An 1884 memorial oration by Henry Ward Beecher for famed abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), born in Litchfield, Connecticut, was a liberal Congregationalist minister, abolitionist and social reformer. He was one of the major religious and cultural figures of the nineteenth-century United States. For further reading, see Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
This 1884 memorial lecture for Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), delivered in Brooklyn’s famous Plymouth Church, presents a retrospective view of the antebellum antislavery movement by one of its participants. The Plymouth Church, where Beecher was the founding minister, was a center of antislavery activity and attracted congregants from throughout the New York boroughs. Beecher’s public theatrics to manifest his opposition to slavery – including mock slave auctions – received wide attention.
The lecture discusses the early spirit of abolitionism during the 1830s from Beecher’s viewpoint as an idealist attracted to it on the basis of an evangelical precept that “all men are designed of God to be free.” (209) After a brief review of the history of North American slavery, Beecher describes the civic consciousness of the Northern states as being in “the condition of imprisoned moral sense” (213) and entrapped by establishing constitutional compromises. Beecher mentions that from his opening sermon forward he espoused antislavery principles and that Plymouth Church was open to African Americans. To be an abolitionist in these social circumstances, he reminds his audience, was to be marked for condemnation and exclusion. In politics, “Resistance was a blight to all political hope.” (219) Beecher recalls this as an “Egyptian era” of American history into which Wendell Phillips emerged. (221)
The portrait Beecher offers of Phillips is one of an aristocratic Boston-born orator, a young attorney who rose to the public fore overnight after his December 1838 speech at Faneuil Hall on the murder of Elijah Lovejoy (222-224) and who allied with William Lloyd Garrison. “Mr. Garrison was not noted as a speaker; his tongue was his pen. Mr. Phillips was not much given to the pen, his pen was his tongue…” (224) Beecher remembers how when Phillips had been denied use of the Broadway Tabernacle and the Graham Institute, he obtained permission from Plymouth Church trustees – despite some reluctance – to shift the controversial event into the church. (226-229) Beecher concludes by arguing that Phillips represents a life that achieved greatness through adherence to Christian principle.
Source text: Beecher, Lectures and Orations [ Newell Dwight Hillis, ed.] (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1913). See also Phillips, Irish Sympathy with the Abolition Movement (1842), The Puritan Principle and John Brown (1859), No Slave-Hunting in the Old Bay State (1860), and The State of the Country (1863).