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People & Ideas: Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher

Source: Library of Congress

Prominent Congregational minister, abolitionist and social reformer, Henry Ward Beecher embodied the transition of American Protestantism from stern Calvinism to a buoyant "gospel of love."

One of 12 children, Henry's father was Lyman Beecher, the famous Presbyterian minister who preached a strict Calvinist orthodoxy. Religion pervaded every aspect of Henry's childhood: Church attendance, daily prayer and hymn singing were obligatory. Henry and his siblings were forbidden to celebrate Christmas or observe their birthdays. He wistfully recalled: "I never heard of Santa Claus when I was a boy. I never hung up a stocking. I feel bad about it to this day. A little love was what I wanted."

Beecher graduated from Lane Theological seminary, where his father served as president. In 1847, he was appointed minister of the new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. His Sunday sermons drew the rich and famous -- Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln commented that no one in history had "so productive a mind." Twain described Beecher's preaching style: "Sawing his arms in the air, howling sarcasms this way and that, discharging rockets of poetry and exploding mines of eloquence, halting now and then to stamp his foot three times in succession to emphasize a point."

Beecher coupled his flamboyant preaching style with a message that broke from the stern Calvinism that had held American Protestantism in its unforgiving embrace. If Lyman Beecher stressed the problem of sin, his son taught the power of Christ's love: "It is Love the world wants. Higher than morality, higher than philanthropy, higher than worship, comes the love of God. That is the chiefest thing." As his biographer Debbie Applegate has observed, God was not an exacting judge but a loving parent.

Deeply attuned to the progressive intellectual and social currents of the day, Beecher believed that religion must adapt to changing times. He extolled temperance, embraced women's suffrage and argued that Darwin's theory of evolution was compatible with the Bible. Beecher also advocated abolition. As Applegate explains, "He leveraged his personal charisma for the cause, turning his massive church into a powerful antislavery institution, reputed to be a stopping place for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad." Pro-slavery Southerners and their Northern sympathizers lashed out at him for polluting the church with politics.

But his liberal sentiments did not extend to the working class. During the Great Railway Strike of 1877, he admonished the strikers whose wages had been cut. In his famous "Bread and Water" sermon, he proclaimed, "Men cannot live by bread alone, but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live."

Beecher's celebrity status earned him the sobriquet of "the most famous man in America." But his reputation was tarnished by charges that he had committed adultery with Elizabeth Tilton. Beecher was eventually exonerated.

Henry Beecher died on March 8, 1887, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Today he is mostly remembered as the younger brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. But as Applegate observes, his legacy lives on in the message of Christ's love that pervades American Protestantism.

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Published October 11, 2010

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