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Sixty Years With Plymouth Church by Stephen M. Griswold


A layman is ordinarily not supposed to trouble himself very much about theology, but to leave that as the special prerogative of the ministers. This was certainly true of the great majority of the lay members of Plymouth Church. At the same time they were by no means indifferent to theology. They could not be so long as Mr. Beecher was pastor, and Dr. Abbott's positive opinions on theological questions, while not obtruded, were never hidden. It must be remembered, too, that the constitution, articles of faith and covenant were drawn up by laymen. Henry C. Bowen was undoubtedly the moving spirit, but the others heartily concurred. The articles of faith were as follows:

|1. We believe in the existence of One Ever-living and True God, Sovereign and Unchangeable, Infinite in Power, Wisdom and Goodness.

|2. We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be inspired of God; to contain a revelation of His will, and to be the authoritative rule of faith and practice.

|3. We believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are revealed in the Scriptures as existing, in respect to attributes, character and office, as three Persons, equally Divine; while in other respects they are united, and are, in a proper sense, One God.

|4. We believe that our First Parents were created upright; that they fell from their original state by disobedience, and that all their posterity are not only prone to sin, but do become sinful and guilty before God.

|5. We believe that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to die for it; that Christ appeared in the flesh; that He set forth a perfect example of obedience; that He purely taught the truths needful for our salvation; that He suffered in our stead, the just for the unjust; that He died to atone for our sins, and to purify us therefrom; and that He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, where He ever liveth to make intercession for us.

|6. We believe that God offers full forgiveness and everlasting life to all who will heartily repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; while those who do not believe, but persevere in sin, shall finally perish.

|7. We believe in the resurrection of all the dead; in a final and general judgment, upon the awards of which the wicked shall go into everlasting punishment and the righteous into life eternal.|

These were adopted by the church as they stand on April 17, 1848, by a rising vote. They represent the platform on which Mr. Beecher accepted the pastorate of the church, and have remained essentially the doctrinal basis of the church under the pastorates of Dr. Abbott and Dr. Hillis.

It will readily be seen that in general the position of Plymouth Church was essentially that of the New England churches, and when, after being trained in orthodox Windsor, Conn., I came to Brooklyn, I found myself in much the same atmosphere. At the same time there was nothing hidebound. There was no attempt to draw lines too tight; indeed, there was little drawing of lines. Principles were stated, and applied. Description took the place of definition.

One result was the intensifying of certain convictions, and of these the chief was that the test of belief was the life. Mr. Beecher's breadth of sympathy on all public questions, manifested particularly in the slavery discussion, came out if possible more clearly in regard to doctrinal matters. He made it a principle to seek for the best in every man, and was very loath to believe evil of anyone. So when men differed from him in theology his tendency always was to seek for the truth that was contained in that view, and give it all possible emphasis. In his preaching he did not feel obliged to guard himself against every possible misconception, and would speak on a topic or present a truth, as if for the moment at least, that was the one topic, the one truth, to be considered. The result was that he was claimed by very nearly every denomination in the country. When this was done by Universalists or Unitarians, the old-line Congregationalists were troubled, and Presbyterians thanked God that they could not be held responsible for his views.

When Dr. Abbott became pastor the same condition continued, perhaps emphasised, as Dr. Abbott is broader in his theology than Mr. Beecher ever was, while still preserving Mr. Beecher's general attitude toward divergent beliefs. Under Dr. Hillis theological matters are subordinated to general aggressive church work, although now as always there is the most cordial welcome to all of every form of Christian statement who emphasise Christian life.

The effect of all this upon the church itself, in its membership, has been to make it exceedingly liberal. Men are taken for what they are, not for what they believe, and this principle accepted in one respect is easily extended to others. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that broadness of theology is the same thing as looseness of doctrinal belief.

Plymouth Church is loyal to the faith in which it was born and nurtured, and there are not a few who do not accept many of the forms of statement current to-day. They do not therefore condemn those who do, realising that the very principle of intellectual independence, which has always been so powerful an element in the church life, inevitably involves difference of opinion. Many who might not accept all Dr. Abbott's views have received great benefit from his preaching, emphasising, as he always has, life rather than doctrine.

In its ecclesiastical organisation and relations Plymouth Church was thoroughly independent, scarcely even Congregational. Rule 1 of its ecclesiastical principles says: |This church is an independent ecclesiastical body; and in matters of doctrine, order and discipline is amenable to no other organisation.| It did not propose to stand absolutely alone, however, as is shown from Rule 2: |This church will extend to other evangelical churches, and receive from them, that fellowship, advice and assistance which the laws of Christ require.| In its general customs, as to membership, ordinances, meetings, etc., it conformed to those of the Congregational churches, with which those who were its first members had been connected, and when it installed its first pastor, as in each succeeding instance, it called in the Congregational churches to assist. So also in its time of greatest stress it recognised the obligations of its fellowship with the Congregational churches by calling the largest Congregational council ever convened in America. At the same time, if it seemed to it right and wise to emphasise the broader fellowship with those of other faith it did so, whether Congregationalists at large liked it or not. So in its benevolences, it gave where it chose. If it liked to give through the medium of what were known as the Congregational Societies, it did; if it didn't like to, it didn't. Every once in a while from some source, near or more remote, generally more remote, protest would come that Mr. Beecher and his church were not carrying their full share of denominational burdens; there was courteous attention, but a very definite giving to understand that the church would do as it thought best.

The independence of the organisation manifested itself in individuals. Those who wished their gifts to go through a certain channel were perfectly at liberty to send them there, and no one felt aggrieved because others did not see their way clear to do the same.

Another effect, both of the ecclesiastical independence and the broad humanitarian theology, was manifest in the social life, to which reference has been made many times, not too often however, for it was and is one of the chief features of Plymouth life.

In the northeast corner of what is now the Sunday School room were located the social parlours. They were handsomely furnished, and there every Monday evening Mr. Beecher held an informal reception, when all members of the church or congregation were cordially welcomed. The prominent members of the church were present, including such men as Messrs. Howard, Bowen, Claflin, Sage, Storrs, Freeland, Wheelock, Fanning, Mason, Caldwell, Ropes, Southwick, Murray, Leckler, Sloat, Corning, Hutchinson, Burgess, Dr. Morrill Studwell and others, and this was often an opportunity to welcome distinguished visitors. One such occasion I remember well, when a large number of distinguished people gathered to welcome Mr. Beecher's sister, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. She had just returned from England, where she had been introduced to Queen Victoria as the first American authoress; the papers had announced that two million copies of her book, |Uncle Tom's Cabin,| had been sold, and the congratulations and social enjoyment were great.

The same characteristics that distinguished the regular church life were manifest in all its departments, as the Sunday School and Bible classes. In all there was free play for individual ideas and development. One Bible class in particular I would mention, that conducted for many years by Mr. Wilbur, and which had more than one hundred members. In a variety of ways, by freedom of discussion in the class, by excursions, receptions, entertainments of various kinds, it bound the young people together, helped greatly to build up the church, and particularly contributed to its social life. How firmly it was established is witnessed by the fact that it has never weakened, even in the changes that have come in the membership, or the official direction of the church. With three pastors so different in many respects as Mr. Beecher, Dr. Abbott and Dr. Hillis, there has been no difference in the general type of church life.

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