The Beecher Lectures

Dr. Anna Carter Florence

The official faculty photograph of the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence at Columbia Theological Seminary.

This year’s Beecher lecturer is the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Associate Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Dr. Carter Florence earned her BA at Yale College followed by an M.Div at Princeton Theological Seminary. She was ordained a Presbyterian Minister and served for 8 years as an associate minister in the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. She went on to earn her PhD in homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary and upon finishing her degree, she accepted a position on the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary.

She is a proponent of preaching exegetical sermons based on the texts provided in the lexicon. In 2007 her book Preaching as Testimony was published by Westminster John Knox Press. See below right.   In this book she discussed the postmodern challenge of the authority of the preacher who asks, “Can I really say that?” She argues that the authority for authentic preaching is based on the depth of the preacher’s engagement with the text. It is the job of the preacher to encounter the text on a personal level and then testify to what he/she has seen and heard.

"Preaching as Testimony" Book coverShe is scheduled to deliver three lectures in the Marquand Chapel, one on each day of the convocation. On Wednesday, October 24 at 4 p.m. lecture 1 is entitled “The Script in the Scripture, the Word in Rehearsal: Proclamation in the Repertory Church.” On Thursday, October 25 at 10:30 a.m. her lecture is entitled “It Could Have Gone Differently.” Lastly on Friday, October 26 at 10:30 a.m. her lecture is entitled, “Old Texts, New Works: The Repertory Preacher and the Company of Grace.” Following this lecture beginning around 11:30 a.m. there will be a “Conversation with the Beecher Lecturer in the Marquand Chapel

Dr. Carter Florence is married. She and her husband David have two sons.

A brief history of the Lyman Beecher Lectures

This lectureship is remarkable in at least three ways.    First, it is old.  It was established with an endowment gift in 1871, and the first lectures were delivered in that year.   Over the last 140 years, it has been delivered at Yale in almost every one of those 140 years.   Second, it has a rich legacy because of its connection with the Beecher family.   This lectureship was created with a gift from a member of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, NY.    This is where Henry Ward Beecher was the pastor for a number of years, and Henry Ward was the son of the namesake, Lyman Beecher.   That said, neither the father, Lyman, nor the son, Henry Ward, was the most famous and historically significant member of the family.   We will say more on that in a moment.   Third, the list of those who have delivered the Beecher lectures over these past 140 years reads like a “Who’s Who of the Pulpit.”

It is old.   In 1871 a businessman named Henry Sage made a gift of $10,000 to Yale to establish the Lyman Beecher Lectureship on Preaching.   Sage was a member of the Plymouth Congregational Church where Henry Ward Beecher served as senior minister for forty years.    Henry Ward was one of 13 children of the iconic Lyman Beecher.   Lyman had been a member of the Yale College class of 1797.   The father, Lyman, had died in 1863.   We can assume that Henry Sage had become acquainted with Lyman and wanted to do something to honor his memory.   The gift of $10,000 in 1871 was probably equivalent to about $200,000 today.

The first person selected to deliver the Lyman Beecher lectures was, not surprisingly, Henry Ward Beecher, who was probably the most famous preacher in the United States at the time (1871).   In fact, he gave the lectures the first year, then the second, and then the third.   At the time some might have wondered if anyone would ever be given a chance, so in the fourth year a new man, John Hall, was selected.   From the outset the lectures were published in book form by a major New York publisher.

Lyman BeecherA rich legacy.   The rich legacy of this lectureship revolves, of course, around the Beecher family itself.    Lyman studied under Timothy Dwight Lyman at Yale Divinity School before embarking on his career as a parish minister in 1799.    He got off to a slow start in his ministry in a small Presbyterian church on Long Island.   With his $300 annual salary he had trouble feeding his growing family.  (He eventually fathered 13 children.)   His wife opened a private school and employed him as an instructor so that he could supplement his ministerial salary.

He left for a larger church and became a Congregational minister in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1810.    Here he became famous with his sermons against intemperance.    In the 1820’s there was a major movement of members leaving the Congregational Church to become Unitarians under the leadership of William Ellery Channing.   A champion for the cause of the traditional Congregational Church was needed in Boston, the center of this activity.   So in 1826 Lyman moved to the Hanover Congregational Church in Boston where he preached against the Unitarianism that was sweeping the country.

His next cause of slavery, and he became an early abolitionist.    A wealthy benefactor announced a major endowment gift to create a new seminary in Cincinnati if Lyman Beecher would become the first President.    With that the famous Lane Theological seminary was opened, and the students were so avid in their abolitionist views that a mob threatened to burn the campus to the ground.    The students left en masse to enroll at the new Oberlin College.   Lyman continued on at the seminary, and he also served as pastor of what is now the Covenant Presbyterian Church.

Lyman Beecher was a leader in the Second Great Awakening and advocated evangelism in a way that other church leaders viewed as heretical.    He was acquitted in a heresy trial.

In 1851 Lyman was 76 years old, and he retired to live with his son Henry Ward Beecher where Lyman turned his attention to writing.

Lyman Beecher was not exactly a perfect man.   He was famous bigoted regarding Roman Catholicism, and he believed that the blacks should be freed but disagreed with the “radical abolitionists” and refused to offer classes to African-Americans.

