Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most famous and influential — but also controversial — preachers and speakers of 19th century America, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on this day in 1813. Henry was one of many literary giants of the extended Beecher family: his father Lyman was also a notable preacher; his sister Harriet found international fame as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and sisters Isabella Beecher Hooker and Catherine Beecher influenced many with their well-articulated views on women’s rights and education.
While attending a preparatory school in Amherst, Massachusetts, Henry discovered he had a natural talent for public speaking. After graduating from Amherst College in 1834, he entered the ministry and followed his father’s family to the midwest, preaching in Ohio and Indiana before being invited to preside over the new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, where his popular preaching style turned him into a regional celebrity.
Beecher, like many of his siblings, was an outspoken abolitionist, and as antebellum tensions over slavery increased in the mid-19th century, he began infusing his sermons with anti-slavery messages. He wrote scathing criticisms of the Compromise of 1850 and other political acts he viewed as concessions to the slave-holding South that were widely circulated throughout the United States, earning him death threats from pro-slavery advocates. Undeterred, Beecher raised money to purchase rifles to send to anti-slavery settlers during the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis of the 1850s, which were soon nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles” by the press. President Abraham Lincoln sent Beecher on a speaking tour of Europe in 1863 to bolster support for the Union cause during the American Civil War, which only added to the preacher’s status as an now-international celebrity.
Beecher’s fame had a dark side to it, as well: he was dogged by rumors of womanizing throughout his career, most famously during the Beecher-Tilton scandal of the 1870s, when Beecher stood trial for charges of adultery filed by the husband of Elizabeth Tilton. Deemed “the most sensational ‘he said, she said’ [story] in American history,” by historian Walter McDougall, the sordid details of the trial — which involved prominent New Yorkers as well as famous suffragists Victoria Woodhull and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country. Beecher was ultimately acquitted, and despite the stain on his reputation, remained a relatively popular speaker through the later years of his life. When Beecher died from a stroke in 1887 at age 73, over 40,000 people turned out to pay their respects in Brooklyn, remembering a man who was then one of the most influential people in the United States.
Gregg Mangan, “Henry Beecher: A Preacher with Political Clout,” connecticuthistory.org
“Henry W. Beecher,” Ohio History Central