Henry W Beecher’s health warning

Rev David Clarke.
Rev David Clarke.

Events in Charlottesville, Virginia last month sparked headlines all over the world.

President Trump was widely criticised for his failure to condemn white supremacist groups who had protested at plans to remove a statue of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. His statue, along with others who supported the institution of slavery, is scheduled for removal.

Henry Ward Beecher was a Congregational minister with an impressive pedigree. His father was the distinguished orator Lyman Beecher, whose name is perpetuated in an annual series of lectures on preaching at Yale University. It was said of Lyman Beecher that he was “the father of more brains than any other man in America”, for his wife bore him thirteen children. Among them was Henry and his sister Harriet, who became Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the celebrated novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, which exposed the horrors of slavery. Once, at a White House reception, President Lincoln met Harriet, and greeted her by saying, “So you are the little lady who started the great big war.”

He was a man who campaigned for harmony and reconciliation. He was critical of those who argued, “I can forgive, but I cannot forget.” That attitude, he said, is only another way of saying “I will not forgive.”

Henry Ward Beecher received his share of criticism for the views he expressed. On one occasion he received a note containing the single word ‘Fool’. His response was characteristic. He said, “I have known many an instance of a man writing a letter and forgetting to sign his name, but this is the only instance I have ever known of a man signing his name and forgetting to write the letter”

Some regarded his theological views as suspect, but he was adamant about the love of God and the demands of Christian morality. ‘There are” he said, “crimes that, like frost on flowers, in one single night destroy character and reputation.”

Reputations are not earned overnight. They are the result of long years of consistent disciplined living. “You pay your bills, you keep your word, you take care of a dependent aunt, you do these things year by year, a finally you have a reputation.” Yet that hard-earned accolade can be squandered by one rash act. When that happens, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Othello, a man loses the immortal part of himself and what remains is bestial.