Henry Ward Beecher’s Reverse Slave Auctions

Henry Ward Beecher. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was a prominent pastor in the Congregationalist Church, social reformer, and speaker in the 19th century. He was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the son of the famous Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Beecher was an ardent abolitionist, supported the Underground Railroad, and was a vocal critic of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. However, Beecher also protested the institution of slavery by holding “reverse slave auctions” where he “sold” an enslaved person into freedom and out of slavery.

Henry Ward Beecher — Leader of the Abolitionist Movement

Henry Ward Beecher was the pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York and he used his position to become a leader in the Abolitionist Movement. Beecher wrote essays and delivered lectures and sermons to his audience that informed them of the harsh treatment of slaves in the Southern States. Beecher was prominent enough in the Abolitionist Movement that William Lloyd Garrison sent him copies of the Liberator for free.

William Lloyd Garrison, Abolitionist, Portrait
William Lloyd Garrison. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Starting in 1848, Beecher turned to theatrics to help make his case against slavery in what has come to be known as “reverse slave auctions.” Beecher’s nephew, Lyman Beecher Stowe, recalled the beginning of the slave auctions in his retrospective of the Beecher family, Saints, Sinners, and Beechers:

In 1848 Henry Ward Beecher began the practise of selling slaves for liberty, first in the Tabernacle in New York and later from the pulpit of his own church. This he did not only to help individual slaves to win their liberty but to dramatize before the public the evils of slavery very much as did his sister in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

A slave girl of exceptional beauty was sent to a slave market by her white father to be sold. The slave-trader who bought her for twelve hundred dollars was so moved with compassion for her that he gave her the opportunity to purchase her freedom, contributed himself one hundred dollars toward her purchase price, and persuaded a fellow-trader to contribute a like amount.

Henry Ward Beecher, Reverse Slave Auction, Illustration
This illustration depicts Henry Ward Beecher “selling” a young girl at Plymouth Church. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

He then allowed her to go to Washington in an effort to raise the remainder. She collected four hundred dollars and then some well-wisher wrote Beecher and asked if he would help her raise the rest. He replied that if the girl would come to Brooklyn he would do so. With much hesitation her owner allowed her to go after she had given him her word of honor that she would return to Richmond if the money were not raised.

During a Sunday morning service after reading from the New Testament, “Then said Jesus unto them, I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or destroy it?”

Beecher walking to the platform stairs, called, “Come up here, Sarah, and let us all see you.”

A young woman rose from a near-by seat and, ascending the steps, sank down embarrassed and trembling with emotion in the nearest chair. The white blood of her father showed in her regular features and high brow.

“And this,” said Beecher, “is a marketable commodity. Such as she are put into one balance and silver into the other. I reverence woman. For the sake of the love I bore my mother I hold her sacred even in the lowest position and will use every means in my power for her uplifting. What will you do now? May she read her liberty in your eyes? Shall she go out free?”

Amid audible sobbing the contribution plates were passed and soon were heaped to overflowing with money and with jewelry. She was free. When Beecher told her so and announced it to the great congregation there was an involuntary outburst of applause. As it subsided he said: “When the old Jews went up to their solemn feasts they made the mountains round about Jerusalem ring with their shouts. I do not approve of an unholy clapping in the house of God, but when a good deed is well done it is not wrong to give an outward expression of our joy.

Learn More About the Life and Career of Henry Ward Beecher

Early Life

  • Beecher was born on June 24, 1813, in Litchfield, Connecticut.
  • His father was Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian preacher from Boston. His mother’s name was Roxana.
  • His siblings included author Harriet Beecher Stowe, educators Catharine Beecher and Thomas K. Beecher, and activists Charles Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker.
  • Beecher’s mother died when Henry was three, and his father married Harriet Porter.
  • He attended Mount Pleasant Classical Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts, and then Amherst College.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abolitionist, Author
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Amherst College and Lane Theological Seminary

  • During his time at Amherst, Beecher delivered his first sermon in 1831 in a schoolhouse at Log Town.
  • He decided to enter the ministry during his second year at Amherst.
  • Beecher met Eunice Bullard and they were engaged on January 2, 1832.
  • He graduated from Amherst in 1834 and then went to Lane Theological Seminary outside Cincinnati, Ohio, which was run by his father.

