It was a little more than a year after I became a member of Plymouth Church that I began my work as an usher, and for fifty-three years I have been identified with Plymouth Church in that capacity. An usher has peculiar opportunities to study human nature, both individually and collectively. His first acquaintance is with the pewholders, and these he quickly learns to distinguish. Plymouth Church was remarkably hospitable from the first. The strangers within its gates usually outnumbered the regular membership, and they represented all classes and conditions of men, but not more representative were they than the company of those who were the constant attendants on its services -- the relied-upon supporters of its enterprises. It was not a wealthy congregation. There were a few men of means; excepting possibly Claflin, Bowen, Sage, Hutchinson, Storrs, Arnold, Graves, Corning, Healy, Bush, Benedict, Dennis, there were no merchant princes or princely bankers. The greater number were earnest, aggressive men who had something to do in life besides make money. Generous whenever generosity was needed, they were for the most part what are called |hard-headed| business men. They were in Plymouth Church, not because it was fashionable to be there, or because it had the most noted pastor in America, if not in the world, but because they were in sympathy with its purpose and the purpose of its pastor, and felt that there they could best serve their day and generation.
Dominated by this spirit, it was in entire keeping with their habit of thought and action that they should seek to extend as widely as possible the enjoyment of the privileges of their own church life. Hence they were cordial to all visitors to the various religious services, as well as to the social gatherings that were held. It was the general custom in Plymouth, as in most churches, to keep the seats for the regular pewholders until the commencement of the service. Those who were not in their places at that time had to stand their chances with the guests, and what those chances were may be gathered from the fact that it was usual on Sunday morning to see a line of people standing in front of the church and leading on the one side to Henry Street and on the other to Hicks Street, waiting to be admitted to the service. Still it was very rare that there was any hard feeling, and certainly no expression of it was manifest when pewholders to whom a sermon by Mr. Beecher was the great treat of the week, but who for one reason or another were delayed, found their seats occupied, and were compelled themselves either to stand or withdraw entirely.
The hospitality, too, was thoroughly democratic. It may be doubted whether any church in the land, not even excepting those of the Roman Catholic worship, gave so genuine a welcome to every sort of people, rich or poor, high or low, educated or uneducated, white, black or brown, as did Plymouth Church. No man, woman, or child was allowed to feel out of place, or unwelcome. That this was and is true, is a notable testimony to the influences that controlled the church from its very beginning.
When we consider the guests, their number and quality, the ushers used sometimes to wonder where they all came from. Truly, the fame of Plymouth had gone into all the world. Travellers visited it, just as they went to Washington or Niagara. It was |the thing| to hear Henry Ward Beecher in Plymouth Church -- usually the two were absolutely identical. Distinguished men from all walks in life, in America and every other country in Christendom, were there. Famous editors, popular ministers, eminent statesmen, great generals, were to be seen in the audience Sabbath after Sabbath. Among those whom I remember were Louis Kossuth, Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, Charles Dickens, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, the poet Whittier, Horace Greeley, besides a host of others. During the Civil War most of the so-called War Governors, Andrews of Massachusetts, Buckingham of Connecticut, Morgan of New York, Curtin of Pennsylvania, and others, were to be seen in the congregation, and it was not an uncommon occurrence to see many of the New England regiments on their way to the field, stop over Sunday and march into Plymouth Church. It had become identified with those higher purposes and deeper principles of the war which appealed most of all to the New England conscience.
Of course there were all sorts of experiences in seating these guests. The ushers soon came to be able to tell where the strangers came from by their form of expression. |Is this Ward Beecher's Church?| invariably betokened an Englishman, as they always called him Ward Beecher in England, and probably more of the foreigners who visit Plymouth come from there than from any other country. |We are from Canada,| is the next most common salutation. |I am a clergyman from Oregon.| |I am a missionary from China.| |I am from San Francisco and this is my first visit here.| |We are from New Jersey, and never heard Mr. Beecher.| |I am from Australia and this is my first visit to this country.| These are but illustrations of the expressions which greeted the ushers every Sunday.
