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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 New England Fathers

By Lyman Beecher (1775–1863)

[Born in New Haven, Conn., 1775. Died in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1863. Works. 1852–3.]

THE DOCTRINES of our fathers have been represented as gloomy, superstitious, severe, irrational, and of a licentious tendency. But when other systems shall have produced a piety as devoted, a morality as pure, a patriotism as disinterested, and a state of society as happy, as have prevailed where their doctrines have been most prevalent, it may be in season to seek an answer to this objection. The same doctrines have been charged with inspiring a spirit of dogmatism, and religious domination. But, in the struggles of man with despotic power for civil liberty, the doctrines of our fathers have been found usually, if not always, on the side of liberty, as their opposites have been usually found in the ranks of arbitrary power.

The persecutions instituted by our fathers have been the occasion of ceaseless obloquy upon their fair fame. And truly it was a fault of no ordinary magnitude, that sometimes they did persecute. But let him whose ancestors were not ten times more guilty cast the first stone, and the ashes of our fathers will no more be disturbed. Theirs was the fault of the age, from which they had not wholly escaped; but it will be easy to show that no class of men had, at that time, approximated so nearly to just apprehensions of religious liberty, and that it is to them that the world is now indebted for the more just and definite views which prevail. More exclamation and invective have been called forth by the few instances of persecution by the fathers of New England, than by the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and all the fires which lighted the realm of old England for centuries, and drove into exile thousands of her most valuable subjects.

The superstition and bigotry of our fathers are themes on which some of their descendants, themselves far enough from superstition, if not from bigotry, have delighted to dwell. But, when we look abroad, and behold the condition of the world compared with the condition of New England, we may justly exclaim, “Would to God that the ancestors of all the nations had been not only almost, but altogether, such bigots as our fathers were!”

Their strictness in the family, and in church and state, has been complained of, as too rigid. But they were laying the foundations of a nation, and applying a moral power whose impulse should extend through ages; and who, that beholds the rapid and appalling moral relaxation of the present day, can believe that they put the system in motion with too much vigor? In proportion as their discipline had been less strict, our present condition had been more alarming, and our future prospects more desperate.

Our fathers have been ridiculed as an uncouth and uncourtly generation. And it must be admitted that they were not as expert in the graces of dress, and the etiquette of the drawing-room, as some of their descendants. But neither could these have felled the trees, nor guided the plough, nor spread the sail, which they did; nor braved the dangers of Indian warfare; nor displayed the wisdom in counsel which our fathers displayed; and, had none stepped upon the Plymouth rock but such effeminate critics as these, the poor natives never would have mourned their wilderness lost, but would have brushed them from the land as they would brush the puny insect from their faces; the Pequods would have slept in safety that night which was their last, and no intrepid Mason had hung upon their rear, and driven into exile the panic-struck fugitives.