CHAPTER XXXI. HENRY WARD BEECHER.
HENRY WARD BEECHER was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on the 24th of June, 1813, and was the eighth child of Dr. Lyman Beecher, the famous Presbyterian divine of New England. Dr. Beecher was regarded as one of the most powerful champions of orthodox Christianity in the land of the pilgrims, and had the good fortune to be the father of a family whose members have become celebrated for their intellectual gifts.
The most of these gave early promise of their future distinction, but the subject of this memoir was regarded as the dunce of the family. He grew up as the children of most New England clergymen of that day climbed the road to manhood. His father's family was large, and the salary paid by the congregation never exceeded eight hundred dollars, and was not always promptly paid at that. The good people of the land of steady habits well knew how to drive hard bargains with the Lord's messengers, and were adepts in the art of securing the "best talent" at the lowest price. The stern, hard struggle for a livelihood in which the father was engaged prevented him from giving much personal attention to his children, and the mother of young Henry dying when he was but three years old, the boy was left very much to himself. Like most ministers' children, he was obliged to "set an example to the village," and this boy was dosed with Catechism and his father's stern and gloomy theological tenets until he was sick of them.
"In those days," says Mrs. Stowe, "none of the attentions were paid to children that are now usual. The community did not recognize them.. There was no child's literature; there were no children's books. The Sunday-school was yet an experiment in a fluctuating, uncertain state of trial. There were no children's days of presents and fetes, no Christmas or New Year's festivals. The annual thanksgiving was only associated with one day's unlimited range of pies of every sort—too much for one day—and too soon things of the past. The childhood of Henry Ward was unmarked by the possession of a single child's toy as a gift from any older person, or a single fete. Very early, too, strict duties devolved upon him. A daily portion of the work of the establishment, the care of the domestic animals, the cutting and piling of wood, or tasks in the garden, strengthened his muscles and gave vigor and tone to his nerves. From his father and mother he inherited a perfectly solid, healthy organization of brain, muscle, and nerves, and the uncaressing, let-alone system under which he was brought up gave him early habits of vigor and self-reliance."
When but three or four years old he was sent to the Widow Kilbourn's school, where he said his letters twice a day, and passed the rest of his time in hemming a brown towel or a checked apron. It was not expected that he would learn very much from Marm Kilbourn, but the school kept him out of the way of the "home folks" for the greater part of the day.
He was a winning, sweet-faced child, with long golden curls, of which he was very proud. Some of his female playfellows at school, thinking it a shame that a boy should look so much like a girl, cut off one or two of his curls with a pair of shears made of scraps of tin, and when the little fellow complained of his loss at home it was decided that the best way to protect him from such attacks in future was to cut his hair close to his head, which was done at once. Little Henry was commonly thought a dull child. His memory was lamentably deficient, and his utterance was thick and indistinct, so much so that he could scarcely be understood in reading or speaking. This was caused partly by an enlargement of the tonsils of his throat, and partly by timidity. The policy of repression worked badly in his case, and had there not been so much real good at the basis of his character it might have led this gentle, yearning boy far from the useful channel along which his life has flown.
His stepmother was a lady of fine mental culture, of elegant breeding and high character, but she was an invalid, and withal thoroughly imbued with the gloomy sternness of her husband's faith. One day little Henry, who was barely able to manage the steady-going old family horse, was driving her in the chaise. They passed a church on their way, and the bell was tolling for a death. "Henry," said Mrs. Beecher, solemnly, "what do you think of when you hear a bell tolling like that?" The boy colored and hung his head in silence, and the good lady went on. "I think, was that soul prepared? It has gone into eternity." The little fellow shuddered, in spite of himself, and thought, no doubt, what a dreadful thing it was to be a Christian.
So it was with the religion that was crammed into him. There was no effort made to draw him to religion by its beauty and tenderness. He rarely heard of the Saviour as the loving one who took little children in His arms and blessed them, but was taught to regard Him as a stern and merciless judge, as one who, instead of being "touched with the feeling of our infirmities," makes those infirmities the means of wringing fresh sufferings from us. Sunday was a day of terror to him, for on that day the Catechism was administered to him until he was more than sick of it. "I think," said he to his congregation, not long since, referring to this part of his life, "that to force childhood to associate religion with such dry morsels is to violate the spirit, not only of the New Testament, but of common sense as well. I know one thing, that if I am 'lax and latitudinarian,' the Sunday Catechism is to blame for a part of it. The dinners that I have lost because I could not go through 'sanctification,' and 'justification,' and 'adoption,' and all such questions, lie heavily on my memory! I do not know that they have brought forth any blossoms. I have a kind of grudge against many of those truths that I was taught in my childhood, and I am not conscious that they have waked up a particle of faith in me. My good old aunt in heaven—I wonder what she is doing. I take it that she now sits beauteous, clothed in white, that round about her sit chanting cherub children, and that she is opening to them from her larger range sweet stories, every one fraught with thought, and taste, and feeling, and lifting them up to a higher plane. One Sunday afternoon with my aunt Esther did me more good than forty Sundays in church with my father. He thundered over my head, and she sweetly instructed me down in my heart. The promise that she would read Joseph's history to me on Sunday was enough to draw a silver thread of obedience through the entire week; and if I was tempted to break my promise, I said, 'No; Aunt Esther is going to read on Sunday;' and I would do, or I would not do, all through the week, for the sake of getting that sweet instruction on Sunday.
