Few, if any, churches in the country, certainly none in Greater New York, preserve the old-time simplicity of the typical New England Congregational Church as distinct as does Plymouth Church. The building itself, with no steeple, the form of its auditorium, unusual at that period in a church, the arrangement of its pews, all were indeed innovations, and they have been followed, though hardly improved upon, in building other church edifices. When it comes to the conduct of worship, however, it is severe in its simplicity. There is the opening hymn shared by the congregation, a short invocation, reading of the Scripture, then the offering, and while it is being received an anthem is sung by the choir.
The |long| prayer is followed by a hymn; but the chief feature of the entire service is always the sermon, after which comes a hymn and the benediction. The evening service followed the order of that of the morning. Of elaborate liturgies there has been no hint, yet the service has ever been both impressive and interesting. People explained it at first by the peculiar power of the man who occupied the pulpit, yet this can hardly account for its continuance to the present day in its original form. The succeeding pastors have continued the plan, not because Mr. Beecher started it or perhaps because they themselves preferred it, but because it seems to fit Plymouth Church, and is enjoyed by Plymouth congregations. Somehow a liturgy would seem entirely out of place there, however appropriate it might be elsewhere, and not only is this recognised, but there seems to have been at no time any desire to make the service more elaborate.
When it comes to the conduct of the different parts of the service, however, there was nothing humdrum, or that savoured of routine. Mr. Beecher was a remarkable reader. Delicate shades of meaning came out in the very tones of his voice, and his power of intense sympathy made it easy for him to impersonate for the time being almost any character. Had he turned his attention to the stage he would have been a wonderful actor. As he read the Scriptures the Bible characters stood out with marvellous distinctness; we could almost see them or hear them. He entered also so fully into the deepest meaning of what he read that the rendering shed new light on some of the most difficult passages of the Bible. Attention has more than once been called to his rendering of those verses in which the Saviour speaks so strongly of the Scribes and Pharisees. He would read them as if they were fairly afire with indignation and wrath; then, softening his voice, read them again with an infinite pathos, as if they were prophecy rather than condemnation, and ask which rendering was more in accord with the nature of Jesus.
The same thing was manifest in his rendering of hymns. He was extremely fond of poetry, and searched far and wide for the best hymns. Our first hymn book was a little one known as Temple Melodies. Mr. Beecher could not get along with this, and with the aid of his brother, Rev. Charles Beecher, and the organist, John Zundel, compiled and published the Plymouth Collection. This long held its place at the head of church hymnals and really worked a revolution in church music.
To many the feature of the whole service was the |long prayer,| as it was called. Many who could not quite agree with all the conclusions and statements of the sermons found these prayers of wonderful help. The same sympathy that made his rendering of Scripture so effective became very apparent when he took up the problems of daily life, the perplexities, doubts, temptations, successes. Probably no preacher has ever had such wide publication of his prayers as Mr. Beecher, and the Book of Prayers from Plymouth Pulpit became a source of spiritual strength to many who could not attend the services. They were taken down in shorthand, as were his sermons, and published, appearing first in the Christian Union and then in book form.
The sermon needs no description from me -- even if I could give it. It seemed the very expression of the man, his interpretation of himself. Mr. Beecher was to all appearance well-nigh reckless in the vigour with which he made statements that seemed to him to be true, with little or no regard to their relation to other truths. The result was that he was charged with being grossly inconsistent. One day he would preach a sermon that would have delighted the old New England divines. The next Sunday he seemed an out-and-out Unitarian, while Quakers, Swedenborgians and all sorts of beliefs claimed him. The explanation was that he saw very clearly the element of truth in any system, whether he agreed with it in full or not, and in his effort to state it plainly and give due credit to it, often left the impression that the particular statement he made was all there was to it. One result was that the independent forming of opinions was encouraged and helped in Plymouth Church as in few churches. Those who imagined that Mr. Beecher dominated the thought of his people to an extent which made them mere echoes of himself were very far from the truth. It was an intellectual stimulus to sit under him, not merely in the effort to keep up with his thought, which poured forth like Niagara, but in the compulsion to form an independent personal opinion. Men loved to hear him, not so much because they always agreed with him as because he had the faculty of stimulating the best there was in them, arousing their highest ambitions.
In no single service was Mr. Beecher at his best so completely as in the communion service. It was distinctively a family gathering in which the host was not Mr. Beecher, or Plymouth Church, but the Saviour, and to it were welcome all who loved that Saviour, whatever their formal creed or church connection, or even if they were without any creed or connection; this was the impression left upon those who came from other churches, and this was the description of it given me by a theological student, who said that he came from a distant city to Brooklyn and timed his visit primarily with reference to that service and especially to Mr. Beecher's invitation as given by him from the pulpit. In these days there is nothing very startling in that position, but in the earlier times it was regarded as a very unsafe liberality, even if not absolutely wrong.
As I have already said, the music of Plymouth Church has always been an important part of the church worship. The high-priced quartet has never been relied upon, the chorus choir being preferred, not merely for its own singing, but because it served best in leading the congregation, and that was the thing ever kept in mind. Mr. Beecher loved the old-fashioned hymns, though he had also a hearty welcome for new ones, and he was never satisfied unless he got everybody to singing. I have often seen him jump up from his chair right in the middle of a hymn and hold up his hand for silence. |You are not singing this hymn right,| he would say. |Sing it with more spirit, and let everybody sing.| The effect upon the congregation would be electric, and after that the church would fairly tremble with the volume of music the audience would pour forth. The result has been that it has always been the fashion for everybody in the congregation, strangers as well as members, to sing, and this undoubtedly has had a share in doing away with coldness and formality in the service.
All this, however, could not have been accomplished without the cordial sympathy and positive help of many great organists and leading singers. There have been more famous musicians engaged for Plymouth Church Choir during the past fifty years than in any other church in this country, if not in the world. Among the names I may mention are Zundel, Burnet, Stebbins, Wheeler, Thursby, Toedt, Sterling, Lasar, Damrosch, Warrenwrath, Camp, and many others. Of them all probably John Zundel came the nearest to Mr. Beecher's ideal. He entered heartily into all the preacher's ideas and feelings and seemed to understand just how to interpret him in music; Mr. Beecher used to say that he inspired his sermons. It has not been surprising that even with the inevitable changes brought by time, there have been but few intervals, and those very brief, from the organisation of the church up to the present time, when the music has not been of the highest order, and the standard of to-day is in no respect inferior to that of the past.
Among my earliest recollections of Mr. Beecher's preaching was the profusion of his illustrations from nature. Every part and manifestation of nature had its place, but so frequent were his references to flowers that it became a common saying among members of Plymouth Church that |Mr. Beecher must be very fond of flowers.| He seemed to know every flower in the garden or in the field, and was constantly drawing lessons from them or using them in some way to enforce a point.
One Sunday morning, I think it was in 1852, someone sent him a small bouquet in a vase. He took it to church with him, placed it on the little table at his side, and there it remained during the service. It is difficult in these days to understand what a commotion it occasioned. Such a thing as bringing flowers into a church on the Sabbath day had never been heard of, and was not at all in accord with traditional New England ideas. Everyone in the congregation of course noticed it, and that bouquet of flowers became during the week the talk of all Brooklyn.
There were not a few who were alarmed at Mr. Beecher's rapidly growing popularity, and who made a point of finding fault with everything he did. These declared that Henry Ward Beecher had desecrated the House of God by taking flowers into the pulpit during religious worship! This, however, affected neither Mr. Beecher nor the church. Flowers on the pulpit had come to stay, and stay they did, and now are recognised as a legitimate part of church service all over the world.