As religious diversity emerged as a defining characteristic of American cultural life in the early decades of the nineteenth century, ministers, preachers, and theologians sought to come to terms with it in various ways. Some vehemently resisted the proliferation of sects, the rising prominence of new or traditionally small dissenting groups, and the increasingly pervasive reality that Americans, in defining their relationships with the divine, were effectively choosing among a growing menu of alternatives. Others, of course, embraced these changes. Lyman Beecher, the famed Connecticut minister and leader of New England-based revivalism, in some sense did both. This paper centers on Beecher's response to religious diversity and his evolving vision, in the years between 1815 and the mid-1830s, of a redemptive pluralistic culture.(1)

It may seem strange or even perverse to discuss Lyman Beecher as any sort of pluralist. After all, he spent   much of his career in pitched battle against those he liked to call "enemies of truth" or more bluntly "infidels." These included at various times Unitarians, Catholics, Deists, latitudinarians, and even for a short time Episcopalians. Certainly he was not an advocate of tolerant broad-mindedness for its own sake, but to assume that support of religious heterogeneity was an all-or-nothing proposition in the early nineteenth century is to obscure the great complexity of responses to religious diversity in this period.(2)

The image of Beecher as a deeply conservative opponent of religious diversity is probably most appropriate to the period between 1815 and 1818, when he emerged as a leading proponent of state supported religion in Connecticut.(3) Fighting to preserve the Congregationalist-Federalist standing order, Beecher advanced his most explicit arguments against religious tolerance. Fittingly enough, his enemy here was an alliance of Jeffersonians, Episcopalians, and dissenters known as the Toleration Party, supporters of which Beecher did not hesitate to characterize as a "throng" of "Deists," "drunkards," and "adulterers."(4) The basic logic of Beecher's defense of the standing order was indeed deeply conservative, elitist, and condescending toward dissenting denominations. He argued that disestablishment would undermine the authority of moral elites such as himself. Men of talent and virtue would be driven from positions of leadership or forced to pander to the ignorance and viciousness of the masses. Similarly, he insisted that disestablishment would lead to a factionalism in political and religious life that would breed dangerous divisions based on jealousy, greed, and ambition. Laboring under this divisiveness and lacking elite moral leadership, the good people of Connecticut would fall into licentious habits and God's cause would suffer immeasurably. In these years, Beecher fought to preserve his vision of a Connecticut bound together by a "sameness of views, and feelings, and interests."(5)

So far we would be hard pressed to describe Beecher as a pluralist or in any sense a friend of religious diversity. And yet even at this moment of peak conservatism, he balanced a post-millennialist disposition toward change with his defense of order and traditional elite authority. A look at Beecher's personality is illuminating here. His most distinguishing characteristic was his tremendous, almost frenetic, energy. In his children's reminiscences, he always seems to be rushing off somewhere amidst a flurry of papers, ink stains on his hands, his unbuttoned coat flying behind him.(6) He took great pride in his strength and vigor, and the pursuit of incessant, tireless activity was one of the guiding principles of his life. Simply to remain active, Beecher would throw himself into any available task. On occasion he even resorted to arbitrarily shoveling a pile of sand from one side of his cellar to the other just to keep himself busily moving.(7)

This fascination with activity spilled over into Beecher's ideas about religion and society. We can see this most clearly in his embrace of the so-called "voluntary system" in religion. Early in his career Beecher had become a leading advocate of this system, which revolved around the voluntary, often interdenominational, activity of lay Christians promoting religious revivals and establishing all sorts of benevolent associations. Fitting nicely with Beecher's personal commitment to activity, the voluntary system engendered incessant voluntary activity that Beecher believed would create a vibrant moral climate in which sin would be exposed and righteousness would emerge triumphant. Until 1818, Beecher held this principle in uneasy balance with a defense of the religious establishment, as he regularly called for legal prohibitions against such sinful behaviors as dueling, swearing, and Sabbath-breaking but at the same time entreated individual Christians to defeat such sins through their own extralegal, voluntary efforts. And even his paeans to state-supported religious homogeneity often came amidst appeals for interdenominational voluntary activity.(8)