Henry Ward BeecherHenry Ward Beecher, the son of Lyman, was possibly even more prominent than his famous father.    Henry was raised in a household centered in the practice of Christianity.   Each day began and ended with prayer.  The family sang hymns daily and attended multiple worship services and prayer meetings.    Anything remotely frivolous (dancing and the theater) was forbidden.

Henry attended Amherst College and then Lane Theological Seminar and became a parish minister in Indiana in 1837.   He was soon the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, and in 1847 he was called to the newly created Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York.    It is here that he became one of the most famous people in America.   When the original building burned down, it was replaced with an enormous 3,000-seat sanctuary, and here Henry Ward held forth for the next 40 years at this church.

Henry Ward was known as a staunch Calvinist.   He was also an early and powerful advocate in several of the major issues of the day.    He was in favor of women’s suffrage.   He was in favor of temperance.   And he supported Darwin’s theory of evolution.   He was also a supporter of the Chinese and their rights to immigrate to America despite a strong trend to prohibit any further migration from China.    But he was most famous for his stand against slavery.   He raised funds to supply guns to abolitionists who were ready to settle in Kansas to keep it a free state, and one Sunday in 1860 he sponsored a slave auction in which a young African American women was auctioned off in his church.   The congregation immediately raised the $900 purchase price and set her free.   As part of the ceremony, the young woman, named Pinky was given a gold ring as a symbol of her liberation.   In an incredible turn of events, Pinky lived for another 67 years, and in 1927 she returned to the church and gave the ring back to the church with her thanks.

The luminaries of the age who worshipped here at one time or another including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.   Of course, Henry Ward was not a perfect man either.   He famously opposed the working railroad men in the 1873 railroad strike announcing that “A man who cannot live with only bread and water is not fit to live.”

Harriet Beecher StoweThis leads us to the most iconic Beecher of them all – Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896).   She was two years older than her brother Henry Ward and raised in the same strict Lyman Beecher household.   She was educated at a women’s seminary where she studied the classics, and she enjoyed a far better education than most men of that era.   She married Calvin Stowe who was a widower and a colleague of her father teaching at Lane Seminary.

They were both fervent abolitionists.   In 1850 he accepted a position at Bowdoin College in Maine.   It was there that Harriet began writing a story about a slave family.  It was published in serial form between 1851 and 1852.   It was widely read, and in 1852 the story came out in book form as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.    It was a sensation.   In the first 12 months it sold an unprecedented 300,000 copies.

There is no question that this book changed history.   It infuriated most Southerners, but it shocked and moved most Northerners because of her ability to humanize the African Americans who suffered so much.

When she visited Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1862, the legend says that he looked at her and said, “So you are the little women who wrote the book that started this great war.”

“Who’s Who of the Pulpit   There is scarcely a more prestigious pulpit in America than the Yale Divinity School pulpit to deliver the Beecher lectures.   The list of those who have delivered the Beecher Lectures over the past 140 years reads like a “Who’s Who” of Christian preachers.

We noted that Henry Ward Beecher gave the first three lectures.    In 1886 it was Washington Gladden.   He returned in 1901.   In 1906 it was P.T. Forsyth, in 1917 Henry Sloan Coffin, in 1923 Harry Emerson Fosdick and in 1924 W. R. Inge.    George Buttrick gave the lectures in 1930 and was one of the lecturers in 1939.   In the 1940’s it was Paul Scherer in 1942, then Reinhold Niebuhr in 1944 and Leslie Weatherhead in 1958.     James Stewart of New College, Edinburgh gave the lectures in 1951, then Hal Luccock in 1952, and D.T. Niles in 1956.

Some of us were at YDS in 1958-1959 when Joseph Sittler gave the lectures and introduced many of us to the term “ecology” for the first time.   He lectured on “The Ecology of Faith.”

In the ensuing years some of our professors gave the lectures:    Browne Barr in 1962-63 and Davie Napier in 1974.   Carl Frederic Buechner gave the lectures in 1976, then Fred Craddock in 1977 followed by William Sloane Coffin in 1979 and Sydney Ahlstrom in 1980.

In 1984 it was Bill Muehl, then James Forbes in 1985 and the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in 1988.    Dean Leander Keck was scheduled to give the lectures in 1990 when he was injured in an automobile accident and several of his colleagues including Margaret Farley, David Bartlett and Brevard Childs filled in for him.  Keck did deliver the lectures the next year.

Our professor Harry Baker Adams gave the lectures in 1995, then in 1997 it was Barbara Brown Taylor YDS ’76 followed by Peter Gomes in 1998.   In recent years YDS professor David Bartlett gave the lectures in 2001 and our classmate (1963?) Barrie Shepherd in 2002.

This is illustrious company, and Dr. Anna Carter Florence clearly belongs in these ranks.   She is one of the most sought after preachers in the Presbyterian Church today.


1 thought on “The Beecher Lectures”

  1. Rex S Wignall said:

    It was helpful to get an historical overview of the Lyman Beecher Lectures. I remembered Frederick Buechner had delivered the lectures, but not which year (1976). Imagine that: Buechner (“Beek-ner”) at the Beecher Lectures! I found the background material on the Beecher family interesting.

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