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Rev. Henry Ward Beecher


WE hazard little in saying that there is no living man in America whose name is more widely known than that of the Plymouth pastor. Other clergymen, other public lecturers, other authors, other reformers (for he is equally popular in all these capacities), may have a wide spread local reputation; they may be quite well known in one section or another of the country, and their names may have some currency in all sections, but from the inhabitant of the remotest province of the Dominion of Canada on the northeast, to the Rio Grande in the southeast, from Alaska to the Capes of Florida, there is no man of ordinary intelligence, black or white, who does not know something of Henry Ward Beecher.

Yet this man has held no civil office, or been a candidate for any ; he has commanded no armies, fought no battles with carnal weapons ; he is not a millionaire, nor has he ever possessed the fortune to endow or establish a college, a hospital, a seminary, or an asylum. He is eloquent, but he has not the musical voice, nor does he utter the polished periods of Phillips, or the grand and stately sentences of Sumner; he is brave and fearless, but pluck is not so rare an attribute in American character, as to make its possessor an object of such universal Yet it is certain that he possesses qualities and talents which have made him, in some respects, the foremost man, and the finest representative of the best traits of American character our country has yet produced.

For twenty-five years, he has drawn to the plain church edifice in which he preaches, in winter and summer, in spring and autumn, a constant congregation of from twenty-five hundred to three thousand persons, in fair weather and foul, and very often hundreds more have endeavored in vain to get within the sound of his voice. Among his audiences, are men from every State in the Union, some of them renting sittings for the year, to secure seats during the month or two they may be in New York. The annual rental of the pews of this church brings in a revenue of from $50,000 to $60,000, and has steadily increased from year to year.

No such audience could have been maintained for a fourth of that period by any clap-trap or artifice on the part of the preacher; certainly not in a community as intelligent as that of Brooklyn.

But the delivering of three discourses a week, of such wonderful freshness, originality, and eloquence, that when reported for the press, as they have been regularly, they have secured hundreds of thousands of readers (and during the whole period of twenty-one years, he has never repeated a sermon, so affluent is his imagination, and so abundant his mental resources), and the pastoral care of a church now numbering about two thousand members, have by no means exhausted the extraordinary vitality of this remarkable man. During a period of ten or twelve years, he was a constant contributor to the Independent newspaper, his articles being signed with an asterisk, and was generally, but erroneously supposed to be the editor of the paper. From 1861 to 1863, he was its editor-in-chief, and wrote such vigorous stirring leaders, as are seldom found anywhere, and after withdrawing from that paper he was a constant contributor to others, and since 1869 has been the brilliant editor of the Christian Union, now the most widely circulated religious paper in the world.

For the whole twenty-five years he has been an able and prominent leader in most of the measures of reform, addressing audiences all over the country at least thirty or forty times the course of the year, on Anti-Slavery and Republican topics, Temperance, the Reformation of Morals, Juvenile Reform, etc., and until the past two or three years delivered about fifty lyceum lectures a year, from Maine to Minnesota. As the best extemporaneous platform speaker in America, he has always been in demand on all anniversary occasions, and never failed to acquit himself with credit. 

He has found time to prepare several books of his own, and to revise volumes of his sermons, selected passages from his discourses, etc., which others have compiled. Within the past year and a half he has written and published, first as a newspaper serial, and afterwards as a volume, a novel of New England. life, and is now engaged upon a "Life of Christ," of which the first volume has recently appeared. In the abundance of these avocations, and the immense correspondence which they necessitate, he finds leisure for the cultivation of his artistic tastes, and his intense love of the beautiful, both in nature and art. He ranks very high as a connoisseur in all art matters. His house is filled with choice pictures; his large library contains the best works on art, many of them with costly illustrations; and both in Brooklyn and at his Peekskill farm, where he spends much of his time during the later summer and early autumn, he has a great profusion of flowers

Let us turn now to the life history of this man, so wonderful for his genius, the versatility of his talents and his untiring industry, and see if, by so doing, we can obtain any insight into the sources of his great powers.