So in 1818, when disestablishment became law in Connecticut, Beecher leapt at the opportunity to embrace the voluntary system wholeheartedly: In a well-known about-face, the leading opponent of disestablishment suddenly celebrated the defeat of his own cherished cause. He remained bitter toward the Toleration Party, to be sure, and continued to publicly deride its principles, but otherwise he appears to have felt a great burden lifted from his shoulders. He redoubled his efforts in organizing voluntary associations, and with renewed enthusiasm he set about promoting religious revivals throughout New England. In sermons and pamphlets he started to denounce formal religious establishment as an impediment to evangelical activism.(9) There was opportunism in this change of positions, of course. Beecher had lost his battle, and he was trying to make the best of the defeat. But this was not all. He suddenly recognized the burden that the standing order had become to the kind of religious activism he wanted to practice. Evangelical Congregationalists interested in extending their moral influence throughout society had been vulnerable to charges of theocracy. Congregationalists had also appeared as the natural enemies of other denominations, thereby limiting the potential for collaboration. With the fall of the standing order, then, Beecher felt a new world of possibilities open to him in his plans for the growth of an evangelical empire.

In the years following 1818, Beecher began to develop a new vision of the role of religious diversity in the rise of the evangelical empire. In 1819, he proclaimed, "…with trumpet-tongue, the providence of God is calling upon Christians of every denomination, to cease from their limited views, and selfish ends, and to unite in the conflict which is to achieve the subjugation of the world to Christ." And so he announced an emphasis on denominational cooperation that he would return to with increasing frequency in the coming years. But Beecher also began to endorse a certain level of denominational competition as a spur to increased evangelical activity, and here he clearly drew on his lifelong belief that intense activity would somehow allow God's work to be done.(10)

It was not until 1826, however, when Beecher accepted a call to the Hanover Street Church in Boston, that he began to articulate fully his ideas about religious difference. Beecher removed to Boston to take a leading role in the Unitarian controversy that had heated up around 1819 and blazed steadily over the succeeding years. The Boston Unitarians had staked out a position as defenders of tolerance, champions of religious difference, and opponents of sectarian rivalry. Beecher might have anticipated that his evolving vision of a well-regulated religious diversity, channeled by leaders such as himself into a grand plan to build God's kingdom, would assume an important position in his battle against the Unitarian liberals. The record of the Unitarian controversy during his tenure certainly suggests that it did.(11)

The participants in the controversy, on both the orthodox and Unitarian sides, devoted considerable attention to questions surrounding the growing diversity of religious beliefs and practices in the young republic: How should various sects interact? Should differences be emphasized and divisions clearly drawn? To what extent should Christians view religious tolerance as a good in itself? And what were the limits of such tolerance? Such questions often dominated debates between the Unitarians and the orthodox, pushing specifically doctrinal disputes to the side. Indeed, Unitarian writers seldom attacked Beecher and his orthodox brethren for their doctrinal positions, but frequently for their alleged intolerance, arrogance, and desire to coerce all Christians into accepting their own narrow set of beliefs. While Beecher fought to initiate purely doctrinal disputes, the Unitarians largely succeeded in focusing the controversy on other matters. Prominent among these was the meaning of religious diversity in the young republic.

What specific positions, then, did Beecher and his opponents take on religious diversity? The Unitarian position can best be described as a kind of cosmopolitan universalism.(12) Unitarians suggested on the one hand that differences of custom and opinion among Christians were simply evidence of the rich variety of forms godliness could take in society; hence Christians should seek to "delight in the virtues of other sects." Accordingly, Unitarian ministers and writers consistently urged all Christians to exercise tolerance or "charitable judgment especially toward those who differ in religious opinion."(13) But such appreciation of difference was really only the weak corollary of a stronger claim for the basic commonality among all variants of Christian belief. Unitarians reserved their more powerful arguments for discussions of the common mind and the faculty of conscience that bound all Christians (and sometimes they even suggested all people) together. They were able to celebrate differences because they believed that differences were ultimately of little consequence. In much of their writing and preaching, they sought to blur distinctions among sects and highlight universal values. Henry Ware, Jr. characterized American Unitarianism as a religious system dedicated to stripping away all particularities of various sects and "reserving to itself whatever, by being found in each, was proved common to all."(14) In keeping with this search for common ground, Unitarians opposed religious controversy and what they called "the spirit of proselytism." They emphasized fellowship among all Christians and showed little interest in "bringing men over to our peculiar opinions."(15)

Instead, Unitarians quietly sought to define the center of a new liberal consensus based on the guiding light of reason and moral sense. This vision of consensus, however expansive, had definite limits. For one, an elite New England particularism stood behind much of the Unitarians' cosmopolitanism. Unitarian descriptions of the universal relationship between God and man often read like descriptions of the enlightened social intercourse of Boston Brahmins; their model of rational piety was simply tailor-made for erudite Bostonians. But Unitarians set more explicit limits on Christian fellowship as well. During this period, they specifically excluded Universalists from the fold. In the 1830s, they would likewise close ranks against Transcendentalists. And throughout the antebellum period, they made it clear that their "charitable judgement" did not extend to Catholics.(16)

