Henry Ward Beecher

American clergyman and activist (1813-1887)

Henry Ward Beecher (24 June 18138 March 1887) was an American Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, and speaker, known for his support of the abolition of slavery, his emphasis on God's love, and his 1875 adultery trial.

The cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man and never fails to see a bad one.
Humor is, however, nearer right than any emotion we have. Humor is the atmosphere in which grace most flourishes.




  • Where is human nature so weak as in a book store?
    • "Subtleties of Book Buyers," Star Papers (1855)
  • A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessaries of life.
    • Eyes and Ears (1862)
  • The cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man and never fails to see a bad one. He is the human owl, vigilant in darkness and blind to light, mousing for vermin, and never seeing noble game. The cynic puts all human actions into two classes — openly bad and secretly bad.
    • Lectures to Young Men: On Various Important Subjects (1856) Lecture IV : Portrait Gallery
  • Evil men of every degree will use you, flatter you, lead you on until you are useless; then, if the virtuous do not pity you, or God compassionate, you are without a friend in the universe.
    • Lectures to Young Men: On Various Important Subjects. (1856) Lecture IV: Portrait Gallery, pg. 134
  • Oh, tell me not that they are dead — that generous host, that airy army of invisible heroes. They hover as a cloud of witnesses above this nation. Are they dead that yet speak louder than we can speak, and a more universal language? Are they dead that yet act? Are they dead that yet move upon society, and inspire the people with nobler motives, and more heroic patriotism?
    Ye that mourn, let gladness mingle with your tears. It was your son, but now he is the nation's. He made your household bright: now his example inspires a thousand households. Dear to his brothers and sisters, he is now brother to every generous youth in the land. Before, he was narrowed, appropriated, shut up to you. Now he is augmented, set free, and given to all. Before, he was yours: he is ours. He has died from the family, that he might live to the nation. Not one name shall be forgotten or neglected: and it shall by and by be confessed of our modern heroes, as it is of an ancient hero, that he did more for his country by his death than by his whole life.
    • "The Honored Dead" (1863) memorialized the Union dead; a popular piece for declamation among schoolchildren, also published as "Our Heroes Shall Live"
  • Humor is, however, nearer right than any emotion we have. Humor is the atmosphere in which grace most flourishes.
    • Unjust Judgments (1874)
  • Any law that takes hold of a man’s daily life cannot prevail in a community, unless the vast majority of the community are actively in favor of it. The laws that are the most operative are the laws which protect life.
    • Civil Law and the Sabbath sermon (3 December 1882)

Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887)

  • Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his picture.
  • The one great poem of New England is her Sunday.
  • All words are pegs to hang ideas upon.
  • Everyman is full of music, but it is not everyman that knows how to bring it out.
  • Genius is a steed too fiery for the plow or cart.
  • The Bible is like a telescope. If a man looks through his telescope, then he sees worlds beyond; but, if he looks at his telescope, then he does not see anything but that.
  • When a nation’s young men are conservative, its funeral bell is already rung.

Notes from Plymouth Pulpit (1859)

  • Caution and conservatism are expected of old age; but when the young men of a nation are possessed of such a spirit, when they are afraid of the noise and strife caused by the new applications of the truth, Heaven save the land! Its funeral bell has already rung.

Other Sourced

  • The common schools are the stomachs of the country in which all people that come to us are assimilated within a generation. When a lion eats an ox, the lion does not become an ox but the ox becomes a lion. So the immigrants of all races and nations become Americans, and it is a disgrace to our institutions and a shame to our policy to abuse them or drive them away.
  • ...no emotion, any more than a wave, can long retain its own individual form.
    • The Sermons of Henry Ward Beecher in Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, J. B. Ford, 1871, p. 24

Life Thoughts (1858)

  • Never forget what a man says to you when he is angry.
  • It is not well for a man to pray, cream; and live, skim milk.
  • Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made and forgot to put a soul into.
  • There are apartments in the soul which have a glorious out-look; from whose windows you can see across the river of death, and into the shining city beyond; but how often are these neglected for the lower ones, which have earthward-looking windows!
    • p. 16
  • The call to religion is not a call to be better than your fellows, but to be better than yourself.
    • p. 18
  • Astronomers have built telescopes which can show myriads of stars unseen before; but when a man looks through a tear in his own eye, that is a lens which opens reaches in the unknown, and reveals orbs which no telescope, however skilfully constructed, could do; nay, which brings to view even the throne of God, and pierces the nebulous distance where are those eternal verities in which true life consists.
    • p. 20
  • It is not painter or sculptor who is making himself most nobly immortal. It is he who is making true impressions upon the mind of man; frescoes for eternity, that will not shine out till the light of heaven reveals them; sculptures, not wrought in outward things, but in the inward nature and character of the soul.
    • p. 22
  • If any of you should die today, could you say to God, "Lord, here is my life work. Thou didst send me into life with a handful of seeds, and here is my heart, like a garden, full of flowers?"
    • p. 23
  • A man in the right, with God on his side, is in the majority, though he be alone, for God is multitudinous above all populations of the earth.
    • p. 25
  • For four thousand years the strong had been rushing on in the road of privilege and power, seeking greatness. Christ stood in the path, and said, " Ye seek greatness. Ye are not even in the way to it. Ye are going up, but the way to greatness is down. Let him who would be great be the love-servant of all." Greatness consists in the facility and power of going down, and not in the facility of going up.
    • p. 26
  • Let it be understood that the end of our existence here is that we may be more God-like ... and that we are placed here to grow strong and noble, and not merely to enjoy.
    • p. 28
  • Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it only serves to carry a man above his fellows for his own solitary glory. He is greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.
    • p. 33
  • When laws, customs, or institutions cease to be beneficial to man, they cease to be obligatory.
    • p. 34
  • There is no such thing as preaching patience into people, unless the sermon is so long that they have to practise it while they hear.
    • p. 37

The Nature, Importance and Liberties of Belief (1873)

Sunday sermon (22 June 1873), published in The Original Plymouth Pulpit : Sermons of Henry Ward Beecher Vol. IX, p. 291
Is it not possible for truth to be so large that ten men shall believe it differently, and yet each one of them so sectionally believe it, that they shall be all true though none of them has more than partial truth, and that all of them shall compass the whole truth?
  • A man who has a mere factual nature; a man who perceives without much power of reflection; a man who sees only facts, cannot come to any such judgment of truths as the man, higher than he, who not only perceives facts, but has also, by his mental constitution, the power to reason upon them, and to deduce the generic from the specific — that is, the principle from the facts. If it be investigation into the nature of truth as it is contained in the Word of God, a man's moral disposition will color his beliefs. If one, for instance, be largely conscientious, and endowed with small benevolence, the nature of his mind will make him sensitive to those representations of Scripture which depict God as standing upon law; as maintaining righteousness; as being good and just, rather than benevolent and sympathetic. If, on the other hand, a man be himself kind and benevolent, and if he have little conscientiousness, then the elements of sympathy will predominate in the God that he depicts, and the elements which tend towards legality will be comparatively wanting in him. Evidence of justice and law will make but a small impression on such a man, while evidence of goodness will make a prodigious impression upon him.
  • Now, evidence to a man is that which convinces his mind. It varies with different men. An argument to a man who cannot reason is no evidence. Facts are no evidence to a man who cannot perceive them. A sentimental appeal is evidence to a man whose very nature moves by emotion, though it may not be to his neighbor.
    So then, when men come to the investigation of truth, they are responsible, first, for research, for honesty therein, for being diligent, and for attempting to cleanse their minds from all bias of selfishness and pride. They are responsible for sincerity and faithfulness in the investigation of truth. And when they go beyond that to the use of their faculties, the combination of those faculties will determine very largely, not, perhaps, the generic nature of truth, but specific developments of it. And as long as the world stands there will be men who will hold that God is a God of infinite love and sympathy and. goodness with a residunm of justice; and there will be men who will believe that God is a God of justice with a residunm of love and sympathy and goodness; and each will follow the law of his own mind. As a magnet, drawn through a vessel containing sand and particles of iron, attracts the particles of iron but does not attract the sand; so the faculties of a man's mind appropriate certain facts and reject others. What is evidence to a man will depend upon those of his faculties whk at work upon the things which are presented as evidence.
  • The Scriptures make the test of believing to lie in the life and in the disposition. They nowhere require men, as the condition of acceptance and salvation, to be technically and philosophically right on all points of belief; but they do require that a man, in the presence of truth, using it as he pleases, selecting it according to the analysis and attractions and repulsions of his own nature, should live right. They hold men accountable for the development of their manhood on the pattern of Christ Jesus. They say, "Here are the truths of God; sort them, use them, every man according to his own liberty, in the spirit, and not in the letter." You are called to liberty; but it is that every one of you may become men in Christ Jesus. Men are held accountable for manhood, but not for the way in which they use the instruments by which the manhood is produced.
  • It is with the mind as it is with the body, in this respect. The physician says to a household: "Here is a great realm of food. Eat that which agrees with you. The same kinds of food do not agree with all people. If you grow healthy on the food that I loathe, that is the food for you, although it disagrees with me; and if I grow healthy on the food that you loathe, that is the food for me, although it disagrees with you." And it is very much so in the matter of believing. All cannot believe the same things, or cannot believe things in the same way.
    "But," say men, "believing amounts to nothing if one man may believe one thing, and another man another thing." Well, let me ask, then, is it not possible for truth to be so large that ten men shall believe it differently, and yet each one of them so sectionally believe it, that they shall be all true though none of them has more than partial truth, and that all of them shall compass the whole truth?
  • I look at a large tree on the lawn, and say to my neighbour: "What is that tree to you?" He looks at it, and says: "Well, I think that would cut about twenty cords of wood. You could work in a good many branches, and as the price of wood is in the market, I think I could make fifty dollars out of that tree easily, and perhaps more than that." His answer shows what the tree is to him — and it is that." I call up a boy, and say to him: "What do you think of when you look at that tree?" "Ah !" he says, "there will be a bushel of hickory-nuts on that tree, anyhow; and he begins to think how he will climb it, and shake them down, and what he will do with them. That is what the tree says to him. I say to another person: "What is that tree to you?" He says: "I would not take fifty dollars for it. Under it my cows stand in summer. The shade of that tree has stood me instead of a shed ever since I owned this farm. That tree is worth its weight in gold." He values it for its economic uses. I ask a painter: "What is that tree to you?" At once he says: "Do you see what an exquisite form it has? How picturesque it is? If you were to take it and put it in the foreground of the landscape that I am working on, what a magnificent effect you would get!" It has an aesthetic value to him. I ask another man: "What is it to you?" He goes into an explanation of its structure and qualities. He is a botanist, and he has his peculiar view of it. I ask myself: "What is that tree?" It is everything. It is God's voice, when the winds are abroad. It is God's thought, when in the deep stillness of the noon it is silent. It is the house which God has built for a thousand birds. It is a harbour of comfort to weary men and to the cattle of the field. It is that which has in it the record of ages. There it has stood for a century. The winter could not kill it, and the summer could not destroy it. It is full of beauty and strength. It has in it all these things ; and as different men look at it, each looks at so much of it as he needs ; but it takes ten men to see everything that there is in that tree — and they all do not half see it.
    So it is with truths. Men sort them. They bring different faculties to bear in considering them. One person has philosophical reason; another has factual reason. One man brings one part of his mind to it ; another brings to it another part of his mind. The truth is larger than any one man's thought of it. The truth of God usually has relations that stretch out in such a way that men may see it very differently, and all of them be true in spots, although they do not have the whole truth.

The Nature Of Liberty (1873)

Sunday sermon (19 January 1873), published in The Original Plymouth Pulpit : Sermons of Henry Ward Beecher Vol. IX, p. 357
  • "Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you." — John XV 15
    This is unquestionably a contrast between an enforced and a free religious condition. It is a transfer from a life compelled by fear, through conscience, to a life that is inspired and made spontaneous by love. The strength of the phrase does not come out in that term servant. It is slave in the original. To be sure, the condition represented by the term slave was not at that time marked so sharply by the contrast of its misery with surrounding circumstances, as it is in our own day; nevertheless, it was a condition to be deprecated; and throughout the Scripture it is spoken of both as a misfortune and a disgrace. Our Savior looked upon his disciples as if they had, as Jews, and as worshipers after the manner of their fathers, been tied up in a kind of bondage. He was a member of the Jewish commonwealth, and was of the Jewish church; he had never separated himself from any of its ordinances or observances, but was walking as the fathers walked; and his disciples were bound not only to the Mosaic ritual, but to him as a kind of Rabbi; as a reform teacher, but nevertheless a teacher under the Jewish scheme. And so they were servants — slaves; they were rendering an enforced obedience. But he said to them, "Henceforth I shall not call you my servants — persons obeying me, as it were, from compulsion, from a sense of duty, from the stress of a rigorous conscience; I shall now call you friends." And he gives the reason why. A servant is one who receives orders, and is not admitted to conference. He does not know about his lord's affairs. His lord thinks first about his own affairs, and when he has consummated his plans, he gives his directions; so that all the servant has to do is to obey. But a friend sits in counsel with his friend, and bears a part in that friend's thinking and feeling, and in the determinations to which he comes; and Christ said to his disciples "Ycu come into partnership with me hereafter, and you stand at friends, on a kind of equality with me. There is to be liberty between you and me hereafter."
    Christ, then, raised men from religion as a bondage to religion as a freedom. I do not like the word religion; but we have nothing else to take its place. It signifies, in the original, to bind, to tie. Men were bound. They were under obligations, and were tied up by them. Christianity is something more than religion— that is, religion interpreted in its etymological sense, and as it is popularly esteemed. Christianity is religion developed into its last form, and carries men from necessity to voluntariness — from bondage to emancipation. It is a condition of the highest and most normal mental state, and is ordinarily spontaneous and free. This is not an accidental phrase.

Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895)

When, O crowned Jesus; when, O loving Saviour; when, O patient and just Judge — when wilt Thou come forth from Thy hiding, and change tears to smiles, and groans to joys? When shall that choral song burst forth, sweeping through the air, and circling about Thy throne, which shall proclaim the redemption of the world to the Lord God?
Quotes reported in Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895) by Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert
  • The Bible is God's chart for you to steer by, to keep you from the bottom of the sea, and to show you where the harbor is, and how to reach it without running on rocks or bars.
    • p. 28
  • There are many persons of combative tendencies, who read for ammunition, and dig out of the Bible iron for balls. They read, and they find nitre and charcoal and sulphur for powder. They read, and they find cannon. They read, and they make portholes and embrasures. And if a man does not believe as they do, they look upon him as an enemy, and let fly the Bible at him to demolish him. So men turn the word of God into a vast arsenal, filled with all manner of weapons, offensive and defensive.
    • p. 38
  • If Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God in the experience of those who trust and love Him, there needs no further argument of His divinity.
    • p. 58
  • Like the cellar-growing vine is the Christian who lives in the darkness and bondage of fear. But let him go forth, with the liberty of God, into the light of love, and he will be like the plant in the field, healthy, robust, and joyful.
    • p. 106
  • Difficulties are God's errands; and when we are sent upon them, we should esteem it a proof of God's confidence, — as a compliment from God.
    • p. 107
  • Christ is the ideal of what a man should be. He has my ideal portrait, as it were, drawn out in His own thought and feeling. There is an exaltation and a grandeur for myself in the time to come, which Christ knows, and I do not; but I am following after. I am pressing up toward that thought that Christ has of what I am and ought to be; and I am determined that I will apprehend it as Christ Himself does. Not that I have it; but I will strive for it. My manhood is in the future. My life lies beyond the present.
    • p. 109
  • Live for the other life. Endure as seeing Him who is invisible. Work by faith; work by hope; work by love; work by courage; work by trust; work by the sweet side of your mind; and so be like Christ, until you dwell with Him.
    • p. 118
  • Whoever lives a noble life for Christ and God — he is one of God's workmen, working on that building of which God is the supreme Architect.
    • p. 120
  • It is not to come in any particular way, or with any particular experience, but to arise and come to your Father, and say unto Him, "Father I have sinned against heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son; make me as one of Thy hired servants."
    • p. 151
  • Thou, Everlasting Strength, hast set Thyself forth to bear our burdens. May we bear Thy cross, and bearing that, find there is nothing else to bear; and touching that cross, find that instead of taking away our strength, it adds thereto. Give us faith for darkness, for trouble, for sorrow, for bereavement, for disappointment; give us a faith that will abide though the earth itself should pass away — a faith for living, a faith for tying.
    • p. 107
  • We would walk with Thee when Thou smitest us, and we would walk with Thee when Thou smilest upon us; for, smiling or smiting, it is in love. We take chastisement because we are sons, and Thou art Father. O grant that we may never feel Thy hand as Judge! Restrain us with Thy love. Wean us from our sin, and from the love of it, and bring us back to Thine own self.
    • p. 240
  • And now we beseech of Thee that we may have every day some such sense of God's mercy and of the power of God about us, as we have of the fullness of the light of heaven before us.
    • p. 273
  • May we grow more and more like God and heaven, more gracious, helpful, and sweet-minded; and when at last Thou hast served Thyself by us, may we fall asleep in Jesus, and find it no sleep, but everlasting waking in Jesus.
    • p. 295
  • Our yearnings are homesicknesses for heaven; our sighings are for God, just as children that cry themselves asleep away from home, and sob in their slumber, know not that they sob for their parents. The soul's inarticulate moanings are the affections yearning for the Infinite, and having no one to tell them what it is that ails them.
    • p. 390
  • When, O crowned Jesus; when, O loving Saviour; when, O patient and just Judge — when wilt Thou come forth from Thy hiding, and change tears to smiles, and groans to joys? When shall that choral song burst forth, sweeping through the air, and circling about Thy throne, which shall proclaim the redemption of the world to the Lord God?
    • p. 410
  • The whole of the Saviour's ministerial life, at least the part of it that stands on record, was passed in what we may call substantially a revival work.
    • p. 521
  • A man is a fool who sits looking backward from himself in the past. Ah! what shallow, vain conceit there is in man! Forget the things that are behind. That is not where you live. Your roots are not there. They are in the present; and you should reach up into the other life.
    • p. 566
  • Success is full of promise till men get it; and then it is last year's nest from which the bird has flown.
    • p. 567
  • May we feel after Thee; still calling out in the darkness, as children waking in the night call "Father," so may we call out for God; and, at times, even if we do not hear Thy voice, may there be the form of a hand resting upon us, and that shall be enough; for we shall take hold of it, though it be in the dark, and it shall guide us to the growing light; for the day shall come, and the release and triumph.
    • p. 595
  • It is a view of God that compensates every thing else, and enables the soul to rest in His bosom. How, when the child in the night screams with terror, hearing sounds that it knows not of, is that child comforted and put to rest? Is it by a philosophical explanation that the sounds were made by the rats in the partition? Is it by imparting entomological knowledge? No; it is by the mother taking the child in her lap, and singing sweetly to it, and rocking it. And the child thinks nothing of the explanation, but only of the mother.
    • p. 599

