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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Lyman Abbott (1835–1922)

By Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887)

THE LIFE of Henry Ward Beecher may be either compressed into a sentence or expanded into a volume. He was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on the 24th day of June, 1813, the child of the well-known Lyman Beecher; graduated at Amherst College in 1834, and subsequently studied at Lane Theological Seminary (Cincinnati), of which his father was the president; began his ministerial life as pastor of a Home Missionary (Presbyterian) church at the little village of Lawrenceburg, twenty miles south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River; was both sexton and pastor, swept the church, built the fires, lighted the lamps, rang the bell, and preached the sermons; was called to the pastorate of the First Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, where he remained for eight years, 1839 to 1847, and where his preaching soon won for him a reputation throughout the State, and his occasional writing a reputation beyond its boundaries; thence was called in 1847 to be the first pastor of the newly organized Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, where he remained with an ever increasing reputation as preacher, lecturer, orator, and writer, until the day of his death, March 8th, 1887.

Such is the outline of a life, the complete story of which would be the history of the United States during the most critical half-century of the nation’s existence. Living in an epoch when the one overshadowing political issue was pre-eminently a moral issue, and when no man could be a faithful preacher of righteousness and not a political preacher; concerned in whatever concerned humanity; believing that love is the essence of all true religion, and that love to God is impossible without love to man; moral reformer not less than gospel preacher, and statesman even more than theologian: throwing himself into the anti-slavery conflict with all the courage of a heroic nature and all the ardor of an intensely impulsive one,—he stands among the first half-score of writers, orators, reformers, statesmen, and soldiers, who combined to make the half-century from 1835 to 1885 as brilliant and as heroic as any in human history.

The greatness of Henry Ward Beecher consisted not so much in a predominance of any one quality as in a remarkable combination of many. His physique justified the well-known characterization of Mr. Fowler, the phrenologist, “Splendid animal.” He was always an eager student, though his methods were desultory. He was familiar with the latest thought in philosophy, had studied Herbert Spencer before his works were republished in the United States, yet was a child among children, and in his old age retained the characteristic faults and virtues of childhood, and its innocent impulsiveness.

His imagination might have made him a poet, his human sympathies a dramatic poet, had not his strong common-sense kept him always in touch with the actualities of life, and a masterful conscience compelled him to use his æsthetic faculties in sterner service than in the entertainment of mankind. The intensity of his moral nature enhanced rather than subdued his exuberant humor, which love prevented from becoming satire, and seriousness preserved from degenerating into wit. His native faculty of mimicry led men to call him an actor, yet he wholly lacked the essential quality of a good actor,—power to take on another’s character,—and used the mimic art only to interpret the truth which at the moment possessed him.

Such power of passion as was his is not often seen mated to such self-control; for while he spoke with utter abandon, he rarely if ever did so until he had carefully deliberated the cause he was espousing. He thought himself deficient in memory, and in fact rarely borrowed illustrations from his reading either of history or of literature; but his keenness of observation photographed living scenes upon an unfading memory which years after he could and did produce at will. All these contrary elements of his strangely composite though not incongruous character entered into his style,—or, to speak more accurately, his styles,—and make any analysis of them within reasonable limits difficult, if not impossible.

For the writer is known by his style as the wearer by his clothes. Even if it be no native product of the author’s mind, but a conscious imitation of carefully studied models,—what I may call a tailor-made style, fashioned in a vain endeavor to impart sublimity to commonplace thinking,—the poverty of the author is thereby revealed, much as the boor is most clearly disclosed when wearing ill-at-ease, unaccustomed broadcloth. Mr. Beecher’s style was not artificial; its faults as well as its excellences were those of extreme naturalness. He always wrote with fury; rarely did he correct with phlegm. His sermons were published as they fell from his lips,—correct and revise he would not. The too few editorials which he wrote, on the eve of the Civil War, were written while the press was impatiently waiting for them, were often taken page by page from his hand, and were habitually left unread by him to be corrected in proof by others.

His lighter contributions to the New York Ledger were thrown off in the same way, generally while the messenger waited to take them to the editorial sanctum. It was his habit, whether unconscious or deliberate I do not know, to speak to a great congregation with the freedom of personal conversation, and to write for the press with as little reserve as to an intimate friend. This habit of taking the public into his confidence was one secret of his power, but it was also the cause of those violations of conventionality in public address which were a great charm to some and a grave defect to others. There are few writers or orators who have addressed such audiences with such effect, whose style has been so true and unmodified a reflection of their inner life. The title of one of his most popular volumes might be appropriately made the title of them all—‘Life Thoughts.’