Of course they all want good seats. It is astonishing how many people come who are hard of hearing, and want front pews; and if they are seated on the left they cannot hear in the right ear, and if on the right, they cannot hear in the left ear. All this was not unnoticed by Mr. Beecher, as we realised one day when, as he entered the pulpit, he turned to Mr. Whitney, on duty there, and putting his hand to his ear quietly said, |I am very hard of hearing, can you not give me a front seat?| Others, if you give them a front seat, say it tires their eyes to look up, and if they are seated too far back, they cannot see. It is the duty of the usher to satisfy all. That strangers come so constantly is witness to the cordiality and courtesy of their reception and treatment. Mr. Beecher frequently said that the ushers helped him in no small degree in the Sunday services.
The interest for the ushers was by no means finished when the seats were filled and the standing room was apportioned. Then came watching the effect of the service upon the audience. True, most of the ushers took seats when their special work of introduction was over -- i. e., if there were any seats available, or they had succeeded in reserving any; but there were always some on duty, and not even Mr. Beecher's eloquence entirely eclipsed the interest with which the various attitudes were watched. These attitudes were of all sorts. There were sceptical people, who evidently wondered whether this man Beecher was really as great as they tried to make him out; they sat in their seats with a very firm back, indisposed to bend or yield to any influence. As a rule they got little farther than the prayer or the second hymn before there was a very perceptible unbending. Somehow few could withstand the power of Plymouth Church singing, and Mr. Beecher's prayers had a wonderfully moving influence. The sermon, however, captured all. If asked what it was that had conquered they perhaps could not have told, but sure it was that the shoulders shook, the head bent forward, the whole frame seemed to respond to the touch of the master hand. Especially interesting was it to watch the young men. Students came from all over the country to hear the |greatest pulpit orator| in the land. All sense of surroundings was lost, and bending forward, with eye fixed on the speaker, and even the mouth open, as if in fear of closing any possible avenue by which the thought might enter mind and heart, they listened with an intensity of attention that can scarcely be measured.
The general bearing of the audience was always reverential. There was none of the solemn formality seen in a good many churches. To some people it doubtless savoured more of a lecture hall than of a church. The form of the auditorium was the reverse of the stately Gothic. There was no dim religious light. Plenty of windows let in plenty of light and plenty of fresh air. The pews were comfortable. Under any other preacher they might have conduced to decorous naps. There was no excess of dress. People wore clothes for comfort, not for show, and if perchance they commenced with style they invariably ended with simplicity.
There was, too, a breezy sort of cheeriness about the whole place. Quiet, friendly chatting between friends went on, but it was never obtrusive, or interfered with devotion. The moment service commenced it was manifest that it was divine service, not a public entertainment. Mr. Beecher was a wonderful reader, and to hear his rendering of a chapter in the Bible, or of a hymn new or old, was in itself a great privilege. During the prayer there was a stillness that could be felt. Few men have greater, or as great a gift in bringing men to the recognition of their communion with God.
With the sermon there was evident a general attitude of expectancy. Something was coming, and everyone wanted to be sure and get it. Sometimes it was humorous, and a ripple of laughter would go over the audience. Those who heard about it were apt to be shocked and to consider it irreverent. It is doubtful whether anyone who was present ever had that feeling. Sometimes it was pathetic, and there was suspicious fumbling in pockets. Sometimes it was soul-stirring, and one could see the forms quiver and grow tense. Most often it was that calm, quiet, yet forceful presentation of truth, not in the abstract as something to be looked upon from various angles, then labelled and put aside, but practical, affecting the daily life; and faces would grow earnest, and the results would be seen in the home, the shop, or the office.
Service over, Plymouth Church people gathered in knots to chat over -- pretty much everything, for it was like one big family. Strangers looked on with curiosity, generally appreciative, less often with a certain air of disapproval at the apparent levity. One thing was noticeable: those who came once generally came again at some time, and so faces that had been strange came to wear a familiar look.