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Henry Ward Beecher

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Henry Ward Beecher
Henry Ward Beecher in Columbus Park, Brooklyn, New York, 2003Full statue
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Henry Ward Beecher in Columbus Park, Brooklyn, New York, 2003
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Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 - March 8, 1887) was a theologically liberal American Congregationalist clergyman and reformer, and author who was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the eighth of nine children of Lyman Beecher by his first wife (and the eighth of thirteen children in all). One of his elder sisters was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1834 he graduated from Amherst College and then studied at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. First becoming a minister in Lawrenceburg (1837-39) he was then pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana (1839-47), and in 1847, he was appointed minister of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York.

An advocate of women's suffrage and for temperance, and a foe of slavery, he held that Christianity should adapt itself to the changing culture of the times. He raised funds to buy weapons for those willing to oppose slavery in Kansas and Nebraska, and the rifles bought with this money became known as "Beecher's Bibles". Politically active, he supported first the Free Soil Party and later the Republican Party. During the American Civil War, his church raised and equipped a volunteer regiment.

Beecher-Tilton Scandal

In the highly publicized scandal known as the Beecher-Tilton Affair he was tried on charges that he had committed adultery with a friend's wife, Elizabeth Tilton. In 1870, Elizabeth had confessed to her husband, Theodore Tilton, that she had had a relationship with Henry Ward Beecher. Tilton was then fired from his job at the Independent because of his editor's fears of adverse publicity. Theodore and Henry both pressured Elizabeth to recant her story, which she did, in writing. She subsequently retracted her recantation.

The charges became public when Theodore Tilton told Elizabeth Cady Stanton that his wife, Elizabeth, had confessed to a "free love" relationship with Henry Ward Beecher. Stanton repeated the story to Victoria Woodhull and Isabella Beecher Hooker.

Victoria became angry, as Henry Ward Beecher had publicly denounced her advocacy of free love. She published a story in her paper (Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly) on November 2, 1872, claiming that America's most renowned clergyman was secretly practicing the free-love doctrines which he denounced from the pulpit. The story created a national sensation. As a result, Victoria was arrested in New York City and imprisoned for sending obscene material through the mail. The Plymouth Church held a board of inquiry and exonerated Beecher, but excommunicated Mr. Tilton in 1873.

Tilton then sued Beecher: the trial began in January 1875, and ended in July when the jurors deliberated for six days but were unable to reach a verdict. A second board of enquiry was held at Plymouth Church and this body also exonerated Beecher. Two years later, Elizabeth Tilton once again confessed to the affair and the church excommunicated her. Despite this Beecher continued to be a popular national figure.

He died of a cerebral hemorrhage and is buried in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

Henry Ward Beecher is the namesake of the town of Beecher, Illinois although he declined to come to the town's dedication in 1871.

Publications

  • Seven Lectures to Young Men (1844) (a pamphlet)
  • The Independent (1861-63) (periodical, as editor)
  • Christian Union (1870-78) (periodical, as editor)
  • Summer in the Soul (1858)
  • Life of Jesus Christ (1871)
  • Yale Lectures on Preaching (1872)
  • Evolution and Religion (1885)

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