Henry Ward Beecher · 1997

His sister has been accused or credited with precipitating the Civil War, and Henry Ward Beecher has been accused or credited with preparing her for the task. He did it, the history books tell us, through years of speaking out against slavery, both in the pulpit and in the press.

Indeed, the first newspaper Beecher edited, the Cincinnati Journal, was burned to the ground by pro-slavery zealots unhappy with Beecher’s outspoken positions.

Beecher is best known in the many books written about him as a powerful and convincing preacher who opposed slavery and favored women’s suffrage, years before anyone else took up such positions. But he didn’t stop in the pulpit. He found wider audiences in the press.

Henry Ward Beecher was born on Litchfield, Conn., in 1813, one of 13children that included the irrepressible Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that Lincoln said had much to do with bringing on the Civil War.

The Beechers were social activists, but none was so fervent as Henry.

Beecher, who was to become the subject of Thomas Nast cartoons and the idol of the thousands who each Sunday crowded into churches to hear his spell-binding preaching, first came west from New England study at a seminary in Cincinnati and preach in Lawrenceburg, Ind. That’s where the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis discovered him and invited him to the big city, which Lyman Abbott in Henry Ward Beecher: A Sketch of His Career, said was then a town of fewer than 4,000 souls where dog fennel grew wild and pigs ran wild through the streets.

That was May of 1839 and Beecher accepted the call. Beecher brought with him his wife and two sons. His wife Eunice Beecher, according to Claudene Atkinson’s account in the November 1980 edition of Indianapolis Magazine, enjoyed poor health.

Said Atkinson: As [had been the case] in Lawrenceburg, Eunice became the object of some discussion by locals. She was known as the boyish Beecher’s ‘ailing and wailing wife,’ and no one believed it for a minute when, eight years later, the family accepted the call to Brooklyn because of Eunice’s `illness.’

Yes, Beecher was in Indianapolis only eight years, but those were important ones for him, and for journalism.

Hungering both for a wider audience and for a way to help feed his family, Henry Ward Beecher founded the Indiana Farmer and Gardener, a semimonthly journal devoted to farm life. The financial backing for the periodical came from the Whig newspaper, the Indiana State Journal, and Beecher was given permission to reprint as much of the contents of the Journal as he wished. He advised his backers he would do so only insofar as he was allowed to identify the source of the materials, for he detested and often spoke about the prevailing practice of plagiarism.

Beecher did his writing and editing early in the morning, before breakfast.

According to Jane Shaffer Elsmere in Henry Ward Beecher, the Indiana Years, Beecher’s wife had long ago taught him the habit of rising early. As a result, Beecher said, most of my work on the paper is done before my neighbors are up in the morning. His work included mostly information about gardening and farming, but Beecher never passed a chance to preach. In one passage quoted by Abbott, he told farmers it was very shiftless to build your barnyard so that every rain shall drain it; to build your privy and dig your well close together…

After leaving Indiana with a sharpened writing and editing touch, Henry Ward Beecher contributed to the New York Independent, a newspaper born because others were silent on the slavery question, and edited Congregational Independent. He also founded Christian Union, later renamed Outlook. He was no ordinary newspaperman though; Abbott said the history of journalism counts Henry Ward Beecher one of the two great editors of the United States, one of the two journalists part excellence in America.

Abbott does not identify the other great American
journalist, but he leaves the impression he was referring to James Harper, founder and publisher of Harper’s New Monthly, Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar.

Beecher, said Abbott, was uncommonly gifted as a journalist. And he worked best on deadline. It was, in fact, Beecher’s habit to walk into the Independent newsroom somewhere about the time his manuscript was expected; sometimes boiling over with enthusiasm, sometimes bubbling over with humor.

He sat and talked about anything and everything except about the business before him till the printer’s devil made his final and imperative demand for copy.

Then he caught up his pen, turned to the nearest desk, shut himself up in his shell as impenetrably as if he were a turtle and drove his pen across the paper as if it were a house printing machine and he were an electric battery.

Threw off the pages as he wrote them, leaving the [copy] boy to pick them up and carry them off to the compositor’s room, and, work done, was off, leaving someone else to read proof, correct errors and supply omissions.

But what he wrote in a heat and at a sitting went like a ball from a minirifle, from one end of the land to the other. Wise men shook their heads over his incautious utterances, but they kindled thousands of hearts into ablaze.

The ideas which characterized the Independent during his short editorial charge of the paper have never had their equal in kindling forces in American journalism. It was the eve of the Civil War. It required the man, the time and the audience to produce them. Never before were such man, such time and such audience combined.

Indeed, said Abbott, Beecher’s editorial influence will never cease to be felt in the larger charity, the boarder view of life and the greater independence of thought which he, as much perhaps as any living man has helped to impact American journalism.


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