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Henry Ward Beecher

 Henry Ward Beecher
Photo courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Henry Ward Beecher was one of America's best-known clergymen in the late 19th century and a popular speaker on the Lyceum lecture circuit. He was one of 11 surviving adult children of the famous Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher. Henry Ward Beecher assumed the pastorate of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, in 1848 and was an outspoken abolitionist. He once advocated sending Sharp's rifles to John Brown in boxes marked as bibles. The story of "Beecher's bibles" became well known after Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry.

Beecher found his religious inspiration in a popular version of New England Transcendentalism and from it developed what he called "A Gospel of Love." After the Civil War, he was elected president of the American Woman's Suffrage organization and advocated a conservative approach to women's suffrage, which brought him into conflict with his parishioner and friend Theodore Tilton, newly elected president of the National Woman's Suffrage organization.

The conflicting issues between the organizations -- women's legal rights, divorce and "free love" spilled over into the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. On October 10, 1868, Theodore Tilton alleged that the 61-year-old Beecher had had a "free love," adulterous affair with Tilton's wife, Elizabeth. The ensuing trial split the Beecher sisters. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Beecher Perkins, and Catharine Beecher supported Henry's denial of the affair. Isabella Beecher Hooker supported Victoria Woodhull, a leader of the spiritualist movement and an advocate of free love, who originally publicized the affair in her newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly.

Although Beecher's congregation remained loyal to him until his death, his public reputation was tarnished. He approached Mark Twain and the Charles Webster Company about publishing his biography. On March 8, 1887, Beecher died of a stroke before he was able to begin work on the book.


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