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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Awakening

By Lyman Beecher (1775–1863)

[From Autobiography of Lyman Beecher. Edited by Charles Beecher. 1864.]

THAT was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school. Boys that dressed flax in the barn, as I used to, read Tom Paine and believed him; I read, and fought him all the way. Never had any propensity to infidelity. But most of the class before me were infidels, and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, etc., etc. They thought the Faculty were afraid of free discussion. But when they handed Dr. Dwight a list of subjects for class disputation, to their surprise he selected this: “Is the Bible the word of God?” and told them to do their best.

He heard all they had to say, answered them, and there was an end. He preached incessantly for six months on the subject, and all infidelity skulked and hid its head.

He elaborated his theological system in a series of forenoon sermons in the chapel; the afternoon discourses were practical. The original design of Yale College was to found a divinity school. To a mind appreciative like mine, his preaching was a continual course of education and a continual feast. He was copious and polished in style, though disciplined and logical. There was a pith and power of doctrine there that has not been since surpassed, if equalled. I took notes of all his discourses, condensing and forming skeletons. He was of noble form, with a noble head and body, and had one of the sweetest smiles that ever you saw. He always met me with a smile. Oh, how I loved him! I loved him as my own soul, and he loved me as a son. And once at Litchfield I told him that all I had I owed to him. “Then,” said he, “I have done a great and soul-satisfying work. I consider myself amply rewarded.”

He was universally revered and loved. I never knew but one student undertake to frustrate his wishes.

It was not, however, before the middle of my Junior year that I was really awakened. It is curious, but when I entered college I had a sort of purpose to be a preacher. I was naturally fitted to be a lawyer. But, though I had heard the first at the bar—Pierpont Edwards and David Daggett—the little quirks, and turns, and janglings disgusted me. My purpose was as fully made up—“I’ll preach”—as afterward. Yet I had only a traditionary knowledge; alive without the law; sense of sin all outward; ignorant as a beast of the state of my heart, and its voluntary spiritual state toward God.

One day, as we were sitting at home, mother looked out of the window, and saw a drunkard passing. “Poor man,” said she, “I hope he’ll receive all his punishment in this life. He was under conviction once, and thought he had religion; but he’s nothing but a poor drunkard now.” There was no perceptible effect from these words, only, after she left the room, I felt a sudden impulse to pray. It was but a breath across the surface of my soul. I was not in the habit of prayer. I rose to pray, and had not spoken five words before I was under as deep conviction as ever I was in my life. The sinking of the shaft was instantaneous. I understood the law and my heart as well as I do now, or shall in the day of judgment, I believe. The commandment came, sin revived, and I died, quick as a flash of lightning.

“Well,” I thought, “it’s all over with me. I’m gone. There’s no hope for such a sinner.” Despair followed the inward revelation of what I had read, but never felt. I had never had any feeling of love to God, and all my affections were selfish and worldly.

After a while that entireness of despair (for I was sure I was lost, as I deserved) lessened so that I could pray without weeping; and then I began to hope I was growing good. Then my motives in praying came up before me, and I saw there was no true love in them. I then tried reformation, but seemed no better. God let down light into the dark places, and showed me there was no change of character. I turned away from this self-righteousness, and turned in, and laid hold of my heart like a giant to bring it round so as to pray aright, but could not. Couldn’t make a right prayer with a wrong heart. Worked away at that till I gave up. Then Election tormented me. I fell into a dark, sullen, unfeeling state that finally affected my health.

I can see now that if I had had the instruction I give to inquirers, I should have come out bright in a few days. Mine was what I should now call a hopeful, promising case. Old Dr. Hopkins had just such an awakening, and was tormented a great while. The fact is, the law and doctrines, without any explanation, is a cruel way to get souls into the kingdom. It entails great suffering, especially on thinking minds.

During all this struggle I had no guidance but the sermons of Dr. Dwight. When I heard him preach on “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,” a whole avalanche rolled down on my mind. I went home weeping every step. One reason I was so long in the dark was, I was under law, was stumbling in the doctrines, and had no views of Christ. They gave me other books to read besides the Bible—a thing I have done practising long since. For cases like mine, Brainerd’s Life is a most undesirable thing. It gave me a tinge for years. So Edwards on the Affections—a most overwhelming thing, and to common minds the most entangling. The impressions left by such books were not spiritual, but a state of permanent hypochondria—the horrors of a mind without guidance, motive, or ability to do anything. They are a bad generation of books, on the whole. Divine sovereignty does the whole in spite of them. I was converted in spite of such books. I wish I could give you my clinical theology. I have used my evangelical philosophy all my lifetime, and relieved people without number out of the sloughs of high Calvinism.

It was many months that I suffered; and, finally, the light did not come in a sudden blaze, but by degrees. I began to see more into the doctrines of the Bible. Election and decrees were less a stumbling-block. I came in by that door.