Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), American Congregational clergyman, was an outstanding preacher and lecturer. He was probably the best known and most influential Protestant minister in the United States between 1850 and 1887.

Henry Ward Beecher, the fourth son of Lyman Beecher (whose mantle, reputation, and personality he inherited), was born on June 24, 1813, at Litchfield, Conn. Though an undisciplined student with a greater gift for speaking than studying, he graduated from Amherst College in 1834 and Lane Theological Seminary in 1837. He was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (New School) in 1838, serving first a small parish at Lawrenceburg, Ind., and then the larger Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis after 1839. Here he developed the oratorical style—a singleness of aim which sought to achieve a moral response and change in his hearers—that enabled him to become the most conspicuous preacher in the nation for several decades.

In 1847 Beecher moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., to become pastor of the newly formed Plymouth Church. He remained there the rest of his life and made it one of the most renowned and influential American pulpits, attracting crowds of 2, 500 regularly every Sunday. His striking appearance, dynamic delivery, and ability to speak directly on topics of popular interest gained him a national audience. A stenographer recorded his sermons, which were regularly published and widely read.

With Beecher's uncanny sensitivity to the mood of the nation and the inherent egotism of a showman, his ministry exerted great power. From various platforms he spoke about political as well as religious issues. He was as well known for his Republican party affiliation and advocacy of political issues as for his liberalizing theological views. Frequently he took up the pen and as both author and editor gave his ideas broad circulation. When he became editor of The Christian Union in 1870, he created the first nondenominational religious journal.

Beecher left a legacy of over 40 published volumes, but only a few deserve note. The Life of Jesus the Christ (1871, expanded 1891) revealed his unorthodox views and led to charges of heresy that were intensified after he espoused evolution in Evolution and Religion (1885). His ideas generated some hostility but showed little originality or lasting significance. In contrast, his Yale Lectures on Preaching (3 vols., 1872-1874) revealed him at his best as lecturer and preacher.

Charges of adultery involved Beecher in church investigations and civil trials from 1870 to 1875, but he was never proved guilty and the publicity seemed to have little impact on his popularity. Increasing criticism of his liberalizing theological ideas led him to withdraw from his Congregational Association in 1882 to protect his colleagues. He served Plymouth Church until his death, on March 8, 1887, after a cerebral hemorrhage.

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Further Reading on Henry Ward Beecher

Beecher remains controversial. Sympathetic standard biographies are William C. Beecher and Rev. Samuel Scoville, A Biography of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1888), and Lyman Abbott, Henry Ward Beecher (1903). William Gerald McLoughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher: An Essay on the Shifting Values of Mid-Victorian America, 1840-1870 (1970), analyzes Beecher's thought and the sources of his popularity in 19th-century America. Robert Shaplen, Free Love and Heavenly Sinners: The Story of the Great Henry Ward Beecher Scandal (1954), is a careful, interesting recounting of Beecher's trial for adultery. Paxton Hibben is a skillful debunker in Henry Ward Beecher (1927).

Additional Biography Sources

Abbott, Lyman, Henry Ward Beecher, New York: Chelsea

House, 1980. Clark, Clifford Edward, Henry Ward Beecher: spokesman for a middle-class America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.