Friday, December 10, 2010

A Charles Beecher Christmas

Travel back to December Sundays during the mid 1840s. In the recently completed Second Presbyterian Church on West Berry Street, the Rev. Charles Beecher jovially strolls before his congregation playing the violin. Simultaneously, he conducts the church choir and congregants in one Christmas carol after another. When he steps up to preach, no one falls asleep. Packed together in this small church are followers of at least five different faith traditions representing a broad cross section of Fort Wayne society.

Charles Beecher's six years in Fort Wayne, 1844 to 1850, were at the beginning of his long careeer as a maverick minister and champion of social justice. The ninth of eleven children born to the Rev. Lyman Beecher, Charles had entered the ministry reluctantly. His father was president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati and was one of the foremost Presbyterian leaders of his day. Charles's education at the best New England prep schools and at Bowdoin College, however, had nurtured his love for poetry and music. He tried to avoid the ecclesiastical warfare and antislavery debates led by his father and his scholarly older brother Edward.

By his late twenties, married and a father, Charles agreed to the family plan to install him in Fort Wayne at his own church. According to the scheme of his older brother Henry Ward, then serving a church in Indianapolis, Charles would take the recently vacated pulpit of Fort Wayne's First Presbyterian Church on behalf of the Presbyterian faction championed by their father known as New School. The entrenched Presbyterian hierearchy, however, would hear none of this. Shortly before the Beechers arrived in Fort Wayne, a theologian from Hanover College representing the Old School faction won First Presbyterian's pulpit. Charles Beecher's future as an embattled minister and social reformer was thus launched.

Despite intense efforts, Henry Ward and Lyman Beecher were only able to recruit six members for Charles's new church. On Sunday mornings Charles rode his horse out to neighboring villages. On Sunday evenings he conducted services in the musty Allen County Courthouse. By 1845, only one year later, trustees and church friends helped Charles build their new church home. In addition to two Sunday services, Charles continued his ministry in at least four rural areas. Members from his church led Sunday school classes in these areas as well.

Reflecting his discomfort with religious conflicts, Charles preached tolerance and social justice. One of his most remembered sermons caused fellow Presbyterian ministers to view him as "unsound in the faith" because he stressed that there was more than one way of looking at fundamental religious truths. "The only unity that ever will be attained before the Resurrection of the Just, on earth, will be a unity of thinking differently, in love." Charles led his congregation in ministering to the poor in Fort Wayne. He organized a popular singing school, Bible classes, and discussion groups. He spoke out against the sin of slavery and against the unjust treatment of African Americans in our so-called free North. He likely supported the secret work of the underground railroad. Along with his strong moral convictions, he was quick to find humor in life. He was known for his storytelling.

In the spring of 1850 Charles told his congregation that he and his family, now including four children, were returning to New England for the summer. Sickness and poverty had taken their toll on this popular and "original" minister and his family. By the end of the summer, Charles made it known that they would not be returning. Reluctantly, members of Second Presbyterian Church gave up plans to ordain Charles as their first permanent minister.

Within a year after leaving Fort Wayne, Charles was recognized as a national leader in the growing anti-slavery struggle. His sermon against the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 and a long tract arguing against Biblical sanctions of slavery were circulated by the American Anti Slavery Society. He helped his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe describe scenes of slavery he had earlier witnessed in Louisiana that became part of her international best seller "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Charles then accompanied Harriet on a triumphal European tour. For decades, despite accusations of heresy, Charles championed religious tolerance.

While some Fort Wayne residents criticized Charles for going against popular opinions of the day, he was fondly remembered by many who knew him. His exuberant expressions of love through music and words during the divisive years leading up to the Civil War had touched their hearts. Today as we face other forms of war and injustice, particularly during this dark season, it is good to remember this truly remarkable "original."

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