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THOMAS KINNICUT BEECHER (1824-1900)
by Anya Laurence

   When I wrote my book, “Love Divine: The Life of Henry Ward Beecher,” I made scant reference to his half-brother Tom (son of Lyman Beecher's second wife Harriet Porter) as I felt that his life was worthy of a biography of his own. This article is a small effort to remedy that omission and to bring Tom alive for the readers of this magazine.

   The Beechers were all well known, with the exception, perhaps, of Mary Beecher Perkins, who chose to live a quiet life tending to her family and keeping out of the limelight. All the sons of Lyman became ministers, with different degrees of success, and the daughters included the celebrated Harriet Beecher Stowe, feminist Isabella Beecher Hooker and Catharine, the educator of the family.

   So Tom had a challenge when he decided to follow his father and Henry into the ministry. He was not cut from the usual Calvinistic Beecher cloth, being a free soul and one who didn't really give a care about convention and rules. And as far as worldly recognition was concerned, Tom shunned it all.

   Tom was an amateur scientist, astronomer and mechanic. Apparently he had helped in the construction of the famous Mission Inn at Riverside, California, in 1884. He temporarally pastored a couple of churches and became principal of the Northeast Grammar School in Philadelphia and the Hartford Public High School. His main belief was that “ he ought to teach school as Christ would have taught it.”

   As the organizer and pastor of the New England Congregational Church in a suburb of Brooklyn, NY., for two years, he so infuriated the parishioners by insisting that some men in the congregation who had been involved in shady dealings should be removed, that they called for his dismissal instead. Tom wasted no time...he picked up his coat, said farewell and left the church.

   Fate would intervene. At that very time he ran into Deacon Robinson, of the First Congregational Church in Elmira, NY., who had come to ask Tom to accept a call to that church. He accepted, with the stipulations that he must be paid his salary of $1500 per year with regularity; they were to make him no promises, nor was he to do the same; they must realize that good could only be done by the whole church working, and that he wished the people to work in love. They accepted and he began his long pastorate in September of 1854.

  Sadly, his first wife, Olivia Day, had died after only a year of marriage, so it was with a sad heart that Tom made his way to Elmira and a life that would still be talked about until the middle of the twentieth century. Reverend Beecher was a beloved figure in Elmira for many years and he conducted his church “as Christ would have done.”

   However, he scandalized Elmira by drinking an odd beer; playing whist and baseball; cricket and other games, and setting up a billiard room for the young men in the church. He also began the first free library in the town with some of his own books. Although castigated by fellow ministers for such unholy doings, he soon won over the town and became their beloved “Father Tom.”

  Rev. Beecher married Julia Jones, a granddaughter of Noah Webster, in 1857. They later adopted a little girl named Julia after her parents, Prof. and Mrs.Samuel Farrar, of Elmira College, died, leaving four young daughters. Julia Beecher Farrar lived in Elmira well into the twentieth century, and no doubt her presence in the family home helped to keep Tom's name and legacy alive. Of all the celebrated Beechers, Thomas Kinnicut, pastor of the Park Church in Elmira, lived an exemplary life and he was remembered as the kind, generous and loving minister of the “church by the park” for decades after he was gone.

 


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