Kris Dryden

 

April 5,1999

 

Dr. Tallant

 

History 338

 

The Life of Henry Ward Beecher

The son of Lyman Beecher, Henry was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 24, 1813. He would become one of the most famous preachers and lecturers in American history. His theological views were fairly orthodox, but he would attract large crowds throughout the United States and England because of his intelligent lectures and universal messages. Henry Ward Beecher’s life was very diverse spanning through his childhood, his school years, his ministry life, his political views and finally his scandalous years.

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Photo is Mathew Brady Studio Albumen silver print (carte de visite), circa 1861
8.5 x 5.3 cm (3 5/16 x 2 1/16 inches)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Harriet Beecher Stowe1811 - 1896
Lyman Beecher1775 - 1863
and Henry Ward Beecher1813 - 1887 from
http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/brady/gallery/05gal.html

 

Table of Contents

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Childhood

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School Years

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Ministry Life

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Political Views

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Scandalous Years

Henry Ward Beecher was a clumsy, bashful boy. At first he was very eager to go to school. He attended the Widow Kilbourne’s School. Beecher’s childish eagerness vanished quickly because of the Widow Kilbourne’s conception of education which was routine memorizing.1 While Beecher was free from this dreaded school on Sundays, there was not much time for recreation. He had to go to church for most of the day. In most families the younger child receives more freedom to have fun, but in the Beecher family this was not the case. A new child was not a novelty in the Beecher family. By the time Henry Ward Beecher appeared he was the eighth child. While in church his father was preaching his expectedly long, and to most boys, completely boring sermons. The young Beecher would usually fall asleep during these sermons. Soon after he would feel a slap on his head by his stepmother. Henry Ward Beecher’s childhood was not entirely hard. During his childhood, he loved life unless he was in school or in church.

Henry Ward Beecher owes most of his moral development to two people, his maternal mother, Roxanna Foote, and to a hired black man.2 Beecher had no memories of his mother past the age of three but he always felt a moral presence in those memories. It was a feeling of someone watching over him, perhaps a guardian angel. The other influence in Henry Ward Beecher’s life was from a very humble servant man. This man would open new directions and new impulses to him. In fact it could be said the rest of Beecher’s life regarding the conflict of the black man could be traced to him. When Beecher was eight years old he slept in the same room as this man who worked on his father’s farm. He would watch the serving man lie in bed and read the Bible. The black man often laughed and talked about what he read to himself. This was the first time the young Beecher had the Bible read to him. It was not only read to him but the Bible was brought to life right before him. Beecher got his first sense of religious joy from this man. This would play a huge role in Beecher’s faith and the faith of others.

After Beecher’s lack of progress in the much hated district school, his father sent him to Hartford to attend the Hartford Seminary. There he earned a reputation as a "ladies man" but he was certainly far from being a quality student. In the year 1826, Beecher was thirteen and his father took a job in Boston as the minister of the Hanover Street Church. Naturally, the rest of the family followed the father to Boston. School life for the young Breecher would only get tougher when he moved to Boston. He went to the Boston Latin School.3 Beecher hated Boston, he often got in fights with the neighborhood boys. He also tried not to maximize his education. The only enjoyment Henry Ward Beecher received from Boston was from the local church and by watching the ships sail out of the harbor. He often dreamed of strange lands and adventures. Finally he came to his first great inspiration. Since school life was so intolerable, he felt he must journey across the sea. Unfortunately he could not get his father’s permission. Beecher’s father was determined for his son to enter the ministry. The next stop for the young Beecher in his education was Mount Pleasant Collegiate Institute at Amherst, Massachusetts. While attending the Institute Beecher began to see improvement in his speaking skills which was a surprise for such a bashful boy.4 Three years later Beecher entered Amherst College in the year of 1834. He was eager to improve his public speaking skills so he could debate in school activities. He soon won recognition as the leading debater of the college and was elected the president of the debating team or Athenian Society, a position usually held by the presumptive valedictorian of the class, an honor which Henry Ward Beecher was never in any danger of achieving. He began to work with religious aspects of the college by speaking at prayer meetings. When a revival overtook the college he had his second conversion which had most curious effects. He became conscious of his sinful state but did not know what to do about it.5 Beecher often experienced desperation and frustration with himself. But things would eventually pan out over time.

