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Sixty Years With Plymouth Church by Stephen M. Griswold


On March 8, 1887, a little less than forty years after he had been called as pastor of Plymouth Church, Henry Ward Beecher died. The end came suddenly. There was no lingering sickness, no wasting of his powers. If the impassioned delivery of earlier years was somewhat lacking, there was still a power and vigour fully as effective. The year before he had been to England on a lecture tour and received an ovation as marked as the disapproval attending his first attempts. He had been in demand all over the country for addresses and lectures. The columns of papers and magazines were everywhere open to him, and while it may be true that his popularity was not of the intense sort that it had been at times, when he was almost the idol of the people, it probably was of a more substantial character. It is probable, too, that at no time in its history had Plymouth Church been more closely identified with him, or the opinion been so prevalent that neither could prosper without the other. The services were as fully attended as ever, and church work had settled into the harmonious routine which always bodes good for a church's life.

All this was suddenly broken up. On Wednesday evening, March 2, Mr. Beecher suffered an apoplectic stroke and on the following Tuesday he died. No one who attended the services, held almost continuously during that week, can ever forget them. The dominant tone was one of the personal loss of a friend. There was grateful recognition of a magnificent service done for humanity, and for the building up of the Kingdom of God, but the greater work was almost lost sight of in the individual remembrances, the personal testimonies to the man who had helped men. On Sunday of that week came the regular communion service of the church. The usual sermon was omitted and only the Lord's Supper was commemorated. There were several evening meetings, mostly for prayer and mutual sympathy.

The manifestation of public sympathy surprised even those who knew best how widespread was the interest in the beloved pastor. As the coffin lay in the church on Thursday there was an unceasing line of those who wished to show their regard for him. On Friday the funeral services were conducted by Rev. Charles H. Hall, D. D., pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, to which Plymouth Church had succeeded in ownership of its site. As it was manifest that Plymouth Church could not possibly hold the crowds that wanted to come, simultaneous memorial services were held in other churches. Most of the business houses were closed, as were also the public offices of the city and the schools. Everywhere there was manifest the recognition that a great man had gone.

[Illustration: LYMAN ABBOTT]

Who would take his place? Could anyone take his place? Was it not true that the relations between him and his church were so intimate, so vital, that the sundering of them by his death would inevitably involve the dissolution of the church? These were the questions asked everywhere by the public and probably in the consciousness of the members of the church itself, at least of a considerable number. Fortunately there was one already identified with the church for many years, who had come to it as a boy, had been very intimately associated with Mr. Beecher, and had entered most fully into his spirit and life. Dr. Lyman Abbott had already won for himself an independent position in the church and the literary life of the country. Glad to call himself a disciple of Mr. Beecher, he had been by no means a copyist, and held his own place. Far more than would have been possible for anyone not so intimately acquainted with the life of the church, he was able to fill the gap at least for the time being, and it seemed the natural thing when he was called to fill the pulpit and guide the church activities until it could decide on some permanent arrangement.

Probably there has never been seen a finer instance of loyalty to a church's best traditions than the experience of the following months. As was inevitable, the audiences fell off very materially. Still the church was fairly well filled and for the first time in years the ushers had a reasonably comfortable time. Yet examination proved that the loss was only of the strangers. Not a pewholder withdrew. There was no diminution in the active work of the church. Prayer meetings, Sabbath School, mission services continued as before. Even the finances did not suffer. It was naturally impracticable to keep up the high premiums on pews. Hitherto the Tuesday evening succeeding the first Sunday in the year had been a sort of gala time, when loyalty to Plymouth and its pastor and good-natured rivalry had combined to bring from the more wealthy members sums mounting into the thousands of dollars. The current year was safe, but anticipating the change that would be necessary, the leaders, indeed practically the whole church, renewed their pew leases at the same figure, so that there might be no question of financial disquiet for the new pastor, whoever he might be. Subsequently the whole method was changed, pew premiums giving place to the envelope system, under which the church has prospered greatly.

The immediate question of the conduct of the church being solved, the more important one of a permanent successor to Mr. Beecher was taken up in earnest. I do not think that the possibility of disbanding was for a moment present in the thought of any, certainly not of the leaders. They set about the work carefully with a clear realisation of the difficulties involved, but with a determination to succeed. It is always difficult to succeed a man of great individuality, and this general rule was made even more difficult in this case by the peculiar quality of the personality. The very intensity of the experiences of the past decade and more had served to create a certain alignment, and search as they would and did, it was difficult to find anyone to meet all the conditions.

It was not unnatural that the committee in charge, not, it must be remembered, of choosing a pastor, but of recommending one, or more, for the choice of both church and society, should look beyond the sea. More than one church had done so and with conspicuous success. Broadway Tabernacle had called Wm. M. Taylor, and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, John Hall. Plymouth Church, at that time at least, was not likely to look to Scotland, nor to Ireland. There was absolutely nothing of the Presbyterian in its make-up. It was Independent, through and through. To the Congregationalists of England therefore it must look, if it were to go beyond its own immediate fellowship.

It seemed as if just the man was found in Rev. Charles A. Berry of Wolverhampton. A friend of Mr. Beecher, an earnest and very effective preacher, a man of great evangelistic power, he won the hearts of Plymouth people, and the recommendation of the committee was followed by a unanimous and most urgent call to him to become the pastor. How deeply he appreciated, not so much the honour, though such he esteemed it, as the token of affectionate confidence, was manifest both in his correspondence with the church and in the delay in announcing his answer. That he would have been glad to come is certain, equally so that he felt that duty to a work of peculiar quality and special need called him to stay with his own people. They were as dismayed at the possibility of losing him as Plymouth Church would have been had Mr. Beecher been called to another pulpit.

Mr. Berry's declination of the call brought Plymouth Church face to to face with a most difficult situation, at least it seemed so to many. In truth it was not so difficult as it seemed. Dr. Abbott had filled the pulpit with acceptance and had conducted the affairs of the church with rare tact. The pastoral work, which had for some years been practically in the hands of Rev. S. B. Halliday, went on as usual. Now that Mr. Berry was not to come, who could so well meet the need as the one who had stood them in good stead in the time of stress? It was therefore perfectly natural that thoughts should turn to Dr. Abbott, and when they had once started equally natural that he should be called. Accordingly, in the spring of 1888 he was invited to be pastor. He accepted, and after a summer's rest in Europe commenced the active work of the pastorate in September.

During the summer months the preaching services were omitted, but the prayer meetings and mission work were continued. The general condition of the church may be indicated by the impression made upon one who came in during the closing part of the interregnum to take up the pastoral work for a few months, dropped by Mr. Halliday, who had gone to build up a Beecher Memorial Church in the outskirts of Brooklyn. Coming fresh from foreign missionary service, with no experience in American church life, Rev. Edwin M. Bliss bears most earnest testimony to the vigour and power of the church life of Plymouth, even during those months when many were away. Repeatedly he told inquirers that those who imagined that Plymouth Church would go to pieces were absolutely mistaken; that there was evident a strong church on a firm foundation.

Truly there could be no better testimony to the substantial quality of Mr. Beecher's leadership than the experience of that year and a half of church life under such radically different conditions.

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