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Henry Ward Beecher
Henry Ward Beecher - Brady-Handy.jpg
Beecher, between 1855 and 1865
Born (1813-06-24)June 24, 1813
Died March 8, 1887(1887-03-08) (aged 73)
  • Congregational clergyman
  • abolitionist
Eunice White Beecher
(m. 1837)
Appletons' Beecher Lyman - Henry Ward signature.png

Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887) was an American Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, and speaker, known for his support of the abolition of slavery. His rhetorical focus on Christ's love has influenced mainstream Christianity to this day.

Beecher was the son of Lyman Beecher, a Calvinist minister who became one of the best-known evangelists of his era. Several of his brothers and sisters became well-known educators and activists, most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe, who achieved worldwide fame with her abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Henry Ward Beecher graduated from Amherst College in 1834 and Lane Theological Seminary in 1837 before serving as a minister in Indianapolis and Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

In 1847, Beecher became the first pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York. He soon acquired fame on the lecture circuit for his novel oratorical style in which he employed humor, dialect, and slang. Over the course of his ministry, he developed a theology emphasizing God's love above all else. He also grew interested in social reform, particularly the abolitionist movement. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he raised money to purchase slaves from captivity and to send rifles—nicknamed "Beecher's Bibles"—to abolitionists fighting in Kansas. He toured Europe during the Civil War, speaking in support of the Union.

After the war, Beecher supported social reform causes such as women's suffrage and temperance. He also championed Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, stating that it was not incompatible with Christian beliefs.

After the death of his father in 1863, Beecher was unquestionably "the most famous preacher in the nation". Beecher's long career in the public spotlight led biographer Debby Applegate to call her biography of him The Most Famous Man in America.

Early life

Henry Ward Beecher daguerreotype
Daguerreotype of Beecher as a young man

Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the eighth of 13 children born to Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian preacher from Boston. His siblings included author Harriet Beecher Stowe, educators Catharine Beecher and Thomas K. Beecher, and activists Charles Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker, and his father became known as "the father of more brains than any man in America". Beecher's mother Roxana died when Henry was three, and his father married Harriet Porter, whom Henry described as "severe" and subject to bouts of depression. Beecher also taught school for a time in Whitinsville, Massachusetts.

The Beecher household was "the strangest and most interesting combination of fun and seriousness". The family was poor, and Lyman Beecher assigned his children "a heavy schedule of prayer meetings, lectures, and religious services" while banning the theater, dancing, most fiction, and the celebration of birthdays or Christmas. The family's pastimes included story-telling and listening to their father play the fiddle.

Beecher had a childhood stammer. He was also considered slow-witted and one of the less promising of the brilliant Beecher children. His poor performance earned him punishments, such as being forced to sit for hours in the girls' corner while wearing a dunce cap. At 14, he began his oratorical training at Mount Pleasant Classical Institute, a boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts where he met Constantine Fondolaik Newell, a Smyrna Greek. They attended Amherst College together, where they signed a contract pledging lifelong friendship and brotherly love. Fondolaik died of cholera after returning to Greece around October 1848, and Beecher named his third son after him.

During his years in Amherst, Beecher had his first taste of public speaking, and he resolved to join the ministry, setting aside his early dream of going to sea. He met his future wife Eunice Bullard, the daughter of a well-known physician, and they were engaged on January 2, 1832. He also developed an interest in the pseudoscience of phrenology, an attempt to link personality traits with features of the human skull, and he befriended Orson Squire Fowler who became the theory's best-known American proponent.

Beecher graduated from Amherst College in 1834 and then attended Lane Theological Seminary outside Cincinnati, Ohio. Lane was headed by Beecher's father, who had become "America's most famous preacher". The student body was divided by the slavery question, whether to support a form of gradual emancipation, as Lyman Beecher did, or to demand immediate emancipation. Beecher stayed largely clear of the controversy, sympathetic to the radical students but unwilling to defy his father. He graduated in 1837.

Early ministry

On August 3, 1837, Beecher married Eunice Bullard, and the two proceeded to the small, impoverished town of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where Beecher had been offered a post as a minister of the First Presbyterian Church. He received his first national publicity when he became involved in the break between "New School" and "Old School" Presbyterianism, which were split over questions of original sin and the slavery issue; Henry's father Lyman was a leading proponent of the New School. Because of Henry's adherence to the New School position, the Old School-dominated presbytery declined to install him as the pastor, and the resulting controversy split the western Presbyterian Church into rival synods.

Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York
Plymouth Church in 1866

Though Henry Beecher's Lawrenceburg church declared its independence from the Synod to retain him as its pastor, the poverty that followed the Panic of 1837 caused him to look for a new position. Banker Samuel Merrill invited Beecher to visit Indianapolis in 1839, and he was offered the ministry of the Second Presbyterian Church there on May 13, 1839. Unusually for a speaker of his era, Beecher would use humor and informal language including dialect and slang as he preached. His preaching was a major success, building Second Presbyterian into the largest church in the city, and he also led a successful revival meeting in nearby Terre Haute. However, mounting debt led to Beecher again seeking a new position in 1847, and he accepted the invitation of businessman Henry Bowen to head a new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. Beecher's national fame continued to grow, and he took to the lecture circuit, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the country and charging correspondingly high fees.

