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This is an article about Henry Beecher, the American clergyman. For the medical doctor, see Henry K. Beecher.
Henry Ward Beecher
File:Henry Ward Beecher - Brady-Handy.jpg
Henry Ward Beecher
Born June 24, 1813(1813-06-24)
Litchfield, Connecticut, U.S.
Died March 8, 1887 (aged 73)
Brooklyn, New York
Occupation Protestant Clergyman, Abolitionist
Spouse(s) Eunice White Beecher
Parents Lyman and Roxana Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887) was a prominent, Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist, and speaker in the mid to late 19th century. An 1875 adultery trial in which he was accused of having an affair with a married woman was one of the most notorious American trials of the 19th century.[1] In 2007, The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Early life[]

File:Henry Ward Beecher daguerreotype.jpg

Daguerreotype of Beecher as a young man

Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, he was the son of Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian preacher from Boston, and Roxana Foote. Roxana died when Henry was three. Henry was the seventh of 13 siblings, some of whom were famous in their own right: Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin; noted educator Catharine Beecher; activists Charles Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker. In addition Henry was the uncle of Edgar Beecher Bronson.

The Beecher household was exemplary of the orthodox ministry that Lyman Beecher preached. His family not only prayed at the beginning and end of each day but also sang hymns and prepared for other rigorous church obligations. The family members were expected to participate in prayer meetings, attend lectures and other church functions. "Undue frivolity was discouraged, so they did not celebrate Christmas or birthdays. Dancing, theater, and all but the most high-toned fiction were forbidden." [2]

Henry was especially close to his sister Harriet, two years his senior, according to the web site of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York City. "This friendship with Harriet continued throughout their lives, and she was still listed on the membership rolls of Plymouth Church when she died in 1896."[3]

"Henry, bashful and mumbling as a child, began his oratorical training at Mt. Pleasant Institution, a boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts."[3]

File:Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York.jpg

Plymouth Church in 1866

Beecher also attended Boston Latin School, graduated from Amherst College in 1834 and in 1837 received a degree from Lane Theological Seminary outside Cincinnati, Ohio, which his father then headed. First becoming a minister in Lawrenceburg (1837-39) he was then pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church (1839-47).

Minister, author and lecturer[]

In 1847, he was appointed the first minister of the new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. That fall, Beecher and his wife, the former Eunice Bullard, and their three surviving children moved to Brooklyn.

Beecher's fame on the lecture circuit led to his becoming editor of several religious magazines, and he received large advances for a novel and for a biography of Jesus.[1]


Henry's father preached a form of Calvinist theology that "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," according to historian Michael Kazin. [1]

"For (Henry) Beecher, sinfulness was a temporary malady, which the love of God could burn away as a fierce noonday sun dries up a noxious mold," according to Kazin.[1]

Social and political views[]

File:Henry Ward Beecher - Project Gutenberg eText 15394.jpg

Sketch of Henry Ward Beecher

An advocate of Women's suffrage, temperance and Darwin's theory of evolution,[4] and a foe of slavery and bigotry of all kinds (religious, racial and social), Beecher held that Christianity should adapt itself to the changing culture of the times. Later, in the 1870s and 1880s, Beecher became a prominent advocate for allowing Chinese immigration to continue to the United States, and is credited for delaying the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act until 1882. Beecher compared Chinese immigrants favorably to Irish immigrants, and argued that excluding the former from entering the country while allowing the latter was an unjust practice.

During the antebellum period, he raised funds to buy weapons for those willing to oppose slavery in Kansas and Nebraska, and the rifles bought with this money became known as "Beecher's Bibles". Politically active, he supported first the Free Soil Party and later the Republican Party.

During the American Civil War, his church raised and equipped a volunteer infantry regiment. Early in the war, Beecher pressed Lincoln to emancipate the slaves through a proclamation. The preacher later went on a speaking tour in England to undermine support for the South by explaining the North's war aims. Near the end of the war, when the Stars and Stripes were again raised at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Beecher was the main speaker.[3]

Beecher's liberalism did not extend to the "working class" . During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 he preached strongly against the strikers whose wages had been cut. His notorious "bread and water" sermon included "Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live". The following Sunday heard "If you are being reduced, go down boldly into poverty". He then left for a two month vacation in Europe.[5]

His last words were, "Now comes the mystery."

Preaching style[]

Thousands of worshipers flocked to Beecher's enormous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Abraham Lincoln (who said of Beecher that no one in history had "so productive a mind") was in the audience at one point, and Walt Whitman visited him. Mark Twain went to see Beecher in the pulpit and described the pastor "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." [6]

Beecher himself had this to say of his preaching style: "From the beginning, I educated myself to speak along the line and in the current of my moral convictions; and though, in later days, it has carried me through places where there were some batterings and bruisings, yet I have been supremely grateful that I was led to adopt this course. I would rather speak the truth to ten men than blandishments and lying to a million. Try it, ye who think there is nothing in it! try what it is to speak with God behind you,--to speak so as to be only the arrow in the bow which the Almighty draws." [7]

"He obtained the chains with which John Brown had been bound, trampling them in the pulpit, and he also held mock 'auctions' at which the congregation purchased the freedom of real slaves," according to the Web site of the still-existing Plymouth Church. The most famous of these former slaves was a young girl named Pinky, auctioned during a regular Sunday worship service at Plymouth on February 5, 1860. A collection taken up that day raised $900 to buy Pinky from her owner. A gold ring was also placed in the collection plate, and Beecher presented it to the girl to commemorate her day of liberation. Pinky returned to Plymouth in 1927 at the time of the Church's 80th Anniversary to give the ring back to the Church with her thanks. Today, Pinky's ring and bill of sale can still be viewed at Plymouth."[3]

