a significant mark in history, in the area of education, and women's roles. I've been researching early schools and classrooms in America for a brand new collection in which I have been contracted to write a novella. As I was reading, the name Catharine Beecher appeared as one of the pioneers credited with gaining acceptance for women teachers in the classroom. I thought, no way. Couldn't be. Must be a coincidence. But sure enough, she was also born to Lyman Beecher, the father of Henry, Thomas and Harriet. Catharine grew up in a time when men led classrooms, and women were often undereducated. She achieved her own education, meaning she was self taught in the subjects not offered to girls back then, including math and Latin. She taught a private classroom in Hartford, Connecticut in 1821, and soon started a school for educating women to be teachers, Hartford Female Seminary, which grew in three years time from 7 to 100 students, and where her sister Harriet graduated and assisted. She wrote many of her own textbooks for the school.

Catharine was a crusader. She led the very first national women's political movement, which was against Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal bill. She called on women to write their congressmen and urge them not to fund the bill. Her greatest fame, however, was in her lifelong voice for women as educators. In a time when the country was pushing westward, the need for new educators was strong, and more and more qualified men were leaving the profession for better prospects. Other voices pushed for women to fill the role, especially because they were the cheaper alternative, and readily available. Catharine modeled that women were not only intelligent and capable, but argued that women were a moral force and uniquely created as nurturers to fill the role to shape the next generation. She helped establish teacher training schools in communities on the frontier, women's colleges, and had strong ideals on what the curriculum should include. Physical education, reading aloud, and studying English authors rather than classical Greek literature. She wrote and published books on women's roles in society and the classroom.

Curiously, Catharine was not a proponent of women's suffrage. She believed men and women were created for different roles, and that politics was too dirty if women wanted to retain their moral authority. She felt as instructors, women could shape politics by shaping the young men who would later serve.

Lyman Beecher, the venerable patriarch of this clan, which includes a total of 13 children, was once called "the father of more brains than any man in America." He was a graduate of Yale Divinity School and seemed to witness every major religious and social revolution of his time. From being a proponent of temperance, to favoring gradual emancipation of slaves, to finding agreement with the new evangelism style of revivalism and bucking Presbyterian tradition for the new, Lyman modeled free thought and independence. He headed Lane Theological Seminary and was called "America's most famous preacher."

To study the Beecher family is to understand many of the forces at play in our early republic. Social and religious reform, the Second Great Awakening, slavery and women's issues--all causes that seemed to be taken up by one Beecher or another. And at the center was a deep and abiding love of education. The Beechers were a smart, vital, culture-changing dynasty of America's nineteenth century.

Kathleen L. Maher has had an infatuation with books and fictional heroes ever since her preschool crush, Peter Rabbit. She has a novella releasing with BARBOUR in the 2018 Victorian Christmas Brides collection, featuring her hometown of Elmira, New York. Her debut historical, Bachelor Buttons, blends her Irish heritage and love of the American Civil War. She won the 2012 ACFW Genesis contest for her Civil War story, releasing this summer under a new title The Abolitionist’s Daughter. Kathleen shares an old farmhouse in upstate New York with her husband, children, and a small zoo of rescued animals.

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  1. Excellent article Kathleen. I never knew all the connections of this family, especially to Elmira until I read your books!

  2. This was a very interesting post! What amazing parents those two must have been to have such remarkable children!

  3. What a fascinating post, Kathleen--an an amazing and inspiring family! Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  4. I enjoyed reading about this amazing family. I am most familiar with Harriet and Uncle Tom's Cabin. I grew up about 20 miles from Washington, KY, the small town where she witnessed a slave auction. It is thought that this event spurred her into writing this classic.

  5. Fascinating and informative post to read and start my day, Kathleen! I learned so much. Thank you for taking the time to research and compose this article about the Beecher family. I hurried to my bookcase and found one of my antique books purchased in the 80s entitled: The Lives and Deeds of our Self-Made Men: (she lists 17 well-known men of the era) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1872. An inscription says in fancy script: C. H. Reed Presented by his Father and Mother, 1877. Whatta hoot! My copy is in good condition with some foxing on every page (brown spots).

    While researching my current series, Officers of the 7th Cavalry, I learned that George & Libbie Custer had a difficult time keeping school teachers at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, 1874-1876, while Custer was commander. The reason being that the unmarried female teachers received proposals of marriage within 3 months and that meant they had to give up their teaching job. AND - the Custers made a point of hiring homely/plain women to teach the children of the fort! Unbelievable in so many respects! Why did Libbie go along with such nonsense? Later, after she became a widow, she sponsored and then left a large sum of money to support higher education for the daughters of officers. I felt better about her learning that info.

    I wish you much success in writing, because you deserve it. Your love of history shows in your stories and are a delight to read. God bless.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. I had heard of this family but didn't know all the details. Very interesting.