It was a century ago — February 27, 1887-that Henry Ward Beecher stepped into the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church for the final time. By mid-week, the 73-year-old pastor had fallen seriously ill; the following Tuesday, March 8, one of America’s princes of the pulpit died.
In an era when some of Christian’s greatest preachers ministered simultaneously, Henry Ward Beecher was considered by many of his peers to be the outstanding preacher of his age. Phillips Brooks, who is himself counted among the princes of the American pulpit, considered Beecher “the greatest preacher of America and of our century,” and just before his own death cited Beecher as “the greatest preacher Protestantism has ever produced.”
Though little noticed in contemporary study of preaching, Beecher-through his published sermons, lectures, books and periodicals — reached a huge national audience in the mid-nineteenth century and wielded an enormous influence over the public mind. No wonder that William McLoughlin labeled him “the high priest of American religion.”
Beecher went beyond the traditional bounds of the preachers of his day to create a national pulpit from which he sought to apply the Christian message to a variety of issues in both the personal and the political/social arena.
Born into the family of revivalist Lyman Beecher, Henry grew up in an environment dominated by ecclesiastical and theological controversy. In a family noted for intellectual Achievement — sister Harriet Beecher Stowe became a novelist, while other siblings became educators or pastors — young Henry showed little promise as a student.
In fact, Lyman sent Henry to Amherst College rather than Yale, thinking the latter above his son’s academic level. How ironic that, years later, a member of Henry’s church would endow the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale University, with Henry Ward Beecher speaking the first three years in this now-famous series. Henry must have thought it sweet revenge.
It was at Amherst that Beecher joined the debating society and gained practical experience in public speaking. Upon graduation in 1834, he joined his father Lyman, who was then president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati.
The years at Lane were not easy: his father was under attack by orthodox Calvinists, who thought his modified Calvinism utterly heretical. In addition, Lyman was caught between the seminarians, who wanted the school to lead in the anti-slavery movement, and influential supporters who did not want the school involved in any political activity.
Henry’s first church following graduation was the First Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a thriving river town. Following ?? development, Beec?? ??as called to the larger Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis. During those years he developed a reputation as an effective revivalist, while the church grew to be the state’s largest.
Beecher was less concerned with discussing theology than with addressing the needs of common people. His first book, Lectures to Young Men, dealt with topics such as idleness, gambling, intemperance, cheating and other areas of personal morality, with an emphasis on conversion to Christian living.
In 1847, Brooklyn was a relatively new suburb of New York that was on the verge of explosive growth. In just two decades the population would grow from 30,000 to 295,000, making it the third-largest city in the nation.
Of 39 churches in the city, only one was Congregational. So when a group of Brooklyn businessmen planned to start a new church, they were interested in reports of an impressive young minister in Indianapolis. He came to New York and delivered the first sermon in the new Plymouth Church; that same trip, he preached at the prestigious Park Street Church in Boston, which sought to call him as associate pastor.
Beecher accepted the call of the 21-member Plymouth Church, and by the end of his first decade as pastor the church boasted 1,241 members (not including 346 names which had been dropped, for a total of 1,586 members). It had become the city’s largest church, and for a time was the nation’s largest.
By 1867, in a new sanctuary, as many as 3,500 persons would seek admission to a service, with police and ushers turning away hundreds every Sunday. Beecher encouraged church members not to return for Sunday evening services to leave room for visitors; besides, he would tell them, one sermon a Sunday was enough for anyone!
Beecher preached evangelistically, inviting listeners to trust in a God of love and mercy. His sermons reflected much of the romantic spirit of the Victorian era, in contrast to the strict Calvinism of his father’s generation.
In one area, however, Beecher retained his Calvinist heritage: in the desire for social reform. Beecher became actively involved in various reform movements, from anti-slavery to woman’s suffrage. He often used his pulpit to address such issues, as well as using his oratorical skills in purely political settings. At one point the Brooklyn pulpiteer was even discussed as a possible Republican vice-presidential candidate (he was active in national and state Republican activities during much of his career).
