HENRY WARD BEECHER

(1813-1887)

THE BOY WHO HALF-HEARTEDLY JOINED THE CHURCH

There is great encouragement for the seemingly backward, hesitant youth in the story of Henry Ward Beecher's early life.

He tells us that he used to be laughed at for talking as though he had pudding in his mouth. Yet he became one of the greatest orators the world has seen.

He joined the church merely because he was expected to do so. It was only "pride and shamefacedness" that prevented him from expressing his doubts as to whether he was a Christian. When he actually came to take the step he wondered whether he should be struck dead for not feeling more; and afterward he walked home crying and wishing he knew what he ought to do and how he ought to do it. Yet he became one of the greatest religious leaders of his time.


From the "Biography of Henry Ward Beecher," by W. C. Beecher and Scoville. C. L. Webster Co., 1888.

"If I had had the influence of a discreet, sympathetic Christian person to brood over and help and encourage me, I should have been a Christian child from my mother's lap, I am persuaded; but I had no such influence. The influences of a Christian family were about me, to be sure, but they were generic; and I revolved these speculative experiences, my strong religious habitudes taking the form of speculation all through my childhood. I recollect that from the time that I was about ten years old I began to have periods when my susceptibilities were so profoundly impressed that the outward manifestations of my nature were changed. I remember that when my brother George—who was next older than I, and who was beginning to be my helpful companion, to whom I looked up—became a Christian, being awakened and converted in college, it seemed as though a gulf had come between us, and as though he was a saint on one side of it while I was a little reprobate on the other side. It was awful to me. If there had been a total eclipse of the sun I should not have been in more profound darkness outwardly than I was inwardly. I did not know whom to go to; I did not dare to go to my father; I had no mother that I ever went to at such a time; I did not feel like going to my brother; and I did not go to anybody. I felt that I must try to wrestle out my own salvation.

"Once, on coming home, I heard the bell toll, and I learned that it was for the funeral of one of my companions with whom I had been accustomed to play, and with whom I had grown up. I did not know that he had been sick, but he had dropped into eternity; and the ringing, swinging, booming of that bell, if it had been the sound of an angel trumpet of the last day, would not have seemed to me more awful. I went into an ecstasy of anguish. At intervals, for days and weeks, I cried and prayed. There was scarcely a retired place in the garden, in the woodhouse, in the carriage-house, or in the barn that was not a scene of my crying and praying. It was piteous that I should be in such a state of mind, and that there should be nobody to help me and lead me out into the light. I do not recollect that to that day one word had been said to me, or one syllable had been uttered in the pulpit, that lead me to think there was any mercy in the heart of God for a sinner like me. For a sinner that had repented it was thought there was pardon; but how to repent was the very thing I did not know. A converted sinner might be saved, but for a poor, miserable, faulty boy, that pouted, and got mad at his brothers and sisters, and did a great many naughty things, there was no salvation so far as I had learned. My innumerable shortcomings and misdemeanors were to my mind so many pimples that marked my terrible depravity; and I never had the remotest idea of God except that he was a sovereign who sat with a sceptre in his hand and had his eye on me, and said: 'I see you, and I am after you.' So I used to live in perpetual fear and dread, and often I wished myself dead. I tried to submit and lay down the weapons of my rebellion, I tried to surrender everything; but it did not seem to do any good, and I thought it was because I did not do it right. I tried to consecrate myself to God, but all to no purpose. I did everything, so far as I could, that others did who professed to be Christians, but I did not feel any better. I passed through two or three revivals. I remember, when Mr. Nettleton was preaching in Litchfield, going to carry a note to him from father; and for a sensitive, bashful boy like me it was a severe ordeal. I went to the room where he was speaking, with the note in my trembling hand, and had to lay it on the desk beside him. Before I got halfway across the floor I was dazed and everything seemed to swim around me, but I made out to get the note to him, and he said: 'That's enough; go away, boy,' and I sort of backed and stumbled toward the door (I was always stumbling and blundering in company) and sat down. He was preaching in those whispered tones which always seem louder than thunder to the conscience, although they are only whispers in the ear. He had not uttered more than three sentences before my feelings were excited, and the more I listened the more awful I felt; and I said to myself: 'I will stay to the inquiry meeting.' I heard Mr. Nettleton talking about souls writhing under conviction, and I thought my soul was writhing under conviction. I had heard father say that after a person had writhed under conviction a week or two they began to come out, and I said: 'Perhaps I will get out'; and that thought produced in me a sort of half-exhilaration of joy. I stayed to the inquiry meeting, felt better, and trotted home with the hope that I was on the way toward conversion. I went through this revival with that hope strengthened; but it did not last long."

