Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Henry was the eighth of thirteen children of Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian preacher from Boston, Massachusetts. Henry's mother, Roxana Foote, died when Henry was three years old.
The Beecher household was, one of the children later recalled, "the strangest and most interesting combination of fun and seriousness". The family was poor, and Lyman Beecher assigned his children "a heavy schedule of prayer meetings, lectures, and religious services" while banning the theater, dancing, most fiction, and the celebration of birthdays or Christmas. The family's pastimes included story-telling and listening to Lyman play the fiddle. Henry later recalled: "I never heard of Santa Claus when I was a boy. I never hung up a stocking. I feel bad about it to this day. A little love was what I wanted."
Henry had a childhood stammer. He was considered slow-witted and one of the less promising of the brilliant Beecher children. His less-than-stellar performance earned him punishments such as being forced to sit for hours in the girls' corner wearing a dunce cap.
|Henry with his sister, Harriet|
|Lyman Beecher and nine of his children|
|Harriet and Henry |
with their father, Lyman Beecher
|The Panic of 1837|
Unusually for a speaker of his era, Beecher would use humor and informal language including dialect and slang as he preached. His preaching was a major success, building Second Presbyterian into the largest church in the city. He also led a successful revival meeting in nearby Terre Haute. However, mounting debt led to Beecher again seeking a new position in 1847, and he accepted the invitation of businessman Henry Bowen to head a new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York.
Beecher's national fame continued to grow, and he took to the lecture circuit, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the country and charging correspondingly high fees. He was one of the founders in 1848, and for nearly twenty years an editorial contributor, of The Independent, a Congregationalist newspaper. It was published and financed by a group of New York businessmen led by Henry Bowen. The editorial policy was strongly antislavery, which hurt the magazine's circulation initially, but it improved through the 1850s to reach 35,000 by the beginning of the Civil War. From 1861 till 1863, Beecher was its editor. His contributions to this were signed with an asterisk, and many of them were afterward collected and published as "Star Papers; or, Experiences of Art and Nature". His assistant editor was Theodore Tilton, who succeeded Beecher as editor in 1863 and remained in the position until 1870. During Tilton's tenure, The Independent took up the cause of women's suffrage. It also published poetry and literary contributions by authors including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell. It reached its highest circulation of 75,000 in 1870, the year in which Tilton retired as editor.
|Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York|
"It is Love the world wants. Higher than morality, higher than philanthropy, higher than worship, comes the love of God. That is the chiefest thing."Henry Ward Beecher became involved in many social issues of his day, most notably abolition. Though Beecher hated slavery as early as his seminary days, his views were generally more moderate than those of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who advocated the breakup of the Union if it would also mean the end of slavery.
|Illustration of Henry Ward Beecher with "Pinky"|
|Edna Dean Proctor|
In 1860, the day before delivering his Cooper Union speech on February 27, Abraham Lincoln attended services at Beecher's church. Lincoln liked energetic preaching and had long admired Rev. Beecher. Lincoln's law partner, William H. Herndon, often gave him speeches by Beecher and other abolitionist preachers.
In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, sent Beecher on a speaking tour of Europe to build support for the Union cause. Beecher's speeches helped turn European popular sentiment against the rebel Confederate States of America and prevented its recognition by foreign powers.
He gave the speech on Friday, April 14, 1865 - the same day Lincoln was assassinated.
While writing Norwood, Beecher had an affair with his neighbor, Chloe Beach, whose daughter, Violet, may have been the child of their union. Biographer Debby Applegate wrote, “Henry adored children, but his devotion to Violet went beyond normal boundaries. The most compelling evidence is the photographs.”
|Beecher with Violet Beach|
In 1867, a group from Plymouth Church undertook a five-and-a-half month voyage aboard the steamer Quaker City to Europe and the Holy Land. Joining them as a journalist was the young Mark Twain. His satiric account of this pioneering tour group, The Innocents Abroad, was Twain's best-selling work throughout his lifetime. Twain spoke at Plymouth, as did many other famous writers and activists, including Clara Barton, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Horace Greeley, and William Thackery.
Mark Twain described Beecher's preaching style:
"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."
|Elizabeth Tilton, |
Henry Ward Beecher,
|Elizabeth Cady Stanton|
Stanton repeated the story to fellow women's rights leaders Victoria Woodhull and Isabella Beecher Hooker.
|Isabella Beecher Hooker|
The article made detailed allegations that America's most renowned clergyman was secretly practicing the free-love doctrines that he denounced from the pulpit. The story created a national sensation.
At Beecher's urging, Woodhull was arrested in New York City and imprisoned for sending obscene material through the mail. The scandal split the Beecher siblings; Harriet and others supported Henry, while Isabella publicly supported Woodhull.