Beecher’s Early Ministry

  • Beecher accepted a position as the Minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
  • He gained notoriety in the debate over “New School” and “Old School” Presbyterianism, two factions of the church that were divided over the question of original sin and the issue of slavery.
  • Beecher was a supporter of the “New School.”
  • Following the Panic of 1837, the church was unable to pay him and he was forced to look for a new position.
  • He moved to the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, which he grew into one of the largest churches in the area.

Beecher and the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York

  • Beecher was in debt and needed to find a higher-paying position, which led him to a new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York.

Beecher and the Abolition Movement

  • Beecher was an ardent abolitionist but was not an advocate of separating the Free States from the Slave States.
  • Starting in 1848, Beecher held his slave auctions and secured freedom for enslaved girls who were often light-skinned.
  • He criticized the Compromise of 1850 in his article “Shall We Compromise.” In it, he argued it was the responsibility of Christians to help escaped slaves.
  • Beecher supported the candidacy of John C. Fremont in the Presidential Election of 1856. Fremont was the first candidate for the Republican Party.

Beecher’s Bibles

  • During the “Bloody Kansas” conflict, Beecher supported anti-slavery forces.
  • He purchased rifles for the abolitionists and said they would do more good than “a hundred Bibles.” As a result, they were known as “Beecher’s Bibles.”
  • Beecher’s anti-slavery actions made him a target, and he received death threats.
John Brown, Abolitionist
Abolitionist John Brown played a key role in the “Bloody Kansas” conflict. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Beecher and Lincoln

  • In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln sent Beecher to Europe to give speeches about the Union cause.
  • His speeches contributed to European nations hesitating to support or recognize the Confederate States of America.
  • In April 1865, after Union forces reclaimed Fort Sumter, Lincoln selected Beecher to deliver a speech at the fort.

Beecher and Other Social Movements

  • Beecher supported the temperance movement
  • He supported the Woman Suffrage Movement and was the first President of the American Woman Suffrage Association.
  • Beecher was an advocate of Reconstruction and supported the plan to restore the Southern States to the Union.
  • He was critical of striking workers during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
  • Beecher opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which helped delay its passage until 1882.
  • He supported Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and wrote Evolution and Religion to explain his stance.

Marriage to Eunice Bullard and Struggles with Extramarital Affairs

  • Beecher married Eunice Bullard in 1837, following a 5-year engagement.
  • The couple struggled due to his long absences and the deaths of 4 of their 8 children.
  • When they were in Indianapolis, rumors of Beecher having affairs started.
  • In 1858, the Brooklyn Eagle accused him of having an affair with a woman who later became a prostitute.

The Beecher-Tilton Scandal

  • In 1870, Elizabeth Tilton confessed to her husband, Theodore, that she had carried on an affair with Beecher.
  • The accusations became public after Theodore Tilton told Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
  • The congregation of Plymouth Church supported Beecher and excommunicated Theodore Tilton for slander.
  • Tilton sued Beecher on charges of adultery.
  • The trial was held from January-July 1875 and ended with a hung jury.
  • Beecher was exonerated of the charges by the church in February 1876.

Later Years and Death of Henry Beecher Stowe

  • In 1871, he started teaching at Yale University as part of the “The Lyman Beecher Lectureship.”
  • In 1884, he upset his Republican allies when he supported Grover Clevland for President.
  • On March 6, 1887, Beecher suffered a stroke. He died in his sleep on March 8.
  • Beecher was interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
  • A statue of Beecher stands in downtown Brooklyn, New York.