It is evident from this chapter that if we would understand Henry Ward Beecher and the influences that went to the formation of his character and to the success of his life, other things than parentage, home, school, or nature must be taken into the account. The vast things of the invisible realm have begun to speak to him, and his nature has proved to be peculiarly sensitive to their influence.

He is thus early groping, unresting, and unsatisfied; but it is among mountains, and not in marshes or quicksands. Some day these mountain truths, among which he now wanders in darkness, shall be radiant in his sight with the Divine Compassion, and his gloom shall give place to abiding love, joy, and peace.

It was in 1827, and Henry was fourteen years old, when he entered the Mount Pleasant Institute. "He was admitted to the institution at a price about half the usual charge, for one hundred dollars per year. His appearance was robust and healthy, rather inclined to fulness of form, with a slight pink tinge on his cheeks and a frequent smile upon his face. In his manners and communications he was quiet, orderly, and respectful. He was a good-looking youth." This is the testimony of one of his teachers, Mr. George Montague.

"I think he must have been fond of children, for he was always ready for a frolic with me. I don't remember how he spoke, except that he talked a good deal and was full of life and fun." So says a friend in whose home he boarded, in a letter written during the past year.

No place could have been better fitted to the condition of the boy, as he then was, than the one chosen. He was tired of the city with its brick walls, stone pavements, and artificial restrictions, and longed for the freedom and the freshness of the country. Amherst at that time was only a small village, fighting back with indifferent success the country that pressed in upon it from every side, and offering this city-sick lad, almost within a stone's throw of the school, the same kind of fields and forests that were around him at Litchfield, and spreading out for him a landscape equal in beauty to that of his childhood home.

Besides, he has an object in view that stirs his blood. He is to fit himself for the navy; his father has promised his influence to get him an appointment, if wanted, and Admiral Nelson and all other brave admirals and commodores are his models. For the first time in his life he takes hold of study with enthusiasm.

The institution was very popular in its day, and a great advance upon the old academy. It was semi-military in its methods, and in its government there was great thoroughness without severity. Its teachers possessed superior qualifications, and all were men of great kindness as well as of marked ability. Among them were two men who especially had great influence in directing his energies and preparing him not only for Amherst College but for the greater work beyond, and who were ever remembered by him with the deepest gratitude.

The first of these was W. P. Fitzgerald, the teacher of mathematics at Mount Pleasant School:

"He taught me to conquer in studying. There is a very hour in which a young nature, tugging, discouraged, and weary with books, rises with the consciousness of victorious power into masterhood. For ever after he knows that he can learn anything if he pleases. It is a distinct intellectual conversion.

"I first went to the blackboard, uncertain, soft, full of whimpering. 'That lesson must be learned,' he said, in a very quiet tone, but with a terrible intensity and with the certainty of Fate. All explanations and excuses he trod under foot with utter scornfulness. 'I want that problem. I don't want any reasons why I don't get it.'

"'I did study it two hours.'

"'That's nothing to me; I want the lesson. You need not study it at all, or you may study it ten hours—just to suit yourself. I want the lesson. Underwood, go to the blackboard!'

"'Oh! yes, but Underwood got somebody to show him his lesson.'

"'What do I care how you get it? That's your business. But you must have it.'

"It was tough for a green boy, but it seasoned him. In less than a month I had the most intense sense of intellectual independence and courage to defend my recitations.

