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Sixty Years With Plymouth Church by Stephen M. Griswold


Following the Civil War came the reconstruction days, and into all those experiences Mr. Beecher entered with full energy, but even more than before he devoted himself to his work as a preacher and writer. He was in demand everywhere for addresses and lectures, as well as for articles from his pen. Churches, lyceums, theological seminaries, public meetings of all sorts tried to secure him. He took up editorial work on the Christian Union, now The Outlook; he gave the first of the famous series of lectures on |Preaching,| at Yale Theological Seminary. Indeed, it seemed as if he was ubiquitous. How he got time for it all was a marvel, even to those who best knew his great powers of endurance, and his marvellous capacity for work. In it all Plymouth Church never suffered. Its interests were his first care, and while it was never selfish or unwilling that others should share their advantage, he was faithful to what he esteemed his first duty.

Thus was built up a strength of mutual confidence, and affection, that was to be tested in as severe a way as could well be imagined. That the test was borne and that both pastor and people came out of it, not merely with no loss of mutual esteem and honour, but with the vigour of church life unimpaired, indeed strengthened, is but another testimony to the genuine force of Christian character in both.

No survey of Plymouth Church during its history can ignore the famous trial, or rather series of trials, in which both the church and its pastor were subjected to an ordeal of the severest type. Into the details there is no necessity of going, neither is there advantage in reviewing arguments. The actors are fast passing away. Those now coming on the stage have little concern with any results except those made manifest in the life of Plymouth Church, and which may be taken as illustrating its character.

As for Mr. Beecher himself, he needs no vindication. The verdict of his city, which has honoured him as it honours few men, is sufficiently clear. So also is that of the churches and the great mass of Christian men and women over the country. He was undoubtedly indiscreet, yet not in the way that most charged indiscretion. Open, above board, frank, generous, he trusted others, and, as Dr. Abbott has said, accepted |as true, without inquiry or investigation, statements which a man of more practical wisdom would certainly have doubted.| Good men and true found it in many cases difficult to understand his course. Those who believed in him can afford to await until the limelight of the highest of all courts shall pass its verdict.

Of more immediate value to those interested in Plymouth Church was its bearing in such circumstances, and the results as manifested in its life. It is to be remembered that there were really three trials: 1. An investigation by Plymouth Church, commencing in June and closing in August, 1874; 2. A trial before the civil court, from January 5 to July 2, 1875, brought by Mr. Tilton on the charge of alienating his wife's affections; 3. A council of Congregational Churches, called by Plymouth Church to review its action in regard to its pastor. The first investigation was presented, in its method, evidence and results, to a meeting of the church. After full public notice and by a unanimous vote of about fifteen hundred members, practically the entire resident membership, Mr. Beecher was awarded the perfect confidence of the church. The civil trial resulted in a disagreement of the jury, but the chief lawyer for the prosecution and the presiding judge both publicly affirmed their absolute conviction in Mr. Beecher's innocence. The Council was the largest and most representative ever known in the history of the Congregational Churches. Over two hundred and forty men from every part of the country, holding every phase of theological beliefs and of ecclesiastical habit, met together, and for days investigated, considered, questioned, with a freedom impossible in strictly legal procedure, and closed their sessions with formal reaffirmation of Mr. Beecher's innocence, no charge against him having been sustained by any proof.

While it is thus true that Mr. Beecher and the church came forth triumphant, it was at heavy cost. No man could endure such a strain without showing the effects of it, and Mr. Beecher never recovered the old buoyancy. In many ways it became evident how keenly he felt the trial. The church showed the effect less. A few, very few, members left the church, but the number of dismissions was not larger than usual; indeed they were less than in the previous two years, and the church remained the more united. The admissions by letter were exceptionally large, as were also those by confession of their faith. More pertinent, however, than these evidences of life is the fact that the entire work of the church suffered no interruption. Prayer meetings, Sunday School, continued with usual vigour, and the general activities of the congregation were carried on as if there was nothing unusual taking place.

It was this that aroused the attention of the country at large and convinced many that the basis of the real power of Plymouth Church lay not so much in any oratorical gifts of its pastor, as in the substantial Christian life of its members. Those who could hold together under such a strain were not likely to fall apart under the pressure of any lesser difficulty. Undoubtedly there was a certain amount of esprit de corps, a realisation of the absolute necessity of mutual support, but to those who look back on those days it is still more evident that they felt that more than Mr. Beecher, or even Plymouth Church, was at stake; it was the ability of a company of Christian men and women to hold their faith, and the expression of their faith.

So far as their personal interest and faith in Mr. Beecher were concerned, nothing could illustrate it better than the action of the society in helping him to meet the extraordinary expense, and the visit to his home in Peekskill of the members of the three Sunday Schools. While Mr. Beecher had a most liberal salary, he was free and even reckless in expenditure. The result was that the cost of the trial went far beyond his resources. At its close, and even before he had had time to realise what that cost had been, the society which has charge of the finances of the church, met and voted that his salary for that year be one hundred thousand dollars. It was a great relief to him financially, but still more grateful as a taken of the love and confidence of the people. Not less touching to him was the tribute from the Sunday Schools.

He was at the time living in his summer home at Peekskill, N. Y. Without any knowledge on his part, until the very day, it was arranged by the teachers and officers of the Plymouth, Bethel and Mayflower Schools that the scholars should go to Peekskill to congratulate him on the outcome of the trial, and emphasise the feeling of the church already expressed in the salary grant. The steamer Blackburn was chartered and about three hundred joined in the excursion up the North River. Mr. R. D. Jaques, an old, active and honoured member of the church, describing the scene, says that Mr. Beecher met them standing under a tree, his hat off and his long hair flowing in the wind. The visitors formed in line so that each could shake his hand. As the little ones came, Mr. Beecher would lift them up in his arms and kiss them. Then the house was thrown open and they were welcomed to every part of it. Refreshments were provided and the social festivities continued until the time came to return. It was a happy company that sailed down the river, but it is doubtful whether anyone was happier than the host, as he realised what the visit meant of their love and honour.

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