Abbott, Lyman (1835–1922)

Lyman Abbott was a Congregational minister who pastored Plymouth Church in Brooklyn after Henry Ward Beecher's death. Abbott also was the editor-in-chief for the Illustrated Christian Weekly and the Christian Union, later called the Outlook. Through his periodical work, Abbott sought to provoke reform among the upper and middle classes.

Lyman Abbott was born on December 18, 1835, in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Abbott studied at New York University and, soon after graduation, began work as a lawyer with two of his brothers. Abbott passed the bar exam in 1856, and his law career was successful but short-lived. On October 14, 1857, Abbott married Abby Frances Hamlin. By 1859, Abbott had abandoned the law to become a minister. Although Abbott received no formal seminary training, he was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1860 and began pastoring in Terre Haute, Indiana.

While in Indiana, Abbott strongly supported the North and opposed slavery. At the end of the Civil War, Abbott left Terre Haute and became the executive secretary of the newly formed American Union Commission, which later became known as the American Freedmen's Union Commission, based in New York City. The Commission sought to further educational efforts in the South but dissolved in 1869. While in New York, Abbott became the pastor of a small Congregational church in the city, but he resigned from the church in 1869 and devoted more time to periodicals.

In 1887, Abbott returned to pastoring by following in Henry Ward Beecher's footsteps and succeeding him as the pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Although Abbott did not have Beecher's charisma, Abbott encouraged the church to become more active in the community. Interestingly, Abbott typically refrained from commenting in the pulpit about the political issues that he dealt with as an editor. Abbott continued at Plymouth until 1899.

Early in Abbott's ministry, he held to conservative theology; as Abbott grew older, however, he shifted his emphasis to the emerging liberal theology that had been influenced by the cultural modernism of the late nineteenth century. This viewpoint manifested itself in several key positions. Abbott held to theistic evolution. He also embraced higher critical conclusions on the dating and authorship of various books of the Bible, which denied conservative views. When Abbott moved to liberal theology, he began to popularize his new beliefs among the laity and succeeded in doing so.

Throughout his life, Abbott worked with magazines. While he was executive secretary for the American Freedman's Union Commission, he edited the American Freedman. After he left his first church in

Reverend Lyman Abbott was an American Congregationalist minister who worked not only to reform Indian laws but also to change white attitudes toward Native Americans during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Reverend Lyman Abbott was an American Congregationalist minister who worked not only to reform Indian laws but also to change white attitudes toward Native Americans during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. (Library of Congress)

New York, he wrote and edited for Harper's Magazine and wrote for other periodicals. Between 1871 and 1876, Abbott took the editorship of the Illustrated Christian Weekly, a periodical of the American Tract Society. He left the Illustrated Christian Weekly to work for Beecher's Christian Union. Abbott became associate editor of the publication and advanced to editor-in-chief in 1881. He transformed the paper from a religious periodical into a magazine on current events. The name changed to the Outlook in 1893 to reflect this change.

Through his work at the Illustrated Christian Weekly and later at the Outlook, Abbott influenced public opinion on almost every major political issue. Abbott attempted to be free from political party divisions throughout his career and actually proposed forming a new party. He used his position as a periodical editor to push for reform throughout the nation. Abbott targeted civil service, tariffs, and currency in particular for reform. He favored low tariffs and international bimetallism. Other issues that found his support included temperance, the international copyright system, and direct primary elections. Reflecting his religious background, he opposed Mormonism. Finally, Abbott opposed the introduction of the income tax and woman suffrage. In the 1880s, Abbott became involved in Indian policy reform. He advocated that the best policy for the Indians was to dissolve the tribe system and assimilate the Indians into citizenship. Abbott thus pushed Congress to break its treaties with the Indians and supported the Dawes Act.

Abbott did not hold to full-fledged socialism, but he maintained that the government should control the natural resources of the country. He also advocated that the government regulate railroads. In his relationship with the working class, Abbott sympathized with their plight but opposed strikes and attempted to find a middle way between management and the workers.

Abbott supported the imperial ambitions of the United States. Although he first opposed the Spanish-American War in 1898, he supported intervention in Cuba. He cast American imperialism in a theological light, seeing God as guiding the United States into imperialism. When war clouds broke over Europe in 1914, Abbott supported the Allies. He was against neutrality and isolationism in the Great War, and he popularized a Christian viewpoint for the United States’ involvement in the conflict. For his work supporting the Allies during World War I, the French awarded him the chevalier of the Legion of Honor in March 1922. Abbott died later that year on October 22, 1922, at his apartment in New York City.

Nathan V. Lentfer

See also: Bull Moose Party ; Evangelicalism and Populism ; Gilded Age ; Modernism ; Progressivism ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919) ; Social Christianity


Brown, Ira V. Lyman Abbott: Christian Evolutionist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.