"In the midst of a lesson his cold and calm voice would fall upon me in the midst of a demonstration—'No!' I hesitated, stopped, and then went back to the beginning; and, on reaching the same spot again, 'No!' uttered with the tone of perfect conviction, barred my progress. 'The next!' and I sat down in red confusion. He, too, was stopped with 'No!' but went right on, finished, and, as he sat down, was rewarded with, 'Very well.'

"'Why,' whimpered I, 'I recited it just as he did, and you said No!'

"'Why didn't you say Yes, and stick to it? It is not enough to know your lesson. You must know that you know it. You have learned nothing until you are sure. If all the world says No, your business is to say Yes and to prove it!'"

The other helper of this period was John E. Lovell.

In a column of the Christian Union, of July 14, 1880, devoted to "Inquiring Friends," appeared this question with the accompanying answer:


"We heard Mr. Beecher lecture recently in Boston and found the lecture a grand lesson in elocution. If Mr. Beecher would give through the column of 'Inquiring Friends' the methods of instruction and practice pursued by him, it would be very thankfully received by a subscriber and student.

"E. D. M."


"I had from childhood a thickness of speech arising from a large palate, so that when a boy I used to be laughed at for talking as if I had pudding in my mouth. When I went to Amherst I was fortunate in passing into the hands of John Lovell, a teacher of elocution, and a better teacher for my purpose I cannot conceive. His system consisted in drill, or the thorough practice of inflexions by the voice, of gesture, posture, and articulation. Sometimes I was a whole hour practising my voice on a word—like 'justice.' I would have to take a posture, frequently at a mark chalked on the floor. Then we would go through all the gestures, exercising each movement of the arm and the throwing open the hand. All gestures except those of precision go in curves, the arm rising from the side, coming to the front, turning to the left or right. I was drilled as to how far the arm should come forward, where it should start from, how far go back, and under what circumstances these movements should be made. It was drill, drill, drill, until the motions almost became a second nature. Now I never know what movements I shall make. My gestures are natural, because this drill made them natural to me. The only method of acquiring an effective education is by practice, of not less than an hour a day, until the student has his voice and himself thoroughly subdued and trained to right expression.

"H. W. B."


Mr. Montague says: "Mr. Beecher submitted to Mr. Lovell's drilling and training with a patience which proved his interest in the study to be great. The piece which was to be spoken was committed to memory from Mr. Lovell's mouth, the pupil standing on the stage before him, and every sentence and word, accent and pronunciation, position and movement of the body, glance of the eye and tone of voice, all were subjects of study and criticism. And day after day, often for several weeks in continuance, Mr. Beecher submitted to this drilling upon the same piece, until his teacher pronounced him perfect."

His dramatic power was displayed and noted at this early period. Dr. Thomas Field, a classmate in the school, says: "One incident occurred during our residence in Mount Pleasant which left an abiding impression on my mind. At the exhibition at the close of the year, either 1828 or 1829, the drama of 'William Tell' was performed by some of the students, and your father took the part of the tyrant Gessler. Although sixty years have passed, I think now, as I thought then, that it was the most impressive performance I ever witnessed.…"

In a letter dated December 24, 1828, addressed to his sister Harriet—the first that has come to our hands from Mount Pleasant—he gives some account of his manner of life at school, and various experiences:


DEAR SISTER:

.… I have to rise in the morning at half-past five o'clock, and after various little duties, such as fixing of room, washing, etc., which occupies about an hour, we proceed to breakfast, from thence to chapel, after which we have about ten minutes to prepare for school. Then we attend school from eight to twelve. An hour at noon is allowed for diversions of various sorts. Then dinner. After that school from half-past one to half-past four. At night we have about an hour and a half; then tea. After tea we have about ten minutes; then we are called to our rooms till nine.

