It was a little more than a year after
I became a member of Plymouth Church that I began
my work as an usher, and for fifty-three years I have
been identified with Plymouth Church in that capacity.
An usher has peculiar opportunities to study human
nature, both individually and collectively. His
first acquaintance is with the pewholders, and these
he quickly learns to distinguish. Plymouth Church
was remarkably hospitable from the first. The
strangers within its gates usually outnumbered the
regular membership, and they represented all classes
and conditions of men, but not more representative
were they than the company of those who were the constant
attendants on its services the relied-upon
supporters of its enterprises. It was not a wealthy
congregation. There were a few men of means; excepting
possibly Claflin, Bowen, Sage, Hutchinson, Storrs,
Arnold, Graves, Corning, Healy, Bush, Benedict, Dennis,
there were no merchant princes or princely bankers.
The greater number were earnest, aggressive men who
had something to do in life besides make money.
Generous whenever generosity was needed, they were
for the most part what are called “hard-headed”
business men. They were in Plymouth Church, not
because it was fashionable to be there, or because
it had the most noted pastor in America, if not in
the world, but because they were in sympathy with its
purpose and the purpose of its pastor, and felt that
there they could best serve their day and generation.
Dominated by this spirit, it was in
entire keeping with their habit of thought and action
that they should seek to extend as widely as possible
the enjoyment of the privileges of their own church
life. Hence they were cordial to all visitors
to the various religious services, as well as to the
social gatherings that were held. It was the general
custom in Plymouth, as in most churches, to keep the
seats for the regular pewholders until the commencement
of the service. Those who were not in their places
at that time had to stand their chances with the guests,
and what those chances were may be gathered from the
fact that it was usual on Sunday morning to see a
line of people standing in front of the church and
leading on the one side to Henry Street and on the
other to Hicks Street, waiting to be admitted to the
service. Still it was very rare that there was
any hard feeling, and certainly no expression of it
was manifest when pewholders to whom a sermon by Mr.
Beecher was the great treat of the week, but who for
one reason or another were delayed, found their seats
occupied, and were compelled themselves either to
stand or withdraw entirely.
The hospitality, too, was thoroughly
democratic. It may be doubted whether any church
in the land, not even excepting those of the Roman
Catholic worship, gave so genuine a welcome to every
sort of people, rich or poor, high or low, educated
or uneducated, white, black or brown, as did Plymouth
Church. No man, woman, or child was allowed to
feel out of place, or unwelcome. That this was
and is true, is a notable testimony to the influences
that controlled the church from its very beginning.
When we consider the guests, their
number and quality, the ushers used sometimes to wonder
where they all came from. Truly, the fame of
Plymouth had gone into all the world. Travellers
visited it, just as they went to Washington or Niagara.
It was “the thing” to hear Henry Ward
Beecher in Plymouth Church usually the two
were absolutely identical. Distinguished men
from all walks in life, in America and every other
country in Christendom, were there. Famous editors,
popular ministers, eminent statesmen, great generals,
were to be seen in the audience Sabbath after Sabbath.
Among those whom I remember were Louis Kossuth, Abraham
Lincoln, General Grant, Charles Dickens, Wendell Phillips,
Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner,
the poet Whittier, Horace Greeley, besides a host
of others. During the Civil War most of the so-called
War Governors, Andrews of Massachusetts, Buckingham
of Connecticut, Morgan of New York, Curtin of Pennsylvania,
and others, were to be seen in the congregation, and
it was not an uncommon occurrence to see many of the
New England regiments on their way to the field, stop
over Sunday and march into Plymouth Church. It
had become identified with those higher purposes and
deeper principles of the war which appealed most of
all to the New England conscience.
Of course there were all sorts of
experiences in seating these guests. The ushers
soon came to be able to tell where the strangers came
from by their form of expression. “Is this
Ward Beecher’s Church?” invariably betokened
an Englishman, as they always called him Ward Beecher
in England, and probably more of the foreigners who
visit Plymouth come from there than from any other
country. “We are from Canada,” is
the next most common salutation. “I am
a clergyman from Oregon.” “I am a
missionary from China.” “I am from
San Francisco and this is my first visit here.”
“We are from New Jersey, and never heard Mr.
Beecher.” “I am from Australia and
this is my first visit to this country.”
