Monday, December 12, 2011

The Most Famous Man in America/ 2

Henry Ward Beecher: Henry Ward Beecher

p. 355 of  "The Most Famous Man in America."

    "The most important intellectual influence on Beecher in this period was Herbert Spencer, the famed British social thinker who originated the term "survival of the fittest."  Spencer had a talent for stitching together ostensibly unrelated facts and phenomena into broad, over-arching structures--Beecher's favorite sort of thinking.  He was one of the earliest american fans of Herbert Spencer's "conception of gradual development"--the theory that everything--nature, society, individuals--evolves and, if left alone, progresses.  Spenser's all-encompassing, laissez-faire theory of evolution predated Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but in its raw form it was just as shocking to people raised to believe that truth was eternal and identity was fixed.
     After the war Beecher was increasingly open about his religious liberalism.  In 1867 Ralph Waldo Emerson noted with surprise that "Beecher told me,that he did not hold one of the five points of Calvinism in a way to satisfy his father."  By 1870 Beecher was campaigning to drop the concept of hell, or divine punishment, from the official creed of Plymouth church.  "Love, with its freedom, has taken the place of authority, and of obedience to it, " he argued.  For those who had "ripened" to a "nobler plane," desire was a far more effective motive than fear.
     Those worried that such freedom might be sacrilegious, corrupting, or chaotic were reassured by the example of Beecher's own homey common sense.  "He was one of those men," as the writer Edward Eggleston noted appreciatively, "who connect the past with the future, and make of themselves a bridge for the passage of multitudes."
     Henry was often accosted by strangers, like the young man who sat down by him on a train, asking:  "Mr. Beecher!  Must I believe every word in the Bible, to be a Christian?"  "No!" replied Beecher.  "Well--what them?" asked the bewildered boy.  "You must believe the truth that is in the Bible."

The boy pondered this for a moment and then asked "Now, about the Incarnation?  Why do I need to believe in that?"  Beecher quickly sketched his views.  "I see, now what about conversion?"  they talked until the train reached the station.  the young man took his leave, saying, "Mr. Beecher, you have laid my ghosts."  "I hope they will never rise again," replied Beecher.

We are getting towards the end of the book.  Beecher has been preaching in Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, for a long time, becoming a fixture on the scene, writing columns for the newspaper and influencing politics.  He also struck up a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and he said that he absorbed what Emerson wrote, digested it and also preached it in digested form.   He was actively involved in some revolts before the time of John Brown.  The dilemma with John Brown seems to have sobered Beecher and he spoke more circumspectly after this time.  We see, however, here that he has moved away from the strict Calvinism of his father, the gut-wrenching requirements for a genuine conversion, which is more than understandable.  But while he has shifted in this way, and has got involved with politics, and so on, and perhaps had several extra-marital affairs as he became famous, we see that he is now going in the direction of abandoning scriptural authority in way that lets him interpret it to his liking, beginning with the discarding of the concept of "hell".

I am not really familiar with Puritan/Calvinist sermons but just judging them by the titles, one could perhaps not even fault Beecher for wanting to speak about love, rather than fire and brimstone.  The message of "freedom" resonates with some of the things Luther wrote about freedom in Christ.  However, this is a freedom which comes after and even transcends the fear of hell and punishment.  My Judge is also my Savior, but he is still Judge.

It seems to me that Beecher made a similar change within the church to Emerson's change outside of it, both revolting against a very doctrinal Puritan Calvinism.  This all seems regrettable because it gives "doctrine" a bad name, as if it could not be good, right and wholesome.

With this throwing out of Calvinist doctrine seems to arise not a better grasp of true doctrine, but a liberalism which suits everyone's worldly hopes.   For a good stretch of it, I empathize with Beecher, but he seems to go from one extreme to the other missing the right foundation doctrinally in each instance.

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