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Henry Ward Beecher - Biography

Henry Ward Beecher (1813 –1887) was an abolitionist, social reformer, novelist, essayist and speaker. His roles were aided by his position as a Congregationalist clergyman, Beecher was also the editor for publications including The Independent and Christian Union. Beecher was also the author of many pamphlets and books that left a lasting mark on the American psyche. This work included Eyes and Ears, Summer in the Soul, Prayers from the Plymouth Pulpit, Norwood, or Village Life in New England, Life of Jesus Christ, Yale Lectures on Preaching, and Evolution and Religion. Many of Henry Ward Beecher’s siblings also made their impact on the culture including Harriet Beecher Stowe (a writer), Catharine Beecher and Reverend Thomas K. Beecher (educators) and Charles Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker (activists).

On June 24, 1812, Henry Ward Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut to Roxana Foote and Lyman Beecher. Of the nine Beecher children, Henry Ward Beecher would be the second youngest. His mother died three years later.

Lyman Beecher was a preacher for the Presbyterian Church. The Beecher family held to a strict interpretation of the teachings of the church. The family also had many church obligations including frequent lectures and prayer meetings. The Beechers rejected superficial acts and banned the celebration of birthdays, Christmas, and dancing. Theater was also forbidden, and works of fiction were acceptable only so long as they were of high literary and moral content. Lyman Beecher believed in the Calvinist precepts of predestination and that faith was a tool to rid society of sin and inequity. In contrast, Henry Ward Beecher would come to believe that God’s love would purge humanity of their sin.

Beecher was educated at the Boston Latin School and Amherst College. After three years of study at Amherst College, Henry Ward Beecher graduated in 1837. At Amherst College, Beecher studied the classics and also gained an interest in phrenology. While at Amherst, Beecher also became engage to Eunice White Bullard. Beecher would later earn a degree from Lane Theological Seminary. This Seminary located near Cincinnati, Ohio was, at the time, run by Lyman Beecher.

From 1837 until 1839, Henry Ward Beecher took his first ministerial position in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Towards the beginning of this period, Beecher returned to New England to marry Eunice White Bullard. While Beecher tended to his wife in Lawrenceburg, his wife delivered their first child. The couple would have eight children, but only half of them survived into adulthood. From 1839 until 1847, Beecher he served as the pastor for the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. While in Indianapolis, Beecher cultivated his love for gardening. He wrote a column about his horticultural experience in columns published in The Indiana Journal. In 1847, Henry Ward Beecher became the first minister of the new Plymouth Congregational Church located in Brooklyn, New York.

Beecher was very concerned about the spread of slavery into the territories. He used his pulpit as the means of disseminating his abolitionist views. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act replaced the Missouri Compromise, Beecher vocally supported the Kansas-Immigrant Aid Society, a group understood by many as a partisan group that wanted to thwart the local democratic process by moving partisans into regions that might vote for anti-abolitionist platforms. Beecher further inflamed the tense situation by sending arms shipments to the partisans he supported. He labeled cartons of rifles Bibles. The paramilitary groups supported by recent immigrants to Kansas, called the guns, which were used to injure and kill both anti-abolitionist militants and civilians, Beecher’s Bibles. Henry Ward Beecher gave his full-voiced support to John Brown who was eventually executed for his attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Beecher took this opportunity to transform the militant into a martyr. Beecher, also, gave his political support to the Republican Party. He campaigned for Abraham Lincoln (who would suspend Habeas Corpus during the American Civil War.) Once Beecher became a contributor to The Independent his views were able to reach a national audience. He was viewed as a major influence in shaping the public opinion for those supporters of the North.

While the American Civil War (1860-1865) killed and maimed more American citizen than any other conflict, Henry Ward Beecher demanded that President Abraham Lincoln emancipate all slaves through executive order. After the Union forces retook Fort Sumter in 1865, Lincoln selected Beecher to speak to commemorate the event. Beecher, at that time, was so popular he was viewed as second only to Lincoln in shaping the post-war American identity.

Henry Ward Beecher was an animated and performative preacher. He won praise and admiration from many people including Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Some of his antics included trampling the chains of John Brown and holding simulated auctions in which members of the congregation were asked to buy the freedom for actual slaves. One young girl, Pinky, was one of the former slaves liberated by Beecher’s actions. The congregation raised nine hundred dollars to buy Pinky from her owner in one day. This action is representative of Beecher’s larger abolitionist goals.

In 1866, Beecher wrote the “Cleveland Letter.” This work argued that the states that had seceded should be returned to their place in the union and that the occupied military governments should be dismissed. Beecher had come to believe that wealthy industrialists would give the country its guidance. Beecher embraced the idea of survival of the fittest as expressed in the theory of evolution. He went the further step to apply this idea to the social sphere. In his construction of evolution, the wealthy were the fittest in society and therefore the most advanced.

Henry Ward Beecher would further show his nonconformist and iconoclastic beliefs in science by showing vocalizing the idea that God was a part of nature and not the causal forces of the universe. In 1882, Beecher removed his Plymouth Church from the Congregational Association. In 1885, he published Evolution and Religion, a work that expressed his new understanding of religion.

In the 1870s, Beecher weathered an adultery scandal by Theodore Tilton. Tilton’s wife, Elizabeth, claimed that she had had an affair with Beecher. Although Elizabeth Tilton would later retract her accusation, Henry Ward Beecher would still face a storm. He at first ignored the charges, and then publicly denied them. Theodore Tilton sued Beecher asking for $100,000 in damages. The jury failed to agree, and Beecher was not subjected to fiscal penalty. Beecher’s wife openly supported him as well as most of his family. However, one of his sisters openly supported Theodore Tilton’s cause.

Despite the damage to his reputation caused by the controversy, Beecher was still widely respected. He received two year-long appointments to lecture preaching from Yale University. These courses were gathered and published as in 1874.

On March 8, 1887, Henry Ward Beecher passed away. The cause of his death was a cerebral hemorrhage. A day of mourning was declared in Brooklyn and many national leaders (including President Grover Cleveland) lamented the passing of this clergyman. The black commander of the William Lloyd Garrison Post in Massachusetts and a former Confederate general from Virginia led the procession. These two men walked arm in arm, demonstrating the greater forgiving humanity that Henry Ward Beecher believed in.

Henry Ward Beecher was a prominent Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer and abolitionist. (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887).