In short, when Lyman Beecher arrived in Boston, he confronted a well developed ideology of religious difference--not simply a blanket endorsement of diversity for its own sake, but rather a blueprint for a liberal rationalist consensus that Unitarians hoped would emerge from the hothouse religious environment of the early republic. Beecher had his own ideas about the meaning of religious difference in his time. He also had his own plans for what was to come and who was to lead the way. Beecher's position can best be described as a millenarian pluralism. Like the Unitarians, he tried to embrace religious heterogeneity, though on very different terms and to a very different end. As we have already noted, Beecher had for some time effectively advocated cooperation among denominations in evangelical enterprises. While in Boston, he began to call more explicitly for the building of interdenominational coalitions. In The Spirit of the Pilgrims, a religious journal that Beecher founded in 1828, an anonymous author (likely Beecher himself) made the case this way: "The division of labor is the life of secular prosperity; and God, in his providence, avails himself of the same principle in permitting the existence of different denominations." The writer went on to express hope that soon "the entire zeal of Christian denominations will be turned away from the pitiful, selfish, irritating efforts to proselyte from each other; and will flow forth…to proselyte the world…" In other words, religious differences were valuable in that they represented a range of talents and "facilities for acquiring influence" in the United States and in the world.(17)

Beecher's position had what I am calling a specifically pluralist dimension because he believed that, though groups should collaborate in evangelizing the world, differences of practice and belief should be maintained and in some cases even sharpened.(18) This conviction marked an important point of contention with the cosmopolitan universalism of the Unitarians. Beecher strenuously rejected what he saw as the moral and theological relativism of the Unitarians. Differences among Christians would benefit God's kingdom, but this certainly did not mean that any group should hesitate to defend its own set of beliefs as the one eternal truth. Unitarians accused Beecher and the orthodox of arrogance and bigotry for holding their creed to be the only true one, to which they replied, "Have we not…[a] right to associate with a creed…? May we not as properly dictate to them on the subject as they to us? And when we have associated, on the express understanding of a common faith, suppose one of our number widely departs from this faith; have we not the right to call him to account?"(19) As this last point suggests, Beecher laid a great deal of emphasis on the need of different groups to define and protect their borders and to maintain a cohesive group identity.

Not surprisingly then, Beecher often stood in favor of religious controversy. Sometimes he argued that it was a necessary evil, but just as often he declared that controversy was no evil at all; it was a vital mechanism through which the truth would rise and become visible to the religious public. (20) Competition among denominations had an important place in Beecher's model as well. Competition insured balance such that no single denomination could unfairly dominate the rest. More importantly though, competition for converts and for influence over the moral life of the republic served as a spur to action and a means by which the gospel would be more widely diffused than it otherwise could be.(21)

But Beecher did not always applaud controversy and competition. Among those denominations that he recognized as genuinely Christian--that is, Trinitarian Protestants--he believed that competition had to coexist with collaboration and a spirit of charity. The great energies of these denominations Beecher wished to direct outward "in deep and copious streams of benevolence."(22) Within his own "Presbygational" alliance, Beecher saw a need for a very high level of unity. In a sense, his vision of religious pluralism demanded unity within individual bounded groups. But here Beecher confronted the contradictions and limits of his own logic. When, in the interest of sharpening the boundaries of orthodoxy, a group within the orthodox ranks initiated controversy, first against Charles Finney and shortly thereafter against Beecher himself, Beecher began arguing for complete unity at the expense of doctrinal precision or clear group definition.(23) In exchanges with the Andover men who initiated these disputes, he warned against "needless collision" and the "tendency to get up a controversy." Most importantly, Beecher insisted that divisions among evangelicals were "worse than this day of revivals and Christian enterprise."(24)

Here we come to the crux of Beecher's thinking on religious difference. I have termed Beecher a millenarian pluralist, by which I mean that he supported religious pluralism specifically because he believed that it would lead to the millennium, or Christ's 1000-year reign of glory on earth. The whole religious ferment of the early republic was but a great transitional moment in the coming of millennial glory. Again we see Beecher's faith in ceaseless activity. Because of a great religious stir, people were awakening to God's plan.(25) And ultimately God's plan was to unite all Christians in millennial harmony. Pluralism was only preparation for a higher homogeneity. To quote again from The Spirit of the Pilgrims, "The temporary alienation of different denominations may have been intended, by heaven, to prepare the way for the unparalleled efficacy which will attend their evangelical concurrence in the great operations which are to terminate in the subjugation of the world to Christ."(26)

