The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXII. Divines and Moralists, 1783–1860

§ 13. Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher, too, was born in the orthodox uplands of Litchfield, and of a strictly Calvinistic sire. Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) had studied theology under Timothy Dwight at Yale; had occupied, after 1798, first the Presbyterian pulpit at Easthampton, Long Island, next the Congregational pulpit at Litchfield, and lastly that of the Park Street Church in Boston; until in 1832 he became President of the newly established Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. He is best known, perhaps, for his Six Sermons on Intemperance, but he was a dogmatist as well as a moralist, staunchly supporting the Calvinism of his native tradition.

His son Henry, graduating at Amherst in 1834 in no doubt as to his vocation, at once entered the Lane Theological Seminary, and studied under his father and under Calvin Stowe (1802–86), an Oriental scholar of real attainment, who in 1836 married Beecher’s sister Harriet. Beecher served his apprenticeship in the pulpit at Lawrenceburg and Indianapolis, whence in 1847 he was called to the new Brooklyn congregation of Plymouth Church. The liberal movement of his thought paralleled his geographical wanderings from the region of orthodoxy, through the region of culture, to the practical West, and back to the metropolitan East. He had had his fill of dogmatic theology in youth, and never took much further interest in it. He became more and more a minister, looking rather to the needs of humanity than to the theory of divinity. In the West, under the stress of primitive conditions, he soon threw overboard a system of doctrines in which, he found, plain people were not interested; so that by the time he took the Brooklyn pulpit, which soon became a national platform, he was preaching straight at human nature, and touching it with a more and more liberating hand as he advanced in years.

From his Seven Lectures to Young Men (1844) to his Evolution and Religion (1885) he came a long way. The Lectures are addressed apparently not to young men in general, but to young employees—clerks, mechanics, salesmen, and apprentices. Hence their flavour of Poor Richard and the Industrious Apprentice. Guided to his audience by Franklin and Hogarth, Beecher combines allegory with vivid eighteenth-century realism; bigoted invective against the theatre and novels, with “characters,” the Sluggard, the Busybody, the Dandy, the Pleasure-Loving Business Man, the Cynic, the Libertine. This antique literary material explains the excessively oldfashioned flavour of the book. Though Beecher grew immeasurably away from it, he seems never to have disavowed or changed it, and for fifty years it remained perhaps his most popular work.

To Beecher’s Western period also belong short pieces which first appeared in an Indiana agricultural paper and were later (1859) reprinted as Plain and Pleasant Talk about Fruit, Flowers and Farming. Of no intrinsic literary importance, they are of interest as showing the sources of much of Beecher’s imagery. He was always close to the soil, and he drew from natural phenomena some of his most effective “illustrations.” The Star Papers (1855 and 1859) and the Eyes and Ears (1862), collections of short essays, are good reading even now. With naïveté and self-depreciation, Beecher records his impressions of his first tour in Europe, tells of holiday outings among the Connecticut hills and trout streams, and gives plainly and modestly his very sensible opinions upon such subjects as sudden conversion, mischievous self-examination, and total depravity. The latter doctrine he rejects, accepting the doctrine of men’s sinfulness and the necessity of their atonement not because Adam fell but because sin is actual and present. With regard to conversion, he takes the empiricist view that only in rare cases does the inner clock strike twelve when men have found grace; they may have it, yet not have infallible evidence. Hence he deprecates excessive introspection and hesitation, and says “Go ahead.” His reminiscences, too, of old Litchfield at a time when that lucky town held Miss Pierce’s Female Seminary and the celebrated Law School of Judge Gould and Judge Tapping Reeve, are discursive essays of permanent interest. His story of how, having as a boy of thirteen visited the Charlestown Navy Yard, he stole a cannon ball and went away with it in his hat, is as enjoyable as Franklin’s apologues of The Axe to Grind and of Paying too Dear for One’s Whistle. The Essay on Apple Pie is not toto cælo removed from the Essay on Roast Pig. Home Revisited, the record of a few days in Indianapolis, recalls the first of his sermons which he considered a success because it was aimed at his hearers; and tells by the way of his awe of Jonathan Edwards. “I never could read … Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God … at one sitting. I think a person of moral sensibilities, alone at midnight, reading that awful discourse, would well nigh go crazy.” Through many of these pieces there breathes a frank sensuous enjoyment of physical beauty, which passes easily into religious exaltation. Beecher revels in the form and colour of great painting, and in the sounds, sights, and colours of landscape; the pictures in the Louvre and the glories of a sunset are to him literally revelations. These volumes testify once more to the richness of his mental imagery, and to its decided growth in range and in culture after his removal to the East.

Meanwhile, during all the years from his first pulpit to the beginning of the Civil War, his opposition to slavery had been deepening. He never joined the Abolitionists, but untiringly opposed the extension of slavery, and during the decade from 1850 to 1860, in lectures and in contributions to periodicals, denounced the various compromises and outrages that led up to the conflict. Freedom and War (1863), a volume of spirited sermons and addresses from the Brooklyn pulpit, exhibits the growth of his opinions up to the moment when he began to advocate immediate abolition—a moment just before the Emancipation Proclamation itself.

