In the early 1800s, Presbyterian divine Lyman Beecher faced a culture in crisis: Alcoholism, poverty, illiteracy, and other social ills were on the rise, and church attendance was in decline. Furthermore, the policy of state-funded, state-established churches was fading. How, then, was the United States-with a republican form of government that requires a virtuous society and a strong private sector-to respond to these challenges?
Lyman Beecher is remembered today primarily through the accomplishments of his children, among whom was abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe. But in his day, Lyman Beecher, a prominent pastor and latter president of Lane Seminary, was a powerful proponent of moral reform and chief architect of what has been called America's “voluntary establishment” of religion.
Like many of the Founders, Beecher argued that civic morality was indispensable for the preservation of republican government. Furthermore, civic morality could not be maintained without the Christian religion. In his words, “We may form free constitutions, but our vices will destroy them; we may enact laws, but they will not protect us.”
But instead of entreating for governmental intervention in the solving of social problems and encouraging morality, Beecher, through his widely circulated sermons and tracts, helped inspire the organization of scores of religious voluntary associations for evangelism and moral reform throughout the towns and cities of the new nation. These groups set out to address those social problems in their own backyards by alleviating poverty, teaching reading and writing to the poor, and preventing alcohol abuse. This project was ultimately so successful that the resulting explosion of such groups caused Alexis de Toqueville to make his often-quoted remark that Americans are “forever forming associations.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-US