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An essay by George William Curtis

Beecher In His Pulpit After The Death Of Lincoln

Title:     Beecher In His Pulpit After The Death Of Lincoln
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

"Cross the Fulton Ferry and follow the crowd" was the direction which was said to have been given humorously by Mr. Beecher himself to a pilgrim who asked how to find his church in Brooklyn. The Easy Chair remembered it on the Sunday morning after the return of the Fort Sumter party; and crossing at an early hour in the beautiful spring day, he stepped ashore and followed the crowd up the street. That at so early an hour the current would set strongly towards the church he did not believe. But he was mistaken. At the corner of Hicks Street the throng turned and pushed along with hurrying eagerness as if they were already too late, although it was but a little past nine o'clock. The street was disagreeable like a street upon the outskirts of a city, but the current turned from it again in two streams, one flowing to the rear and the other to the front of Plymouth Church. The Easy Chair drifted along with the first, and as he went around the corner observed just before him a low brick tower, below which was an iron gate.

The gate was open, and we all passed rapidly in, going through a low passage smoothly paved and echoing, with a fountain of water midway and a chained mug--a kind thought for the wayfarer--and that little cheap charity seemed already an indication of the humane spirit which irradiates the image of Plymouth Church. The low passage brought us all to the narrow walk by the side of the church, and to the back door of the building. The crowd was already tossing about all the doors. The street in front of the building was full, and occasionally squads of enterprising devotees darted out and hurried up to the back door to compare the chances of getting in.

The Easy Chair pushed forward, and was shown by a courteous usher to a convenient seat. The church is a large white building, with a gallery on both sides, two galleries in front, and an organ-loft and choir just behind the pulpit. It is spacious and very light, with four long windows on each side. The seats upon the floor converge towards the pulpit, which is a platform with a mahogany desk, and there are no columns. The view of the speaker is unobstructed from every part. The plain white walls and entire absence of architectural ornamentation inevitably suggest the bare cold barns of meeting-houses in early New England. But this house is of a very cheerful, comfortable, and substantial aspect.

There were already dense crowds wedged about all the doors upon the inside. The seats of the pew-holders were protected by the ushers, the habit being, as the Easy Chair understood, for the holders who do not mean to attend any service to notify the ushers that they may fill the seats. Upon the outside of the pews along the aisles there are chairs which can be turned down, enabling two persons to be seated side by side, yet with a space for passage between, so that the aisle is not wholly choked. On this Sunday the duties of the ushers were very difficult and delicate, for the pressure was extraordinary. There was still more than an hour before the beginning of the service, but the building was rapidly filling; and everybody who sank into a seat from which he was sure that he could not be removed wore an edifying expression of beaming contentment which must have been rather exasperating to those who were standing and struggling and dreadfully squeezed around the doors.

Presently the seats were all full. The multitude seemed to be solid above and below, but still the new-comers tried to press in. The platform was fringed by the legs of those who had been so lucky as to find seats there. There was loud talking and scuffling, and even occasionally a little cry at the doors. One boy struggled desperately in the crowd for his life, or breath. The ushers, courteous to the last, smiled pitifully upon their own efforts to put ten gallons into a pint pot. As the hour of service approached a small door under the choir and immediately behind the mahogany desk upon the platform opened quietly, and Mr. Beecher entered. He stood looking at the crowd for a little time, without taking off his outer coat, then advanced to the edge of the platform and gave some directions about seats. He indicated with his hands that the people should pack more closely. The ushers evidently pleaded for the pew-holders who had not arrived; but the preacher replied that they could not get in, and the seats should be filled that the service might proceed in silence. Then he removed his coat, sat down, and opened the Hymn-Book, while the organ played. The impatient people meantime had climbed up to the window-sills from the outside, and the great white church was like a hive, with the swarming bees hanging in clusters upon the outside.

The service began with an invocation. It was followed by a hymn, by the reading of a chapter in the Bible, and a prayer. The congregation joined in singing; and the organ, skilfully and firmly played, prevented the lagging which usually spoils congregational singing. The effect was imposing. The vast volume filled the building with solid sound. It poured out at the open windows and filled the still morning air of the city with solemn melody. Far upon every side those who sat at home in solitary chambers heard the great voice of praise. Then amid the hush of the vast multitude the preacher, overpowered by emotion, prayed fervently for the stricken family and the bereaved nation. There was more singing, before which Mr. Beecher appealed to those who were sitting to sit closer, and for once to be incommoded that some more of the crowd might get in; and as the wind blew freshly from the open windows, he reminded the audience that a handkerchief laid upon the head would prevent the sensitive from taking cold. Then opening the Bible he read the story of Moses going up to Pisgah, and took the verses for his text.

The sermon was written, and he read calmly from the manuscript. Yet at times, rising upon the flood of feeling, he shot out a solemn adjuration or asserted an opinion with a fiery emphasis that electrified the audience into applause. His action was intense but not dramatic; and the demeanor of the preacher was subdued and sorrowful. He did not attempt to speak in detail of the President's character or career. He drew the bold outline in a few words, and leaving that task to a calmer and fitter moment, spoke of the lessons of the hour. The way of his death was not to be deplored; the crime itself revealed to the dullest the ghastly nature of slavery; it was a blow not at a man, but at the people and their government; it had utterly failed; and, finally, though dead the good man yet speaketh. The discourse was brief, fitting, forcible, and tender with emotion. It was a manly sorrow and sympathy that cast its spell upon the great audience, and it was good to be there. When words have a man behind them, says a wise man, they are eloquent. There was another hymn before the benediction, a peal of pious triumph, which poured out of the heart of the congregation, and seemed to lift us all up, up into the sparkling, serene, inscrutable heaven.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Beecher In His Pulpit After The Death Of Lincoln