Henry Ward Beecher


         Henry Ward Beecher was one of the leading abolitionists up to and during the Civil War. In fact it is his efforts and work with anti-slavery that earned him a great deal of his national fame and most of his international fame. In 1863 H. W. Beecher went on a lecture tour of Europe. The topic of the tour was slavery and all the evils that resulted from it. Henry had not started out though as an abolitionist. When the issue of slavery first started to brew, Henry was a believer in the idea of colonization. He thought that the two races could never live side by side and produce a healthy and moral society.2  Slowly over time, however, Henry began to change his views. By the time the Civil War started it was clear that Henry Ward Beecher was an abolitionist.

       As the issue grew more debated Henry began to study it. Henry began to think of the issue not as a political or religious in origin, although there were aspects of these in the issue of slavery. Henry felt that slavery was immoral  but it was not the main difference between the North and South. Rather Henry saw slavery as an issue of the conflicting ideas of labor on the North and South. He saw a "dichotomy" between the North and South because he, like Lincoln, did not think that a united Union could be both a slave and free union.3 Henry was on his way to becoming an abolitionist. 

        At first Henry would never have used the pulpit as a place to discuss political problems but he changed his mind over time. The very first sermon that he delivered to his new church, Plymouth Church in New York, stated that "...minister[s] should [talk about] topics of trade, morals, and politics...."4  H. W. Beecher fulfilled this promise very well. One of the first sermons that he delivered to his church in New York was about the wrongs of slavery and how it corrupted society. Beecher spoke out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and did so from the pulpit. Many churches in the North held fundraising events for abolitionists in the Kansas territory. Beecher and his congregation took part of the fundraising, too.5 His church raised money to send to the territory. The church also sent rifles to the territory. These rifles became known as "Beecher's Bibles."6     


Henry stomping on slave chains in his pulpit. From Knox.


        Henry continued to work with the abolitionist movement. In 1856 Henry took part in the Sumner Protest meeting. Senator Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery senator,  had been attacked by Representative John Brooks, a pro-slavery supporter from South Carolina, in the Senate chamber. The Protest meeting was called to speak out against the attack on Sumner and slavery. Henry attended the meeting, yet was not supposed to speak. Some members saw Henry and asked him if he would be willing to make a impromptu speech, which Henry agreed to do. The speech made a hero out of Sumner and a coward out of Brooks. The speech was impromptu but is was a good way for Henry to tell more people outside of his congregation about the dichotomy that he saw and how he condemned it.7 The speech went very well and was published the next day in several newspapers.

        The most outrageous way that Henry Beecher brought the issue of slavery close to the hearts of his congregation was to hold slave auctions in his very own church. He wanted the people of his church to see exactly what happened at a slave auction. He wanted them to have first hand knowledge about the issue they were fighting against. This was a unique quality of Beecher. Almost everyone in the North was turning against slavery but few had seen it first hand. Henry wanted his congregation to be educated about what they were fighting against. The first time that an auction was held, Henry read the characteristics of the slave girl and auctioned her off himself. The congregation was greatly moved and raised not only enough money to buy the freedom of the girl but also the freedom of her child.8 Henry continued to host auctions in his church and each one was a success. There was a catch, however, to Beecher's auctions. All of the slaves looked more white than black; therefore, it was easier for his congregation to relate to the slaves than if they had been dark-skinned.9 

        Henry Beecher was not afraid to publicly support many abolitionists, who many felt were too extreme in their beliefs and actions. He supported John Brown.  He preached this from his pulpit. He spoke out against Lincoln and the Fugitive Slave Laws. He and his church were part of the Underground Railroad. His church was often called the Grand Central Depot.10 In a time when many ministers tried to stay out of the fighting, Henry Beecher charged the way for the fight against slavery. He had done a complete 180 degree turn from the ideas that he held as a youth and was not afraid to voice his opinions against slavery. 


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        2. Jane Shaffer Elsmere. Henry Ward Beecher: The Indiana Years, 1837-1847.
Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1973). 69

        3. Halford R. Ryan, Henry Ward Beecher: Peripatetic Preacher  (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 33.

        4. Ibid.,  32.

        5. "Henry Ward Beecher," n.d., <www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASbeecher.htm>. (14 March 2001). 

        6. Mark Galli,  "Firebrands and Visionaries," Christian History 11, no. 1 (1992) 49 par., <http://www.ebsco.com> (18 March 2001) : par. 48.

        7. Ryan, Henry Ward., 34.

        8. Ibid., 38.

        9. Ibid., 38.

       10. Thomas Knox, Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher (Hartford: Hartford Publishing Company, 1887), 141.