Beecher, Henry Ward (1813-1887)

views updated May 14 2018

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)



Difficult Childhood. Henry Ward Beecher overcame several obstacles in his early life to become one of the best-known preachers in American history. He did miserably in school and he stuttered, an inauspicious sign in someone whose father wanted him to join the ministry. (His father was the famous conservative Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher.) Nevertheless, after receiving a bachelors degree from Amherst College, he received a divinity degree from his fathers Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. He then obtained a license to preach from the Cincinnati presbytery in 1837, where he developed such a popular preaching style that he soon attracted offers from prestigious churches.

Permanent Home. Brooklyn was gaining a reputation as a city of churches. People purchased lots, erected brownstones, and created the institutions that supported middle-class nuclear family life. Two of these people were Henry C. Bowen and John T. Howard, Republican and Democratic newspaper publishers, respectively. They helped to organize Plymouth Church and hired Beecher, hoping he would preserve the Orthodox Congregational traditions of their youth and attract many new church members. Beecher took up his duties on 10 October 1847 and, for a while, exceeded everyones expectations. On Sunday mornings Manhattanites boarded ferries to Brooklyn, and at Plymouth Church they entered a theatrical setting, with three thousand ground-floor and balcony seats arranged in a semicircle. The focal point was not a pulpit but an easy chair located on a stage. The congregation joined in the rousing hymns, accompanied by an organ, enjoyed the flowers that decorated the church, and watched as Beecher addressed his audience informally from his easy chair or strode about the stage. The content of Beechers preaching was even more novel.

New Assurance of Salvation. Beecher agreed with his Calvinist forebears that God had given Scripture and social institutions to teach sinners the right way and to control them. However, not everyone still needed to be burdened by such constraints. By living a virtuous life one acquired good work habits which in turn gave him material success. Beecher told his parishioners that they should work to be persons of culture and refinement, sensitive to the gentle guidance God offered them through the beauties of nature and through the opportunities that wealth brought their way. They should strive to be good not out of a sense of duty toward God but because they were so full of love that they would not willingly do wrong.

Scandal. On 21 June 1874 Theodore Tilton published a letter accusing Beecher of seducing Tiltons wife, Elizabeth. Tiltons divorce suit against his wife, and a Congregationalist investigation into Beechers activities, disclosed that Beechers popularity with his flock obscured the harsher judgments of close associates. Bowen had asked Beecher to write for the newspapers he published, but the minister was so late with his essays that the publisher hired Tilton to be his editor and ghostwriter. Tiltons career had taken off from there, and soon he was on the lecture circuit, which gave Beecher the opportunity to visit his helpers wife. The case against Beecher looked bad. However, Mrs. Beecher took her husbands side, and Elizabeth Tilton took the blame for the affair. The court awarded Tilton a divorce from his wife without requiring him to pay her alimony, and the Congregationalist investigation ended with a vote that Beecher was innocent of the charges against him.

Current Events. Beecher kept perfectly in step with historical trends. Like many people in nonslave states, he opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Kansas became open for settlement, he advised those opposing slavery to claim it for freedom, by force if necessary. He opposed immediate abolition, but once the Civil War started, he urged President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the slaves. He was one of the first to advocate lenient Reconstruction measures and a quick return to state government in the South. Beecher supported black voting rights but not social equality, and womens voting rights but not the radicalism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The work of Charles Darwin intrigued the preacher, and he applied the British scientists theories to economics. Beecher continued to preach almost to the end of his life, appearing on his platform for the last time on 27 February 1887; nine days later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.


William G. McLoughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher: An Essay on the Shifting Values of Mid-Victorian America, 1840-1870 (New York: Knopf, 1970);

Altina L. Waller, Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982).

Henry Ward Beecher

views updated May 21 2018

Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), American Congregational clergyman, was an outstanding preacher and lecturer. He was probably the best known and most influential Protestant minister in the United States between 1850 and 1887.

Henry Ward Beecher, the fourth son of Lyman Beecher (whose mantle, reputation, and personality he inherited), was born on June 24, 1813, at Litchfield, Conn. Though an undisciplined student with a greater gift for speaking than studying, he graduated from Amherst College in 1834 and Lane Theological Seminary in 1837. He was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (New School) in 1838, serving first a small parish at Lawrenceburg, Ind., and then the larger Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis after 1839. Here he developed the oratorical style—a singleness of aim which sought to achieve a moral response and change in his hearers—that enabled him to become the most conspicuous preacher in the nation for several decades.