The Beecher family is one of extraordinary gifts and intellectual power. They trace their ancestry to John Beecher, who came over to New England with Davenport in 1636, and settled, with his mother, in New Haven. His descendants seem to have been favored in their choice of wives, and some of the best Scotch and Welsh blood in the nation has mingled with the powerful physique of the English stock, to produce a combination of remarkable vitality and intellectual energy. Rev. Lyman Beecher, D. D., the father of Henry Ward, was one of the most remarkable men of the last generation. It was said of him that he was the father of more brains than any other man in America," and the remark was undoubtedly true. Of his thirteen children cloven grew up to adult age, and all his seven sons became clergymen, and most of them were distinguished for intellectual ability, while of the four daughters, two, Miss Catharine E. Beecher, and Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, have won a world-wide reputation, the former by her able works on education, physiological, social, intellectual and domestic; the latter by her brilliant fictions, which have achieved a greater success than was ever accorded to those of any other writer. Dr. Lyman Beecher was brought up on a farm, but entered Yale college in 1793, and graduated in 1797, with a fair standing. He was a vigorous original thinker, and after he entered the ministry soon attained a high reputation for the keenness of his dialectic powers, and the energy and fire which he threw into his public and private teachings. He was eloquent, wonderfully so, after his fashion, and his powerful denunciations of intemperance, and of the Unitarian dogmas, have never been surpassed in vividness or point. He wrote, too, on controversial subjects, with decided ability, and his written productions were remarkable for finish and purity of style. He was successively pastor of a Presbyterian church at Easthampton, Long Island, a Congregational church at Litchfield, Connecticut, and the Hanover Square (afterwards Bowdoin street) Congregational church, Boston. In 1832, at the age of nearly fifty-seven, he was called to the presidency of the Lane Theological seminary, near Cincinnati, Ohio, where he remained till 1851, when he returned to Boston, and in 1856 to Brooklyn, where his last years were spent. He was thrice married. His first wife, the mother of Henry Ward Beecher, was a Miss Roxana Foote of Guilford, Connecticut, a woman of remarkable intellectual powers, great personal attractions, and a most gentle, lovely, and engaging temper. The subject of our sketch inherits, from his father, his abundant vitality, his intellectual vigor and earnestness, his overflowing humor, and his power to move and thrill the masses; and from his mother, his artistic tastes, his fondness for nature, his intuitions toward the beautiful, and that delicacy, tact, refinement and amiability, which have made him so widely popular.

HENRY WARD BEECHER was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, June 24, 1813. The first thirteen years of his life were passed in this quiet rural village, which. had then a circle of intellectual, cultivated men and women, such as are not often found in much larger towns. When he was but little more than three years of age, he lost his mother, a great loss for a sensitive, affectionate, and thoughtful child ; but one made up, in part, by the influence of the gifted and accomplished woman, who, sonic fourteen months later, took her place as the wife of Dr. Beecher. It is indicative of his thoughtfulness and affection, young as he was, at the time of his mother's death, that having heard that she was to be buried in the ground, and again that she had gone to heaven, he commenced digging very earnestly under the window of her room, and could hardly be persuaded to desist, saying that "he wanted to dig down and get to heaven, where his mamma was."

As he grew older, he was a healthy, robust boy, active in all outdoor sports and exercises, a little clumsy perhaps, but affectionate and loving. He gave at this time but little promise of his subsequent intellectual power ; his voice was husky and thick, and he spoke so indistinctly that it was a cause of anxiety to his family ; he was shy, and had the misfortune of losing his memory, or rather becoming confused, from shyness, when called on to repeat what he had learned. In one of those interesting reminiscences of his childhood, in which he is prone to indulge in his lecture-room talks, he tells us that he was at times very unhappy in childhood, from the difficulty he found in obtaining from any body any clear explanations of the great ethical and theological questions which haunted his soul. He had been brought up under a very rigid, Calvinistic training, and the dogmas of that creed puzzled and distressed him, and any efforts which were made to explain them, only confused him the more. In the end, however, this exercise of the mind with great, though but partially understood thoughts, may have been a benefit, for it made him more anxious, in his own ministry, to use the utmost clearness and simplicity in explaining these truths 'to the young, the simple and the ignorant. On his father's removal to Boston, he found himself in a new sphere. He was sent to the Boston Latin school, but the impatience of what seemed to him unmeaning forms, and the deficiency of his verbal memory, made the formal training there inexpressibly irksome to him. The wharves, and the ships, with their precious cargoes from the far orient, which lay beside them, roused his passion for the sea, and boy-like, he resolved to become a sailor. His father somehow ascertained his restless craving, and like a skilful tactician, did not discourage it, but turned it into a better channel. He was sent to the Mount Pleasant school, at Amherst, Massachusetts, to study mathematics and other branches, to qualify himself, should he subsequently desire it, to enter the navy. Here, he fell under the care of excellent and skilful teachers, who roused his interest and ambition in mathematical studies; by careful and protracted training greatly improved his elocution, and gave him that impulse to study which made him a really brilliant student. Physiological studies, and indeed those appertaining to physical science generally, had a strong attraction for him, and the charming illustrations drawn from nature and natural scenery which have begemmed so many of his discourses and lectures, have been among the results of these favorite pursuits.

