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  Name:  Henry Ward Beecher
  Born:  June 24, 1813
  Died:  March 8, 1887

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Beecher, Henry Ward (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887) 

Henry Ward Beecher, popular Protestant evangelist and reformer, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, into one of America’s most important families.  His mother was Roxana Foote Beecher and his father was Lyman Beecher, a key revivalist of the Second Great Awakening.  One of Henry’s sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, authored the influential antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while another sister, Catharine Beecher, became a well–known proponent of female education and “scientific” household management for women.  In 1834 young Henry graduated from Amherst College (Massachusetts), and then completed his studies for the ministry at Lane Seminary (Cincinnati, Ohio) in 1837.  He began his career as a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis, where he showed the same talent as his father for being a successful revivalist.  In 1844 he published Seven Lectures to Young Men, a book of moral instruction of the kind so popular in that era. 

In 1847, Beecher was hired as a minister by Plymouth Church, recently founded by liberal Congregationalists in Brooklyn, New York.  Under his tutelage the congregation grew large, and his sermons helped ignite a religious revival in 1857.  He gained an even wider audience by writing columns for the Congregationalist newspaper, The Independent, in which he expressed an uplifting, liberal, Romantic version of Christianity that emphasized God’s love and downplayed sin.  Those columns were collected and republished in three volumes: Star Papers; or, Experiences of Art and Nature (1855), Plain and Pleasant Talk about Fruits, Flowers and Farming (1859), and Eyes and Ears (1862). 

Beecher attracted further notoriety during the 1850s for his participation in the antislavery movement.  He condemned the tougher Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened the Western territories to slavery.  Guns used by the antislavery forces in Kansas were sarcastically referred to as “Beecher’s Bibles.”  He campaigned for the new antislavery Republican Party and soon became influential in its ranks.  When the Civil War broke out he wholeheartedly supported the Union cause, joined other abolitionists in pushing President Lincoln toward enacting emancipation, and traveled on a speaking tour of England to help stem that nation’s aid to the Confederacy.  His patriotic speeches, which equated the Union cause with God’s will, were collected and published in two volumes, Freedom and War (1863) and Patriotic Addresses (1887).   

In 1867, Beecher published Norwood, a novel of moral uplift set in the Civil War era which revolves around the lives of two sets of young lovers, one Northern and one Southern.  It touted the author’s familiar motifs of God’s abundant love, the Romantic notion of divine immanence in nature, and the necessity of morality in everyday life.  Beecher reached the pinnacle of his career in the 1870s.  He began editing a new periodical, The Christian Union (later called The Outlook), which expressed his liberal, evangelical, Protestant perspective, and he published The Life of Jesus Christ (1871), Yale Lectures on Preaching (3 vols., 1872–1874), and his collected sermons, Plymouth Pulpit (19 vols., 1868–1884).  He earned a handsome salary by traveling widely as a public speaker (e.g., 27,000 miles through 18 states and Canada in 1875, earning $60,000). 

In the fall of 1872 Beecher’s stature and popularity as a religious and civic leader were threatened when Victoria Woodhull publicly charged that he had been having an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of Theodore Tilton, editor of The Independent.  Woodhull, a leader of the free–love movement, was angered by Beecher’s hypocrisy in refusing to endorse free–love while secretly practicing it.  She was also a friend of Theodore Tilton, who had written a favorable biography of her in 1871.  The titillating story of an extramarital affair between the country’s foremost cleric and the wife of a well–known editor created a national sensation.  Beecher denied the allegation and a board of inquiry at Plymouth Church exonerated him of any moral wrongdoing. (Mrs. Tilton at first confessed, then retracted her confession, then later confessed again.) Press scrutiny and public interest, however, escalated when Tilton sued Beecher.  The trial commenced in January 1875 and ended with a hung jury six months later.  The next year a second committee at Plymouth Church again refused to condemn their minister. 

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s Beecher continued in his role as an evangelist of national influence.  Publication of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man (1874) revived the public debate over the scientific theory of evolution.  Beecher interpreted the thesis as dovetailing nicely with his view of progress in the cultural and religious realms, and his lectures emphasized the compatibility of science and religion.  During this period, he also endorsed civil service reform, joined the Republicans who bolted to support Democratic Grover Cleveland, and spoke out for the rights of labor to unionize. 

Source consulted:  Clifford E. Clark, “Beecher, Henry Ward,” American National Biography (online).


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