Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Minister on the Stump Full-Time?

Although not a native New Yorker, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher became one of the country's best-known preachers even before he accepted the pulpit of Brooklyn Heights' Plymouth Church in 1847. Born and raised in Litchfield, Connecticut, he was the son of Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher. One of his older sisters was best-selling author Harriet Beecher Stowe. The younger Beecher soon built up Plymouth Church's attendance to number in the thousands on Sundays, with well-known politicians and financiers counted among his audience. Beecher used theatric techniques and tempered Calvinist doctrine with love. He was even accused of preaching a form of Transcendentalism.

As the political climate of the country heated up in the summer of 1856 with abolition becoming a main issue, the newly-formed Republican party gained momentum. And Beecher, ever-magnetized by the limelight, became one of the party's facemen. At an anti-slavery rally at Broadway Tabernacle, politicos clamored to hear Beecher speak. And he did, magnificently. Beecher's Plymouth Church became known as a stop on the Underground Railroad. At a Sunday service at the church, Beecher's inspirational and persuasive rhetoric raised the money to free a slavewoman who was present.

John C. Fremont was nominated the Republican presidential candidate at the party's first convention in Philadelphia in June of 1856. Soon after this, one of Beecher's benefactors lent Fremont his office on Broadway to be the latter's unofficial campaign headquarters. Beecher's help was sought for the campaign, and in the fall of that year, Beecher was given a leave of absence by his church to campaign full-time in the Northeast for Fremont. Beecher believed that taking up arms was necessary in the abolition movement. He helped raise money for rifles and was viciously attacked by the press for arming young men with "Beecher's Bibles." He was dubbed, among other things, "The Rev. Kill 'em Beecher." Such was the political climate in the fall of 1856 that the South threatened to secede if Fremont were elected President. Fate intervened and James Buchanan was elected, staving off Southern secession by four years.

Applegate, Debby. "The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher." New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006.

Photo: Henry Ward Beecher. From Library of Congress.

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