"And to parents I say, Truth is graded. Some parts of God's truth are for childhood, some parts are for the nascent intellectual period, and some parts are for later spiritual developments. Do not take the last things first. Do not take the latest processes of philosophy and bring them prematurely to the understanding. In teaching truth to your children, you are to avoid tiring them."
"The greatest trial of those days," says Mrs. Stowe, "was the Catechism. Sunday lessons were considered by the mother-in-law as inflexible duty, and the Catechism as the sine qua non. The other children memorized readily, and were brilliant reciters, but Henry, blushing, stammering, confused, and hopelessly miserable, stuck fast on some sand-bank of what is required or forbidden by this or that commandment, his mouth choking up with the long words which he hopelessly miscalled, was sure to be accused of idleness or inattention, and to be solemnly talked to, which made him look more stolid and miserable than ever, but appeared to have no effect in quickening his dormant faculties."
At the age of ten he was a well-grown, stout, stocky boy, strong and hearty, trained to hard work, and to patient obedience of his elders. He was tolerably well drilled in Calvinism, and had his head pretty well filled with snatches of doctrine which he caught from his father's constant discussions; but he was very backward in his education. He was placed at the school of the Rev. Mr. Langdon, at Bethlehem, Connecticut, and it was hoped that the labors of this excellent tutor would result in making something of him. He spent a winter at this school, and boarded at a neighboring farm-house, whose kind-hearted mistress soon became so much attached to him that she indulged him to an extent which he had never known at home. With his gun on his shoulder, he passed the greater part of his hours out of school in tramping over the pretty Connecticut hills, in search of game, or, lying down on the soft grass, would pass hours in gazing on the beautiful landscape, listening to the dull whirr of the partridges in the stubble-field or the dropping of the ripe apples in the orchard. The love of nature was strong in the boy, and his wonderful mistress taught him many of the profoundest lessons of his life. He made poor progress at the school, however, and his father was almost in despair. The whole family shook their heads in solemn forebodings over the failure of this child of ten to become a mental prodigy.
Miss Catharine Beecher, his eldest sister, was then teaching a young ladies' school in Hartford, and she proposed to take the boy and see what could be done with him. There were thirty or forty girls in the school, and but this one boy, and the reader may imagine the amount of studying he did. The girls were full of spirits, and in their society the fun-loving feature of his disposition burst out and grew with amazing rapidity. He was always in mischief of some kind, to the great delight of the girls, with whom he was extremely popular, and to the despair of his sister, who began to fear that he was hopelessly stupid.
The school was divided into two divisions in grammar recitations, each of which had its leader. The leaders chose their "sides" with great care, as these contests in grammar were esteemed the most important part of the daily exercises. Henry's name was generally called last, for no one chose him except as a matter of necessity. He was sure to be a dead weight to his leader.
"The fair leader of one of these divisions took the boy aside to a private apartment, to put into him with female tact and insinuation those definitions and distinctions on which the honor of the class depended.
"'Now, Henry, A is the indefinite article, you see, and must be used only with the singular noun. You can say a man, but you can't say a men, can you?' 'Yes, I can say Amen, too,' was the ready rejoinder. 'Father says it always at the end of his prayers.'
"'Come, Henry, now don't be joking. Now, decline He.' 'Nominative he, possessive his, objective him.' 'You see, his is possessive. Now, you can say his book, but you can't say him book.' 'Yes, I do say hymn book, too,' said the impracticable scholar, with a quizzical twinkle. Each one of these sallies made his young teacher laugh, which was the victory he wanted.
"'But now, Henry, seriously, just attend to the active and passive voice. Now, I strike, is active, you see, because if you strike you do something. But, I am struck, is passive, because if you are struck you don't do any thing, do you?'
"'Yes, I do; I strike back again.'
"Sometimes his views of philosophical subjects were offered gratuitously. Being held rather of a frisky nature, his sister appointed his seat at her elbow when she heard her classes. A class in natural philosophy, not very well prepared, was stumbling through the theory of the tides. 'I can explain that,' said Henry. 'Well, you see, the sun, he catches hold of the moon and pulls her, and she catches hold of the sea and pulls that, and this makes the spring tides.'
"'But what makes the neap tides?'
"'Oh, that's when the sun stops to spit on his hands.'"
It will hardly surprise the reader to be told that Master Henry remained with his sister only six months, and was returned at the end of that time to his father as an indifferent scholar and a most inveterate joker.
A change now occurred in his life. When he was twelve years old his father removed to Boston to assume the charge of the Hanover-Street Church. Here the boy had a chance to see something more than nature, and to employ his powers of observation in receiving impressions from the daily life and aspect of a large and crowded city. His father entered him at the Boston Latin School, and appealed to him not to disgrace his name any longer by his stupidity. The appeal roused the little fellow's pride, and he set to work to show to his family that he was not the dunce they had thought him. He went at his studies manfully, mastering the tedious puzzle of the Latin verbs and nouns, and acquiring a respectable acquaintance with the grammar of that language. It was a terrible task to him, for he had no liking for the language, and did his work merely to please his father and escape disgrace. His success cost him a share of his health, and his vigorous constitution began to show the effects of such intense application. His father noticed this, and as a diversion to his mind advised him to enter upon a course of biographical reading. He read the lives of Captain Cook, Nelson, and the great naval commanders of the world, and at once became possessed of the desire to go to sea. This feeling made him restless and discontented, and he resolved to leave home and ship on board some vessel sailing from the harbor. He hovered about the wharves, conversing with the sailors and captains, and sometimes carrying his little bundle with him. But the thoughts of home were too strong for him, and he could never quite summon up resolution enough to run away. In a fit of desperation he wrote a letter to his brother, telling him of his wish to go to sea, and informing him that he should first ask his father's permission, and if that were not granted he should go without it. This letter he dropped where his father would be sure to find it. The old gentleman soon discovered it, and, reading it, put it into his pocket without comment. The next day he asked the boy if he had ever thought of any definite avocation for his future life.
"Yes," said Henry, "I want to go to sea. I want to enter the navy, be a midshipman, and rise to be a commander."
"Oh, I see," said the Doctor, cheerfully; "but in order to prepare for that you must study mathematics and navigation."
"I am ready, sir."
"Very well. I'll send you up to Amherst next week, to Mount Pleasant, and then you'll begin your preparatory studies at once. As soon as you are well prepared, I presume I can make interest to get you an appointment."
The boy was delighted, and the next week started for Amherst. The Doctor felt sure that the sailor scheme would never come to any thing, and exclaimed, exultantly, as he bade his son good-by, "I shall have that boy in the ministry yet."
At the Mount Pleasant Institute he roomed with his teacher in mathematics, a young man named Fitzgerald, and a warm friendship sprung up between them. Fitzgerald saw that his pupil had no natural talent or taste for mathematics; but instead of despairing in consequence of this discovery, he redoubled his efforts. Appealing to his pupil's pride and ambition, he kept him well to his task, and succeeded in implanting in him a fair knowledge of the science. Young Beecher also took lessons in elocution from Professor John E. Lovell. Under the instructions of this able teacher, he learned to manage his voice, and to overcome the thickness and indistinctness of utterance which previous to this had troubled him so much. He continued at this school for three years, devoting himself to study with determination and success, and taking rank as one of the most promising pupils of the school.
During his first year at Mount Pleasant, he became deeply impressed with a sense of his religious responsibility at a famous revival which was held in the place, and from that time resolved to devote himself entirely to preparing for his entrance into the ministry when he should attain the proper age. Henceforth he applied himself with characteristic energy to his studies and to his religious duties, and rose steadily in the esteem of his teachers and friends. He entered Amherst College upon the completion of his preparatory course, and graduated from that institution in 1834.
In 1832, Dr. Beecher removed from Boston to Cincinnati, to enter upon the Presidency of Lane Seminary, to which he had been elected. Henry followed him to the West after his graduation at Amherst, and completed his theological studies at the seminary, under the tuition of his father and Professor Stowe, the latter of whom married Henry's sister Harriet, in 1836. Having finished his course, he was ordained.
"As the time drew near in which Mr. Beecher was to assume the work of the ministry," says Mrs. Stowe, "he was oppressed by a deep melancholy. He had the most exalted ideas of what ought to be done by a Christian minister. He had transferred to that profession all those ideals of courage, enterprise, zeal, and knightly daring which were the dreams of his boyhood, and which he first hoped to realize in the naval profession. He felt that the holy calling stood high above all others; that to enter it from any unholy motive, or to enter and not do a worthy work in it, was a treason to all honor.
"His view of the great object of the ministry was sincerely and heartily the same with that of his father, to secure the regeneration of the individual heart by the Divine Spirit, and thereby to effect the regeneration of human society. The problem that oppressed him was, how to do this. His father had used certain moral and intellectual weapons, and used them strongly and effectively, because employing them with undoubting faith. So many other considerations had come into his mind to qualify and limit that faith, so many new modes of thought and inquiry, that were partially inconsistent with the received statements of his party, that he felt he could never grasp and wield them with the force which could make them efficient. It was no comfort to him that he could wield the weapons of his theological party so as to dazzle and confound objectors, while all the time conscious in his own soul of objections more profound and perplexities more bewildering. Like the shepherd boy of old, he saw the giant of sin stalking through the world, defying the armies of the living God, and longed to attack him, but the armor in which he had been equipped for the battle was no help, but only an incumbrance!
"His brother, who studied with him, had already become an unbeliever and thrown up the design of preaching, and he could not bear to think of adding to his father's trials by deserting the standard. Yet his distress and perplexity were so great that at times he seriously contemplated going into some other profession....
