Beach, Seth Curtis

Seth Curtis Beach (August 8, 1837-January 30, 1932) was a Unitarian minister, author, poet and hymnist.

He was born in western New York State to Luther Markham and Angelina Elizabeth (Curtis) Beach. The family lived in a log cabin they had built on a fifty acre farm near the village of Marion, New York. Weeding the crops and garden along with tending the cows, horses, sheep, hogs, hens, and geese kept him busy with chores as a child. Years later he recalled, “it was more to my taste to read a newspaper when I could get hold of one than to pull, pick stones, or hoe corn, especially alone.”

Seth Curtis BeachSeth’s mother and older sister tutored him until he was eight. In 1846 his father died, so his mother sold the farm and moved the family seven miles south to Palmyra, New York where Seth could attend the Palmyra Union School. He loved reading from an early age. Bacon’s Essays, Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding and a volume entitled Ancient and Modern History were favorites that he read many times.

He wanted to go to college after graduation, but put it off for five years because his sister Mary was ill. His mother moved the family back to Marion where Seth went to school for an additional two years followed by three years of work teaching school.

Little is known about Beach’s early religious training except that he responded positively to a revival message delivered by an elderly evangelist, Brother Galloway, during an 1850 revival. He also noted that his interest in religion increased after attending another revival at the Marion Baptist Church in 1856. Although he regularly went to revivals, prayer meetings, and read as many religious books as he could, he did not “come forward” for the Christ that was presented. “I tried hard,” he said, “to give myself away, but I could neither feel as I supposed I ought to feel about my sins, nor experience the sense of a ‘change’ which I was taught to expect.”

His sister Mary died in 1858 and the following year he enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Antioch was founded in 1852 by the Disciples of Christ (at that time called the Christian Church). The first president had been the noted Unitarian educational reformer, Horace Mann, but he died about the time that Beach arrived. Soon after it opened, Antioch had needed funds to prevent financial ruin and Mann, along with some wealthy Unitarian friends, stepped in to provide support. As a result, about half of the students were Unitarian and Beach came into contact with liberal religious views for the first time.

At the start of his junior year, he transferred to Union College, Schenectady, New York where he earned his A.B. in 1863. At the graduation ceremony, he gave the commencement oration. By now a Unitarian, Beach enrolled at Harvard Divinity School to prepare for the ministry. At Harvard he was a good student and popular with his classmates. In 1865, the second and third year students, as was the tradition, honored Beach by selecting him to deliver the sermon at the special Christmas service in Divinity Chapel. In the spring, he composed a hymn for the Fiftieth Annual Visitation Day of the Harvard Divinity School held on July 17, 1866. It was also his graduation day and for that event he wrote what was to become his best-loved hymn, “Mysterious Presence, Source of All.” At graduation he delivered a talk on “Christ’s Conception of the Kingdom of God.”

After college he preached as a supply minister for a number of churches until he found a settlement at All Souls Unitarian Church in Augusta, Maine in 1867. There he discovered that the parish “took to me with surprising kindness and favor.” His ministry was short lived. Unfortunately, illness forced him to resign in 1869. While he was in Augusta, however, he became acquainted with his future wife, Frances Hall Judd, the daughter of the Rev. Sylvester Judd, one of the church’s former ministers and the author of the novel Margaret, a Tale of the Real and the Ideal, 1851, a Trancendental novel praised by Ralph Waldo EmersonMargaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker.

After his resignation Beach moved to Minnesota and stayed on the farm of a friend while he regained his health. By autumn, fully recovered, he returned to Boston, Massachusetts where Frances lived. They were married on November 17, 1869 at Boston’s famed Tremont House. The marriage produced two sons; one of whom, Reuel W. Beach, became a Unitarian minister as later did a grandson, Curtis Beach.

Instead of seeking another church, the young couple purchased a 140-acre farm in Clear Lake, Minnesota. They built a stable in which they lived and started farming. Frances found that frontier life was too hard on her health, so after two years they sold the farm and returned east. The First Parish in Norton, Massachusetts called Beach as its minister in 1873. During his ordination and installation service, he emphasized the “old method of instituted religion” and the ceremony was conducted “in the ancient and accepted way.” At Norton, he concentrated on the youth of the parish, holding frequent communion services as well as special services for “admission into membership.” His stay in Norton was brief. By December 1875, he is listed as the minister of the First Church of Dedham, 25 miles to the north.

His Dedham ministry opened with a town controversy when he preached a temperance sermon whose text was “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” This offended the men and woman of the town who believed in total abstinence. Beach always considered this as the highlight of his thirteen years at the church. Just as significant, however, was the printing of a number of his sermons and other writings. His obituary in the Unitarian Year Book declared that his various congregations considered him “a preacher of exceptional grace and strength.”

Among his published sermons are Our Martyred President: A Tribute to the Memory of James Abram Garfield, 1881, and A Brief History of the Last Three Pastorates in Dedham, 1860-1888, 1888, which included remarks on his own ministry. He also contributed a brief article dealing with the Ethical Cultural Movement to the Unitarian pamphlet The Ethical-basis Movement: Its Motive and Argument, 1886.

Some of his other accomplishments during these years were his supervision of the writing of a new Covenant for First Church, 1878 and his election as secretary of the national Unitarian Ministerial Union. In addition, he was the first person in Dedham to join the Civil Service Reform Association, which worked to make the civil service changes initiated by President Rutherford B. Hayes permanent. Finally, he agitated in Massachusetts for the desirability of a “working conference of churches in the State under an able well-paid leader.”