The first trial was Woodhull's, who was released on a technicality. The Plymouth Church held a board of inquiry and exonerated Beecher, but excommunicated Theodore Tilton in 1873. Tilton then sued Beecher on civil charges of adultery. The trial began in January 1875, and ended in July when the jurors deliberated for six days but were unable to reach a verdict. Beecher then called for the Congregational church to hold a final hearing to exonerate him, which it did. Stanton was outraged by Beecher's repeated exonerations, calling the scandal a "holocaust of womanhood".
Eunice Beecher stood by her husband faithfully during his sensational adultery trial.
|Beecher at Different Ages|
|Blockade of Engines, Martinsburg, West Virginia|
Part of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877
Was not a dollar a day enough to buy bread? Water costs nothing. … A family may live on good bread and water in the morning, water and bread at midday, and good bread and water at night."Beecher, who was able to accumulate earnings of $20,000 a year through his salary, lecture fees, publications and endorsements, spoke in one sermon how it was possible to live on $1 a day. This was too much for the cartoonists. In a cartoon entitled "Beecher's Theory and Practice" from the pages of the German-language version of Puck magazine, Beecher's immense earning power and exaggerated waistline are contrasted with his advice to others:
Thomas Barratt of the British company, Pear's Soap, was one of the first people in advertising to see the value of personal endorsements. He persuaded prominent chemists and skin specialists to recommend Pears' Soap. The popular actress Lillie Langry, well-known for her perfect complexion, gave a commendation for Pears' soap and became one of the first celebrities to endorse a commercial product. Barratt decided that in order to increase sales in the highly profitable American market, he needed to have the backing of some influential figure. He initally approached General Ulysses S. Grant and other Civil War heroes, but in the end won the support of Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher had already used the soap and was happy to help promote the product. He wrote the following letter in Barratt's presence:
If "Cleanliness is next to Godliness," soap must be considered as a "Means of Grace" — and a clergyman who recommends moral things, should be willing to recommend Soap. I am told that my commendation of Pears' Soap some dozen years ago has assured for it a large sale in the U.S. I am willing to stand by any word in favor of it that I ever uttered. A man must be fastidious indeed who is not satisfied by it.
HENRY WARD BEECHER Nov 29, 1882
Barratt took the letter to the offices of the New York Herald and managed to get the editor to feature the glowing testimonial in a full page advertisement on the front page.
Influenced by British author Herbert Spencer, Beecher embraced Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in the 1880s, identifying as a "cordial Christian evolutionist". He argued that the theory was in keeping with what Applegate called "the inevitability of progress", seeing a steady march toward perfection as a part of God's plan. In 1885, he wrote Evolution and Religion to expound these views. His sermons and writings helped to gain acceptance for the theory in America.
Beecher was a prominent advocate for allowing Chinese immigration to continue in the United States, helping to delay passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act until 1882. He argued that as other American peoples, such as the Irish, had seen a gradual increase in their social standing, a new people was required to do "what we call the menial work", and that the Chinese, "by reason of their training, by the habits of a thousand years, are adapted to do that work."
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.
Such was the anticipated attendance at his funeral, held at Plymouth Church at 10:30 a.m. on March 11, that tickets for members of the congregation, allowing them their normal pew seating, had to be printed.
|Ticket for Funeral of Henry Ward Beecher|
Crowd control was obviously a concern, as bearers were instructed the ticket "must be shown at the outer cordon of police and presented at the Orange street entrance by 10 A.M. As far as practicable, pew holders will be seated in their pews, save in such portion of the Church as may be necessarily reserved."
The procession to the church, led by a black commander of the William Lloyd Garrison Post in Massachusetts and a white Virginia Confederate general and former slaveholder, marching arm in arm - paid tribute to what Beecher helped accomplish. Representatives from New York’s Jewish, Catholic, and Chinese communities marched in the procession.
Henry Ward Beecher Grave, Greenwood Cemetery
"HE THINKETH NO EVIL"
Beecher was survived by his wife Eunice, and four of the children born to them: Harriet, Henry, William Constantine and Herbert.
In 1891, a bronze statue by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward (1830–1910) honored Beecher; Ward was chosen to make Beecher’s death mask, and then selected by the memorial committee to sculpt his full-scale bronze effigy. The piece placed the cloaked Beecher atop a granite pedestal. Attached to the base on one side is the figure of an African-American girl placing a palm branch at his feet, and on the other side a boy assists a girl laying a garland. Beecher is depicted in a pensive manner; the figures beside the base symbolize his devotion to children and his support of abolitionism.
|Henry Ward Beecher Monument|
Brooklyn, New York