When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in United States in 1831, he was struck by how Americans were “forever forming associations.” Tocqueville found especially noteworthy the myriad of civic associations that Americans organized for moral and educational purposes. Instead of looking to the government for help, publicly-spirited citizens sought to solve societal problems on their own.
What Tocqueville may not have realized was that this national enthusiasm for association was of recent vintage. Although Americans had always been industrious, the explosive growth in civic associations did not occur until the second decade of the nineteenth century. And perhaps no one was more important in bringing it about than Lyman Beecher.
Remembered today chiefly as the father of author Harriet Beecher Stowe and abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, Lyman Beecher was a towering preacher and reformer in his own right. As one of his colleagues commented after his death, “in massive talent Lyman Beecher stood among his brethren like Daniel Webster in the Senate—alone.”
As a young minister in the early 1800s, Beecher faced a disintegrating society. Church attendance was down, and alcoholism and other social ills were on the rise. The elite classes were abandoning orthodox Christianity for a demythologized religion of human reason. In the political sphere, elected officials were increasingly reticent about enforcing either morality or piety by law, and there was growing political support for abolishing tax subsidies for churches, which had long been the bulwark of Protestantism in New England.
Beecher viewed these developments with alarm. Like most ministers of the era, he believed that republican government could not survive without a virtuous citizenry, and that a virtuous citizenry depended on religion. Now that state support for religion was collapsing, he feared the worst. But instead of giving into despair, he came up with a brilliant response: If the government could no longer be relied on to support religion and morality, he announced, religious adherents themselves had to do what the government could not.
Government used to promote civic virtue by compelling people to “support the gospel and attend the public worship of God,” Beecher told the Connecticut legislature in 1826. “But these means of moral influence the law can no longer apply; and there is no substitute but the voluntary energies of the nation itself, in associations for charitable contributions and efforts, patronized by all denominations of Christians, and by all classes of the community who love their country.”
Beecher advocated replacing government support for religion and morality with a network of voluntary societies that would spread the gospel, inculcate moral habits in the young, and reclaim the dissolute. In those cases where government action might still be necessary, the associations would seek to create a public consensus through educational efforts—because in a free society, Beecher realized, persuasion had to precede coercion.
Following Beecher’s lead, evangelicals soon organized scores of voluntary associations for evangelism, missions, and for social and political reform. They formed groups to help end poverty, to teach reading and writing to the poor, and to prevent the abuse of alcohol. Beecher himself took part in many of these efforts, such as the American Temperance Society and a group that promoted the voluntary observance of the sabbath. This multitude of private associations transformed American society in a way that few government programs ever could. By the time of the 1830s, it was a well developed system of voluntary activity and benevolence.
“They say ministers have lost their influence,” Beecher wrote years later. “The fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could” have by state support. He had learned through experience that the free enterprise system in religion, far from being hostile to faith, created the conditions for true piety and civic virtue to flourish. Beecher was not the first to discover this truth, of course. Baptists and Methodists in America had long advocated the separation of church and state as beneficial to true religion. But they tended to view religion as a private matter without a clearly defined social role. Beecher’s unique contribution was to show how religious groups could play a dynamic public role once state support of churches had ended.
Interestingly, even as Beecher championed Christianity’s civic role, he had a keen appreciation for the limits of religious activism. Unlike many later reformers, he had a firm belief in human sinfulness, and he harbored no illusions that human beings could create an earthly paradise.
Beecher further recognized the dangers that political activism posed for Christianity. Political ambitions could easily overwhelm the gospel and provoke public censure. Beecher subsequently advised Christians to restrict their political efforts to the “great questions of national morality” instead of trying to formulate an explicitly Christian position on every conceivable political issue.
“When great questions of national morality are about to be decided,” he wrote, “such as the declaration of war; or, as in England, the abolition of the slave trade… it becomes Christians to lift up their voice, and exert their united influence. But, with the annual detail of secular policy, it does not become Christians to intermeddle, beyond the unobtrusive influence of their silent suffrage.”
During our own era when questions are again being raised about the proper role of faith in the public square, we all might benefit from Beecher’s free-enterprise and common-sense approach to religion in public life.