It is impossible to understand accurately the early history of Plymouth Church, and realise the position it held in the country, as well as its influence over its members, without some knowledge of the general history of the times. It was a period of great political ferment. The slavery question was looming up as the |irrepressible conflict.| The war with Mexico, at its height when the church was organised, precipitated the discussion as to the extension of slave territory. The discovery of gold in California (February, 1850) opened up possibilities of national growth undreamed of before, and which stirred the greatest ambitions, especially in the slave states. The passage of the fugitive slave law (September, 1850) was but fuel to the flame. Into the discussions of the time two Congregational ministers threw themselves with all the ardour of their natures, and exceptional ability -- Henry Ward Beecher, of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, and Joseph P. Thompson, of Broadway Tabernacle, New York. Nor did they lack for hearty support by their churches. The men who stood behind them were equally in earnest with themselves. The pulpits -- or rather platforms -- of both were free for the presentation of the cause of justice and liberty, and many scenes in them have become historic.
On one occasion the Broadway Tabernacle, at that time located on Broadway near Duane Street, was opened for a mass meeting. Mr. Beecher was advertised to speak, and the house was packed. He was listened to with closest attention and deepest interest, but the climax came when turning round he lifted a chain that had been taken from a slave in the South, held it for a moment high above his head, then dashed it to the floor, placed his foot upon it and said: |In this way we propose to deal with the slave power in the South.| The effect upon the audience was thrilling and the applause fairly rocked the building.
Another scene, which none who witnessed it could ever forget, was in Plymouth Church. It was Sabbath morning, and as usual every seat and all the available standing room was filled. After the sermon Mr. Beecher said that he had a matter which he wished to present to the congregation. No one had the least idea as to what he was going to do, and the people waited in profound silence. He then said, |Sarah, come up here.| As the audience looked, a little mulatto girl arose in the body of the church, ran up the pulpit steps and took Mr. Beecher's hand. Turning to the assembled multitude he said: |This little girl is a slave, and I have promised her owner [USD]1200, his price for her, or she will be returned to slavery. Pass the basket.|
The ushers found their way through the vast audience. Although the church seated only a little more than two thousand, there must have been nearly three thousand present, and soon the collection was made. It appeared that the sum total was not far from fifteen hundred dollars. Many gave jewelry, diamonds, watches and chains. Her freedom was announced amid thunders of applause. This was not the only instance of a similar nature. Mr. Beecher was frequently condemned for even in form acknowledging the right of a slave owner to any remuneration for a slave, but if he thought a thing right to do, he did it without the least regard to what other people might say.
There was probably no one question at the time about which there were more intensely opposing opinions, than this one of the return of slaves. Congress had passed the fugitive slave law, and all lawyers and students of the Constitution affirmed not merely its legality, but its justice, at least its technical justice. To a large number, however, the fact that it was legal made no difference so long as they were convinced that it was morally wrong. Among these was Mr. Beecher, and he had the cordial support of the people. One result was the formation all through the North of a system, known as the Underground Railroad, by which slaves escaping from the South were helped on their way until they could reach Canada, when they were free. It was no secret that some of the men in Plymouth Church knew a good deal about this railroad, and were deeply interested in helping men, women and girls to escape from bondage.
The first national event in which the church took a definite part, so far as I remember, was the question as to whether Kansas should be a free or a slave state. Settlers were rushing in from all parts of the country, and the North was favouring those who were opposed to slavery, while the South sought to strengthen the slave-holding element. The result was a constant clashing, resulting in what came to be known as the Border Ruffian War, in which John Brown first appeared as a national figure. In the difficulty of provisioning such a new country, all sorts of supplies were rushed in, including ammunition and Bibles. Mr. Beecher told his congregation that just then a Sharps rifle was as good a missionary to send as a Bible. Accordingly the church purchased and boxed up several cases of rifles and Bibles and sent them out. These rifles were afterwards called Beecher Bibles.
The events that followed, leading up to the War of the Rebellion, were all part of Plymouth Church life. It seemed sometimes as if Mr. Beecher was everywhere and nothing could be done without him. At the time when Senator Brooks in the United States Senate made his unprovoked attack on Charles Sumner, the whole country was wild with indignation. Meetings were held on every hand to protest against the outrage. Every item of news from Mr. Sumner's bedside was watched for with intense solicitude, and for a time it seemed as if the fate of war or peace hung upon the life of the Senator. Among the meetings was one called to take place in front of City Hall, Brooklyn, and, as so often was the case, Mr. Beecher was the speaker. The Square was packed, and as he came out on the steps of the City Hall to speak a great cheer went up, a cheer not merely of sympathy for Mr. Sumner, but of faith in and regard for the speaker. Mr. Beecher, with his marvellous power, raised his voice so that it could be heard all over the Square, and for an hour he held the audience spellbound with his arraignment of the slave power of the South, and the wrongs it was committing, while he affirmed his conviction that the conflict would result in a storm of civil war. It was a wonderful illustration of the inspiration that made him great.
A very different, yet not less characteristic, scene was that in the lecture room of the church one Friday evening, when the news of the death of John Brown had come. Looking back over the years it is easy to see that his attempt with a mere handful of men to free the slaves of the South was a most foolish thing. Yet at that time so keen was the realisation of the wrongs that slavery had committed and so hearty the respect for the nobility of his purpose and of his character, that from all the land there went up one general expression of sympathy. The seriousness of the situation appears in the fact that the State of Virginia felt obliged to call out a large number of troops on the day of his execution to quell any popular disturbance. The day of the execution was Friday, and as the audience crowded the room, it was easy to see that there was but one thought in the minds of all. Mr. Beecher came in and took his seat upon the platform, a strange and unusual expression on his face, indicating the intensity of the feeling within. After one or two short prayers, and a couple of hymns, one after another gave expression to his sorrow and amazement at the condition of things between the North and the South, and through all there was manifest the conviction that war and bloodshed were sure to come. The meeting was long and earnest, showing the deep impression made on the people of the church.