During his sophomore year Beecher’s friend and classmate, Ebenzer Bullard, took him and another classmate home with him during a vacation. Beecher soon fell in love with Ebenzer’s handsome sister, Eunice. The next winter Beecher convinced Eunice’s unsuspecting father to allow him to tutor her in Latin. As the winter session grew closer Beecher slipped a note into Eunice’s mailbox asking her to accompany him on a missionary trip. At first Eunice’s father did not approve because they felt they were too young. But Beecher’s persuasive skills proved to be too strong and the father gave in. While on the trip Beecher earned five dollars for his presentation and he quickly bought an engagement ring for Eunice. This ring would later serve as her wedding ring too. Finally, Henry Ward Beecher graduated in 1834. His sister, Harriet would attend the graduation coming all the way from Cincinnati. Soon after the graduation Beecher returned with his sister to Cincinnati where entered Lane Theological Seminary of which his father had for two years been the president6 He treated his theological classes just as he treated all other course work, as secondary interest. When Beecher was not in class he was a very diverse individual: He taught a Sunday-class of young ladies in his father’s church, he sang in the church choir, he became a deputy sheriff patrolling the streets to prevent any pro-slavery mobs and finally he became the editor of the Cincinnati Journal for which he wrote anti-slavery editorials. Many of these editorials were considered dangerous by the conservative citizens. While in school only one course caught Beecher’s attention, which discussed the Bible. His future brother-in-law, Professor Calvin Ellis Stowe, taught the class. Beecher would make use of Professor Stowe’s methods and theories of studying the Scriptures. After three years, in 1837, Henry Ward Beecher graduated from Lane Seminary. He finished his formal education even though he put forth little effort. Beecher even mastered theories of theology just so his father would back off. He was now prepared to enter the real world. Beecher’s goal was to bring individuals to their highest potential to make the most of their lives. He hoped to excite people by preaching the word of God.

After Henry Ward Beecher graduated from Lane Seminary, he preached for a short time in Convington, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati. He was then persuaded to preach at a small, run-down church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. They were in desperate need of a preacher so he quickly accepted. Beecher would soon find out that this church was too poor to pay him, in fact they were too poor to supply itself. Beecher even had to go out on his own and raise money for lamps and hymnal books. Once this young preacher got this church on its feet he turned his concerns elsewhere, namely his beloved Eunice. Beecher had not seen her since he graduated from Amhurst. He wrote her a letter proclaiming that after he was ordained they should get married. Even though he did not have much to offer her she accepted. Back home Beecher’s friends and family were frustrated with him because he took such an awful job in Lawerenceburg especially since he was the son of the famous Lyman Beecher. Beecher could not be any happier, he enjoyed the challenge. He would rather start at the bottom and work his way to the top, to make something out of nothing.

Some months after the wedding Beecher was called before the Oxford Presbytery, the local authority in his denomination. The Presbyterians were going to be divided into the Old and the New School. The Old-School was controlled by Scotch-Presbyterians, relentless Calvinists. Since Henry Ward Beecher had always made his own path he decided that his church would not join the Old-School and would stay an independent Presbyterian Church part of the New-School.7 This was a shock because Beecher’s father supported the Old-School Presbytery. The only thing that explained this was that Beecher wanted to come out from his father’s shadows and make his own name.

Beecher began to receive callings from other churches wanting to hire him. He turned all of them down wanting to stay loyal to his church. Finally, his church decided it would be in his best interest to move on. Beecher took a ministry position in Indianapolis, the Second Presbyterian Church. This young minister began a revival of faith by converting nearly one hundred people to the church. While at Indianapolis Beecher became irritated at his preaching. He felt he was not making a difference in many people’s lives. Beecher began to study how the Apostles had preached and try to apply those same methods. He realized the secret was to speak to the audiences level of comprehension. This brought Beecher much popularity, but it also upset the conservative religious people of the community. His sermons began to attack subjects that related to everyday life, such as drinking, immorality and gambling. These lectures created such joy and excitement that Beecher put them into publication so more could be influenced by his thoughts.

As Beecher’s popularity grew he started to speak of more controversial subjects such as slavery. In fact slavery was the hottest topic of the day. Abolitionists were the primary enemy of slavery. They were looked upon as radicals and a threat to society. Beecher himself was not a abolitionist and he never became one either, but he was clearly against slavery. He often preached about slavery in the church. He usually used the Bible as his weapon against slavery stating that it was immoral. In all of this controversy Beecher’s wife was prematurely aging. The doctor said that a change of climate was essential to her recovery. Keeping this in mind Beecher accepted a job in Brooklyn, New York which would later be named the Plymouth Church established by the Pilgrims. The young Beecher moved his family to Brooklyn in 1847, ready for a new challenge.