What made Beecher such a popular preacher? It was not a natural gift as a speaker; as a child, he was plagued by thick, indistinct speech. While at Amherst, a speech professor helped Beecher overcome those early problems and develop above-average speaking skills. Those skills were further refined in preaching efforts at scores of churches where he supplied or led revivals.
Unlike many sermons of the day, Beecher’s messages were written simply and clearly. In his first pastorate, he began the practice of keeping a written record of his sermons, including noting the reason for presenting a particular sermon. Though he would later abandon the journal, the idea of focusing on a specific target for a sermon was one he would continue to develop. He would recall years later, in his first series of Yale lectures:
I studied the sermons (of the apostles) until I got this idea: that the apostles were accustomed first to feel for a ground on which the people and they stood together; a common ground on which they could meet. Then they heaped up a large number of the particulars of knowledge that belonged to everybody; and when they had got that knowledge, which everybody would admit, placed in a proper form before their minds, then they brought it to bear upon them with all their excited heart and feeling. That was the first definite idea of taking aim that I had in mind.
More and more, his sermons stressed ethics, not theology, as the heart of Christianity. Coming out of a home constantly surrounded by theological controversy and debate, it is little wonder Beecher looked elsewhere for his own preaching. He came to see the pulpit as a practical tool for changing lives.
For 40 years as pastor of Plymouth Church, Beecher preached twice on Sunday and presented a Friday-evening Lecture-Room Talk (with a normal attendance of 700-800).
When the sanctuary burned down in 1849, the new structure was built to accord with Beecher’s concept of preaching. The pulpit-actually a simple speaker’s rostrum which left the body visible-was placed at the front and center of the congregation, close to the audience to allow the preacher’s “social and personal magnetism” to work more effectively. He used few gestures and normally spoke slowly and deliberately, although he would at times “indulge in passionate outbursts in which the words came like a torrent,” observed one biographer.
Beecher used notes containing a rough outline of the message, but as the sermon continued he paid less and less attention to his notes. Thus, the majority of his sermon was delivered extemporaneously, which he believed allowed him a greater liberty and helped to avoid the stale delivery he feared from a full manuscript.
One reason he was able to preach thus is that his notes were fresh: he rose early Sunday morning to prepare for the first service, and prepared for Sunday evening that afternoon. During the week he would be working on notes for several sermons, and on Sunday he would pull the one that seemed best and polish the notes from breakfast until the church bell rang. Since he lived nearby, there was little time lapse between preparation and delivery.
There were times, however, that Beecher would pull a piece of paper from his vest, jot a few lines during the congregational singing, and deliver an entirely new sermon than the one previously prepared, based on the inspiration of the moment.
One key to the popularity of his sermons is that they were filled with illustrations drawn from the lives of average people. During the week he would visit the shops and workplaces of the city, observing the activities of people. As he explained in his Yale lectures:
Sympathy with your people, insight of their condition, a study of the moral remedies, this will give endless diversity and fertility to your subjects for sermons … The wants of your people must set back into the sermon, and give it depth, direction, and current.
Beecher believed strongly that most people could be best reached through an appeal to their emotions. In the Yale lectures he suggested that six persons would be touched by such an appeal for every one that was motivated by reason. While Beecher would use facts to support a truth, he would then lay them aside as he used an emotional appeal to press home the truth with his audience.
This strong emotional element explains in part the importance of illustrations for Beecher. He felt they helped people understand abstract ideas more clearly, stimulated the imagination, aided memory, helped communicate a single truth to a varied audience, and allowed subtle introduction of controversial topics.
A later pastor of Plymouth Church, after studying Beecher’s written notes, observed that he would often elaborate a proposition in the text then, apparently as an afterthought, strike through the discussion and replace it with a striking illustration.
For Henry Ward Beecher, the purpose of preaching was to “build up men in the qualities of Jesus Christ.” Preachers must not simply provide insights into theological questions, he insisted, but must guide people to a more ethical, Christ-like lifestyle. The purpose of preaching was to change people’s lives, not their minds.
As he told his congregation, “the aim and design of preaching is to gain, hold, mold and fashion the heart of men to the noblest dispositions and best conduct.”

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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