Though decidedly a religious man in his college course (for he entered Amherst college in 1830) the superabundance of the humorous element in his nature, made him something of a wag, never given to malicious or practical jokes, but brimfull and running over with fun; and those who know him now, do not need to be assured that he did not leave all his humorous propensities behind him at Amherst. Yet this gay, joyous temper, was but the sparkle and foam at the surface; below it there were depths of earnest tenderness, which demonstrated 
the truth of the old epigram, that "tears are akin to laughter."

His thorough previous training had given him more than the usual time for general reading and culture, and apart from his physiological and phrenological researches, he read largely of the works of the great divines and authors of the seventeenth century, and thus imbibed that intense love for the vigorous Saxon of that period, which has been one of the many elements of his great success as a preacher. The taste thus formed has been since sedulously cultivated, and it would surprise a person whose attention had not previously been called to it, to note how very few words, not of direct Saxon origin, are to be found in his sermons. He has, indeed, been charged with making an unwarrantable use of the sermons of the old divines, but the charge is as absurd as it would be to accuse him of borrowing from Webster's dictionary. He has borrowed their quaint modes of thought, at times, but that was inevitable in the effort to express the ideas of our time, in the garb of Saxon undefiled which they used and delighted in. Beyond this there has been no plagiarism on his part.

His college course was not completed till 1834, two years after his father had accepted the presidency of Lane seminary, and thither he went to pursue his theological studies, and to find his father in the fore-front of the fierce battle, then waging between the old and new school parties in the Presbyterian church. Under such circumstances, his theological training was likely to be dialectic, rather than practical; but it was not in the power of even his father's great influence to make him a controversialist. He reverenced his father, and, as in duty bound, took up arms in his defence, but his own theology was of a more peaceful, even if a less logical character, and though in the battle, he was not of it. His theological course completed, he married, and was ordained as pastor of a Presbyterian church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. His fine descriptive powers, and the intensely sympathetic character of his preaching, led to his transference, two years later (in 1839), to the pastorate of the First Presbyterian church in Indianapolis. Here a wide door opened before him. Ile had not been long a resident of the capital of the State, before his church was thronged with crowds, eager to hear the young preacher, whose vivid word painting and power, in presenting Christ in his relations to humanity in all the forms of joy and sorrow, was something so new and impressive. He delivered a course of lectures to young men while in Indianapolis, which were published, and had an immense sale, which has continued to the present day. Even thus early, his tendency to combine, with his pastoral duties, labors not usually regarded as clerical, began to manifest itself. For a few months before his ordination, he had edited the organ of the Presbyterian church, at Cincinnati, in the absence of its responsible editor ; but at Indianapolis, in addition to his other duties, he undertook the editorship of an agricultural paper, and discussed, learnedly and interestingly too, the rotation of crops, manures, the best methods of cultivation, breeds of cattle, horses and swine, and other topics which most interest the farmer. He could not avoid, however, having a department for floriculture, and in that he poured out the wealth of his love of nature. The paper was popular, and reached a large circulation for a paper of that class.

Meantime his reputation as a preacher was growing also. Eastern men, making a tour of the West, were attracted by the fame of the young Indianapolis pastor, went to hear him from curiosity, and were delighted. Some of these men being about to establish a new Congregational church in Brooklyn, New York, resolved to make the effort to obtain him for their pastor.

Their call was, after some hesitation, accepted, and in the autumn of 1847, he entered upon his labors with this new church in Brooklyn, to which the name of Plymouth church had been given. They met at first, and till their church edifice was erected, in a rude, plain, but capacious "tabernacle;" and this was at once filled to overflowing. It very soon became the fashion to "go and hear Beecher ;" and those who went once, were very sure to come again. The boyish-looking pastor (for though thirty-four years old when he removed to Brooklyn, he had a very youthful. appearance), with his easy, careless ways, had a faculty, when the inspiration was on him, of winning all hearts, now creating a smile by the aptness and homeliness of some illustration, or by the slight touch of humor which he could not wholly suppress, and anon melting them to tears by his deep pathos, and his vivid portrayal of the Divine love. Then the church edifice was completed, that too was soon filled, nay, crammed, with eager listeners. People said that it would not last; that as soon as the excitement was over, his congregation would dwindle till it was no larger than that of other pastors : but it has kept up to its first standard, or rather increased, for twenty-five years. Repeated attempts have been made by other denominations to find a man who would draw to their churches such a body of worshippers, but in vain.

Meantime, Mr. Beecher never seemed elated by his success; he knew, of course, as every strong man does, his power, but it did not make him vain. His church grew in number, and has been, for years past the largest evangelical church in the Northern States, if not in the country. In the Sunday-school, in the mission-schools, and in its ample support of all noble and good enterprises, Plymouth church has been worthy of its pastor. When he was installed as pastor, the congregation gave him a yearly salary of fifteen hundred dollars. They have increased it, till now, for two or three years past, it has been twenty thousand dollars.