"In his last theological term he took a Bible class in the city of Cincinnati, and began studying and teaching the Evangelists. With the course of this study and teaching came a period of spiritual clairvoyance. His mental perplexities were relieved, and the great question of 'what to preach' was solved. The shepherd boy laid aside his cumbrous armor, and found in a clear brook a simple stone that smote down the giant; and so, from the clear waters of the Gospel narrative Mr. Beecher drew forth that 'white stone with a new name,' which was to be the talisman of his ministry. To present Jesus Christ personally as the Friend and Helper of humanity, Christ as God impersonate, eternally and by a necessity of His nature helpful, and remedial, and restorative; the Friend of each individual soul, and thus the Friend of all society,—this was the one thing which his soul rested on as a worthy object in entering the ministry. He afterward said, in speaking of his feelings at this time,'I was like the man in the story to whom a fairy gave a purse with a single piece of money in it, which he found always came again as soon as he had spent it. I thought I knew at least one thing to preach. I found it included every thing.'"
Upon being ordained, Mr. Beecher married, and accepted a call to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a little town on the Ohio River, about twenty miles below Cincinnati. His salary was small and the work was hard. He was not only pastor, but sexton as well, and in this capacity he swept out the church, made the fires, filled and trimmed the lamps, and rang the bell. Says he, "I did all but come to hear myself preach—that they had to do."
He did not remain here long, however, but soon accepted a call to Indianapolis, the capital of the State, where he lived for eight years. He occupied a tasteful cottage on the outskirts of the town, and gathered about him his household treasures, which consisted of his family, his library, his horse, cow, pigs, and chickens. He was an enthusiast in matters of agriculture and horticulture, and besides importing from the East the best varieties of fruit-trees, roses, etc., he edited a horticultural paper, which had a fair circulation.
The eight years of his ministry in Indianapolis make up a period of hard and useful work. He held two services on Sunday, and five meetings during the week in various parts of the city, and with the consent of his people gave three months of each year to missionary work in other parts of the State. While engaged in this latter duty he traveled about the State on horseback and preached daily.
His experience in the ministry, as well as his study of the lives of the apostles, convinced him that success in his profession—by which I mean the successful winning of souls to God—was not to be won by preaching controversial or dry doctrinal sermons. He must seize upon some vital truth, admitted by all parties, and bring that home to men's minds. He must preach to them of their daily, hourly trials and temptations, joys and comforts, and he resolved that this should be the character of his preaching. Then came the question, how shall one man know that which is uppermost in the thoughts of the many? He went into the places of public resort, where men were accustomed to lounge and to gather to hear the news, and made it his practice to listen to their conversations. In this way he began to know the people to whom he preached as few pastors know their flocks, and he was enabled by this knowledge to apply his teachings to their daily lives, and to send them forth to their duties warned by his reproofs or cheered by his intelligent counsel and sympathy. This practice, modified at times as circumstances have required, he has steadfastly continued, and in it lies the secret of his success as a preacher. Said a gentleman, not long since, himself a member of a different denomination, "Beecher's sermons do me more good than any I hear elsewhere. They never fail to touch upon some topic of importance that has engaged my thoughts during the week. Dropping all doctrinal technicalities, and steering clear of the vexed questions of theology, he talks to me in such a way that I am able to carry Christ into the most trifling of my daily affairs, and to carry Him there as my Sympathizer and Helper, as well as my Judge." He soon became the most popular preacher in the city, and, thanks to the genuineness of his gifts and the earnestness of his zeal, he was enabled to add many to the kingdom of Christ who had been drawn to hear him merely by their curiosity. Among these was his brother Charles, whose skepticism has been spoken of elsewhere in this chapter. Becoming deeply impressed at a revival in Indianapolis, Charles Beecher, by his brother's advice, took a Bible class, and began to teach the story of Christ. The plan worked most happily. Charles solved all the questions which had perplexed his mind, reentered upon his religious life with increased fervor, and soon afterward entered the ministry.
In August, 1847, Mr. Beecher received a call to Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, which had just been founded. He promptly accepted it. Breaking up his home in Indiana, he removed to Brooklyn, and was publicly installed pastor of Plymouth Church on the 11th of November, 1847. He at once "announced in Plymouth pulpit the same principles that he had in Indianapolis, namely, his determination to preach Christ among them not as an absolute system of doctrines, not as a bygone historical personage, but as the living Lord and God, and to bring all the ways and usages of society to the test of His standards. He announced to all whom it might concern, that he considered temperance and antislavery as a part of the Gospel of Christ, and should preach them to the people accordingly."
It is no part of my purpose to consider Mr. Beecher as a politician. I deal with him here not as the partisan of a political organization, but as a minister of the Gospel. In politics he has always been a Republican of the Radical type, but has generally inclined to a conservative construction of that creed. Many of his warmest friends take issue with him in his political views, and he has not always been able to lead his congregation with him in this respect.
