Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait

Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait

Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait

Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait


In 1813, when Henry Ward Beecher was born, Hell was perhaps the most enduring reality in the lives of over half the eight million people who made up this country.

The Bible was not merely inspired, it was the literal word of Almighty God from cover to cover. God was Fear, and a Christian was one who crept into a church in terror like a child hiding under the bedclothes during a thunderstorm. Human slavery was more respectable, and respected, than education, drunkenness a vast deal commoner than physical cleanliness, gambling as recognized a diversion as golf to-day, and woman's place was in the kitchen -- or the brothel.

In the seventy-four years that Beecher lived all of this changed.

The significance of the man is not that he lived as spectator or even incidental participant through so many years during which a tremendous transformation took place in the outlook and the lives of men, but that the life and conduct of Henry Ward Beecher were both barometer and record of these changes. More than any other man, he was their voice. It is not material whether Henry Ward Beecher was saint or sinner. It is of less consequence still that he was neither crusader like William Lloyd Garrison nor martyr like John Brown. An opportunist he was, certainly. He made no one uncomfortable, least of all himself. But many a revolution dies stillborn because when the bomb with which it might begin has blown up its maker, there is no one to fan the spark it has left into flame.

Henry Ward Beecher threw no bombs. But for three quarters of a century he blew diligently -- blew hot and then blew cold -- upon the glowing sparks left by the bombs of others; while the girders of a new order in the minds and the lives of men were riveted in place -- and the fires of a Calvinist Hell burned to ashes.

It was not Beecher who struck the shackles from three million . . .

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