While at the Plymouth Church Henry Ward Beecher continued to denouce slavery. Mostly the rich and well-to-do supported slavery. They felt that sermons denouncing slavery actual hurt business and the slave because the master would tighten his grip on the slave. This is the atmosphere in which Beecher had to preach.8 But this was a theme of Beecher, upholding what he thought was right even though it was against the majority. Beecher’s sermons did not catch hold of many people at first. For the first six months the attendance was very low. People did not appreciate Beecher’s western style of preaching. After six months people started to come around, in two years the church could not even hold all the people in the congregation. So why did people all of the sudden become interested in Beecher? They came because he offered a universal message (same method as the Apostles), one that any individual could apply to their lives. Beecher quickly became known as a reformer. He felt it was his duty to save people, to bring the best out of people, and for people to live a righteous life. As Beecher felt his acceptance grow he found it easier to talk about slavery. He became a untiring enemy of slavery. He felt that slavery was not a public question but a religious question of what is right and wrong. Beecher began to study the constitution along with slavery. He came to the conclusion that slavery and free labor were two contradictory principles in our society that would always be in conflict until the nation unifies as a free nation or a slave nation. Beecher believed this unification could only occur by physical force.

In 1850 Henry Clay helped create a series of compromises between the free and slave states. The North would gain California as a free state and South could enforce a fugitive slave law which prohibited the assistance to runaway slaves and also required free states to help capture these fugitives.9 At this point in time Beecher was writing for The Independent. He wrote that these compromises were not the solution the conflict over slavery. Beecher did not believed in instant emancipation either. He felt the best course of action was to keep slavery contained in the states they were already present. He figured slavery would die out eventually because it was inherently wasteful.

Henry Ward Beecher took a leave of absence, except for Sunday service, in order to devote his time to a cause that he viewed as Christ’s cause. As soon as Lincoln (also against slavery) was nominated Beecher campaigned for him. After his election into office and after the outbreak of war, Beecher, who was greatly supported by his church, utilized his every resource to the winning of the war. He preached, wrote editorials, and lectured. He also used his salary to go towards the cause, including the income from his writings and lectures. As the war slowly waged on Beecher became increasingly frustrated at the political powers in charge, namely President Lincoln. Beecher was upset about how the war was being dragged out. Beecher was under the presumption that slavery was the underlying cause of the war, basically if slavery did not exist there would be no war.10 Beecher would then demand for the emancipation of the slaves. Even though he unjustly attacked the President, Beecher’s tactics helped arouse public opinion to support anti-slavery. His attacks also put Beecher out of favor with the Administration. By the spring of 1863 Beecher’s tireless fight against slavery left him drained and fatigued. The church and his friends became very worried and eventually asked him to take a vacation to Europe.

Hoping to escape the frustration and struggle against slavery, Beecher arrived in England only discover that the country was pro-southern. Most of the nobility and upper class favored on the side of Confederacy. Beecher decided to leave England for more hospitable surroundings. He stayed in Brussels for a short while but quickly decided he missed the excitement of conflict and debate. As soon as Beecher returned to England he was urged to make a series of speeches. These series of speeches began in Manchester and would continue through Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London.11 Beecher began by detailing the history of slavery in America and then stated that the war was merely a violent phase of the struggle between slavery and freedom. His third point explained how the nation had been ruled by the South in regards to slavery, and when the Lincoln administration was installed they could no longer rule. The result was they rebelled from the nation. Beecher’s finally stressed that slavery was the only cause of the war and that the North was only protecting their free labor and way of life. These speeches greatly angered the pro-southern Englishmen. They began to slander him in English newspaper and tried to intimidate Beecher. At Liverpool, pro-slavery supporters made a stand against him. Beecher received a number of threats against his life. People waited outside the lecture halls for Beecher, some heavily armed. But Beecher’s speeches were successful in gaining supporters because the common person in England lost their jobs because of southern cotton. They then decided to side with the North. News also reached England that Grant was victorious at Vicksburg and Lee was defeated at Gettysburg. These events made Beecher’s efforts that more effective in gaining supporters. It has been believed that without the Beecher’s lectures in the British Isles the Confederacy could have won the support of Great Britain and France in the war effort. Beecher rapidly gained fame in the British Isles and back at home for his fight against slavery.