Beecher fervently hoped that he was witnessing the beginnings of this "evangelical concurrence." His was a vision of homogeneity and consensus to be sure. Christians would disagree only until they agreed perfectly. Unitarians had no place in this final union. Nor did Catholics. So Beecher fought, often bitterly, either to bring them over or keep them at bay. Provided he could see people of different views somehow contributing to the advent of a higher harmony, he could welcome differences. But Unitarians appeared to be guiding people toward a final consensus starkly opposed to Beecher's cherished evangelical concurrence. To Beecher's mind, Unitarianism led toward an anarchic individuation of conscience and a basic defiance of Christian prophecy. This was a difference that he was not prepared to tolerate. Similarly, when differences within the evangelical fold threatened to undermine the march toward the millennium, when even the New England orthodox appeared poised to split, Beecher struggled against the tide of controversy and against the apparently inexorable growth of religious diversity.(27)

Let me conclude by saying that Beecher's thinking about the role of religious diversity in the early republic was a precarious balancing act, riven with contradictions, and almost certainly unsustainable in the long run. Nonetheless, his vision was a sophisticated one, encompassing some of the basic cultural tensions of the time, and it was for many people a quite compelling perspective on a rapidly changing society. It is my hope that by looking at Lyman Beecher in this light we might begin to make better sense of the complex responses to religious diversity in the early republic. It is instructive just to observe that elites such as Beecher and his Unitarian opponents saw religious difference not simply as something to be either embraced or resisted, but rather as something to be guided and cultivated, defined and limited in specific ways. And regardless of their success in this venture, Beecher and the Unitarians certainly helped to set the terms of debate over the meaning of religious difference, and perhaps cultural difference more generally, in the early part of the nineteenth century. This debate would remain vital throughout the nineteenth century and indeed, though greatly changed, it remains vital to us today.


1. In preparing this paper I have found the following scholarly treatments of Beecher's life and thought particularly useful: Vincent Harding, A Certain Magnificence: Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism, 1775-1863 (Brooklyn NY, 1991); Marie Caskey, Chariot of Fire: Religion and the Beecher Family (New Haven, 1978); Constance Rourke, Trumpets of Jubilee: Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyman Beecher, Horace Greeley, P.T. Barnum (New York, 1927); Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), chap. 7, "The Evangelicals"; and Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York, 1994), chap. 2, "Lyman Beecher and the Cosmic Theater."

2. Three works that have set the standard for discussions of religious pluralism in nineteenth-century America should be acknowledged here: R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York, 1986); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, 1989); and Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA, 1990). Thanks to these studies and others that have followed, we now know a good deal about the diverse and pluralistic character of religious experience in nineteenth-century America. We still know quite little however about the various and nuanced meanings Americans in this period attached to this growing religious heterogeneity.

3. Works that cite Beecher as an exemplar of opposition to religious heterogeneity are too numerous to list. For a prominent statement of this position, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, esp. chap. 2.

4. The quotation comes from "The Toleration Dream," a satirical pamphlet Beecher published just after the defeat of the standing order. It is reprinted in The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, vol. 1, Barbara M. Cross, ed. (Cambridge, 1961), 290-300. Beecher's bitter attacks quickly drew heat from a range of denominational and ideological camps. For an example of the resentment that Beecher's arguments drew, see "A Letter to the Rev. Lyman Beecher: On the Subject of his Address, in the Name 'Of the Charitable Society for the Education of Indigent Pious Young Men for the Ministry of the Gospel'" (United States: s.n., 1814?), 8, in which a dissenting Presbyterian layman lashes out at Beecher with the following words from scripture: "'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him two-fold more the child of hell than yourselves.' 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.'"

5. Beecher, An Address of the Charitable Society for the Education of Indigent Pious Young Men, for the Ministry of the Gospel, quoted in Freeborn Garrettson, "A Letter to the Rev. Lyman Beecher" (Boston, 1817), 16. Garrettson, a Methodist preacher, angrily criticized Beecher for belittling the influence of the Methodists in New England and more importantly in the West. Beecher's attitude toward Methodists does appear to have been, though never openly hostile, often dismissive. See for example, Autobiography, vol. 1, 120-21. However, in other instances Beecher seems to have felt a genuine brotherhood with Methodists. In "The Toleration Dream" he claims basic affinity with Methodists against the forces of infidelity (Autobiography, vol. 1, 294-95).

