Baptists and the American Civil War: August 2, 1863

Civil War era whiskey label

Civil War era whiskey label

As reported by today’s New York Times, Henry Ward Beecher has recently toured England, speaking about the American Civil War and the temperance movement. Invited to speak to Britain’s National Temperance League, his speech included a story about a Baptist church.

This distinguished advocate of temperance and freedom [Beecher] having consented to meet the members and friends of the National Temperance League at breakfast, the Committee sent out a number of invitations, in response to which about ninety or a hundred ladies and gentlemen assembled on Monday morning, the 16th instant, at the London Coffee-house, Ludgate Hill. The breakfast, which commenced at 9 1/2 o’clock, having been dispatched.

Mr. EDWARD BAINES, M.P., who occupied the Chair, in the absence of Mr. SCOTT, Chamberlain of the City of London, said he felt very great pleasure in being placed in that honorable position. They were favored by the presence of a gentleman whose name, nearly as long as he could remember, had been connected with almost every cause tending to ennoble, exalt, and improve mankind — [cheers] — a gentleman himself of high genius, and who had taken an active part in many of the great movements of the age. He (Mr. BAINES) remembered quite well that his own first strong impression with regard to the cause of temperance was received from a perusal of one of the works of their guest’s venerable father — [cheers] — and from that time to the present he had always found the name of BEECHER associated with all that was great and good. He could indeed say that he did not know a family on either side of the Atlantic to which mankind at large owed more, in the present day, than to the family of BEECHER. [Cheers.] After some further observations, in which Mr. BEECHER was welcomed as the champion of temperance — a temperance having its root in a vital and practical Christianity, and having avowed his own confidence in the increasing popularity of the temperance movement, Mr. BAINES concluded by introducing Rev. HENRY WARD BEECHER to the meeting.

