Henry Ward Beecher,
from the Contemporary Review
It would be no compliment to call Henry Ward Beecher the American
Spurgeon. He may be that, but he is more. If we can imagine Mr.
Spurgeon and Mr. John Bright with a cautious touch of Professor
Maurice and a strong tincture of the late F.W. Robertson—if, I say,
it is possible to imagine such a compound being brought up in New
England and at last securely fixed in a New York pulpit, we shall get
a product not unlike Henry Ward Beecher....
Mr. Beecher was brought up in the country. His novel, Norwood—not
very readable, by the way, although full of charming passages—abounds
in woods and streams, hills and dales, and flowers. "The willows," he
tells us somewhere, "had thrown off their silky catkins, and were in
leaf; the elm was covered with chocolate-colored blossoms, the soft
maple drew bees to its crimson tassels." Would that all preachers and
writers used no more offensive and superfluous flowers of speech than
such as these....
When he wants to illustrate the comfort of a powerful, unseen, though
protective love, he tells us how, as a boy, he woke up one midsummer
night and listened, with a sense of half-uneasy awe, to the wild cry
of the marsh birds, whilst the moonlight streamed full into his room;
and then, as he grew more and more disturbed, he suddenly heard his
father clear his throat "a-hem," in the next room, and instantly that
familiar sound restored his equanimity. The illustration is simple,
but it hits the mark and goes home. His affectionate tributes to his
father and mother are constantly breaking forth in spite of himself.
"I thank God," he says, "for two things. First, that I was born and
bred in the country, of parents that gave me a sound constitution and
a noble example. I never can pay back what I got from my parents. Next
I am thankful that I was brought up in circumstances where I never
became acquainted with wickedness." How delightful it is to think of a
man who, without a taint of conscious insincerity, but simply out of
the fulness of his heart, can get up before four thousand people, and
"I never was sullied in act, nor in thought when I was young. I grew
up as pure as a woman. And I cannot express to God the thanks which I
owe to my mother, and to my father, and to the great household of
sisters and brothers among whom I lived. And the secondary knowledge
of those wicked things which I have gained in later life in a
professional way, I gained under such guards that it was not harmful
to me." ...
He has a wonderful way of importing his leisure hours into the pulpit,
and making the great cooped-up multitude feel something of the joy and
freshness of his own exhilaration. One golden day above others seems
to have dwelt in his mind. He refers to it again and again.
"When I walked one day on the top of Mt. Washington—glorious day of
memory! Such another day I think I shall not experience till I stand
on the battlements of the New Jerusalem—how I was discharged of all
imperfections; the wide far-spreading country which lay beneath me in
beauteous light, how heavenly it looked, and I communed with God. I
had sweet tokens that he loved me. My very being rose right up into
his nature. I walked with him, and the cities far and near of New
York, and all the cities and villages which lay between it and me,
with their thunder, the wrangling of human passions below me, were to
me as if they were not."
Some of his sermons are full of vacation-rambles. He passes through
woods and gardens and plucks flowers and fragrant leaves, which will
all have to do service in Brooklyn Church; he watches the crowded
flight of pigeons from the treetops, and thinks of men's riches that
so make themselves wings and fly away. As he scales the mountains and
sees the summer storms sweep through the valleys beneath him, he
thinks of the storms in the human heart—"many, many storms there are
that lie low and hug the ground, and the way to escape them is to go
up the mountain sides and get higher than they are."
Mr. Beecher's travels in Europe were not thrown away upon his ardent
and artistic temperament. He has stood before the great pictures to
some purpose, and has not failed to read their open secret.
"Have you ever stood in Dresden to watch that matchless picture of
Raphael's, the 'Madonna di San Siste'? Engravings of it are all
through the world; but no engraving has ever reproduced the mother's
face. The Infant Christ that she holds is far more nearly represented
than the mother. In her face there is a mist. It is wonder, it is
love, it is adoration, it is awe—it is all these mingled, as if she
held in her hands her babe, and yet it was God! That picture means
nothing to me as it does to the Roman Church; but it means everything
to me, because I believe that every mother should love the God that is
in her child, and that every mother's heart should be watching to
discern and see in the child, which is more than flesh and blood,
something that takes hold of immortality and glory."
—Selected from the Contemporary Review.