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Sixty Years With Plymouth Church by Stephen M. Griswold


It is only of recent years that the Congregational and Presbyterian churches have come to include in the regular staff of church officers, assistant pastors or pastor's assistants. For a long time Mr. Beecher and Plymouth Church followed the prevailing custom, relying upon volunteer service for such extra work in the line of parish visitation as was beyond the pastor's power. As the church grew, however, and as the demands upon its pastor for outside work in the form of public addresses, lectures, etc., increased, it became evident that something must be done to meet the emergency. Fortunately, just the right man was found. Rev. S. B. Halliday had seen considerable service in mission work in New York City, was a man of genial character, great sympathy, kindhearted, and painstaking in the performance of his duties. He came to Brooklyn in 1870 and remained there in pastoral duty until after Mr. Beecher's death. His work was chiefly among the poorer class, but there were many families of means that welcomed him to their homes. Perhaps the one word that best expresses the impression that he left on those who knew him best, is -- godly. He was a good man, one who in life and thought lived near God. Mr. Beecher thoroughly appreciated him, and he idolised Mr. Beecher. It was scarcely surprising that when Mr. Beecher died he should find it hard to adapt himself to changed conditions. He had hoped that Mr. Berry would accept the call to the pastorate, but when that failed, he resigned his position and went into East New York, then on the outskirts of Brooklyn, where he took charge of a weak Congregational Church. It was due to him that the name |The Beecher Memorial Church| was given to it, and it was significant of the honour in which both Mr. Beecher and Mr. Halliday were held that men of every form of faith, Christian and non-Christian, and from many different countries, contributed toward the building which was erected a few years later. When Mr. Halliday died it was like the severing of another link of the chain binding Mr. Beecher to the Christian life of Brooklyn.

When Dr. Abbott became pastor the question of an assistant came up again. At first Dr. Abbott was unwilling to have one, but as the necessity became more apparent, and also as there appeared one who seemed in every way fitted for the work, Rev. Howard S. Bliss was called and commenced his duties soon after Dr. Abbott was installed. The son of the well-known founder of the Syrian Protestant College at Beirut, Syria, a man of pleasing ways, tact in dealing with people, and a fine speaker, he won the most cordial regard and affections of the church people. He remained for many years, through Dr. Abbott's pastorate, leaving Plymouth only to take the pastorate of a flourishing church in New Jersey, whose traditions made it easy for one naturally sympathetic with and trained in the liberal yet practical and aggressive atmosphere of Plymouth Church, to develop a vigorous church life. Mr. Bliss has since been called to the presidency of the college at Beirut to take up the work as it was laid down by his aged father.


During Dr. Hillis' pastorate there have been two assistant pastors, Revs. Willard P. Harmon and George J. Corey. Both have well sustained the traditions of the church, have made themselves many friends, and have done much to develop the newer life which under changed conditions has become a necessity. Mr. Harmon left to enter the full pastorate. Mr. Corey is the present assistant.

Comparatively few who are not themselves directly connected with the business affairs of a church probably realise how much of the orderly conduct of the church depends upon the sexton. To many people he is simply the man who looks after funerals, sees that the furnace fires are properly managed, the church swept, etc. In Plymouth Church the sexton was always a man of considerable importance, and I feel it a duty which I owe to the church, not less than to them, to speak of their faithful work. Not only have they conducted the ordinary duties of a sexton, but have acted in a clerical capacity to the board of trustees in collecting pew rents, and in other business of the church. In this they have had a most important share in the comfort of the congregation and the success of the church.

Plymouth Church has been in charge of five different sextons during its existence. Mr. McFarlane was its caretaker in its early years. Owing to his bluff manner he was never very popular with the young people, and one instance I shall never forget. One evening Charles Dickens was to lecture in the church. As the price of the tickets was from one to two dollars, there were not many of the boys at that time who could afford to pay it. We were bound not to be left out, so a plan was devised to overcome the difficulty. Accordingly we perched ourselves on a window-sill outside, where by raising the sash slightly we could hear and see the lecturer. All went well for a time and we were congratulating ourselves, when the old sexton discovered us. Then there was a scampering up Orange and down Henry to Fulton Street with McFarlane close after. I was one of the unfortunate boys who were caught, and the pounding which I received made such an impression upon me that I can see and hear Charles Dickens to this day.

After Mr. McFarlane came Mr. Weld, who was the sexton for many years, during the most exciting period of the church's history, and when it was thronged by the greatest crowds. Mr. Weld was faithful to his trust, never ruffled, kind to everyone and popular with all, and remained at his post until old age and sickness called him away. His funeral was large, attended by a great number of the members of the church. When his body was carried down the aisle Mr. and Mrs. Beecher, arm in arm, headed the mournful procession. If some great artist could have transferred the scene to canvas and called it the funeral of the old sexton, it could have taken its place among the other great paintings of church history.

Mr. George Day, one of the oldest members of the church and who is still living, followed Mr. Weld, but remained in office only two years, being succeeded by Mr. Smith, who filled the position for a long time in a most acceptable manner. After him came Mr. Charles T. Halsey, who has charge at the present time. I wish especially to mention my obligations to him for assistance in verifying names and dates.

In close relation to the pastors and assistant pastors have been the clerks of the church. Perhaps the one who attained the widest fame in this capacity was Mr. Thomas G. Shearman, whose term of service was long and included the period of the trials. At the ecclesiastical council he made his knowledge of Congregational polity and history very manifest, and contributed not a little to the convincing of the churches of the denomination that Plymouth Church, while standing firm in its independency, was yet willing and glad to recognise to the full the fellowship of other churches, and desirous of doing all that it might to make that fellowship cordial. The present clerk, Horatio C. King, is but another illustration of how men of ability and position have delighted to serve Plymouth.

The Sunday School has always been a most important part of Plymouth Church, and the list of superintendents shows how it has been regarded by all. At the first organisation Mr. Bowen was made superintendent, on September 5, 1847, with an attendance of ten teachers and twenty-eight scholars. The following May there were twenty-five teachers and one hundred and forty scholars, and twenty years later, in 1867, the attendance was considerably over one thousand. Mr. Bowen was followed by Luther Eames, Edward Corning, Henry E. Morrill, George E. Bell, Rossiter W. Raymond, and George W. Bard well, who is now in charge.

My own recollections centre particularly about Dr. Morrill, during whose service of ten years, from 1851 to 1861, I became a member of the school. All have done noble service. Professor Raymond has perhaps been specially successful. His clear thought, simple expression, hearty sympathy, great personal tact, have endeared him to all, teachers and scholars, and done much to build up the school and church.

To speak of the deacons and trustees would be simply to repeat the names of those already mentioned as prominent in the work of the church, for on one or the other of these boards very nearly all have served at some time. It has been, too, no mere formal service. Men of high position in business and professional life have given freely of time and labour to serve the interests of the church.

Mention should be made of the Bethel and Mayflower Missions. The Bethel Mission School was established in 1841, in Main Street, near the Catherine Ferry, then to rooms above the market on James Street, then to 42 and 44 Fulton Street. Almost as soon as Plymouth Church was formed its members interested themselves in the school, but there was no official relation until 1866, when it was voted to adopt the school as one of the regular institutions of the church. This was accepted by the school, and the connection continued until 1904, when it was dropped.

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