In educating public opinion upon slavery, Beecher had been unconsciously preparing his own armament for uses which he could not have guessed. While upon a vacation in England in the autumn of 1863 he was asked to speak on the war, and in the course of eleven days delivered almost impromptu, at Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and London, the series of addresses which gave him perhaps his greatest celebrity. Some of his audiences, notably those at Liverpool and Glasgow, were most tumultuous, and had actually to be conquered by the speaker. He conquered them, and won over the English middle class to sympathy with the Union cause. The determination of the British government to maintain strict neutrality is said to have been largely due to Beecher’s effect upon public opinion. As literature, the addresses in England, though of course they bear the marks of their hasty composition and contested delivery, yet reveal the easy mastery of his material which Beecher had been storing up in his years of preparatory writing and speaking. Their lucidity and humour are still delightful; they still throw off visibly the live sparks that were struck out in the original clash between the speaker and his hearers; they reproduce the time in its very form and pressure; and in their way, too, they are classics of argumentation, for Beecher realizes the essential Aristotelian form of rhetoric—the orator’s persuasion of an audience confronting him. The history of slavery and of secession could hardly be read in a more interesting form.

In Norwood, or Village Life in New England (1868), advertised as “Mr. Beecher’s only novel,” Beecher attempted an excursion into imaginative literature, but failed for want of breath. He had no power of construction and very little power of characterization. The personages are lay figures moving through an action prescribed for them by the author, and speaking his language, not their own. The general woodenness of the book, and several delightful absurdities, lay it open to easy parody. So much allowed, Norwood, if taken not as a novel but as a series of sketches of New England types, descriptions of New England scenery, and discussions not too profound of topics in religion, politics, and æsthetics, has distinct merit. This is much the same merit that is exhibited, under much the same limitations, by Beecher’s short essays: though he had imagination, he had no architectonic.

Beneath the routine activities of the next twenty years—his regular sermons, the public addresses for which he was more and more in request, and his sentimental Life of Jesus the Christ (1871), Beecher was quietly conducting an earnest study of the evolutionary philosophy. From the very beginning of his acquaintance with the new way of thinking, he seems to have felt that it would be his latest and his last instrument for enfranchising the soul; and when he had accomplished his task of educating public opinion at home and abroad toward the abolition of slavery, he turned to this other task of spiritual emancipation. “If I had preached thirty years ago,” he says in one of the sermons of his Evolution and Religion (1885), “what I preach now, it would have been a great mischief to you; but for thirty years I have been cautious, and have fed you as you could bear it.”

Beecher did not, it would seem, understand the full power of the instrument he was employing, and as he was a man of images and not of ideas he never brought his own self-contradictions to a clear issue. In his prevailing mood he makes the assumption, which comes down to him from Platonism, natural religion, and Transcendentalism, that nature is a symbol of God and the moral order, is a continuing revelation of God, is sympathetic with humanity, and is parallel, analogous, and favourable to religion and morals. Often, however, he realizes to some extent, and frankly declares, as far as he realizes it, the inevitable implication of the theory of natural selection, that nature is alien to the moral strivings of man, and is thoroughly unmoral if not immoral. When he is conscious of his self-contradiction at all, Beecher seems merely puzzled by it as by one mystery among many. It would of course be fatal to his work if that work were a philosophical system—which it is not.

Despite his indecision upon this central problem, really the problem of evil itself, Beecher succeeds in giving sight and freedom to souls weighed down and blinded by the old unhappy dogma of depravity. Without denying man’s sinfulness, he reverses the whole prospect of humanity by simply declaring that it is not true that men were created innocent but fell and incurred a debt which they could never hope to pay; but rather that the human race began low down, has not come up very far, and has the opportunity for limitless development upward.

Beecher’s close contact with his audience and the abundance of his imagery are the sources of his peculiar power. They keep his style homely and racy (Robert South he declared to have been his chief model), and hold his thought and feeling near to human needs. He deliberately cultivated both. He carried pocketfuls of gems, which he loved to turn over and examine; he haunted picture-galleries and jewellers’ shops. Like Whitman, whom he is said to have influenced, he walked the streets, spent whole days among the docks and ferry boats, made himself familiar with all sorts of trades, and talked with all sorts of people. These sources of power were also at times sources of weakness. Beecher came to depend upon hearers rather than readers; his hand faltered when he felt himself out of contact with an audience; and as he could not bring himself to revise with any degree of care the reports of his oral discourse, the form in which much of it has come to us is distinctly sub-literary. His exuberance of imagery also upon occasion betrayed him into incongruity and bathos. Yet his writings as a whole produce a deepening impression of merit. Here was a large personality, all of a piece, singularly free from repressions, and with no closet for a skeleton to lurk in. Beecher’s openness of soul—exhibiting frankly his delight in beautiful things and in human contacts—is perhaps his characteristic note, and together with the great historical interest of his work will probably go far to render it permanent.