Now I will tell you how I occupy my spare time in reading, writing, and playing the flute. We are forming a band here. I shall play either the flute or hautboy. I enjoy myself pretty well. In Latin I am studying Sallust. As to ease, all I have to do is study straight ahead. It comes pretty easy. My Greek is rather hard. I am as yet studying the grammar and Jacob's Greek Reader. In elocution, we read and speak alternately every other day.

.… I find it hard to keep as a Christian ought to. To be sure, I find delight in prayer, but I cannot find time to be alone sufficiently. We have in our room only two, one besides myself, but he is most of my play-hours practising on some instrument or other. I have some time, to be sure, but it is very irregular, and I never know when I shall have an opportunity for private devotions until the time comes. I do not like to read the Bible as well as to pray, but I suppose it is the same as it is with a lover, who loves to talk with his mistress in person better than to write when she is afar off.…

Your affectionate brother,
HENRY.


His religious experience, of which we have heard nothing, since he left Litchfield, the life in Boston apparently not being very favorable to it, again attracts our attention at this point. He says:

"When I was fourteen years of age, I left Boston and went to Mount Pleasant. There broke out while I was there one of those infectious religious revivals which have no basis of judicious instruction, but spring from inexperienced zeal. It resulted in many mushroom hopes, and I had one of them; but I do not know how or why I was converted. I only know I was in a sort of day-dream, in which I hoped I had given myself to Christ.

"I wrote to father expressing this hope; he was overjoyed, and sent me a long, kind letter on the subject. But in the course of three or four weeks I was nearly over it; and I never shall forget how I felt, not long afterward, when a letter from father was handed me in which he said I must anticipate my vacation a week or two and come home and join the Church on the next Communion Sabbath. The serious feelings I had were well-nigh gone, and I was beginning to feel quite jolly again, and I did not know what to do. I went home, however, and let them take me into the Church. A kind of pride and shamefacedness kept me from saying I did not think I was a Christian, and so I was made a Church member."

In an editorial in the Independent, written in 1862, upon the disbanding of this old church, the Bowdoin Street—originally Hanover Street—Church, Boston, he describes this event:

"If somebody will look in the old records of Hanover Street Church about 1829 they will find a name there of a boy about fifteen years old who was brought into the Church on a sympathetic wave, and who well remembers how cold and almost paralyzed he felt while the committee questioned him about his 'hope' and 'evidences,' which, upon review, amounted to this: that the son of such a father ought to be a good and pious boy. Being tender-hearted and quick to respond to moral sympathy, he had been caught and inflamed in a school excitement, but was just getting over it when summoned to Boston to join the Church! On the morning of the day he went to Church without seeing anything he looked at. He heard his name called from the pulpit among many others, and trembled; rose up with every emotion petrified; counted the spots on the carpet; looked piteously up at the cornice; heard the fans creak in the pews near him; felt thankful to a fly that lit on his face, as if something familiar at last had come to break an awful trance; heard faintly a reading of the Articles of Faith; wondered whether he should be struck dead for not feeling more—whether he should go to hell for touching the bread and wine that he did not dare to take nor to refuse; spent the morning service uncertain whether dreaming, or out of the body, or in a trance; and at last walked home crying, and wishing he knew what, now that he was a Christian, he should do, and how he was to do it. Ah! well, there is a world of things in children's minds that grown-up people do not imagine, though they, too, once were young."

Unsatisfactory in many respects as was his religious experience, it seems to have been powerful enough to change his whole ideal of life. We hear no more of his becoming a sailor. He appears to have yielded to the inevitable, and henceforth studies with the ministry in view.

That he became a minister, as did his brothers, by reason of the unswerving faith and prayer of the parents, is already well known. "Out of six sons not one escaped from the pulpit. My mother dedicated me to the work of the foreign missionary; she laid her hands upon me, wept over me, and set me apart to preach the Gospel among the heathen, and I have been doing it all my life long, for it so happens one does not need to go far from his own country to find his audience before him."

