One event I recall, in the very first year of my new life. In itself it was no more significant or important than many others, but it meant much to me, opening up as it did a broader vision of world-wide interest, and particularly of the close connection between things called secular and religious. The slavery question had a profound religious bearing, and touched the very core of Plymouth Church life, yet even that does not stand out more vividly in my memory than the scene when Louis Kossuth landed at the Battery from an American man-of-war, and rode up Broadway escorted by a hundred or more prominent citizens. We boys knew little about him, but none the less eagerly we hurried along, barely escaping the horses' feet, and none the less lustily we joined in the shout. Later, through Mr. Beecher's references to him and his work, and by seeing him in Plymouth Church, we came to know that the fight for liberty was the same, whether in the South or in Europe, and whether it was for black men that we knew or for Hungarians of whom we knew nothing, scarcely even the name. Another lesson that we learned was that the whole world is kin, and that even far-off lands cannot suffer oppression and wrong without other lands suffering with them. So Plymouth pulpit became a platform for the presentation of every form of appeal to the best Christian consciousness of the church and through the church of the nation.
Another scene, after I had grown to manhood, illustrates the same chivalry that was bound to assert the claims of any person or any class. Mr. Beecher was always an advocate of women's rights. He could never see why women should be debarred from so many of the privileges, or duties, of social life. During the first Lincoln campaign there appeared upon the lecture platform a woman who brought a woman's plea for the cause of liberty and human rights. No one who ever heard Anna Dickinson speak could forget her, or failed to be moved by her eloquence. Of course Mr. Beecher was her friend, and welcomed her assistance in the contest that was growing more and more severe. She drew great crowds whenever she spoke.
I was then president of the Central Republican Club, and we engaged Miss Dickinson to speak in the Academy of Music, where we were then holding meetings. Some days before the meeting was to take place the secretary of the board of directors of the Academy called at my office with a notice that the directors could not allow Miss Dickinson to speak in that building.
I did not know what to do. The meeting had been extensively advertised. I finally decided to go and see Mr. Beecher. As I recited the facts to him I could see the expression of indignation and the colour come to his face. He thought a moment and said, "Wait until next Sunday morning."
The next Sunday the church was packed. When Mr. Beecher gave the notices and came to Miss Dickinson's lecture, he called the board of directors to account for this action in refusing to allow a woman to speak in the Academy of Music. One of the directors, who was present, being ignorant of the situation, took it up and denied the action of the directors. Then said Mr. Beecher, "I take back all that I have said." I was there in the west gallery, and at once decided not to allow a misrepresentation like that to pass, and, mounted on the backs of two pews, I recited to the audience all of the facts and the official notice which I had from the directors, that the Academy could not be used for this woman to speak in.
[Illustration: INTERIOR OF PLYMOUTH CHURCH]
When I had finished, the congregation broke into great applause. Mr. Beecher then went on with his remarks, scoring the directors of the Academy, and created such a sentiment in the community that the directors rescinded their action, and the great mass meeting, with Miss Dickinson as speaker, took place.
Since then, not only the Academy of Music, but other public buildings throughout the country have been open for women to speak in, upon any subject.
Stories of Mr. Beecher's sayings might be gathered by the thousand, indeed they have been, and published in a book for the use of ministers, teachers, and public speakers. Fortunately or unfortunately the reporter was not quite so ubiquitous then, especially in the earlier days, as now, but still there was a sufficient amount of newspaper enterprise, and I often wish I had kept a record of the incidents and trenchant remarks that were gathered up. A good many, however, never got into the papers. Whether or not the following did I cannot say. Certainly I did not get them from the press.
One day the evening papers announced that a terrible accident had happened to Mrs. Beecher, that she had been thrown out of her carriage in lower Fulton Street, been dashed against the steps of the Long Island Bank, and so seriously injured that she was not expected to live, and some said that she had been killed. That evening at the prayer meeting no one expected to see Mr. Beecher. He came as usual and the people crowded around him asking about Mrs. Beecher, as she had been reported killed. He seemed quite disturbed by the persistent inquiries of those around him. In a half impatient manner he said, "It would have been serious with any other woman."