Soon after assuming the charge of Plymouth Church Mr. Beecher became a regular contributor to "The Independent," a paper which he had helped to establish. His articles were marked with an asterisk, and were widely read. They dealt with every topic of interest, principally with slavery, and were vigorous and full of thought. A number of them were afterward collected and published in book form as the "Star Papers." Since then he has acted as editor of "The Independent," and is at present the editor of "The Christian Union." He has written a novel of New England life, called "Norwood," for "The New York Ledger," and still writes a weekly paper for that journal. He is at present engaged upon a "Life of Christ," which is to be the crowning labor of his life. Besides these labors, he has been until recently almost constantly in the lecture field, and has spoken frequently before popular assemblies on the political questions of the day.
These labors have filled up the leisure time left him after discharging his duties as pastor of his church, which have never been neglected upon any occasion. In this field his work has been faithful and constant. He has labored in it for nearly twenty-three years, and his work has not been without its reward. Such sermons as his could not fail of doing good even if spoken to half a dozen people. How great, then, must be their effect when addressed to the vast audiences to which he speaks! His congregation averages over twenty-five hundred at every service, being the largest regular congregation in existence. His sermons are reported by a stenographer, and are printed each week in pamphlet form, and in this manner find their way into thousands of hands. The "Plymouth Pulpit," in which they are published, has a regular weekly circulation of six thousand copies, and it is estimated that each copy is read by at least five persons, which gives the preacher, in addition to his own congregation, an audience of more than thirty thousand persons per week.
When Plymouth Church was organized, the wise heads predicted a failure for it; but it has grown and prospered, until it is now the most compact and the best organized congregation in America. It is dependent upon no synod or other religious body, but manages its affairs entirely as it pleases. The control is vested in a board of trustees, of which Mr. Beecher is ex-officio a member. He has no superiority in this board unless called by its members to preside over its meetings. His influence is of course all-powerful; but as the trustees are shrewd business men, they sometimes carry out their own views in preference to his. The church is supported by the sale of its pews. This yields it an annual income of between forty and fifty thousand dollars. The pastor receives a handsome salary—said to be the largest in the United States—and the rest goes into the treasury of the church. As the period of the annual sale of pews approaches, Mr. Beecher makes it his practice to preach a sermon in which he reviews the questions of the day, and as far as possible marks out his course with regard to them during the ensuing year. This he does in order that every one purchasing a seat in Plymouth Church may know just what is in store for him from the pulpit. The surplus revenue, after the pastor's salary and the current expenses are paid, has until recently been devoted to extinguishing the debt upon the church. That burden now being off the shoulders of the congregation, the money is applied to missionary work in Brooklyn. "Two missions have been largely supported by the funds derived from Plymouth Church, and the time and personal labor of its members. A mechanics' reading-room is connected with one of these. No church in the country furnishes a larger body of lay teachers, exhorters, and missionaries in every department of human and Christian labor."
Plymouth Church is located in Orange Street, between Hicks and Henry Streets, in Brooklyn, and not far from the Fulton Ferry. Many strangers, whose expectations are based upon the fame of the pastor, are disappointed in the plain and simple exterior of red brick, as they come prepared to see a magnificent Gothic temple. The interior, however, rarely fails to please all comers. It is plain and simple, but elegant and comfortable. It is a vast hall, around the four sides of which sweeps an immense gallery. The interior is painted white, with a tinge of pink, and the carpets and cushions of the seats are of a rich, warm red. The rows of seats in the body of the church are semicircular, and those in the gallery rise as in an amphitheater, from the front to the wall. At the far end of the church is a raised platform containing merely a chair and a table. The table is a pretty ornament, and is the "Plymouth Pulpit." It is made of wood brought from the Garden of Gethsemane. In the gallery behind the pulpit is the great organ—one of the largest and finest in the Union. The church will seat over twenty-five hundred people, but in order to do this, chairs are placed in the aisles. These chairs are sold as well as the pews.
Every Sunday morning the streets are filled with persons on their way to attend the services at Plymouth Church. They come not only from Brooklyn, but from New York, and even from Jersey City and Hoboken. The yard and street in front of the church are quickly filled with the throng, but the doors are guarded by policemen, and none but pew-holders are permitted to enter the church until ten minutes before the hour for service. Without this precaution the regular congregation would be crowded out of their seats every Sunday by strangers.
At ten minutes before the hour for service the doors are thrown open, and very soon there is not even standing room in the vast interior, and generally the vestibules are full.
Near the pulpit is placed a basket of exquisite flowers, and sometimes the entire platform is decorated in the same way. Most commonly some little child perches itself up among the flowers, and this pretty sight never fails to bring a smile of pleasure to the pastor's face as he enters the church. He comes in through a little door under the gallery, behind the pulpit. He is dressed in a plain suit of black, with a Byron collar and a black stock. His movements are quiet and graceful, although quick and energetic. His manner in opening the services is quiet and earnest, and at once impresses his hearers with the solemnity of the occasion. He reads the Bible in an easy, unconstrained manner, as if he enjoyed the task, and in his prayers, which are extempore, he carries the hearts of all his hearers with him to the Throne of Grace. He joins heartily in the singing, which is congregational. It was feared that the organ would prove a great temptation to do away with this style of singing, but this has not been the case. The magnificent instrument is used only to accompany the congregation, and there swells up such a volume of harmony from this vast throng as is never listened to outside of Plymouth Church. The singing is wonderful.