In the course of his preaching, Henry Ward Beecher came to reject his father Lyman's theology, which "combined the old belief that 'human fate was preordained by God's plan' with a faith in the capacity of rational men and women to purge society of its sinful ways". Henry instead preached a "Gospel of Love" that emphasized God's absolute love rather than human sinfulness, and doubted the existence of Hell. He also rejected his father's prohibitions against various leisure activities as distractions from a holy life, stating instead that "Man was made for enjoyment".

Social and political activism

Henry Ward Beecher - Project Gutenberg eText 15394
Sketch of Henry Ward Beecher


Henry Ward Beecher became involved in many social issues of his day, most notably abolition. Though Beecher hated slavery as early as his seminary days, his views were generally more moderate than those of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who advocated the breakup of the Union if it would also mean the end of slavery. A personal turning point for Beecher came in October 1848 when he learned of two escaped young female slaves who had been recaptured; their father had been offered the chance to ransom them from captivity, and appealed to Beecher to help raise funds. Beecher raised over two thousand dollars to secure the girls' freedom. On June 1, 1856, he held another mock slave auction seeking enough contributions to purchase the freedom of a young woman named Sarah.

In his widely reprinted piece "Shall We Compromise", Beecher assailed the Compromise of 1850, a compromise between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces brokered by Whig Senator Henry Clay. The compromise banned slavery from California and slave-trading from Washington, D.C. at the cost of a stronger Fugitive Slave Act; Beecher objected to the last provision in particular, arguing that it was a Christian's duty to feed and shelter escaped slaves. Slavery and liberty were fundamentally incompatible, Beecher argued, making compromise impossible: "One or the other must die". In 1856, Beecher campaigned for Republican John C. Frémont, the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party; despite Beecher's aid, Frémont lost to Democrat James Buchanan. During the pre-Civil-War conflict in the Kansas Territory, known as "Bloody Kansas", Beecher raised funds to send Sharps rifles to abolitionist forces, stating that the weapons would do more good than "a hundred Bibles". The press subsequently nicknamed the weapons "Beecher's Bibles". Beecher became widely hated in the American South for his abolitionist actions and received numerous death threats.

In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln sent Beecher on a speaking tour of Europe to build support for the Union cause. Beecher's speeches helped turn European popular sentiment against the rebel Confederate States of America and prevent its recognition by foreign powers. At the close of the war in April 1865, Beecher was invited to speak at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, where the first shots of the war had been fired; Lincoln had again personally selected him, stating, "We had better send Beecher down to deliver the address on the occasion of raising the flag because if it had not been for Beecher there would have been no flag to raise." (See Raising the Flag at Fort Sumter.)

Other views

Gulliver und die Partei-Liliputaner 1885 (Henry Ward Beecher)
Beecher as Gulliver (1885)

Beecher advocated for the temperance movement throughout his career and was a strict teetotaler. Following the Civil War, he also became a leader in the women's suffrage movement. In 1867, he campaigned unsuccessfully to become a delegate to the New York Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868 on a suffrage platform, and in 1869, was elected unanimously as the first president of the American Woman Suffrage Association.

In the Reconstruction Era, Beecher sided with President Andrew Johnson's plan for swift restoration of Southern states to the Union. He believed that captains of industry should be the leaders of society and supported Social Darwinist ideas. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, he preached strongly against the strikers whose wages had been cut, stating, "Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live," and "If you are being reduced, go down boldly into poverty". His remarks were so unpopular that cries of "Hang Beecher!" became common at labor rallies, and plainclothes detectives protected his church.

Influenced by British author Herbert Spencer, Beecher embraced Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in the 1880s, identifying as a "cordial Christian evolutionist". He argued that the theory was in keeping with what Applegate called "the inevitability of progress", seeing a steady march toward perfection as a part of God's plan. In 1885, he wrote Evolution and Religion to expound these views. His sermons and writings helped to gain acceptance for the theory in America.

Beecher family - DPLA - 058493eb23817c1d4d05fd4d492ad52b (page 1)
Beecher family, [ca. 1859–1870]. Carte de Visite Collection, Boston Public Library.

Beecher was a prominent advocate for allowing Chinese immigration to continue to the US, helping to delay passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act until 1882. He argued that as other American peoples, such as the Irish, had seen a gradual increase in their social standing, a new people was required to do "what we call the menial work", and that the Chinese, "by reason of their training, by the habits of a thousand years, are adapted to do that work."

Personal life


Henry Ward Beecher Chaplain
Henry Ward Beecher, circa 1878, the year he was appointed chaplain of the New York National Guard's 13th Regiment

Beecher married Eunice Bullard in 1837 after a five-year engagement. Their marriage was not a happy one; as Applegate writes, "within a year of their wedding they embarked on the classic marital cycle of neglect and nagging", marked by Henry's prolonged absences from home. The couple also suffered the deaths of four of their eight children.

