Wednesday, March 8, 2017

This Day in Religious History (Death of Henry Ward Beecher, Brooklyn Abolitionist Preacher)

Mar. 8, 1887—Two days after suffering a stroke, the charismatic Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher died in his sleep at age 73. 

It was an uncharacteristically quiet end to a life of striving and strife, particularly from his Brooklyn pulpit, where for four decades he had moved thousands of listeners by denouncing slavery and other forms of American racism, paying tribute to a Christian god of love—and enduring the suspicions of his congregation and tabloid readers over an alleged affair with a married parishioner.

Several months ago, while walking through Brooklyn Heights, I had hoped to take a photo of a striking statue of Beecher by Gutzon Borglum (sculptor of Mount Rushmore) at the religious institution the preacher founded, Plymouth Church. But, because there was no easy access to it because of the high courtyard fence blocking the way, I’ve decided to get closer to him through his words rather than an image.

And what words they were—all the more extraordinary for being delivered extemporaneously, then transcribed by stenographers. Each Sunday, as many as 2,500 people, often coming over from Manhattan by Brooklyn Ferry, crowded into the church for the spectacle of the long-haired Beecher doing something unexpected.

It could involve Beecher, unlike his Calvinist minister father, Lyman Beecher (who sired six other sons who, like Henry and their father, became preachers), speaking of a benevolent God, nudging the axis of Protestant rhetoric from a theology of punishment to one of forgiveness and love. Or it could involve Beecher deciding, like his equally abolitionist sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, to provoke slaveholders—in his case, by holding a mock auction of a nine-year-old slave girl in 1860.

President James Buchanan’s proclamation of a “National Day of Fasting” on Jan. 4, 1861, as the secession movement swept the South, provoked “Peace, Be Still,” one of Beecher’s most astonishing bursts of oratory. Why was the country “observing a “day of humiliation,” he asked? It was for “the strangest reason the world ever heard,” he noted: because, with the rise of abolitionist sentiment, “the spirit of liberty has so increased and strengthened among us, that the Government is in danger of being overthrown!”

While pointing out the presence of “the most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin—slavery” in the South, Beecher refused to let the North off the hook, noting that, because it “loved money, and that quiet which befits industry and commerce,” the region had allowed the institution to spread even though, when the Constitution was written in 1787, it was framed “only to give oppression time to die decently.”

Nor was he done yet. Still in the same sermon, he castigated as well America’s policy toward Mexicans and Native-Americans (“What must be the nature of that Christianization which makes this Republic a most dangerous neighbor to nations weaker than ourselves?”).

When he wasn’t bitterly criticizing the “peculiar institution,” Beecher was, together with William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, part of a liberal theological movement that advocated for God’s love with depths of eloquence. “Religion is in the man, or it is not anywhere,” Beecher took to saying. 

In the 1870s, Beecher received attention of an unwelcome kind when friend and parishioner Theodore Tilton accused him of improper relations with his wife. His charm and exuberance were such that women were continually falling in love with him, making him a constant object of gossip and, among husbands, jealousy, whether or not he acted on temptation. The adultery trial that followed provided newspaper fodder (some say the coverage exceeded that accorded to the Civil War) before ending in a hung jury. The congregation of Plymouth Church absolved Beecher of wrongdoing, but a cloud of scandal lingered on him to his death, and even beyond.
Nevertheless, Beecher remains an important figure in American religious history. He helped establish that politics was a right and proper subject for the pulpit.  Moreover, biographer Debby Applegate, in The Most Famous Man in America, credits him with putting progressive evangelicalism and a gospel of love, happiness and self-fulfillment at the center of modern American Christianity, in a pronounced shift from its dour Puritan origins. 

No comments: