He was one of the most popular preachers in American in the middle 1800s. He was the brother of Harriett Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. His name was Henry Ward Beecher.
He purchased the chains that held John Brown in prison, dragging them across the stage and stomping on them as he preached against slavery. Beecher also supported women voting and Chinese immigration.
A graduate of Amherst College, Henry Ward Beecher had thousands attend his enormous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, including Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., wrote a limerick about Henry Ward Beecher.
The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher,
Called a hen an elegant creature,
The hen, pleased with that,
Laid an egg in his hat,
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentioned him in a Sherlock Holmes mystery novel. Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mount Rushmore, sculpted a statue of him.
To highlight the evils of slavery, Henry Ward Beecher held simulated auctions in which his congregation donated money to buy freedom for real slaves. One young slave girl, Pinky, was actually liberated by Beecher’s congregation which collected her purchase price of $900.
Prior to the Civil War, the Kansas-Nebraska Act let the issue of slavery be determined by the “choice” of the people in the Kansas territory by popular sovereignty. Soon, a rush of pro-slavery Democrat “Border Ruffians” flooded into Kansas, unleashing a wave of bloody violence. A Border War erupted between raiding bands of Jayhawkers and Bushwackers. The territory was referred to as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Two different Kansas state legislatures were organized: a Pro-slavery government met in Pawnee and an Anti-slavery “Free State” government met in Topeka.
The bloodshed escalated with many atrocities:
- The Wakarusa War started in November of 1855
- Lawrence, Kansas, was ransacked on May 21, 1856, and later massacred by Quantrill’s Raiders
- Pottawatomie Massacre, May 24, 1856
- Battle of Black Jack, June 2, 1856
- Battle of Fort Titus, Aug. 16, 1856
- Battle of Osawatomie, Aug. 30, 1856
- Marais des Cygnes Massacre, May 19, 1858
- Osceola, population 3,000, was burned to the ground, 200 slaves were freed and nine citizens executed without a trial, Sept. 23, 1861
- Violence resulted in the federal troops ordering all residents evacuated from four colonies in rural, western Missouri
John Brown came to fight slavery in Kansas in October of 1855.
Republican Senator Charles Sumner condemned the Democrats bringing slavery into Kansas, May 19, 1856: “Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the national government.”
Two days later, Democrat Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Sumner nearly to death on the floor of the Senate.
From 1854 to 1858, Henry Ward Beecher and his church bought hundreds of the new Sharps Rifles and shipped them to anti-slavery Free Soil supporters and abolitionist Republicans in Kansas. These rifles had new 1850 patented innovations of breech-loading and self-priming, which offered quick loading, speed in firing, and accuracy in distance.
Recommending them as effective weapon to fight pro-slavery Democrats, the New York Tribune printed Feb. 8, 1856, that Henry Ward Beecher: “… believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles. … You might just as well … read the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows who follow Atchison and Stringfellow; but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp’s rifle.”
The Sharps Rifle soon became known as a “Beecher’s Bible.”
As federal and state authorities forbade shipping arms to the region, rifles were packed in wooden crates marked as “Books.” When pro-slavery Democrats intercepted a case and took the guns, Beecher began to personally pass out rifles to abolitionist settlers who were headed to Kansas.
In 1855, seventy settlers founded a town in northeast Kansas named Wabaunsee, also called New Haven or the “Beecher Rifle Colony.” It became a stop of the Underground Railway for escaped slaves. Their church still exists – the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church.
When the Civil War started, Beecher raised and equipped a volunteer Union infantry regiment. He became largely responsible for pressuring Republican President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. When Union forces retook Fort Sumter in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln selected Henry Ward Beecher to give the speech commemorating the event. Immensely popular, Beecher has been viewed as second only to Lincoln in shaping post-war America’s public opinion.
Henry Ward Beecher stated: “I educated myself to speak … my moral convictions; and though, in later days, it has carried me through places where there were some batterings and bruisings, yet I have been supremely grateful that I was led to adopt this course. … I would rather speak the truth to ten men than blandishments and lying to a million. Try it, ye who think there is nothing in it! Try what it is to speak with God behind you, – to speak so as to be only the arrow in the bow which the Almighty draws.”
Henry Ward Beecher, and his sister Harriett Beecher Stowe, drew their convictions from their father, Lyman Beecher. In 1833, Lyman debated for 18 days in a row at Lane Seminary in favor of ending slavery. Pro-slavery Democrats from Kentucky threatened to burn the campus down.
Lyman Beecher died Jan. 10, 1863. He was a renowned New England clergyman who defended the doctrine of the Trinity, thus curtailing the spread of Unitarianism. He and his wife championed the education of women, advocated ending dueling, and helped found a temperance society, condemning the evils of profiting from substance abuse: “Intemperance is the sin of our land, and … is coming in upon us like a flood … If anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hand upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air and extending around an atmosphere of death.”
In “The Spirit of the Pilgrims,” 1831, Lyman Beecher wrote: “The Government of God is the only government which will hold society against depravity within and temptation without.”
Lyman Beecher was quoted in McGuffey’s Eclectic Sixth Reader, 1907: “While most nations trace their origin to barbarians, the foundations of our nation were laid by civilized men, by Christians.”
In his “Plea for the West,” 1835, Lyman Beecher wrote: “If this nation is, in the providence of God, destined to lead the way in the moral and political emancipation of the world, it is time she understood her high calling, and were harnessed for the work. For mighty causes, like floods from distant mountains, are rushing with accumulating power to their consummation of good or evil.”
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