The gem of the whole service, however, is the sermon; and these sermons are characteristic of the man. They come warm and fresh from his heart, and they go home to the hearer, giving him food for thought for days afterward. To attempt to describe his manner would be to paint the sunbeam. Eloquence can be felt, but it can not be described. He enchains the attention of his auditors from the first, and they hang upon his utterances with rapt eagerness until the close of the sermon.
He knows human nature thoroughly, and he talks to his people of what they have been thinking of during the week, of trials that have perplexed them, and of joys which have blessed them. He takes the clerk and the merchant to task for their conduct in the walks of business, and warns them of the snares and pitfalls which lie along their paths. He strips the thin guise of honesty from the questionable transactions of Wall Street, and holds them up to public scorn. He startles many a one by his sudden penetration and denunciation of what that one supposes to be the secrets of his heart. His dramatic power is extraordinary. He can hardly be responsible for it, since it breaks forth almost without his will. It is simply unavoidable with him. He moves his audience to tears, or brings a mirthful smile to their lips, with a power that is irresistible. His illustrations and figures are drawn chiefly from nature, and are fresh and striking. They please the subtlest philosopher who hears him, and illuminate the mind of the average listener with a flood of light. He can startle his people with the terrors of the law, but he prefers to preach the Gospel of Love. "God's love for those who are scattered and lost," he says, "is intenser and deeper than the love even of a mother.... God longs to bring you home more than you long to get there. He has been calling, calling, calling, and listening for your answer. And when you are found, and you lay your head on the bosom of Jesus, and you are at rest, you will not be so glad as He will be who declared that, like a shepherd, he had joy over one sinner that repented more than over ninety and nine just persons that needed no repentance."
Religion is to him an abiding joy; it is perfect love, and casteth out fear. It has no gloom, no terror in it, and he says to his people: "If God gave you gayety and cheer of spirits, lift up the careworn by it. Wherever you go, shine and sing. In every household there is drudgery; in every household there is sorrow; in every household there is low-thoughted evil. If you come as a prince, with a cheerful, buoyant nature, in the name of God, do not lay aside those royal robes of yours. Let humor bedew duty; let it flash across care. Let gayety take charge of dullness. So employ these qualities that they shall be to life what carbonic acid is to wine, making it foam and sparkle."
The sum and substance, the burden of all his preaching is Christ: "'Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!' I present Jesus to you as the atoning Saviour; as God's sacrifice for sin; as that new and living way by which alone a sinful creature can ascend and meet a pure and just God. I bring this question home to you as a sinner. O man! full of transgressions, habitual in iniquities, tainted and tarnished, utterly undone before God, what will you do with this Jesus that comes as God's appointed sacrifice for sin, your only hope and your only Saviour? Will you accept him? Will you, by personal and living faith, accept him as your Saviour from sin? I ask not that you should go with me into a discourse upon the relations of Christ's life, of his sufferings, of his death; to the law of God, or to the government of God. Whatever may be the philosophy of those relations, the matter in hand is one of faith rather than of philosophy; and the question is, Will you take Christ to be your soul's Saviour?"
Having selected his theme, and formed a general plan of treatment, Mr. Beecher trusts a great deal to the inspiration of the moment for his language and illustrations. Some time ago, in reply to a friend who asked how he prepared his sermons, he said he generally has an idea during the week as to what he will preach about on Sunday, but does not attempt any thing like systematic preparation until an hour or two before going into the pulpit. Sometimes it is easy to block out a sermon; but again it is hard work, and he does not fairly get into it until the first bell rings. He writes out the headings of his subject, and marks the proper places for illustration. He does not confine himself to this written outline, however, but, once in the pulpit, changes it according to the impulse of the moment. He never preaches the same sermon twice, though he may use the same text several times, treating it in a different way each time. He endeavors to preach his best sermons on stormy days, in order that the desire to hear his best efforts may keep his congregation from degenerating into "fair-weather Christians." "Once," he said, laughing, "it snowed or rained every Sabbath in a certain winter, and the effort I had to make to remain faithful to this rule came near killing me." When asked if he studied his prayers, he answered promptly: "Never. I carry a feeling with me such as a mother would have for her children were they lost in a great forest. I feel that on every side my people are in danger, and that many of them are like babes, weak and helpless. My heart goes out in sorrow and in anxiety toward them, and at times I seem to carry all their burdens. I find that when one's heart is wrapped and twined around the hearts of others, it is not difficult to pray."
The church is provided with a large lecture-room, a study for the pastor, and an elegant parlor. Mr. Beecher does not pay pastoral visits to his people, unless he is sent for to visit the sick and dying, or persons seeking help in their religious struggles. His parishioners are scattered over so wide a territory that a systematic course of visiting would consume all his time. In place of these visits, he meets his congregation at stated times in social gatherings in the church parlor, and these evenings are looked forward to with eagerness by both pastor and people.