Beach resigned his pastorate in 1888 when he was appointed Superintendent for Missionary Work in Northern New England for the American Unitarian Association (AUA). He visited struggling parishes in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to help them solve congregational problems and to ensure they had preachers every Sunday. For thriving congregations, his services were limited. He preached to most of them hoping to foster a “sense of denominational fellowship and missionary responsibility.” He also supplied congregations with literature, especially pamphlets, to encourage congregational life and witness. Some of this literature he wrote himself: The American Unitarian Association and Its Needs and District Missionaries: Why Have They Been Appointed? What Do They Accomplish? What is Needed for the Efficient Support?

In January 1891, Beach was called by two Unitarian churches; Lawrence, Massachusetts and Bangor, Maine. Relinquishing his AUA position, he chose Bangor, writing later, that he had gone there “with my head teeming with plans for the organization of the parish and for pushing it to the fore.” Unfortunately, what he termed his “dreams” for the church did not come to fruition except his hopes for an improved Sunday School program. Reviewing his Bangor years, he concluded that preaching had been the high point of his pastorate. In his sermons, he had emphasized his belief in God, rightful duty, temperance, immortality and “when it came, the wickedness of the war with Spain.” These beliefs, he felt, represented “the faith that was in me” during all his years in the ministry. Others also appreciated his ideals, and in June 1901 his alma mater, Union College, awarded him an honorary S. T. D.

When he reached his sixty-fourth birthday in 1901, he decided to retire. At first he and Frances moved to Cambridge to live. He soon discovered that retirement was boring, so in 1902 he became minister of the Unitarian Church in nearby Wayland, Massachusetts which he served until his second retirement in 1911. This time they moved to Watertown, Massachusetts where he and Frances were active members of First Parish. While at Wayland, he also served as president of the Unitarian Ministerial Union, 1907.

At Wayland he wrote his most popular book Daughters of the Puritans, 1905. It was later translated into Japanese and was reprinted in 1967. The book features biographies of Unitarian women who made notable contributions to American life and culture. While the New York Times gave it a mixed review, The New England Magazine declared, “One cannot fail to profit by intimacy with such women and the author of these sketches deserves our thanks for bringing them so intimately to us.”

Beech continued writing during his long retirement. His pamphlet, When I Was a Boy, 1924, which described his childhood in Marion, is, according to a later town historian, “a very accurate account of pioneer days.” He also collected all the poems he had written into one volume, Verses, 1923. Several of these poems were also popular hymns. Indeed, his most lasting contribution to later generations of Unitarian Universalists were his hymns.

Beach’s most enduring hymn, “Mysterious Presence, Source of All”, first appeared in Hymns and Tune Book for the Church and Home, 1868. The hymn subsequently appeared in nearly every American Unitarian hymnbook in the twentieth century, including Singing the Living Tradition, 1993. In Britain it appeared in the Essex Hall Hymnal, 1902 and in subsequent Unitarian collections including Hymns for Living, 1985 and Hymns of Faith and Freedom, 1991. It is found in the University Hymn Book Harvard Chapel, 1895, W. G. Horder, The Treasury of American Sacred Song, 1896, the Quaker Hymns and Songs, 1924, The Hymnal: the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, 1933, and The Churches of God Hymnal, 1953.

He wrote his other widely sung hymn, “Thou One in All, Thou All in One” in 1884. It appeared in The Isle of Shoals Hymn Book, 1908, together with “Mysterious Presence” and the lesser-known “Kingdom of God! The Day How Blest.” “Thou One in All” also appeared in the Unitarian New Hymn and Tune Book, 1914, the Liberal Catholic Church The St. Alban Hymnal, 1921, Hymns of the Spirit, 1937, and in British collections up to Hymns of Faith and Freedom, 1991.

Seth Curtis Beach died in 1932. His interment was at Riverside Cemetery, Augusta, Maine. At the time of his death the Unitarian Year Book called him “the dean of our Unitarian ministers.”

Article by Alan Ruston and Alan Seaburg
Posted January 29, 2012

A ministerial file for Seth Curtis Beach is in the archives of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard Divinity School in Boston, Massachusetts. For biographical data see “Seth Curtis Beach,” General Catalogue of the Divinity School of Harvard University (1915); “Seth Curtis Beach” by Revel W. Beach in Heralds of a Liberal Faith IV: The Pilots, Samuel Atkins Eliot, Ed. (1952); S. C. Beach, “Report”, Sixty-First Anniversary of the American Unitarian Association (1890); and Vera Curtis, History of the Town of Marion (1937).

For information about his hymns see Henry Wilder Foote, comp. American Unitarian Hymn Writers and Hymns (1959) ; Henry Wilder Foote, Three Centuries of American Hymnody (1940) ; Charles William Hughes, American Hymns Old and New: Notes on the Hymns and Biographies of the Authors and Composers (1980); John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology, (1907). See also Clara Bancroft Beatley, Apples of Gold: A Book of Selected Verse (1907) and The Treasury of American Sacred Song (1896). Beach is listed in Who’s Who In New England (1915) and Who’s Who in America. Obituaries appear in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin 34 (1932) and Unitarian Year Book (1933).