On his rising, Mr. BEECHER was greeted with loud and repeated plaudits, on the subsidence of which he alluded to his desire to avoid public engagements for a season; he wanted to see how it would seem not to talk for a mont???, in order that he might recruit his strength and be fitted for the labors of the Autumn. He then g???anced at the growth of friendly feeling in America toward England since the Revolutionary war, as strikingly attested during the visit of the Prince of Wales, and he hoped that any irritation at present existing between the two nations would be of transient duration. He had been pleased to hear the allusions that had been made to his venerable father. When the most had been said of him, all would not be said that should be said. He was a man of men. In looking back to his childhood, two things shone above all others, and seemed perfection to his thought — the memory of his father and of his mother. Her he never knew, as she died when he was but three years old; but he had found her everywhere in the respect and love and affections of the people among whom she lived. The thought of that mother had been to him a guiding-star through life, and had cast select influences around his path. Of his father his recollections went back many years, and one of these had to do with the only time he remembered seeing him take ardent spirits. This was in 1817 or 1818, at a time when his father was suffering from the dyspepsia, which adhered to him all his life, and when he was surprised to see him go into a closet and take a little rum. This was long before the temperance movement began. He also never knew his father take tobacco in any form, and of the eight children of his own mother’s family — there were e???even children in all — not one had ever used tobacco. [Cheers.] They had been brought up in temperance, and knew nothing else from the beginning. He was present at the delivery of the famous six sermons on intemperance. It was about the year 1825-6, just before the family were preparing to remove from Litchfield to Boston. He and his brother CHARLES sat in one of the high square pews right under the pulpit, so that they could not see their father — like some pews which he had since met with in the old English churches — and on that occasion his brother CHARLES asked him to guess what the text would be. He did guess, but his brother CHARLES surprised him by saying that it would be in Habbakuk — and sure enough, in Habbakuk it was. He afterward learned that their father had been preaching a series of sermons from that particular passage. Like everything his father did, those sermons had their origin in an intense sympathy with actual life around him. [Mr. BEECHER here narrated some details, which he said he gave in confidence, seemingly unaware that the whole of the particulars, with the names of the parties, have appeared in print.] One of the two persons for whose special benefit they were preached recovered; and though the other lapsed continually, he strove against his besetting sin, and before he died gave evidence that he was healed and saved. [Cheers.] The temperance reformation has been very successful in America, in New-England it had almost totally regenerated the working population; and in many districts the use of intoxicating liquors was well-nigh unknown. It was often more than a man’s place was worth for him to be known to drink. The insurance companies discriminated in favor of ships and factories managed on the total abstinence principle; and in every part of New-England except in the cities and among the floating population, abstinence had become an ineradicable part of the habits of the people. It was looked upon not as a substitute for religion, but as the outworking of that love to Christ and man which springs from God’s life in the soul. The civil war had interrupted the progress of temperance, and it seemed as if things were for the time going back. In the army, affairs were very bad; drunkenness was rampant, especially among the officers. Those who showed another and purer example were not many, but among those he could mention Maj.-Gen. HOWARD, of the Fifth division, who had studied at West Point, and was about entering the ministry when the war broke out. If it were fit, he (Mr. BEECHER) could point to several great misfortunes which had befallen the North on the field, owing entirely to the drunkenness of officers. The battle of Chancellorsville was lost from this cause; but he had heard it from almost direct authority that the General thus implicated, knowing his weakness, had been previously abstaining, but that having received a severe contusion, he had been prescribed whisky medicinally, and it was taking it for it this purpose that the old appetite had been revived and had overcome him. [Mr. BEECHER stated this as a private communication, but the case of intemperance referred to is no secret here. That Gen, HOOKER was drunk, and thereby lost the battle of Chancellorsville, has been published wherever the English language is read; and it is due to the inculpated General that the explanation furnished by Mr. BEECHER should be made widely known.] In the West it was worse, if worse could be. Thousands of the young men in the army would be ruined; thousands ??? went out so???er would come back confirmed sots; s???l, this outburst of intemperance was transient; like the war itself, it was not the intercalation of a new principle in American history, but merely a spasm that would pass away. It would be in regard to temperance as it had often been with regard to the churches, when for a time there was a decline of vitality, and spiritual drought; but this state of things had never continued; religion was not dead; God had not ceased to work; and he had soon sent a plentiful rain, and out of the dry and thirsty earth had come a sweet smelling of blossoming flowers. So would it be with respect to the revival of temperance in his beloved country. Since his arrival in England, he had been to the opening of a Baptist church, and he had seen the dinner-table spread with long lines of bottles, white and black, and at that table every other man seemed a minister, He had looked at all this as one in a dream; he had never seen the like of it before. Such a custom of drinking at religious celebrations had long since gone out of fashion in America. He said to himself. “I should lil???e to stay a little, and work here.” [Cheers.] Fishing he was fond of, not in the shallow streams, but in the dark, deep pools, where the pot-bellied trout were to be found; and he thought he might do some fishing of another kind in England if he could remain here for a time. As he had before said, he was about to leave for the Continent, and when he returned in September he should be willing to take a more active part in public questions than he was now able to do. He concluded by thanking the company for the kind reception that had been accorded to him. * * *

An observation from Mr. STOVEL, with regard to English sympathy with the United States, elicited from Mr. BEECHER some eloquent remarks on the causes of the war and the feeling of the North toward the colored population. He added that the Fifty fourth Massachuset’s regiment, one of colored men, had lately left Boston amidst enthusiastic demonstrations, and that it was the only regiment that had embarked at that port without one man in a state of drunkenness. [Cheers.] In further touching on the difference between the social habits of America and England as to drinking, he observed that in all his travels and intercourse with men in the United States, he had never once been asked to drink a glass of wine. The first offer of that kind had yet to be made. [Cheers.]

A vote of thanks to the Chairman of the morning concluded the proceedings.

Source: “Rev. Henry Ward Beecher in England,” New York Times, August 2, 1863 (link)