The most characteristic meeting of this congregation, however, even more so than the Sunday services, is the Friday evening meeting, which is held in the lecture-room. This room is plain and simple. It is provided with comfortable seats and a grand piano. There is no pulpit in it, but a small table and a chair are placed for the pastor on a low platform covered with green baize. The object is to banish every thing like formalism, and to make the meeting as free and unconstrained as a social gathering. As at the Sunday services, the house is full, but now the persons present are almost entirely members of the church. Strangers rarely come to these meetings, and in staying away from them miss the chance of seeing the true inner life of Plymouth Church. A gentleman who was present at one of them, a few years ago, wrote the following account of it for the "Atlantic Monthly:"
Mr. Beecher took his seat on the platform, and, after a short pause, began the exercises by saying, in a low tone, these words: "Six twenty-two."
A rustling of the leaves of hymn-books interpreted the meaning of this mystical utterance, which otherwise might have been taken as announcing a discourse upon the prophetic numbers. The piano confirmed the interpretation; and then the company burst into one of those joyous and unanimous singings which are so enchanting a feature of the services of this church. Loud rose the beautiful harmony of voices, constraining every one to join in the song, even those most unused to sing. When it was ended, the pastor, in the same low tone, pronounced a name, upon which one of the brethren rose to his feet, and the rest slightly inclined v their heads.... The prayers were all brief, perfectly quiet and simple, and free from the routine or regulation expressions. There were but two or three of them, alternating with singing; and when that part of the exercises was concluded, Mr. Beecher had scarcely spoken. The meeting ran alone, in the most spontaneous and pleasant manner.... There was a pause after the last hymn died away, and then Mr. Beecher, still seated, began, in the tone of conversation, to speak somewhat after this manner:
"When," said he, "I first began to walk as a Christian, in my youthful zeal I made many resolutions that were well meant, but indiscreet. Among others, I remember I resolved to pray, at least once, in some way, every hour that I was awake. I tried faithfully to keep this resolution, but never having succeeded a single day, I suffered the pangs of self-reproach, until reflection satisfied me that the only wisdom possible, with regard to such a resolve, was to break it. I remember, too, that I made a resolution to speak upon religion to every person with whom I conversed,—on steamboats, in the streets, anywhere. In this, also, I failed, as I ought; and I soon learned that, in the sowing of such seed, as in other sowings, times, and seasons, and methods must be considered and selected, or a man may defeat his own object, and make religion loathsome."
In language like this he introduced the topic of the evening's conversation, which was, How far, and on what occasions, and in what manner, one person may invade, so to speak, the personality of another, and speak to him upon his moral condition. The pastor expressed his own opinion, always in the conversational tone, in a talk of ten minutes' duration, in the course of which he applauded, not censured, the delicacy which causes most people to shrink from doing it. He said that a man's personality was not a macadamized road for every vehicle to drive upon at will, but rather a sacred inclosure, to be entered, if at all, with the consent of the owner, and with deference to his feelings and tastes. He maintained, however, that there were times and modes in which this might properly be done, and that every one had a duty to perform of this nature. When he had finished his observations, he said the subject was open to the remarks of others; whereupon a brother instantly rose and made a very honest confession.
He said that he had never attempted to perform the duty in question without having a palpitation of the heart, and a complete turning over of his inner man. He had often reflected upon this curious fact, but was not able to account for it. He had not allowed this repugnance to prevent his doing the duty; but he always had to rush at it and perform it by a sort of coup de main, for if he allowed himself to think about the matter, he could not do it at all. He concluded by saying that he should be very much obliged to any one if he could explain this mystery.
The pastor said: "May it not be the natural delicacy we feel, and ought to feel, in approaching the interior consciousness of another person?"
Another brother rose. There was no hanging back at this meeting; there were no awkward pauses; every one seemed full of matter. The new speaker was not inclined to admit the explanation suggested by the pastor. "Suppose," said he, "we were to see a man in imminent danger of immediate destruction, and there was one way of escape, and but one, which we saw, and he did not, should we feel any delicacy in running up to him and urging him to fly for his life? Is it not a want of faith on our part that causes the reluctance and hesitation we all feel in urging others to avoid a peril so much more momentous?"
Mr. Beecher said the cases were not parallel. Irreligious persons, he remarked, were not in imminent danger of immediate death; they might die to-morrow; but in all probability they would not, and an ill-timed or injudicious admonition might forever repel them. We must accept the doctrine of probabilities, and act in accordance with it in this particular, as in all others.
Another brother had a puzzle to present for solution. He said that he too had experienced the repugnance to which allusion had been made; but what surprised him most was, that the more he loved a person, and the nearer he was related to him, the more difficult he found it to converse with him upon his spiritual state. Why is this? "I should like to have this question answered," said he, "if there is an answer to it."
Mr. Beecher observed that this was the universal experience, and he was conscious himself of a peculiar reluctance and embarrassment in approaching one of his own household on the subject in question. He thought it was due to the fact that we respect more the personal rights of those near to us than we do those of others, and it was more difficult to break in upon the routine of our ordinary familiarity with them. We are accustomed to a certain tone which it is highly embarrassing to jar upon.
