Henry Ward Beecher was born on June 24, 1813, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Son of the prominent Calvinist minister Lyman Beecher, Henry became a celebrated Congregationalist preacher who emphasized God’s love rather than God’s punishment, also using his position to advocate abolitionism while encouraging churchgoers to buy freedom for enslaved individuals. In the 1870s, he became involved in an adultery scandal widely covered by the press. He died on March 8, 1887, in Brooklyn, New York.
Early Life and Education
Henry Ward Beecher was born on June 24, 1813 in Litchfield, Connecticut, the eighth of 11 children fathered by Lyman Beecher, a prominent minister. His mother Roxana died when Henry was 3 years old, and he developed a close relationship with his slightly older sister Harriet (who later wrote the famous antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
Beecher developed a robust love of nature while having a challenging time with public speaking due to a stutter. His time at Mount Pleasant Classical Institute in Massachusetts ameliorated his speech difficulties, with the youngster growing in confidence as an orator. He later attended Amherst College, graduating in 1834, and in 1837 married Eunice White Bullard, whom he had met at school. The couple had 10 children (some reports say 11), four of whom lived to adulthood.
Like his father and brothers, Beecher entered the ministry. He attended Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, where his father was president. Beecher's first parishes were in Lawrenceburg and Indianapolis, both in Indiana. During his years there, he became an enthralling speaker and antislavery activist.
Even though struggling financially, Beecher developed a solid reputation in what were then the western states, which were less formal and rigid than the more established eastern states. Then in 1847 Beecher became minister of the newly founded Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York. Biographer/scholar Debby Applegate describes Beecher as possessing an “odd combination of western informality, eastern education, and unabashed showmanship.” These qualities led to his fame and influence, second only to that of sister Harriet among Lyman Beecher’s accomplished children.
'Gospel of Love'
With Henry Ward Beecher as its minister, Plymouth Church regularly had a packed house for its 3,000 seats and became a tourist attraction for people visiting New York City. Henry Ward Beecher was a full-out celebrity.
His beliefs about God contradicted the strict Calvinism that his father had preached. Beecher instead emphasized God’s forgiveness of human sin and preached a “gospel of love,” which posited a caring, rather than a punishing, deity. Eventually, as Beecher's religious beliefs evolved, he was so certain of God’s love that he stopped believing in hell. Aspects of this theology would have reverberating effects on U.S. worship decades later.
Abolition, the Civil War and Suffrage
Beecher also believed that politics had a place in the ministry. As tensions increased between North and South in the years leading up to the Civil War, he spoke out against slavery, using his role as minister to spread his views.
Beecher became known not only for controversial ideas but for controversial methods as well. For example, he staged slave auctions at his church to convince his congregants to donate enough money to buy freedom for enslaved people being sold. During the period known as “Bleeding Kansas” (in the 1850s, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act), Beecher corralled resources and weapons for the abolitionist settlers engaged in combat to keep the affiliated territories free of slavery. The guns came to be called “Beecher’s Bibles,” because they were shipped in boxes labeled “Bibles.”
In 1863, Beecher went to England, where he presented five speeches about U.S. slavery and abolition. At the time, American leaders were concerned that Great Britain would support the South in the Civil War, and Beecher’s eloquence helped ensure that it did not. President Abraham Lincoln was so certain that the minister’s speeches had influenced the outcome of the war that he sent Beecher to Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, to raise the U.S. flag after the South surrendered.
Over the years, Beecher aided other reform movements. He supported women’s suffrage and spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted immigration from China. He also believed in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Notorious 19th-Century Scandal
In the 1870s, Beecher became embroiled in what was seen as a major 19th-century scandal. One of his congregants, Theodore Tilton, accused Beecher of having an affair with Tilton’s wife Elizabeth. With Beecher widely rumored to have had dalliances with various congregants and activist Victoria Woodhull making media-based allegations about his behavior, two church tribunals nonetheless found him innocent. (Elizabeth Tilton also confessed to adultery and then withdrew her confession several times.) In 1875, Tilton sued Beecher. The civil trial lasted for six months and ended with a hung jury.
The scandal didn’t affect Beecher’s position at Plymouth or his popularity, as attendance to the church increased and he was given an enormous bonus. Beecher kept his job and continued to enjoy celebrity until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage on March 8, 1887 in Brooklyn, New York, with an official day of mourning held upon his passing.
A lauded historical work from Applegate was published in 2006—The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. The book won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
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