The same cool, imperturbable bearing so often manifest in his experiences in England came out again and again during the stirring scenes in this country. When the Civil War broke out and the riots in New York took place for several days the city was almost in the hands of the mob. It was given out that Plymouth Church was to be attacked the next Sunday evening. Crowds of rough-looking men came over the ferry and mixed with the congregation. John Folk, superintendent of the police force of Brooklyn, with forty of his men was in the lecture room and back of the organ to protect Mr. Beecher, in case of an attempt to reach him, amid the intense excitement of the audience. Mr. Beecher came upon the platform calm and cool and proceeded with the services as usual. During the sermon a stone crashed through the upper windows from the outside. Mr. Beecher stopped, looked up to the windows, and then to the great congregation, and said "Miscreant," and calmly went on with his sermon.
He was always glad when he could be, so to speak, off duty, and be free to do whatever occurred to him to do, whether anybody else would ever have thought of it or not. One Sunday evening when his pulpit was occupied by some other pastor he was seen sitting in the third gallery. When asked why he was up there, he replied "that he wanted to see how the preacher looked from that point of view."
The boys on the Heights all knew Mr. Beecher and liked to meet him because he always had a word with them. In coming to church one day he met a group of boys. They hailed him in this fashion: "There goes Mr. Beecher, he is a screecher." When he reached the church it seemed to please him to tell the story to the congregation.
Whenever Mr. Beecher crossed the ocean he was very sea-sick, and after landing he would say that those whom God abhorred He sent to sea. This was probably the reason why at the last moment he decided not to to take the trip in the Quaker City, referred to in a previous chapter. The expedition would never have been organised but for Mr. Beecher, and yet it had to go without him.
While in a very real sense Mr. Beecher was a true cosmopolitan, and a genuine citizen of the United States, he was specially fond of New England, was grateful that that section was his birthplace, and always glad when one opportunity or another called him there to lecture or preach. The New England people fully reciprocated the feeling and in turn Mr. Beecher used to declare that "New England was the brain of the nation." Little wonder that so many New England boys found their way to Plymouth Church.
In a similar way he was very fond of Brooklyn as the city of homes. He was interested in New York, with its bustle and rush, as the "work shop," but Brooklyn was the "boarding house," and many a semi-homeless boarder found a warm welcome in Plymouth Church. Perhaps it was these people that he had in mind when Plymouth Church could not hold half the people who desired to attend the services, and he appealed to the pewholders to stay away evenings and give their pews to strangers, inaugurating thus a custom which has continued to the present time.
While preaching upon the greatness of God's work as compared with the works of man, he said man can tunnel mountains, build ships to cross the sea, span the world with the telegraph, cross the continent with the iron horse, build cathedrals and capitols, machines to fly in the air, and explore the depths of the sea, but with all of man's greatness and skill, "he cannot make a fly."
In a vivid description of a thunder storm illustrating some part of his sermon he closed with a most beautiful piece of word painting in describing the passing away of the clouds after the storm, picturing the sun shining upon the edges of the clouds making a pathway as he said for "Angels to walk to and fro when they came down from Heaven."
Intensely practical as he was in his conception of religion, Mr. Beecher had a very profound sense of the future life, and there was always a sub-stratum of that thought in his preaching. In a sermon on the Darwinian theory he said, "I do not care where I came from; it is where I am going to that I am interested in."
In a sermon on Heaven, he said that everyone had a right to make their own Heaven. The one that inspired in them the greatest hope and most beautiful thoughts and gave them the greatest happiness was their Heaven. Speaking of the end of life, he said that when he died he would like to pass out of life suddenly, like a cannon ball shot out of a cannon.