Captain Duncan related two amusing anecdotes to illustrate the right way and the wrong way of introducing religious conversation. In his office there was sitting one day a sort of lay preacher, who was noted for lugging in his favorite topic in the most forbidding and abrupt manner. A sea captain came in, who was introduced to this individual.
"Captain Porter," said he, with awful solemnity, "are you a captain in Israel?"
The honest sailor was so abashed and confounded at this novel salutation, that he could only stammer out an incoherent reply; and he was evidently disposed to give the tactless zealot a piece of his mind, expressed in the language of the quarter-deck. When the solemn man took his leave, the disgusted captain said, "If ever I should be coming to your office again, and that man should be here, I wish you would send me word, and I'll stay away."
A few days after another clergyman chanced to be in the office, no other than Mr. Beecher himself, and another captain came in, a roistering, swearing, good-hearted fellow. The conversation fell upon sea-sickness, a malady to which Mr. Beecher is peculiarly liable. The captain also was one of the few sailors who are always sea-sick in going to sea, and gave a moving account of his sufferings from that cause. Mr. Beecher, after listening attentively to his tale, said, "Captain Duncan, if I was a preacher to such sailors as your friend here, I should represent hell as an eternal voyage, with every man on board in the agonies of sea-sickness, the crisis always imminent, but never coming."
This ludicrous and most unprofessional picture amused the old salt exceedingly, and won his entire good will toward the author of it; so that after Mr. Beecher left, he said, "That's a good fellow, Captain Duncan. I like him, and I'd like to hear him talk more."
Captain Duncan contended that this free and easy way of address was just the thing for such characters. Mr. Beecher had shown him, to his great surprise, that a man could be a decent and comfortable human being although he was a minister, and had so gained his confidence and good will that he could say any thing to him at their next interview. Captain Duncan finished his remarks by a decided expression of his disapproval of the canting regulation phrases so frequently employed by religious people, which are perfectly nauseous to men of the world.
This interesting conversation lasted about three-quarters of an hour, and ended, not because the theme seemed exhausted, but because the time was up. We have only given enough of it to convey some little idea of its spirit. The company again broke into one of their cheerful hymns, and the meeting was dismissed in the usual manner.
During the late war, Mr. Beecher took an active and energetic part in support of the cause of the Union. His labors were so severe that his health was considerably impaired, and his voice began to fail him. His physicians ordered him to seek rest and recreation in a tour through Europe, and he reluctantly obeyed them. He was much benefited by his visit to the Continent, but on his return to England, on his way home, being solicited to speak in that country in behalf of the Union, he delivered a series of powerful appeals, which exhausted the greater part of the strength he had gained on the Continent, and caused him to return home almost as ill as when he went abroad.
Soon after his return the war closed, and he went to Charleston to deliver the address at Fort Sumter upon the occasion of the rehoisting of the flag of the United States over that work. The news of the assassination of Mr. Lincoln met him upon his return to Brooklyn, and drew from him one of his most memorable sermons. At the close of hostilities, he preached a sermon to his congregation, urging forgiveness and conciliation toward the South as the policy of the hour, saying truly that that crisis was a rare opportunity which would never come again, if spurned. The sermon was unpopular, and caused him some trouble even in his own congregation.
Mr. Beecher is now fifty-seven years old, but is still in the flush of his intellectual vigor. His eye is as bright, his step as firm and elastic, and his voice as clear and ringing as when he preached his first sermon. His powers have grown with his work, and every year he seems to rise higher in his intellectual supremacy. As a pulpit orator, he has no superior, and certainly there is no man in all this round earth whose eloquence has been productive of greater good to the cause he serves. He is a stout, stocky man in appearance, with a large square face and heavy features. It is the face of a great orator and a genial, warm-hearted man. He is careful and temperate in all his habits—except that he will work too hard—and enjoys robust health. He lives plainly and dresses simply. He impresses one at once with his immense energy, and you would recognize him immediately as a man of unusual power in his community. Said a friend not long since, "I was standing by Beecher in a book-store to-day. He was perfectly still, as he was waiting for a parcel to be done up, but he reminded me of a big locomotive full of steam and fire, and ready to display its immense force at any moment."
Mr. Beecher is not only a preacher, but a capital farmer. He has a model farm at Peekskill, on the Hudson, and is brimful of agricultural and horticultural theories, which he carries into practice successfully. His love for flowers is a perfect passion, and dates from his boyhood. He is an excellent mechanic, and makes the repairs on his own premises, as far as he can, with a keen relish, which he has doubtless inherited from his father. He is thoroughly read in history, and as an art critic has no superior. His house is filled with art gems, which are his pride. He has not lost the love of reverie which marked his boyhood, but he is eminently a practical man, and prefers the practical questions of theology to those merely theoretical. He is as little like the typical parson as one can imagine, and yet he is one whose place will be hard to fill when he is gone, and whose works will live in the grateful memory of those whom his counsel has saved from sin, and his sympathy encouraged to continue in the path of duty.