In 1847 Beecher moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., to become pastor of the newly formed Plymouth Church. He remained there the rest of his life and made it one of the most renowned and influential American pulpits, attracting crowds of 2, 500 regularly every Sunday. His striking appearance, dynamic delivery, and ability to speak directly on topics of popular interest gained him a national audience. A stenographer recorded his sermons, which were regularly published and widely read.

With Beecher's uncanny sensitivity to the mood of the nation and the inherent egotism of a showman, his ministry exerted great power. From various platforms he spoke about political as well as religious issues. He was as well known for his Republican party affiliation and advocacy of political issues as for his liberalizing theological views. Frequently he took up the pen and as both author and editor gave his ideas broad circulation. When he became editor of The Christian Union in 1870, he created the first nondenominational religious journal.

Beecher left a legacy of over 40 published volumes, but only a few deserve note. The Life of Jesus the Christ (1871, expanded 1891) revealed his unorthodox views and led to charges of heresy that were intensified after he espoused evolution in Evolution and Religion (1885). His ideas generated some hostility but showed little originality or lasting significance. In contrast, his Yale Lectures on Preaching (3 vols., 1872-1874) revealed him at his best as lecturer and preacher.

Charges of adultery involved Beecher in church investigations and civil trials from 1870 to 1875, but he was never proved guilty and the publicity seemed to have little impact on his popularity. Increasing criticism of his liberalizing theological ideas led him to withdraw from his Congregational Association in 1882 to protect his colleagues. He served Plymouth Church until his death, on March 8, 1887, after a cerebral hemorrhage.

Further Reading

Beecher remains controversial. Sympathetic standard biographies are William C. Beecher and Rev. Samuel Scoville, A Biography of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1888), and Lyman Abbott, Henry Ward Beecher (1903). William Gerald McLoughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher: An Essay on the Shifting Values of Mid-Victorian America, 1840-1870 (1970), analyzes Beecher's thought and the sources of his popularity in 19th-century America. Robert Shaplen, Free Love and Heavenly Sinners: The Story of the Great Henry Ward Beecher Scandal (1954), is a careful, interesting recounting of Beecher's trial for adultery. Paxton Hibben is a skillful debunker in Henry Ward Beecher (1927).

Additional Sources

Abbott, Lyman, Henry Ward Beecher, New York: Chelsea

House, 1980. Clark, Clifford Edward, Henry Ward Beecher: spokesman for a middle-class America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. □

Beecher, Henry Ward

views updated May 14 2018


Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most prominent U.S. ministers of the nineteenth century as well as an active participant in various reform movements.

Beecher was born June 24, 1813, in Litchfield, Connecticut. He was the son of preacher Lyman Beecher and the brother of harriet beecher stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He studied at Amherst College and Lane Theological Seminary and served as a novice minister in Indiana before becoming minister at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, in 1847. A liberal thinker, Beecher was in favor of such principles as women's suffrage, abolition of slavery, and acceptance of the theory of evolution and often lectured on these and other controversial ideas from the pulpit.

Beecher excelled as a speaker and in 1863 he went on a lecture tour throughout England and spoke in support of the Union position in the Civil War.

"It usually takes a hundred years to make a law, and then, after it has done its work, it usually takes a hundred years to get rid of it."
—Henry Beecher

In 1875, Beecher, regarded as one of the United States' foremost preachers, was involved in a sensational trial that damaged his honor. Journalist Theodore Tilton accused the minister

of committing adultery with Mrs. Tilton. Beecher was expertly defended by his attorney, william m. evarts, and, after a lengthy trial, the jury could not agree on a verdict. Beecher's church proclaimed him the victor and officially cleared him of the charges. In spite of the scandal, Beecher continued to be an influential force in the U.S. ministry until his death on March 8, 1887, in Brooklyn.

Beecher, Henry Ward

views updated May 29 2018

Beecher, Henry Ward (1813–87) US Congregational minister, outstanding preacher and influential advocate of social reform, grandfather of Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1847 Beecher became pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church, Brooklyn, New York. Famed for his opposition to slavery, he supported women's voting rights and the scientific theory of evolution. He wrote several books of sermons, a life of Jesus Christ, and a novel Norwood: A Tale of Village Life in New England (1867).

About this article

Henry Ward Beecher

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic