At the time of my coming to Brooklyn, Plymouth Church was but four years old, yet it had already gained a most prominent position not only in Brooklyn and New York, but in the entire country, and indeed was rapidly achieving an international reputation. A brief sketch of its history to this time will not be out of place.
In 1823, when the entire population of Brooklyn was less than ten thousand, and the most densely populated section to-day was but barren fields, two brothers, John and Jacob M. Hicks, bought seven lots running through from Cranberry to Orange Streets, for the use of |The First Presbyterian Church.| Two buildings were erected: a church edifice fronting on Cranberry Street was built at once, and seven years later a lecture room fronting on Orange Street was added. Under the pastorates of Rev. Joseph Sanford, Rev. Daniel L. Carroll, D. D., and Rev. Samuel H. Cox, D. D., the church prospered, and in 1846 the question came up of a more commodious edifice. Learning of this, John T. Howard, at that time a member of the Congregational Church of the Pilgrims, Rev. R. S. Storrs, Jr., pastor, conceived the idea of a new Congregational church in that locality. Conference with David Hale of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, New York, strengthened him, and he obtained the refusal of the Presbyterian property for [USD]20,000. In September, by the payment of [USD]9500, furnished by Henry C. Bowen, Seth B. Hunt, John T. Howard, and David Hale, the property was secured. The new building of the First Presbyterian Church was not completed until May, 1847, and on the same day that it was opened, May 16, Henry Ward Beecher preached the first sermon in Plymouth Church to audiences that crowded the edifice on Cranberry Street to the doors.
The method of organisation was somewhat unique. The first meeting in the interest of the church was held at Mr. Bowen's house on the evening of May 8, the day before the Presbyterians were to vacate their old edifice. There were present, besides Mr. Bowen, David Hale, Jira Payne, John T. Howard, Charles Rowland, and David Griffin. On behalf of the owners David Hale offered the property for religious purposes, and it was decided to have services on May 16. Henry Ward Beecher, at that time pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, who had come to New York for the May anniversaries, had made an address at the meeting of the American Home Missionary Society, and had also spoken elsewhere, winning great popular favour. He was secured for the morning and evening services, and Rev. Mr. Eggleston, of Ellington, Conn., preached in the afternoon. Notice was given of a permanent series of weekly prayer meetings to be held on Friday evenings, and at the first of these, May 21, a committee, consisting of Henry C. Bowen, Richard Hale, John T. Howard, Charles Rowland, and Jira Payne, was appointed to make arrangements for the formation of a church. They reported on June 11, at which time twenty-one persons signified their intention to join the church, and the next day a council of ministers and delegates met at the house of John T. Howard. The articles of faith, covenant, credentials of the new members, etc., were presented and approved, and on June 13, 1847, the new church was publicly organised, the Rev. R. S. Storrs, Jr., preaching the sermon. The following evening the church by a unanimous vote elected Henry Ward Beecher to be their pastor. Two months later he wrote from Indianapolis accepting the call. On October 10 he commenced his labours, and on November 11 he was installed. The sermon was preached by Dr. Edward Beecher, other parts being taken by Drs. Nathaniel Hewitt, D. C. Lansing, Horace Bushnell, Rev. R. S. Storrs, Jr., and Rev. J. P. Thompson.
The first winter proved the wisdom of the new enterprise. An interesting revival brought in a large number of new members, and it was not long before it became evident that the buildings were entirely inadequate. There was talk of rebuilding, when a fire, in January, 1849, settled the question by destroying the building. Plans for a new edifice were drawn, and after some months of worship in a temporary Tabernacle in Pierrepont Street, the present building was entered on the first Sunday of 1850.
It will readily be seen that it was a live church that I joined, and after half a century of experience and observation, I can only thank God that I was brought to connect myself with it. It was not merely the marvellous preaching of Mr. Beecher, which I feel helped me greatly; it was the whole atmosphere of aggressive work. The great audiences, crowding the pews so that aisle chairs had to be put in, was in itself an inspiration; so was also the fine music with John Zundel at the organ and the large choir leading the vast congregation. The cordial social atmosphere that made even a stranger feel at home also had its share, but more than all these put together, or perhaps better, manifest through all these, was the sense that church life was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that that end was the building up of a true and noble Christian life in all its different phases. Surely no higher conception of a church's sphere can be found, and to this I believe to be due more than to any other one thing the power of Plymouth Church.