Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Edward Beecher and the Anti-Slavery Movement in Illinois

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Edward Beecher and the Anti-Slavery Movement in Illinois

Article excerpt

The Rev. Dr. Edward Beecher was a preacher's preacher and a scholar's scholar. He was the son of Rev. Lyman Beecher of whom Theodore Parker said was "the father of more brains than any man in America."1 And indeed, Edward along with his twelve siblings who included Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous preacher in America, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the most famous novelist of her day, were at the firestorms of reform in religious thought and action, women's rights, and the antislavery movement. Born in 1803 in New York, Edward, like so many of his generation, had been expected to lead a public life as a productive citizen and moral compass in a nation that needed guidance. Hard work was needed to set a course for the successful development of wealth, territorial expansion, and a moral society. He was young, educated, strong, and had a faith in God matched by faith in his fellow Americans. He was always ready to take on challenges, and none of those were bigger than becoming a partner in the antislavery movement in the East and on the frontier of the West.

When Yale President Jeremiah Day was asked whom he recommended for the presidency of the newly established Illinois College, "he told them Edward Beecher if they could get him." In fact, as Lyman Beecher Stowe points out, "[n]obody but a Beecher would have given up a powerful eastern church, to assume responsibility for a feeble western college. But here was a chance to help his father save that great western country for education and Protestantism, and also a chance for pioneering - always an irresistible appeal to a Beecher."2

As the young Beecher studied, tutored, taught, and preached, the young men of the Yale Band, an erstwhile group of soon-to-be graduates of Yale College, had fixed their eyes on Illinois as the place where they thought they could make the most difference through mission work and cultural formation. In 1828, John M. Ellis, an agent for the American Home Missionary Society in Illinois, had published a call for help in developing a new college in the West, and his article had been read just at the time when these young men were casting about for a missionary venture that would be a meaningful and purposeful endeavor in their Christian call to duty. They were afraid that the offer had expired since they had not come across the call until 1829, but after corresponding with Ellis, they were assured that theirs was the most promising response he had received. Familiar names in Illinois history: J.M. Sturtevant, Theron Baldwin, Mason Grosvenor, William Kirby, John F. Brooks, Elisha Jenney, and Asa Turner pledged to relocate in the West. They applied to the American Home Missionary Society for support and asked the faculty of Yale to endorse their venture to which they reservedly gave.3 The Yale Band were anti-slavery, and it was part of their understanding that a civil society did not include slavery. This was a radical position that the faculty could not heartily endorse given that Yale had a healthy percentage of southerners in its student body and was the largest supplier of southern clergy before the Civil War.4

One cannot suppose that moving to Illinois was an easy decision professionally or personally for any of these young men. In a series of letters between John Brooks and his fiancée, Jane Bradley, he asked Jane to consider going West with him on this venture. In his letter of February 28, 1829, he wrote that the plan proposed by Mason Grosvenor to go to the Mississippi Valley "proposes to affect its object by the preaching of the gospel, and the establishment of a reputable literary institution in the interior of the state of Illinois." Jane was decidedly undecided and was slow to reply because she was confused and somewhat upset that he wanted to go West instead of finding a suitable place in the East. She lived in Oneida County, New York, in the heart of the Burned-Over District, and while she was all for missionary endeavors theoretically, it was quite a different matter when it came to leaving her family and home. …

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