Quotes about Henry Ward Beecher

  • Fisk had the tradition of her Jubilee Singers, who once hid in a Brooklyn organ loft, lest pious Congregationalists see their black faces before they heard their heavenly voices. Henry Ward Beecher took them to Plymouth church where the newspaper called them "Beecher's Nigger Minstrels"; then the nation listened and the world opened its arms and the Fisk Jubilee Singers literally sang before Kings.
    • The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968)
  • I can but hope, comparing such an audience as this with the handful who met with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in the first Convention, in a little Wesleyan church at Seneca Falls, and seeing Henry Ward Beecher for the first time on our platform, and speaking such noble words for woman, I can but hope that it will not be as our friend Frances D. Gage expressed her fear it would, that the degradation which centuries had created among us, would require centuries to remove;
  • I met the great preacher Henry Ward Beecher, whom my father, then a member of a lecture committee of the Y.M.C.A., brought to Bridgeton. Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, had been a leader in the anti-slavery struggle before the Civil War, and had remained a leader in all progressive movements of the time. At that time Henry Ward Beecher was in the midst of a lawsuit brought against him in 1875 by a man named Tilton, a former friend who accused him of intimacy with his wife. It was a tremendous scandal, and everyone took sides, Old-time friends of Henry Ward Beecher fought for him valiantly. Those who did not know him, especially in such small towns as ours, were violently against him. So it took courage on the part of my father to bring him to the Bridgeton Y.M.C.A. I was allowed to go to his lecture, although I was so young. I have no clear memory of his words, but I can remember how impressed I was by his magnetic personality, his distinguished bearing, his fresh healthy color and white hair, and his ringing voice. At our house after the lecture, I remember asking him whether he prepared his lectures beforehand, and if he wrote them out. "No, my child," he told me. "I sometimes have no idea at all what I am going to say until I look over my audience, and then I draw my inspiration from them. Other times I prepare a lecture in my mind beforehand, carefully working out points one, two and three and then something I see in my audience will change my whole train of thought, and I will make an entirely different speech from the one I had in mind." I have often remembered this, and later when I began to speak myself, I too found that my greatest inspiration always came from the people to whom I was talking.
  • The ballot is a teacher. Henry Ward Beecher, in a discourse on the subject last winter, said, in regard to woman's franchise, that the ballot is a teacher. I am glad to be able to agree with a minister, which is not often the case. Yes, it is a teacher. Yet, when a man alone has the ballot, it fails to be his teacher. It has not taught him the great lesson that the ballot is useless, that it becomes perverted and corrupt, when woman is kept from it.
  • The belief has been constantly expressed in England that in the United States, which has produced Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, James Russell Lowell, John G. Whittier¹5 and Abraham Lincoln there must be those of their descendants who would take hold of the work of inaugurating an era of law and order. The colored people of this country who have been loyal to the flag believe the same, and strong in that belief have begun this crusade.
  • It was here in Liverpool, by the way, where Henry Ward Beecher was mobbed when he tried to speak on anti-slavery subjects in the '40's…The feeling which developed in Liverpool during the American Civil War, was shared in large measure and for the same reason (the injury to the cotton trade) by the people of Manchester. In this city also Rev. Henry Ward Beecher fought one of his hard-won battles on the lecture platform with the mob of pro-slavery and secession sympathizers. But that is all past. The freedom of her public halls, churches, platforms and the press is cheerfully granted to those who speak for justice and fair play to the oppressed.
    • Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1991)
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