“It has never quarreled a minister away.” So says Lyman Beecher of his loved church in Easthampton, Long Island, where he preached for a dozen years. It was his first pastorate, and, with all the fame that later came to him, it was his first love. The building in which he preached was torn down sixty years ago, but the old weathervane, dated 1782, that crowned the spire, is still preserved. Likewise, the old pulpit, used by Beecher for eleven years, and before that by his illustrious predecessor, Dr. Buell, for fifty-two years, can be seen in the rooms of the Historical Society in Clinton Academy in New York State. Here, too, is the communion table that stood before the high pulpit.
Beecher, while a student in Yale, had come profoundly under the influence of Timothy Dwight, the president, who loved him as a son. He came to Easthampton without a unanimous call, but soon won the confidence of everyone. The church, which was then one hundred and fifty years old, had had only three pastors. The first minister had received forty-five pounds a year, free taxes, his grain ground first at the mill on Monday mornings, and one quarter of the whale stranded on the beach. Beecher’s pay was three hundred dollars a year and his firewood. This was later increased to four hundred. He had no share in the whales, which was a lucrative industry on the east end of Long Island in those days, but several times he went off in the whaleboats for the chase.
The committee who selected Beecher wanted to get a man who could “break the heads of the infidels.” French skepticism was rampant in the village. He sailed in a sloop from New London with the little he had to carry “packed in a little white hair trunk which I brought with me on the pommel of my saddle.” His horse, which he brought with him, fell overboard during the voyage, but was rescued.
Easthampton has a broad Main Street fringed with elms. How large they were in his day, I cannot say, but the church stood at the head of the little pond that divided the village street. Adjoining it and fringing the pond, is the village cemetery. Just across the road is one of the several windmills that dot the landscape.
During his first winter a revival developed in which eighty were converted. He was an indefatigable worker, and within three yeas broke down nervously. He nursed himself back to health by fishing and horseback riding.
The churches, in those days, were supported by a general tax, as public schools are today. One man refused to pay his tax until the minister resumed his duties. His heifer was seized and sold by the sheriff.
Mrs. Beecher introduced the first carpet into the village. She spun the cotton brought from New London and had it woven. The carpet was then nailed down on the garret floor and she proceeded to paint it with an elaborate floral design, with colors of her own mixing. Deacon Tallmadge stopped at the parlor door when the new carpet was laid—“Can’t come in ‘tho’t steppin’ on it.”
Mrs. Beecher kept a school, with five young girls as boarders, besides her day pupils. From this pulpit Beecher denounced dueling. After studying the subject for six months, he wrote a sermon, preached from his pulpit, and then delivered before the Synod. This was shortly after Aaron Burr had shot Alexander Hamilton. “Duelling is a great national sin. The whole land is defiled with blood.” Beecher, then an obscure young man of thirty, by force of argument, forced a resolution condemning dueling from the Synod, which was far from sympathetic at the outside. He said that Synod was “the center of old-fogyism,” but he mowed it down and carried the vote of the house. The sermon was published and over forty thousand copies were distributed. This gave him a wide reputation. It started a serious effort “that affected the whole northern mind, at least, and in Jackson’s time it came up in Congress and a law passed disenfranchising a duelist.”
Settled nigh onto three hundred years ago, here is a bit of New York’s New England. The oldest school of academic creed is on its village street. The village common divides the main highway. Between its lateral branches is the town pond and the village cemetery. In other days the village church stood hardby. Two Dutch windmills flank it on the east and the “Home Sweet Home” of John Howard Payne’s boyhood looks south across the cemetery toward the ocean. This is New England at its best. Great over-reaching elms, all of them surely one hundred years in growth, arch the village street, which is twice the width of most main streets. Picket fences and old houses still have place. Toward the beach rail fences predominate, and carefully clipped hedges. The stretch of dunes east and west are overgrown with beach grass and bayberry and sumac.
A short three hours from New York are many cottagers. It stays unspoiled. Its Guild Hall and its artist colony fit into the old setting and, as in few places, the wholesome old traditions are maintained. To be sure, at one end of the village street are the places of business, some cheap and some pretentious, chain stores with their gaudy fronts, a movie house and the like; but these are in the minimum. At the north end of the village street is another windmill and a cemetery of a later date. Eliminate a quarter of a mile of necessary business and you have the atmosphere and the outlook of one hundred or more years ago. Off-shore whaling has disappeared. Whales seldom come and, when they do, they are not worth enough to excite the chase. But the memories of whaling are here and some of the old salts still live and will tell you tales of other days.