As we have already said, Mr. Beecher does a vast amount of work outside of his duties as preacher and pastor. He has so much vitality, such a power for work in him, that he would be wretched if he could not expend his vital force on good and worthy objects. He has made good use of his physiological studies in keeping himself always in the best possible condition for efficient labor. He takes much active exercise, avoids whatever is likely to impair his health, and trains himself to those economies of time and toil which are the result of thorough system. When he works intellectually it is with all his might, and when he rests, he does it as thoroughly. His labors as contributor and editor of the Independent, his platform speeches, his lectures, his efforts to benefit the city of his adoption, his active political canvass in 1856 and 1860, for Fremont and Lincoln, his great expenditure of time, strength, zeal and money in raising the Long Island regiment and other troops for the war, his constant and effective labors in behalf of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, and the efforts necessary to keep so large a congregation at a white heat, in their interest in behalf of the war and its objects, though in him only the natural and easy manifestation of his great capacity for work, would have been of themselves more than most men could have endured. Yet except during his visit to England in 1863, he intermitted none of his ordinary pulpit labors during the war, nor did he manifest any less than his usual fervor and eloquence in them.

It must be acknowledged, however, that his extraordinary exertions, during the first two years of the war, together with the editorial charge of the Independent, and his duties as preacher and pastor, had, for once, sapped his strength, and were making inroads upon a constitution so vigorous as previously to require no seasons of relaxation and rest. He found himself compelled to take a voyage to England, and endeavor thus to restore his wasted strength, and fit himself the better for the arduous toils yet to come. It was his intention, as he went solely for the restoration of his health, not to preach or speak in public during his absence, and to this resolution he adhered during his first visit to England and while on the Continent. But, on his return to England, in October, 1863, he found that our friends there required encouragement, and that there was a necessity for disabusing the minds of the English people of the errors and falsehoods, which had been widely propagated among them by the emissaries of the South. He spoke at Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and London, to audiences of many thousands, and though, in Manchester and Liverpool, the friends of the rebellion had assembled mobs to prevent his speaking, and had attempted to accomplish this, not only by noise, but by threats of personal violence, he succeeded, by dint of fearlessness, good humor, and the power of his voice, in calming the tumult and making himself heard on all the points of the controversy between the two great parties at home, as well as on the difficulties between the United States and European nations. These addresses were of great service in strengthening the hearts of our friends in England, in diffusing correct and much needed information in regard to the real issues at stake, and in encouraging the true men at home. It was a noble service, nobly rendered.

After his return, Mr. Beecher entered with renewed zeal upon the work of aiding our soldiers, providing for the wounded and their families, and upholding the administration, during the trying period of the great battle year, 1864. After the close of the war, he went to Charleston, and assisted in raising the old flag upon Sumter, making an eloquent address on the occasion.

Since that time, in addition to his clerical and editorial labors (on the Christian Union, since 1869,) he has been active in other literary enterprises, has devoted much time to public addresses of all sorts, political, literary and religious; and during the past 
year (1872) has delivered a course of theological lectures on breaching (on the Safe foundation) to the Yale Divinity School.

Mr. Beecher's disposition, though brave, as becomes his lineage, is yet greatly inclined to mercy. When the war was over he was in favor of the formula of Mr. Greeley, "Universal Amnesty and Universal Suffrage," and was so much inclined to forgive the rebels. whom he supposed to be generally penitent, that he would have been disposed to accept the universal amnesty without the suffrage, for the present, believing that this would come by and by. He had full confidence, too, in Mr. Johnson's good faith and real desire for the reconstruction of the rebellious States on righteous and just principles. For a while, these views alienated from him some of those who had long been his warmest friends, and caused those who had been his bitter enemies to praise him, and to offer him political positions. This and the course of events soon opened his eyes to the false position in which the promptings of his generous nature had placed him. It is needless to say, that he had never, for an instant, faltered in his devotion to the great principles for which he and his friends had so long contended. It was only a question of the propriety of certain measures, and ere long, he saw his mistake, and took his place with the earnest friends of reconstruction on the principles laid down by Congress.

In the campaign of 1872 he supported President Grant, though not with the ardor of some of his previous campaign speeches, and with a fairness and justice toward those who held other views, which was highly honorable to him and worthy of general imitation by public speakers.

We conclude, then, this sketch of Mr. Beecher, with the earnest hope that a life, so full of usefulness, so active in every good cause, so earnest in the promotion of all patriotic measures, may be long protracted, and that a generation yet to come may be blessed by his ministrations.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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