Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887) was a prominent Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist, and speaker in the mid to late 19th century. An 1875 adultery trial in which he was accused of having an affair with a married woman was one of the most notorious American trials of the 19th century.
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Henry was the eighth of thirteen children born to Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian preacher from Boston. His mother, Roxana Foote, died when Henry was three. His well-known siblings included writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, educators Catharine Beecher and Reverend Thomas K. Beecher, and activists Charles Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker. In addition, Henry was the uncle of Edgar Beecher Bronson. Henry was especially close to his sister Harriet, two years his senior, according to the web site of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York City. "This friendship with Harriet continued throughout their lives, and she was still listed on the membership rolls of Plymouth Church when she died in 1896."
Beecher graduated in 1834 and in 1837 received a degree from Lane Theological Seminary outside Cincinnati, Ohio, which his father then headed. First becoming a minister in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (1837–39), he was then pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis (1839–47).
In 1847, he was appointed the first minister of the new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. That fall, Beecher and his wife, the former Eunice Bullard, and their three surviving children moved to Brooklyn.
Beecher's fame on the lecture circuit led to his becoming editor of several religious magazines, and he received large advances for a novel and for a biography of Jesus.
An advocate of Women's suffrage, temperance and Darwin's theory of evolution, and a foe of slavery and bigotry of all kinds (religious, racial and social), Beecher held that Christianity should adapt itself to the changing culture of the times. Later, in the 1870s and 1880s, Beecher became a prominent advocate for allowing Chinese immigration to continue to the United States, and is credited for delaying the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act until 1882. Beecher compared Chinese immigrants favorably to Irish immigrants, and argued that excluding the former from entering the country while allowing the latter was an unjust practice.
During the antebellum period, he raised funds to buy weapons for those willing to oppose slavery in Kansas and Nebraska, and the rifles bought with this money became known as "Beecher's Bibles". Politically active, he supported first the Free Soil Party and later the Republican Party.
During the American Civil War, his church raised and equipped a volunteer infantry regiment. Early in the war, Beecher pressed Lincoln to emancipate the slaves through a proclamation. The preacher later went on a speaking tour in England to undermine support for the South by explaining the North's war aims. Near the end of the war, when the Stars and Stripes were again raised at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Beecher was the main speaker.
Beecher's activism did not extend to the "working class" . During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 he preached strongly against the strikers whose wages had been cut. His notorious "bread and water" sermon included "Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live". The following Sunday heard "If you are being reduced, go down boldly into poverty". He then left for a two month vacation in Europe.
His last words were, "Now comes the mystery."
In the highly publicized scandal known as the Beecher-Tilton Affair he was tried on charges that he had committed adultery with a friend's wife, Elizabeth Tilton. In 1870, Elizabeth had confessed to her husband, Theodore Tilton, that she had had a relationship with Henry Ward Beecher. Tilton was then fired from his job at the Independent because of his editor's fears of adverse publicity. Theodore and Henry both pressured Elizabeth to recant her story, which she did, in writing.
The charges became public when Theodore Tilton told Elizabeth Cady Stanton of his wife's confession. Stanton repeated the story to fellow women's rights leaders Victoria Woodhull and Isabella Beecher Hooker.
Henry Ward Beecher had publicly denounced Woodhull's advocacy of free love. She published a story in her paper (Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly) on November 2, 1872, claiming that America's most renowned clergyman was secretly practicing the free-love doctrines which he denounced from the pulpit. The story created a national sensation. As a result, Woodhull was arrested in New York City and imprisoned for sending obscene material through the mail. The Plymouth Church held a board of inquiry and exonerated Beecher, but excommunicated Mr. Tilton in 1873.
Tilton then sued Beecher: the trial began in January 1875, and ended in July when the jurors deliberated for six days but were unable to reach a verdict. His wife loyally supported him throughout the ordeal.
A second board of enquiry was held at Plymouth Church and this body also exonerated Beecher. Two years later, Elizabeth Tilton once again confessed to the affair and the church excommunicated her. Despite this Beecher continued to be a popular national figure. However, the debacle split his family. While most of his siblings supported him, Isabella Beecher Hooker openly supported one of his accusers.