Later life and legacy

Later life

In 1871, Yale University established "The Lyman Beecher Lectureship", of which Henry taught the first three annual courses. After the heavy expenses of the trial, Beecher embarked on a lecture tour of the West that returned him to solvency. In 1884, he angered many of his Republican allies when he endorsed Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland for the presidency, arguing that Cleveland should be forgiven for having fathered an illegitimate child. He made another lecture tour of England in 1886.

On March 6, 1887, Beecher suffered a stroke and died in his sleep on March 8. Still a widely popular figure, he was mourned in newspapers and sermons across the country. Henry Ward Beecher is interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.


In assessing Beecher's legacy, Applegate states that

At his best, Beecher represented what remains the most lovable and popular strain of American culture: incurable optimism; can-do enthusiasm; and open-minded, open-hearted pragmatism ... His reputation has been eclipsed by his own success. Mainstream Christianity is so deeply infused with the rhetoric of Christ's love that most Americans can imagine nothing else, and have no appreciation or memory of the revolution wrought by Beecher and his peers.

In 1929, First Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceburg was renamed Beecher Presbyterian.

A Henry Ward Beecher Monument created by the sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward was unveiled on June 24, 1891, in Borough Hall Park, Brooklyn, and was later relocated to Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn in 1959.

A limerick written about Beecher by poet Oliver Herford became well known in the USA:

Said a great congregational preacher
To a hen, "You're a beautiful creature."
And the hen, just for that,
Laid an egg in his hat,
And thus did the Hen reward Beecher.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. offered his own limerick on Beecher:

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
Called the hen a most elegant creature.
The hen, pleased with that,
Laid an egg in his hat,
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.

Christopher J Barry, Canadian published songwriter, offered this alternative limerick:

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
Said of hens: "some are elegant creatures".
Of the hens pleased with that,
Some laid eggs in his lap.
What will judgement day hatch for the preacher?



Statue of Henry Ward Beecher in Downtown Brooklyn, New York

Henry Ward Beecher was a prolific author as well as speaker. His public writing began in Indiana, where he edited an agricultural journal, The Farmer and Gardener. He was one of the founders and for nearly twenty years an editorial contributor of the New York Independent, a Congregationalist newspaper, and from 1861 till 1863 was its editor. His contributions to this were signed with an asterisk, and many of them were afterward collected and published in 1855 as Star Papers; or, Experiences of Art and Nature.

In 1865, Robert E. Bonner of the New York Ledger offered Beecher twenty-four thousand dollars to follow his sister's example and compose a novel; the subsequent novel, Norwood, or Village Life in New England, was published in 1868. Beecher stated his intent for Norwood was to present a heroine who is "large of soul, a child of nature, and, although a Christian, yet in childlike sympathy with the truths of God in the natural world, instead of books." McDougall describes the resulting novel as "a New England romance of flowers and bosomy sighs ... 'new theology' that amounted to warmed-over Emerson". The novel was moderately well received by critics of the day.

List of published works

  • Seven Lectures to Young Men (1844) (pamphlet)
  • Star Papers; or, Experiences of Art and Nature (1855). Columns from the New York Independent. New York: J. C. Derby.
  • Life Thoughts, Gathered from the Extemporaneous Discourses of Henry Ward Beecher by One of His Congregation. Notes taken of Beecher's sermons by Edna Dean Proctor. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Company, 1858
  • Notes from Plymouth Pulpit (1859)
  • Plain and Pleasant Talk About Fruits, Flowers and Farming. Articles taken from the Western Farmer and Gardner New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859.
  • The Independent (1861–63) (periodical, editor)
  • Eyes and Ears (1862) (collection of letters from the New York Ledger newspaper)
  • Freedom and War (1863) Boston, Ticknor and Fields (1863).
  • Lectures to Young Men, On Various Important Subjects. New edition with additional lectures. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868
  • Christian Union (1870–78) (periodical, as editor)
  • Summer in the Soul (1858)
  • Prayers from the Plymouth Pulpit (1867)
  • Norwood, or Village Life in New England (1868) (novel)
  • Life of Jesus, the Christ (1871) New York: J. B. Ford and Company.
  • Yale Lectures on Preaching (1872)
  • Evolution and Religion (1885); reissued by Cambridge University Press 2009. ISBN: 978-1-108-00045-1
  • Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887)
  • A Biography of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher by Wm. C. Beecher and Rev. Samuel Scoville (1888)

In popular culture

Arthur Conan Doyle mentioned Henry Ward Beecher in his Adventure of the Cardboard Box. A passage in the story reveals Dr. Watson to be an avid admirer of Beecher, whose portrait he keeps at his home.

Beecher Cascades on Crawford Brook in Carroll, New Hampshire, is named for him. It is rumored that he slipped and fell into the brook there on a visit.

In March 1993, a new musical, Loving Henry, inspired by the Beecher–Tilton scandal, was presented at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn. It was written by Dick Turmail and Clinton Corbett, with the music composed by jazz violinist Noel Pointer.

See also

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