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Henry Ward Beecher

Congregationalist minister known for speaking out on social issues from the pulpit

Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 24, 1813, the eighth of eleven children born to the prominent minister and educator Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxanna Foote Beecher. He graduated from Amherst College in 1834, and from Lane Theological Seminary in 1837. He began his career as a Presbyterian minister in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 1837, and then in Indianapolis, Indiana from 1839 to 1847. In 1847, he was invited to lead the newly formed Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, where he spent the rest of his life and career.

Beecher's sermons and lectures from the Plymouth pulpit made the church famous, and transcriptions of those sermons and lectures were circulated across the country. Beecher himself quickly became known for using his pulpit to speak out on issues of the day, especially slavery. A strong opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, he launched a fund-raising drive to purchase rifles to arm anti-slavery forces in the territories; those rifles became known as "Beecher Bibles." Upon outbreak of the Civil War, his congregation raised money to support a volunteer Union regiment, and during the war he continually pressed President Abraham Lincoln to issue a proclamation freeing slaves. In 1863, he conducted a lecture tour in England intended to popularize the Northern cause; most of his lectures, however, were given before less-than-enthusiastic audiences.

In addition to slavery, Beecher also spoke out against the mistreatment of Native Americans, anti-Semitism, and U.S. arrogance toward Mexico, and advocated women's suffrage, temperance, and for the allowing of Chinese immigration into United States. As a religious leader, Beecher preached about both the harsh judgment of God and His loving presence, and about freedom of the individual with a social conscience.

In 1874, Beecher was sued by Theodore Tilton, a former friend and member of his congregation, for alleged adultery with his wife. The subsequent trial became a media sensation not unlike the trials of celebrities today, but ended in a hung jury. Beecher was eventually cleared of all charges before two church courts.

Henry Ward Beecher died in Brooklyn on March 8, 1887, two days after suffering a stroke. He was survived by his wife Eunice and four of their nine children -- Harriet, Henry, William, Herbert. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, became famous in her own right as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

See Also

Lyman Beecher
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Civil War
President Abraham Lincoln
Harriet Beecher Stowe

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This page was last updated on November 18, 2018.