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An essay by George William Curtis

Henry Ward Beecher

Title:     Henry Ward Beecher
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

For forty years Mr. Beecher had been minister of Plymouth Church when on a Sunday morning suddenly came the news that his ministry and probably his life were ended; and he died a day or two afterwards. The preacher and the church were more widely known than any others in the Union, and during all his pastorate he was one of the most conspicuous figures in the country. He was undoubtedly also one of the most famous preachers of his time and of the English race, and the death of Wendell Phillips left him the most eminent of American orators. There have been popular preachers during Mr. Beecher's career, like Moffit and other revivalists, and there are always eloquent and scholarly orators in the American pulpit. The tradition of Summerfield presents a beautiful youth and a captivating speaker. The charm of Channing was profound and indescribable. But Beecher recalls Whitefield more than any other renowned preacher. Like Whitefield, he was what is known as a man of the people; a man of strong virility, of exuberant vitality, of quick sympathy, of an abounding humor, of a rapid play of poetic imagination, of great fluency of speech; an emotional nature overflowing in ardent expression, of strong convictions, of complete self-confidence; but also not sensitive, nor critical, nor judicial; a hearty, joyous nature, touching ordinary human life at every point, and responsive to every generous moral impulse.

Mr. Beecher was not a pioneer, nor a leader of forlorn hopes, but of the main column of the army. He marched just ahead of the advance, and touched with his elbows those who moved forward with him. He liked to feel the warmth of their breath upon his cheek, and the magnetism of their neighborhood. He spoke for them as they could not speak for themselves. He liked the crowd. The hum and throb of multitudinous life inspired and cheered him. He was at home in streets and towns; with a bright jest for every comer; a happy quip and repartee; with an eye and a heart for the unfortunate and forlorn, and a ready rebuke for insolence and injustice. He had nothing of the recluse or scholarly habit; no fastidious taste. He was fond of pictures and music and all forms of art, without especial aesthetic accomplishment; a man of cheery presence, of cordial address; with a willing word for the reporter, chaffing the interviewer; jumping on the street-car in motion; yet always seemly, and always, despite his slouched hat and careless dress, undeniably clerical, but with no undue professional sense of dignity or decorum.

In the pulpit, or, more truly, upon the platform--for whether preaching, or lecturing, or speaking at table or upon the stump, he seemed to be always upon the platform--he inculcated right living rather than traditional doctrine. He was a soldier of the church militant, but his warfare was with human wrong and misery, and false theories of life, and low aims and poor ambitions. He aimed to build up righteousness of life, and in the ardor of the strife he liked to pause and wink, and let fly a bright-tipped, winged word at the opponent, against whom he bore no kind of malice. He hated the wrong, but not the wrong-doer. Ardent and impulsive, his generous emotions often overwhelmed his judgment; and in politics, although the most popular of stump-orators, and never happier or more truly himself than in a political speech, in which, with the instinct of a born fighter, he "drank delight of battle," yet he sometimes amazed and confounded his friends, who, however, could not doubt his sincerity nor question his purpose.

The great cloud that fell upon his life seemed also to darken the country. The grief and consternation showed how strong a hold he had upon the national mind and heart, which indeed was never so firm as at the very moment that his good name seemed to be obscured. It was the most tremendous ordeal to which any public man of his peculiar character and quality of eminence has ever been exposed in this country. The most remarkable fact in it all was the way in which he endured it. The blacker the cloud appeared to be, the more sturdy was his stern defiance, and for weeks of seemingly accumulating and insurmountable obstruction he faced unflinchingly a possible doom the mere prospect of which might well have withered a brave heart conscious of innocence. That the cloud ever wholly disappeared cannot be said, in view of the tone of the press even as he lay dead in his house. But that he could never have maintained his position as he did if he had not been generally acquitted in the public mind seems to be indisputable. If the relation of his later life to the country was somewhat changed, the result was due to the decline of confidence in what had been believed to be his strongest quality, supreme good sense and sound judgment, rather than to doubt of his moral integrity.

No man lived more in the public eye and for the public than Mr. Beecher. In his speeches and sermons and writings he took the public into his confidence with a freedom that was characteristic and natural in him, but which would have been extraordinary in any other man. He could not pass through the street without universal recognition, and no man in the two cities was so well known to everybody as he. At public meetings and at dinners where he was to speak, he came late amid smiling and expectant applause, and with the air of saying, "Where MacGregor sits, there is the head of the table." He had the right to that air, for wherever he was to speak he was the chief orator. But he was no niggard of generous praise and sympathy, and no man spoke with more fervent eulogy and eloquent approval of other men. Doubtless, like an actor or singer, the long habit of receiving applause had made it pleasant to him, and as is the fact with all extempore speaking, the greater the applause the higher the eloquence of his strain. It is a reciprocal action. Of Mr. Beecher's later platform speeches, the most remarkable was his political address at the Brooklyn Rink in 1884, which was delivered amid a storm of enthusiasm, while in the delivery he was himself wrought to the highest feeling.

His power over the emotions of an audience was unsurpassed in this country probably since Patrick Henry. Thomas Corwin and Sergeant Prentiss perhaps were as great masters of humor and patriotic appeal upon the stump; but Beecher added to these a pathos and sentiment and poetic tone in which the others did not excel. He had not the fine, glittering, incisive touch of Wendell Phillips's fatal sarcasm and vituperation. Phillips stood quietly and played his polished rapier with a flexible wrist, but its point was deadly; Beecher smote, and crushed. One was the deft Saladin with his chased and curving cimeter, the other was Richard with his heavy battle-axe. In the great controversy in which both were engaged, upon the same side, indeed, but under different banners and wearing different colors, Beecher and Phillips, amid a chorus of eloquence, were the two chief voices. Garrison was not distinctively an orator, while Phillips was the especial and distinctive orator of the cause, and his fame as a public man belongs to that cause alone. But Beecher had many interests and relations, and his oratory had other strains. They were friends always, and Phillips spoke often in Plymouth Church, and uttered many a glowing word of his fellow-laborer.

When these words are published the freshness of the impression of Beecher's death will have passed, and from every part of the country his eulogy will have been spoken. The universal emotion, the warmth and tenor of the tributes, will have shown how eminent a figure he was, and that his death is felt to be a national loss. One of the papers described him as the last of a great generation, and Senator Cullom, speaking of Logan in the crowded Brooklyn Academy on the evening of Beecher's death, called a roll of illustrious names, of which his was the latest, and among which it surely belongs. His profession was the preaching of peace and good-will. But how often he must have felt that his Master came not to bring peace, but a sword! His buoyant temperament, his perfect health, his love of nature and of man, of children and flowers, of the changing sky and landscape, his abounding sympathy, his rich and sensitive humor, made his life joyous and often happy. But it was none the less a stormy life, ending at last, amid the sorrow of a country, in happy rest and the good fame of a great orator for human welfare.

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George William Curtis's essay: Henry Ward Beecher