These are but illustrations of the expressions which
greeted the ushers every Sunday.
Of course they all want good seats.
It is astonishing how many people come who are hard
of hearing, and want front pews; and if they are seated
on the left they cannot hear in the right ear, and
if on the right, they cannot hear in the left ear.
All this was not unnoticed by Mr. Beecher, as we realised
one day when, as he entered the pulpit, he turned
to Mr. Whitney, on duty there, and putting his hand
to his ear quietly said, “I am very hard of
hearing, can you not give me a front seat?”
Others, if you give them a front seat, say it tires
their eyes to look up, and if they are seated too
far back, they cannot see. It is the duty of
the usher to satisfy all. That strangers come
so constantly is witness to the cordiality and courtesy
of their reception and treatment. Mr. Beecher
frequently said that the ushers helped him in no small
degree in the Sunday services.
The interest for the ushers was by
no means finished when the seats were filled and the
standing room was apportioned. Then came watching
the effect of the service upon the audience.
True, most of the ushers took seats when their special
work of introduction was over i. e.,
if there were any seats available, or they had succeeded
in reserving any; but there were always some on duty,
and not even Mr. Beecher’s eloquence entirely
eclipsed the interest with which the various attitudes
were watched. These attitudes were of all sorts.
There were sceptical people, who evidently wondered
whether this man Beecher was really as great as they
tried to make him out; they sat in their seats with
a very firm back, indisposed to bend or yield to any
influence. As a rule they got little farther
than the prayer or the second hymn before there was
a very perceptible unbending. Somehow few could
withstand the power of Plymouth Church singing, and
Mr. Beecher’s prayers had a wonderfully moving
influence. The sermon, however, captured all.
If asked what it was that had conquered they perhaps
could not have told, but sure it was that the shoulders
shook, the head bent forward, the whole frame seemed
to respond to the touch of the master hand. Especially
interesting was it to watch the young men. Students
came from all over the country to hear the “greatest
pulpit orator” in the land. All sense of
surroundings was lost, and bending forward, with eye
fixed on the speaker, and even the mouth open, as
if in fear of closing any possible avenue by which
the thought might enter mind and heart, they listened
with an intensity of attention that can scarcely be
The general bearing of the audience
was always reverential. There was none of the
solemn formality seen in a good many churches.
To some people it doubtless savoured more of a lecture
hall than of a church. The form of the auditorium
was the reverse of the stately Gothic. There
was no dim religious light. Plenty of windows
let in plenty of light and plenty of fresh air.
The pews were comfortable. Under any other preacher
they might have conduced to decorous naps. There
was no excess of dress. People wore clothes for
comfort, not for show, and if perchance they commenced
with style they invariably ended with simplicity.
There was, too, a breezy sort of cheeriness
about the whole place. Quiet, friendly chatting
between friends went on, but it was never obtrusive,
or interfered with devotion. The moment service
commenced it was manifest that it was divine service,
not a public entertainment. Mr. Beecher was a
wonderful reader, and to hear his rendering of a chapter
in the Bible, or of a hymn new or old, was in itself
a great privilege. During the prayer there was
a stillness that could be felt. Few men have
greater, or as great a gift in bringing men to the
recognition of their communion with God.
With the sermon there was evident
a general attitude of expectancy. Something was
coming, and everyone wanted to be sure and get it.
Sometimes it was humorous, and a ripple of laughter
would go over the audience. Those who heard about
it were apt to be shocked and to consider it irreverent.
It is doubtful whether anyone who was present ever
had that feeling. Sometimes it was pathetic, and
there was suspicious fumbling in pockets. Sometimes
it was soul-stirring, and one could see the forms
quiver and grow tense. Most often it was that
calm, quiet, yet forceful presentation of truth, not
in the abstract as something to be looked upon from
various angles, then labelled and put aside, but practical,
affecting the daily life; and faces would grow earnest,
and the results would be seen in the home, the shop,
or the office.
Service over, Plymouth Church people
gathered in knots to chat over pretty much
everything, for it was like one big family. Strangers
looked on with curiosity, generally appreciative, less
often with a certain air of disapproval at the apparent
levity. One thing was noticeable: those
who came once generally came again at some time, and
so faces that had been strange came to wear a familiar