6. This kind of image appears throughout Beecher's Autobiography, but see especially Harriet Beecher Stowe's reminiscences in Autobiography, vol. 2, 81-90.

7. Ibid., 84. Here Harriet Beecher Stowe describes this and a range of other strange physical activities that Beecher engaged in "according to his favorite theory of working off nervous excitement through the muscles."

8. See Beecher, Address of the Charitable Society for the Education of Indigent Pious Young Men (New Haven, 1814?).

9. Beecher really introduced these arguments in The Design, Rights, and Duties of Local Churches (Andover, 1819). See especially pp. 17-22. See also Autobiography, vol. 1, 336-7.

10. The Design, Rights, and Duties of Local Churches, 35. In this sermon, Beecher suggests that both competition and cooperation might serve the evangelical cause.

11. There is a rich scholarly literature on Unitarian theology and social theory. I have benefited greatly from ideas in Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861 (Cambridge MA, 1970); William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge MA, 1976); Sydney E. Ahlstrom's introduction in An American Reformation: A Documentary History of Unitarian Christianity, Ahlstrom and Jonathan S. Carey, eds. (Middletown CT, 1985); Ann C. Rose, Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850 (New Haven, 1981); and Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977).

12. My understanding of cosmopolitan universalism as an ideology of cultural difference draws heavily on David A. Hollinger's discussion in Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York, 1995), chapter 4.

13. William Ellery Channing, "Unitarian Christianity," (1819) in Ahlstrom and Carey, An American Reformation, 115. Ibid., 114.

14. Henry Ware, Jr., Sober Thoughts on the State of the Times (1835) in American Reformation, 367.

15. Channing, "A Letter to Rev. Samuel C. Thacher" (1815), in American Reformation, 83.

16. For more on the Unitarian commitment to consensus, see Mary Kupiec Cayton, "Who Were the Evangelicals?: Conservative and Liberal Identity in the Unitarian Controversy in Boston, 1804-1833," Journal of Social History 31, 1 (Fall 1997), 85-107.

17. The Spirit of the Pilgrims I, 5 (May 1828), 227-28; and ibid., 226.

18. My definition of the term "pluralism" again comes out of David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America, chaps. 3 and 4.

19. Spirit of the Pilgrims IV, 3 (March 1831), 125.

20. Ibid. II, 1 (January 1829), 2.

21. See ibid. II, 7 (July 1829), 353-59. Autobiography, 92.

22. Spirit of the Pilgrims I, 5 (May 1828), 228. In his personal correspondence Beecher often stressed the need for unity and his dismay over intra-denominational controversy. When his son, Edward, became embroiled in such a controversy at the Park Street Church, Beecher's sentiments along these lines became increasingly urgent. See Lyman Beecher to Catharine Beecher, November 21 and November 27, 1829 (Beecher-Stowe Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe).

23. Beecher's relationship with Finney was of course a complicated and often adversarial one, especially after Beecher assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary in Ohio. For the purposes of this paper however it is important to note that in the late 1820s and early 1830s Beecher displayed a strong desire to overlook the heterodoxy of the "New Measures" men, simply accept them within the Presbyterian fold, and welcome their enthusiasm and their success. He was eventually forced out of this position by conservative elements within the denomination, led by Asahel Nettleton. See Autobiography, vol. 2, 62-91.

24. Autobiography, vol. 2, 73. Spirit of the Pilgrims V, 7 (July 1832), 392.

25. Beecher described the situation as one in which people's "curiosity [was] excited," their "minds...aroused." Spirit of the Pilgrims I, 1 (January 1828), 4.

26. Ibid. I, 5 (May 1828), 352.

27. We can see this kind of logic in Beecher's resistance to immediatist abolitionism. In his conflict with Theodore Weld and the Lane radicals, Beecher argued primarily that immediatism would undermine basic Christian harmony within denominations and in the nation at large. See Autobiography, vol. 2, 240-49. See also Vincent Harding, A Certain Magnificence, 247-77. Similarly, in the mid 1830s, when new school and old school factions threatened to divide the Presbyterian denomination, Beecher fought energetically to maintain unity. He downplayed doctrinal differences and even appears to have deliberately misrepresented the new school position in his eagerness to preserve denominational harmony. See Autobiography, vol. 2, 171-76, 194-98, 211-20, 283-334. For a useful summary of the old school-new school controversy, see Paul K. Conkin, The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, 1995), chap. 8.

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