History 301: Henry Ward Beecher’s fame launched from Indy pulpit

Henry Ward Beecher was once called “most famous man in America.”


In the modern era Indianapolis’s most famous minister would arguably have been William H. Hudnut, who, after serving Second Presbyterian Church for several years became the city’s four-term mayor, then a member of the Hudson Institute, and later still Mayor of Chevy Chase, Md., author of five books, and a chair holder at the Urban Land Institute in Washington D. C.

Sure, Hudnut, who died in 2016, was pretty famous. But almost two hundred years ago Henry Ward Beecher, who started his career as a young minister in this city, far surpassed the fame of Hudnut.

As it happens, Beecher built the congregation that Hudnut later came to pastor. But when Beecher and his wife arrived in Indianapolis in 1839 to pastor the newly formed Second Presbyterian Church, that congregation didn’t yet even have a permanent church building to house it.

Beecher, the son of a famous minister, Lyman Beecher, and brother to a set of intellectual mover and shaker siblings that included Harriett Beecher Stowe, who would publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, brought a definite pedigree to the burgeoning frontier city in the wilderness when he arrived here.

Under his ministry, Second Presbyterian gained the highest attendance in the city and moved to permanent facilities in 1840.

Beecher was not a radical abolitionist, but he was against slavery and preached a famous anti-slavery sermon 1843. Not long afterwards he published Lectures to Young Men, a collection of advice on morality. His fame quickly grew and he began a speaker’s circuit that took him across the Midwest. He preached in the little village of Waverly in Morgan County in the 1840s, for instance.

Beecher’s preachings were popular in part because, while extolling heaven and a Gospel of God’s love, he spoke with humor and empathy. In a lecture given at Yale, he told the audience: “In preaching, never turn away from a laugh any more than you would a cry.” A book of Henry Ward Beecher’s Humor includes the following pithy Beecherism: “We all say ‘Blessed be the poor,’ and yet, if there be one blessing which we would prefer not to have more than another, it is that of poverty.”

Eventually Beecher became so popular that he was decidedly too popular to remain in the relative obscurity of Indianapolis. In 1847 he accepted an offer to minister to the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Deep in debt, Beecher welcomed the higher paying, not to mention more prestigious, position and off he went to share himself with a new congregation, and really, the nation.

While in New York, Beecher became the most famous man in America, according to Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America, a biography of Henry Ward Beecher.

Beecher preached against slavery, and he put his money where his mouth was. In 1848 he learned of two escaped young women slaves who had been recaptured. When their owner offered their freedom in exchange for a ransom, Beecher raised over $2,000 (a princely sum in those days), with which their father bought them, according to Applegate.

Beecher preached in favor of temperance, men’s right to enjoyment and women’s rights to vote and hold property. But he butted heads with women’s suffrage activist and author Victoria Claflin Woodhull, when she wrote that she and all women should be allowed the “inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”

Beecher vocally opposed those strong revolutionary sentiments, which might lead to all sorts of sordid activities, according to him. But, unfortunately for him, Ms. Woodhull happened to know that Beecher was engaging in a little “free love” of his own.

Woodhull accused Beecher of being involved in an affair with Elizabeth Tilton – a married woman and one of his Congregational Church flock. She was wife of another member of the congregation, Theodore Tilton, who up to that point was Beecher’s good friend. According to Richard Wightman Fox, author of Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, Beecher had also worked with Tilton producing editorial content for Tilton’s national religious journal, the Independent. What’s more, Beecher had even presided over Elizabeth and Theodore’s marriage.

The ensuing scandal rocked the nation.

Although there was quite a bit of evidence, including Elizabeth’s confession of the affair, Beecher denied it. His congregation stood by him and him within the church.

Plymouth Church then excommunicated Theodore Tilton in 1873. But Tilton took Beecher to court for “criminal intimacy” with his wife in 1874. After the sordid evidence was presented the jury deliberated for six days, but ultimately didn’t reach a verdict.  Following the trial, Plymouth Church publicly exonerated Beecher again.

The cuckolded Theodore Tilton moved to France, without his wife. Elizabeth Tilton remained a member of Beecher’s congregation until 1878, when she re-confessed to the affair and the church kicked her out.

The still popular Beecher then turned his extramarital lemons into lemon cake by touring across the country in a speaking circuit.

He died in 1887 in his sleep and was exalted in newspapers across the country.

Connie Zeigler

Connie Zeigler  is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm. She’s currently jet-setting between the Indianapolis metropolitan area and a little cabin on the Flatrock River in Shelby County.

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