Henry Ward Beecher went to England as a popular preacher, editor and lecturer, but he became out of favor with the Washington Administration because of his criticism during the war. On his return to the states he became a famous man and a savior of the country. After President Lincoln was assassinated Andrew Johnson was elected president. There was a huge conflict between Johnson and Congress (controlled by the radical Republicans) over how the nation should deal with the South. For fear of losing his job as the nation's highest paid preacher Beecher endorsed Johnson’s reconstruction ideas. By supporting Johnson, Beecher also alienated most of his Republican friends.12 Beecher would again fall out of favor with the powers that be by supporting General Robert E. Lee, who was going to be the president of Washington University in Lexington, Virginia. The radical Republicans were very hesitant to let a former Confederate military leader in a position of great influence. Just as the conflict against slavery had tired Beecher he once again felt it was time to get away and relax. He would often take vacations to the country to get away from his hectic life. During this period of Beecher’s life his enemies were preparing to jump at any opportunity to slander him.

In 1860, Henry C. Bowen, the treasurer of Plymouth Church attained control of The Independent. The first thing Bowen did was give Theodore Tilton (Beecher’s portage) power of Beecher’s editorship. Within a year Beecher turned in his resignation because he was disgusted by the way the newspaper was being run. Bowen, realizing the loss of Beecher would cost him dearly, gave in and agreed to let Beecher have final say over the decisions of the paper. This struggle of power would eventually destroy their friendship. Soon rumors began to spread about Beecher’s moral character. It was thought these rumors originated from Bowen. Both Bowen and Tilton were known supporters of the radical Republicans. This would also ultimately create a bigger gap between them and Beecher. Over the course of time tensions became so high that Beecher left The Independent and became the editor of The Christian Union.13

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Time passed and things settled down a little until one day Mrs. Tilton came to Mrs. Beecher for advice about her husband. This was not too unusual because Beecher was Mrs. Tilton’s pastor. Mrs. Tilton would tell Mrs. Beecher of her husbands cruelty, unfaithfulness, and her unhappiness. Mrs. Tilton wanted to know if she should separate from her husband. With Mr. Beecher’s approval Mrs. Beecher advised her that a separation would be her best interest. Later Theodore Tilton accused Beecher of committing adultery with his wife. The scandal went public the next day. Tilton would bring suit against Beecher. The suit brought a long trial that would wear Beecher out mentally. The trial would finally end in a disagreement by the jury leaving Beecher’s reputation smeared and unclear. Most importantly, even though Beecher’s wife trusted him, there was tension now present in their relationship. Later there would be an investigation by a council of Congregational churches that fully exonerated him, but the damage had been done. When ever anyone would think of Henry Ward Beecher, his name would be linked to this scandal.

 

photo from http://www.brown.edu/Facilities/University_Library/publications/
RLCexhibit/beecher/beecherms.html

 

After the scandal was over Henry Ward Beecher would do more lecturing than he ever had in his life. He was very eager to try and put back together his reputation. He even pieced together a series of tours where he would speak in an attempt to rebuild his name. The rest of Henry Ward Beecher’s life would continue in this manner, to rebuild that which once was. When studying Beecher it seemed as though he died because he was just tired, drained of all life. The end of Henry Ward Beecher’s life does not reflect what type of man he was. He was a man who came out from under his father’s shadow and quickly took his own path. Beecher always stood up for what he believed in even if it went against the majority. Beecher was also very loyal to his friends and his wife. He was never intimidated and he never backed down from a conflict. In fact he seemed to be attracted by conflict, it was enjoyable for him. If Henry Ward Beecher’s life became too boring for him it seemed that he would find an dispute and/or a conflict. Unfortunately this constant conflict in Beecher’s life finally wore him down. He eventually died on March 8, 1887. Henry Ward Beecher died as the most important preacher of his time. He was a great man who influenced many.

 

Footnotes:

1. Wilson Rugoff, The Beechers. 113

2. Lyman Beecher Stowe, Saints, Sinners and Beechers. 239

3. Thomas Knox, Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher. 48

4. Ibid., 49

5. Stowe, Saints, Sinners and Beechers. 261

6. Jane Elsmere, Henry Ward Beecher. 27

7. Knox, Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher. 98

8. Ibid., 143

9. Constance Rouke, Trumpets of Jublilee. 165

10. Stowe, Saints, Sinners and Beechers. 280

11. Rugoff, The Beechers. 392

12. Knox, Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher. 212

13. Rouke, Trumpets of Jublilee. 189

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