Personal life[]


Statue of Henry Ward Beecher in Downtown Brooklyn, New York

Beecher-Tilton scandal[]

"His career took place during what one scholar has called the Protestant Century," according to Kazin, "when an eloquent preacher could be a celebrity, the leader of one or more reform movements and a popular philosopher — all at the same time."[1]

Muscular and long-haired, the preacher was close to a series of attractive young women, but his wife, Eunice, the mother of his 10 children, was "unloved."[1]

In the highly publicized scandal known as the Beecher-Tilton Affair he was tried on charges that he had committed adultery with a friend's wife, Elizabeth Tilton. In 1870, Elizabeth had confessed to her husband, Theodore Tilton, that she had had a relationship with Henry Ward Beecher. Tilton was then fired from his job at the Independent because of his editor's fears of adverse publicity. Theodore and Henry both pressured Elizabeth to recant her story, which she did, in writing.

The charges became public when Theodore Tilton told Elizabeth Cady Stanton of his wife's confession. Stanton repeated the story to fellow women's rights leaders Victoria Woodhull and Isabella Beecher Hooker.

Henry Ward Beecher had publicly denounced Woodhull's advocacy of free love. She published a story in her paper (Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly) on November 2, 1872, claiming that America's most renowned clergyman was secretly practicing the free-love doctrines which he denounced from the pulpit. The story created a national sensation. As a result, Woodhull was arrested in New York City and imprisoned for sending obscene material through the mail. The Plymouth Church held a board of inquiry and exonerated Beecher, but excommunicated Mr. Tilton in 1873.

Tilton then sued Beecher: the trial began in January 1875, and ended in July when the jurors deliberated for six days but were unable to reach a verdict. His wife loyally supported him throughout the ordeal.[1]

A second board of enquiry was held at Plymouth Church and this body also exonerated Beecher. Two years later, Elizabeth Tilton once again confessed to the affair and the church excommunicated her. Despite this Beecher continued to be a popular national figure. However, the debacle split his family. While most of his siblings supported him, Isabella Beecher Hooker openly supported one of his accusers.


File:Henry Ward Beecher Grave by David Shankbone.jpg

Grave at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

Henry Ward Beecher died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 8, 1887. Brooklyn, still an independent city, declared a day of mourning. The state legislature recessed, and telegrams of condolence were sent by national figures, including President Cleveland. His funeral procession to Plymouth Church - led by a Black commander of the William Lloyd Garrison Post in Massachusetts and a Virginia Confederate general and former slaveholder, marching arm in arm - paid tribute to what Beecher helped accomplish. Henry Ward Beecher was laid to rest in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery on March 11, 1887, survived by his wife Eunice, and four of the nine children born to them: Harriet, Henry, William and Herbert.[3]


  • "He developed a passion for jewels, which he carried, unset, in his pockets, taking them out for comfort when he was tired or in low spirits. He called them 'My opiates' " [8]
  • Beecher, Illinois, was named after him.
  • Gutzon Borglum who created the Mount Rushmore memorial, sculpted a statue of Beecher that stands in the garden of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. wrote the following limerick:

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher

called a hen a most elegant creature.
The hen, pleased with that,
laid an egg in his hat,

and thus did the hen reward Beecher.

  • In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Holmes' companion Dr. Watson is mentioned as being an avid admirer of Henry Ward Beecher, keeping a portrait of him (beside a portrait of General Gordon) and feeling strongly indignant about the way that Beecher was received during his visit to Britain at the time of the Civil War by "the more turbulent of our people".

Norwood, Pa was named after his novel "Norwood".

Famous phrases[]

"Love is the river of life in the world".

"Discover what you are".

"Liberty is the soul's right to breathe, and when it cannot take a long breath laws are girded too tight. Without liberty, man is a syncope."

"You might just as well... read the Bible to buffaloes as to those fellows who follow Atchison and Stringfellow [slavery advocates]; but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifle." (See Wiki page: Beecher's Bibles.)

"Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page. Take up one hole more in the buckle if necessary, or let down one, according to circumstances; but on the first of January let every man gird himself once more, with his face to the front, and take no interest in the things that were and are past."

"Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself-and be lenient to everybody else."

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them, would ever be clever enough to be crows"

Published works[]

  • Seven Lectures to Young Men (1844) (a pamphlet)
  • The Independent (1861-63) (periodical, as editor)
  • 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 Christ (1871)
  • Yale Lectures on Preaching (1872)
  • Evolution and Religion (1885) - (Reissued by Cambridge University Press 2009; ISBN 978-1-108-00045-1)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 [1] Kazin, Michael, "The Gospel of Love" a review of The Most Famous Man in America, by Debby Applegate, The New York Times Book Review, July 16, 2006, page 1
  2. Applegate, 28
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 [2] "About Our Church" web page at the web site of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York City. Accessed on July 17, 2006
  4. Darwinism
  5. Beatty, 296-298
  6. Twain, Letter # 9
  7. Beecher, 138-139
  8. Applegate, 268


  • Applegate, Debby. The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Doubleday, 2006. winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography.[3]
  • Beatty, Jack. Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
  • Beecher, Henry Ward, and Edna Dean Proctor. Life Thoughts: Gathered from the Extemporaneous Discourses of Henry Ward Beecher. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and company, 1858. Accessed September 24, 2007
  • Hibben, Paxton. Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait. New York: The press of the Readers club, 1942. (Foreword by Sinclair Lewis.)
  • Rourke, Constance Mayfield; Trumpets of Jubilee: Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyman Beecher, Horace Greeley, P.T. Barnum (1927).
  • Twain, Mark. Alta California. Letter no. 9, San Francisco, March 30, 1867. Accessed September 22, 2007

External links[]

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