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Sixty Years With Plymouth Church by Stephen M. Griswold


What will become of Plymouth Church when Mr. Beecher passes away? was a question often asked in the early days. The answer to that has already been given. It was a severe test to which the church was put, but it stood it nobly. Again when Dr. Abbott was pastor the same question was asked. Ten years of successful life is the sufficient answer to that. Now again the question comes up under the pastoral care of Dr. Hillis.

My answer to this last question as to the others is, that the life of Plymouth Church does not depend upon any one man, however great he may be. It would be difficult to find three men more different, each from the other, than the three who have filled Plymouth pulpit. Yet after all the general type of the church life has not changed, nor has its attitude toward the surrounding city and the wider national life taken on a different character. The emphasis now, as always, is on Christian living, in the assurance that out of that living will come Christian thinking. Each in his own way, but each with the same purpose and the same result, has preached the gospel of life. The form of that life has varied, but the variation has been occasioned by the need of adaptation to the general type of church life, as illustrated on every hand. Plymouth has simply shown its ability to meet new conditions in itself.

So also with regard to the broader relation to public life. It is now, as it always has been, the natural and the expected thing that every great cause, for righteousness and peace, should send its advocates to Brooklyn and that they should have a welcome in Plymouth pulpit. A significant illustration of this occurred but recently at the opening of the great Peace Congress. The two churches that were identified with it more than any others were Plymouth and Broadway Tabernacle. Probably no pastor in the country is more widely known for his practical interest in public affairs than is Dr. Hillis, and wherever he goes from the Atlantic to the Pacific he is welcomed both for himself and as the pastor of Plymouth Church. The simple fact is it is the same old Plymouth. It has grown up with the country, has had its share in the making of the country, whether in the strife of war or in the urgency for peace, and has made for itself a name that will stand, like Faneuil Hall in Boston, or Independence Hall in Philadelphia, for all time to come.

This permanency, however, will be as its strength has been in the wise management of the church in its various departments. The problem of a city church located as Plymouth is must be to-day very different from that which faced its founders. Brooklyn has gone 'way beyond the Heights, and while strangers still find it easy to reach, the permanent membership extends over a wide territory and must of necessity be more or less transitory. This uncertainty brings to view the necessity of permanence of financial basis. They are wise, strong men who are in charge, as is shown by the fact that notwithstanding the changes that are inevitable, the church is free from debt and is accumulating permanent funds which will be of great value. Running expenses of all kinds, pastors' salaries, music, etc., are met from current income from pew rents, leaving the church free to put additional sums into permanent form. Then there is a Beecher endowment fund of almost fifty thousand dollars, and a Beecher memorial fund of the same amount. Constantly sums of money are coming into the church treasury from legacies or special gifts, and these are either invested or applied to improvements such as it is judged will increase the effectiveness of the church work. Among these is a Beecher memorial building soon to be erected adjoining the church. The alteration of the front entrance is contemplated, and other work which will prove advantageous to the society. Memorial stained glass windows are to be put in, contributed by members.


Perhaps still more important is the development of the church activities. In Mr. Beecher's time the great feature of church life was the sermon. To-day it is church organisation. Some seem to think that the preaching of to-day is inferior to that of a generation ago. While it may be true that no single man stands out as did Mr. Beecher, Dr. R. S. Storrs, or Dr. William M. Taylor, it seems to me that the average of preaching is higher. Dr. Hillis is not Mr. Beecher, but he is Dr. Hillis, and Plymouth people never go from Plymouth Church without the thought of a good and great presentation of truth. However that may be, one thing is very noticeable: the growth in Plymouth, as elsewhere, of church societies. The women have their societies for Home and Foreign Missions, there is a Young Woman's Guild, and a Henry Ward Beecher Missionary Circle, a Young Men's Club, and an organisation of older men known as Plymouth Men. The year that Mr. Beecher died The Plymouth League was formed and had a successful career until a few years ago, when it was dropped.

So Plymouth has kept abreast of the times, using any means that seemed to promise usefulness, ever ready to change where change was adjudged wise, ready to drop anything that in the shifting conditions had outlived its usefulness, loyal to its past, yet realising that the highest loyalty is to a future ideal rather than a past achievement. Mr. Beecher was no iconoclast, and at the same time, the past, however great and grand, as such, had no attraction for him. His eye was set on the future, a future that included the individual life and the corporate life. Present-day socialism had scarcely dawned during his day, but were he living now he would be found in line with the broadest and the freest conceptions of society, and true to his belief that the church should lead. This not because it is an organisation, including wise men, or divinely ordered, but because it expresses in the fullest and best way the divine principles that must govern society. That this idea of his so dominated the church in its early life and has continued to control it to the present day is the true basis for confidence as to its future.

Plymouth Church will stand just so long as it represents this ideal, and applies it to all classes and conditions of men, without regard to race or creed. To-day, as of old, men of every form of belief or no belief find a welcome and find help, and many go forth with old ideas changed, new ambitions stirred, a clearer vision of what it means to live a Christian life. If the time ever comes when that is not true, then Plymouth Church will be a relic of the past, a curiosity, to be visited by strangers as Plymouth Rock or Westminster Abbey. That that time will ever come I do not believe. However much the centres of population may change, the needs of men never change, and even if other churches should follow their constituencies to other sections, Plymouth will remain, a living monument to the truth and the life that has been from its origin its power.

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