But while his style was wholly unartificial, it was no product of mere careless genius; carelessness never gives a product worth possessing. The excellences of Mr. Beecher’s style were due to a careful study of the great English writers; its defects to a temperament too eager to endure the dull work of correction. In his early manhood he studied the old English divines, not for their thoughts, which never took hold of him, but for their style, of which he was enamored. The best characterization of South and Barrow I ever heard he gave me once in a casual conversation. The great English novelists he knew; Walter Scott’s novels, of which he had several editions in his library, were great favorites with him, but he read them rather for the beauty of their descriptive passages than for their romantic and dramatic interest. Ruskin’s ‘Modern Painters’ he both used himself and recommended to others as a textbook in the observation of nature, and certain passages in them he read and re-read.

But in his reading he followed the bent of his own mind rather than any prescribed system. Neither in his public utterances nor in his private conversation did he indicate much indebtedness to Shakespeare among the earlier writers, nor to Emerson or Carlyle among the moderns. Though not unfamiliar with the greatest English poets, and the great Greek poets in translations, he was less a reader of poetry than of poetical prose. He had, it is true, not only read but carefully compared Dante’s ‘Inferno’ with Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’; still it was not the ‘Paradise Lost,’ it was the ‘Areopagitica’ which he frequently read on Saturday nights, for the sublimity of its style and the inspiration it afforded to the imagination. He was singularly deficient in verbal memory, a deficiency which is usually accompanied by a relatively slight appreciation of the mere rhythmic beauty of literary form. It is my impression that for amorous poems, such as Moore’s songs, or even Shakespeare’s sonnets, and for purely descriptive poetry, such as the best of ‘Childe Harold’ and certain poems of Wordsworth, he cared comparatively little.

But he delighted in religious poetry, whether the religion was that of the pagan Greek Tragedies, the mediæval Dante, or the Puritan Milton. He was a great lover of the best hymns, and with a catholicity of affection which included the Calvinist Toplady, the Arminian Wesley, the Roman Catholic Faber, and the Unitarian Holmes. Generally, however, he cared more for poetry of strength than for that of fancy or sentiment. It was the terrific strength in Watts’s famous hymn beginning

  • “My thoughts on awful subjects dwell,
  • Damnation and the dead,”
  • which caused him to include it in the ‘Plymouth Collection,’ abhorrent as was the theology of that hymn alike to his heart and to his conscience.

    In any estimate of Mr. Beecher’s style, it must be remembered that he was both by temperament and training a preacher. He was brought up not in a literary, but in a didactic atmosphere. If it were as true as it is false that art exists only for art’s sake, Mr. Beecher would not have been an artist. His art always had a purpose; generally a distinct moral purpose. An overwhelming proportion of his contributions to literature consists of sermons or extracts from sermons, or addresses not less distinctively didactic. His one novel was written avowedly to rectify some common misapprehensions as to New England life and character. Even his lighter papers, products of the mere exuberance of a nature too full of every phase of life to be quiescent, indicated the intensity of a purposeful soul, much as the sparks in a blacksmith’s shop come from the very vigor with which the artisan is shaping on the anvil the nail or the shoe.

    But Mr. Beecher was what Mr. Spurgeon has called him, “the most myriad-minded man since Shakespeare”; and such a mind must both deal with many topics, and if it be true to itself, exhibit many styles. If one were to apply to Mr. Beecher’s writings the methods which have sometimes been applied by certain Higher Critics to the Bible, he would conclude that the man who wrote the Sermons on Evolution and Theology could not possibly have also written the humorous description of a house with all the modern improvements. Sometimes grave, sometimes gay, sometimes serious, sometimes sportive, concentrating his whole power on whatever he was doing, working with all his might but also playing with all his might, when he is on a literary frolic the reader would hardly suspect that he was ever dominated by a strenuous moral purpose. Yet there were certain common elements in Mr. Beecher’s character which appeared in his various styles, though mixed in very different proportions and producing very different combinations. Within the limits of such a study as this, it must suffice to indicate in very general terms some of these elements of character which appear in and really produce his literary method.

    Predominant among them was a capacity to discriminate between the essentials and the accidentals of any subject, a philosophical perspective which enabled him to see the controlling connection and to discard quickly such minor details as tended to obscure and to perplex. Thus a habit was formed which led him not infrequently to ignore necessary limitations and qualifications, and to make him scientifically inaccurate, though vitally and ethically true. It was this quality which led critics to say of him that he was no theologian, though it is doubtful whether any preacher in America since Jonathan Edwards has exerted a greater influence on its theology. But this quality imparted clearness to his style. He always knew what he wanted to say and said it clearly. He sometimes produced false impressions by the very strenuousness of his aim and the vehemence of his passion; but he was never foggy, obscure, or ambiguous.

    This clearness of style was facilitated by the singleness of his purpose. He never considered what was safe, prudent, or expedient to say, never reflected upon the effect which his speech might have on his reputation or his influence, considered only how he could make his hearers apprehend the truth as he saw it. He therefore never played with words, never used them with a double meaning, or employed them to conceal his thoughts. He was indeed utterly incapable of making a speech unless he had a purpose to accomplish; when he tried he invariably failed; no orator ever had less ability to roll off airy nothings for the entertainment of an audience.