Ushered into the preparation for the ministry by the parental faith, stumbling and discouraged and ready to give up the work, another hand was not wanting to open still more clearly the way, draw back the curtains, and let in the light:

"I beheld Him as a helper, as the soul's mid-wife, as the soul's physician, and I felt because I was weak I could come to Him; because I did not know how, and, if I did know, I had not the strength, to do the things that were right—that was the invitation that He gave to me out of my conscious weakness and want. I will not repeat the scene of that morning when light broke fairly on my mind; how one might have thought that I was a lunatic escaped from confinement; how I ran up and down through the primeval forest of Ohio, shouting, 'Glory, glory!' sometimes in loud tones and at other times whispered in an ecstasy of joy and surprise. All the old troubles gone, and light breaking in on my mind, I cried: 'I have found my God; I have found my God!' From that hour I consecrated myself to the work of the ministry anew, for before that I had about made up my mind to go into some other profession."

His early training school for effective preaching was well selected. It was, as is well known, one of the little villages on the banks of the Ohio River, where the wants of river bargemen and frontiersmen demanded his attention. It was there he decided what his life work should be.

"My business shall be to save men, and to bring to bear upon them those views that are my comfort, that are the bread of life to me; and I went out among them almost entirely cut loose from the ordinary church institutions and agencies, knowing nothing but 'Christ, and Him crucified,' the sufferer for mankind. Did not the men round me need such a Saviour? Was there ever such a field as I found? Every sympathy of my being was continually solicited for the ignorance, for the rudeness, for the aberrations, for the avarice, for the quarrelsomeness of the men among whom I was, and I was trying every form and presenting Christ as a medicine to men. I went through the woods and through camp-meetings and over prairies. Everywhere my vacations were all missionary tours, preaching Christ for the hope of salvation. I am not saying this to show you how I came to the knowledge of Christ, but to show you how I came to the habits and forms of my ministry. I tried everything on to folks."

Added to the forces of experience and surroundings was always that of his own personal, natural endowment. This he found fault with and tried to change, as most people do at some period of their lives, but finally accepted and concluded to use as best he could, without murmuring, but always conscious of its limitations.

"I have my own peculiar temperament, I have my own method of preaching, and my method and temperament necessitate errors. I am not worthy to be related in the hundred-thousandth degree to those more happy men who never make a mistake in the pulpit. I make a great many. I am impetuous. I am intense at times on subjects that deeply move me. I feel as though all the ocean were not strong enough to be the power beyond my words, nor all the thunders that were in the heavens, and it is of necessity that such a nature as that should give such intensity at times to parts of doctrine as to exaggerate them when you come to bring them into connection with a more rounded-out and balanced view. I know it—I know it as well as you do. I would not do it if I could help it; but there are times when it is not I that is talking, when I am caught up and carried away so that I know not whether I am in the body or out of the body, when I think things in the pulpit that I never could think in the study, and when I have feelings that are so far different from any that belong to the lower or normal condition that I neither can regulate them nor understand them. I see things and I hear sounds, and seem, if not in the seventh heaven, yet in a condition that leads me to understand what Paul said—that he heard things which it was not possible for a man to utter. I am acting under such a temperament as that. I have got to use it, or not preach at all. I know very well I do not give crystalline views nor thoroughly guarded views; there is often an error on this side and an error on that, and I cannot stop to correct them. A man might run around, like a kitten after its tail, all his life, if he were going around explaining all his expressions and all the things he had written. Let them go. They will correct themselves. The average and general influence of a man's teaching will be more mighty than any single misconception, or misapprehension through misconception.

"There is a deep enjoyment in having devoted yourself, soul and body, to the welfare of your fellowmen, so that you have no thought and no care but for them. There is a pleasure in that which is never touched by any ordinary experiences in human life. It is the highest. I look back to my missionary days as being transcendently the happiest period of my life. The sweetest pleasures I have ever known are not those that I have now, but those that I remember, when I was unknown, in an unknown land, among a scattered people, mostly poor, and to whom I had to go and preach the Gospel, man by man, house by house, gathering them on Sundays, a few—twenty, fifty, or a hundred as the case might be—and preaching the Gospel more formally to them as they were able to bear it."