    Coupled with this clearness of vision and singleness of purpose was a sympathy with men singularly broad and alert. He knew the way to men’s minds, and adapted his method to the minds he wished to reach. This quality put him at once en rapport with his auditors, and with men of widely different mental constitution. Probably no preacher has ever habitually addressed so heterogeneous a congregation as that which he attracted to Plymouth Church. In his famous speech at the Herbert Spencer dinner he was listened to with equally rapt attention by the great philosopher and by the French waiters, who stopped in their service, arrested and held by his mingled humor, philosophy, and restrained emotion. This human sympathy gave a peculiar dramatic quality to his imagination. He not only recalled and reproduced material images from the past with great vividness, he re-created in his own mind the experiences of men whose mold was entirely different from his own. As an illustration of this, a comparison of two sermons on Jacob before Pharaoh, one by Dr. Talmage, the other by Mr. Beecher, is interesting and instructive. Dr. Talmage devotes his imagination wholly to reproducing the outward circumstances,—the court in its splendor and the patriarch with his wagons, his household, and his stuff; this scene Mr. Beecher etches vividly but carelessly in a few outlines, then proceeds to delineate with care the imagined feelings of the king, awed despite his imperial splendor by the spiritual majesty of the peasant herdsman. Yet Mr. Beecher could paint the outer circumstances with care when he chose to do so. Some of his flower pictures in ‘Fruits, Flowers, and Farming’ will always remain classic models of descriptive literature, the more amazing that some of them are portraits of flowers he had never seen when he wrote the description.

    While his imagination illuminated nearly all he said or wrote, it was habitually the instrument of some moral purpose; he rarely ornamented for ornament’s sake. His pictures gave beauty, but they were employed not to give beauty but clearness. He was thus saved from mixed metaphors, the common fault of imaginative writings which are directed to no end, and thus are liable to become first lawless, then false, finally self-contradictory and absurd. The massive Norman pillars of Durham Cathedral are marred by the attempt which some architect has made to give them grace and beauty by adding ornamentation. Rarely if ever did Mr. Beecher fall into the error of thus mixing in an incongruous structure two architectural styles. He knew when to use the Norman strength and solidity, and when the Gothic lightness and grace.

    Probably his keen sense of humor would have preserved him from this not uncommon error. It is said that the secret of humor is the quick perception of incongruous relations. This would seem to have been the secret of Mr. Beecher’s humor, for he had in an eminent degree what the phrenologists call the faculty of comparison. This was seen in his arguments, which were more often analogical than logical; seen not less in that his humor was not employed with deliberate intent to relieve a too serious discourse, but was itself the very product of his seriousness. He was humorous, but rarely witty, as, for the same reason, he was imaginative but not fanciful. For both his imagination and his humor were the servants of his moral purpose; and as he did not employ the one merely as a pleasing ornament, so he never went out of his way to introduce a joke or a funny story to make a laugh.

    Speaking broadly, Mr. Beecher’s style as an orator passed through three epochs. In the first, best illustrated by his ‘Sermons to Young Men,’ preached in Indianapolis, his imagination is the predominant faculty. Those sermons will remain in the history of homiletical literature as remarkable of their kind, but not as a pulpit classic for all times; for the critic will truly say that the imagination is too exuberant, the dramatic element sometimes becoming melodramatic, and the style lacking in simplicity. In the second epoch, best illustrated by the Harper and Brothers edition of his selected sermons, preached in the earlier and middle portion of his Brooklyn ministry, the imagination is still pervasive, but no longer predominant. The dramatic fire still burns, but with a steadier heat. Imagination, dramatic instinct, personal sympathy, evangelical passion, and a growing philosophic thought-structure, combine to make the sermons of this epoch the best illustration of his power as a popular preacher. In each sermon he holds up a truth like his favorite opal, turning it from side to side and flashing its opalescent light upon his congregation, but so as always to show the secret fire at the heart of it. In the third epoch, best illustrated by his sermons on Evolution and Theology, the philosophic quality of his mind predominates; his imagination is subservient to and the instrument of clear statement, his dramatic quality shows itself chiefly in his realization of mental conditions foreign to his own, and his style, though still rich in color and warm with feeling, is mastered, trained, and directed by his intellectual purpose. In the first epoch he is the painter, in the second the preacher, in the third the teacher.

    Judgments will differ: in mine the last epoch is the best, and its utterances will long live a classic in pulpit literature. The pictures of the first epoch are already fading; the fervid oratory of the second epoch depends so much on the personality of the preacher, that as the one grows dim in the distance the other must grow dim also; but the third, more enduring though less fascinating, will remain so long as the heart of man hungers for the truth and the life of God,—that is, for a rational religion, a philosophy of life which shall combine reverence and love, and a reverence and love which shall not call for the abdication of the reason.